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Study: Accomack water quality unchanged by expanding poultry operations

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A study that examined waterways in Accomack County has revealed the rapid expansion of poultry operations in the county has had no detectable effects on local water quality.

The research was conducted in response to concerns that the proximity of commercial poultry houses and the increased use of poultry litter as fertilizer would contaminate Eastern Shore waterways.

However, after examining data from 86 streams in Accomack, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science determined there was no correlation between water nutrient levels and the presence of poultry operations.

“The goal of the study was to find out if there was any measurable impact from these poultry operations,” said VIMS director Richard Snyder, who helped conduct the research. “The basic conclusion of the report is that there is no significant difference between watersheds that have poultry operations and those that do not.”

The study monitored dissolved ammonia, liquefied nitrates and nitrites, dissolved oxygen, total phosphorus and nitrogen levels, temperature, salinity and turbidity in Accomack County streams. Values were collected during two 1-inch rainfall events and over an extended period of drought in 2020.

Snyder said poultry growers have put “a lot of effort” into minimizing nutrient runoff and reducing ammonia emissions from poultry litter. Increased conversion efficiency also has decreased nitrogen and phosphorus waste levels, he noted, which positively affects the environments surrounding poultry operations.

Tony Banks, senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said the study’s findings were indicative of farmers’ concerted efforts to implement best management practices.

“Litter storage sheds, mortality composting and the implementation of nutrient management plans have all helped growers reduce the potential for nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from their crop fields,” Banks said.

“Growers also implemented strategies to maintain dry bedding because it’s beneficial for the birds’ health, and it improves the quality of the poultry litter once it’s removed from the poultry houses,” he added. “They’ve been doing these things for years, so it’s good to see data that affirms growers’ efforts.”

Having secured additional grant funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, VIMS will continue research in 2021, shifting its focus to monitoring Northampton County waterways.

Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, was encouraged by VIMS’ work on the Eastern Shore. He asserted collecting data can help farmers identify areas of concern relating to land management, and addressing those issues is critical in supporting sustainable food production systems.

“As farmers have gained knowledge from land-grant systems and research that demonstrates the efficacy of various BMPs, the producers have always embraced them and they’re getting better all the time,” Bauhan said.

“Our industry has a long history of being good environmental stewards, and we want to continue to be good stewards led by sound science.”


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