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Phosphorus Management Strategies for Delaware’s Agricultural Soils: The Phosphorus Site Index

Author(s): 

Original Document Prepared by: J.T. Sims and A.B. Leytem
Revised Document Prepared by: A.L. Shober and J.T. Sims
Department of Plant and Soil Sciences
University of Delaware

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Introduction and Purpose

Long-term use of fertilizer and manure nutrients on the Delmarva Peninsula has led to an enrichment of agricultural soils with phosphorus (P). Consequently, many soils in Delaware are now considered high or excessive in soil test P (Fig. 1). In some situations, high P soils contribute to eutrophication of surface waters; therefore, P management strategies that maintain both agricultural profitability and environmental quality are necessary. One such P management tool is the P Site Index, defined as “…a tool designed to assess the relative risk of P loss from agricultural fields based on site characteristics that affect the transport of P and P source and management factors”. This document provides an overview of the Delaware P Site Index (also referred to as the P Index). Practitioners of the P Site Index are strongly recommended to review the Technical Guidance Manual for the P Site Index for detailed instructions on how to conduct field assessments using the P Site Index.

Figure 1. Percentages of agricultural soil samples in each soil test category in Delaware (based on 5261 soil samples submitted to the University of Delaware Soil Testing Laboratory from 2007 – 2011.
Figure 1. Percentages of agricultural soil samples in each soil test category in Delaware (based on 5261 soil samples submitted to the University of Delaware Soil Testing Laboratory from 2007 – 2011.

Origins of the Phosphorus Site Index

In 1990, the USDA Soil Conservation Service (now the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service or USDA-NRCS) formed a national work group of scientists from Universities, Cooperative Extension, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service to develop a P-indexing procedure that could identify soils, landforms, and management practices with the potential for unfavorable impacts on water bodies because of P losses from agricultural soils. The long-term goals of this national work group were to:

  • Develop an easily used, site-specific, field rating system (referred to as the P Site Index) for USDA-NRCS technical specialists, Cooperative Extension, crop consultants, farmers and others that rates soils according to their relative potential for P loss to surface waters.
  • Relate the P Site Index to the sensitivity of receiving waters to eutrophication.
  • Develop agricultural management practices that minimize the buildup of soil P to excessive levels and the transport of P from soils to sensitive water bodies.

The P Site Index was designed to assess the relative risks of P loss from differing fields, not to estimate the actual quantity of P lost in runoff. The P Site Index risk assessment allows us to identify critical source areas (areas with an increased risk of P loss due to the site hydrology and presence of a P source) and target the use of best management practices (BMPs) in priority locations within a watershed to achieve the greatest water quality benefits.

The P Site Index accounts for site-specific source and transport factors that may influence the potential for P loss from a particular site. Agronomic or environmental soil test P thresholds were also suggested as an alternative way limit P applications for soils. However, unlike the P Site Index, use of soil test thresholds to limit P applications represents a one-size fits all approach to P management, which does not account for variations in soil types, hydrologic connectivity between cropland and surface waters, and nutrient management practices (source, rate, method, and timing of P applications). As a result, the P Site Index approach was adopted as standard practice for nutrient management throughout the US, particularly as a component of the USDA-NRCS Nutrient Management Conservation Practice Standard (Code 590) and the USEPA Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) rule.

The Delaware Phosphorus Site Index

The Delaware P Site Index evaluates 12 characteristics, which are separated into two groups: site factors affecting P transport (Part A; Table 1) and P source and management factors (Part B; Table 2) to obtain an overall rating of the potential for P loss at a site. Grouping these factors makes it possible to obtain separate risk assessments for P transport from a site (based on factors such as topography, hydrology, and proximity to surface waters; Part A), and for P source and management practices (based on factors such as soil test P, fertilizer/manure P management; Part B).

Table 1. Site factors affecting transport of phosphorus as used in Part A of the Delaware Phosphorus Site Index.
Characteristics

Phosphorus Loss Rating

Value

PART A: SITE AND TRANSPORT CHARACTERISTICS

Soil Erosion

2 × [Soil erosion value from RUSLE (tons/acre) ]

Soil Surface Runoff Class

Very Low

0

Low

2

Medium

4

High

6

Very High

8

Subsurface Drainage

Very Low

0

Low

2

Medium

4

High

6

Very High

8

Leaching Potential

Low

0

Medium

2

High

4

Distance from Edge of Field to Surface Water

>100 ft

< 100 ft AND

> 50 ft vegetated buffer OR

< 100 ft AND

> 25 ft vegetated buffer AND

> 25 ft additional no P application zone

< 100 ft AND

> 25 ft vegetated buffer AND

< 25 ft additional no P application zone

< 100 ft AND

< 25 ft vegetated buffer AND

> 25 ft additional no P application zone

< 100 ft AND

< 25 ft vegetated buffer AND

< 25 ft additional no P application zone

0

2

4

6

8

Priority of Receiving Water

Very Low

0

Low

1

Medium

2

High

3

Very High

4

Part A Calculations Sum of Site and Transport Characteristics
Scaling Factor ×0.02
Total Site and Transport Values for Part A

The specific site and transport characteristics used in Part A of the Delaware PSI include:

  • Soil erosion – Estimates soil loss by sheet and rill erosion; erosion is determined using the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE). All factors for the RUSLE can be obtained from a county soil survey, a few readily determined field measurements (slope, cover, etc.) and information on past field management practices (crop rotations).
  • Soil surface runoff class – Estimates the likelihood for runoff based on soil permeability and slope of the predominant soil type in each field as determined from a county soil survey.
  • Subsurface drainage – Estimates the potential for P transport to nearby streams and drainage ditches via subsurface flow using the depth to the seasonal high water table and the soil drainage class of the predominant soil type in each field as determined from a county soil survey.
  • Leaching potential – Estimates the potential for P to leach below the root zone based on soil physical and chemical properties and the depth to the seasonal high water table.
  • Distance from field to surface water – Describes the distance from the edge of the field to nearby waterbodies or other permanent conduits that connect the field to surface waters (as measured in the field). Integrates the effects of vegetative buffers (type, width) present in the field.
  • Priority of receiving water – Prioritizes watersheds, in terms of protection of surface waters from nonpoint source pollution by P, based on the presumption that some waters require a greater degree of protection than others.
Table 2. Phosphorus source and management practices affecting the risk of phosphorus loss as used in Part B of the Delaware Phosphorus Site Index.
Characteristics

Phosphorus Loss Rating

Value

PART B: PHOSPHORUS SOURCE AND MANAGEMENT PRACTICES

Soil Test P Fertility Index Value (FIV)

0.2 × [FIV from University of Delaware Soil Test]

P Fertilizer Application Rate

0.6 × [lbs P2O5 applied per acre]

P Fertilizer Application Method and Timing

None

Injected or banded below surface at least 2"

Incorporated within 5 days of application

Surface applied March through November OR incorporated in >5 days after application

Surface applied December through February

0

15

30

45

60

Organic P Application Rate

PSC (Table 3) × [lbs P2O5 applied per acre]

Organic P Application Method and Timing

None

Injected or banded below surface at least 2"

Incorporated within 5 days of application

Surface applied March through November or incorporated in >5 days after application

Surface applied December through February

0

15

30

45

60

Total P Source and Management Value for Part B

The specific source and management characteristics used in Part B of the Delaware PSI include:

  • Soil test P value – The soil test P is expressed as fertility index values (FIV), which is a unitless value that is proportional to soil test P concentration. The FIV system uses four categories (Low, Medium, Optimum and Excessive) and is based on the probability of obtaining a profitable plant response to addition of P in fertilizers or other soil amendments.
  • Phosphorus fertilizer application rate – The amount of inorganic P in pounds P2O5 per acre that is applied to the crop.
  • Phosphorus fertilizer application method – Describes the inorganic P source application method (e.g., broadcast, banded, etc.) and time of year the organic P source is applied. This information is obtained from the nutrient user.
  • Organic P source application rate – The amount of P in pounds P2O5 per acre that is applied to the soil when manures, biosolids, composts or other organic P sources are used. The P application rate is then multiplied by a Phosphorus Source Coefficient (PSC; Table 3) to account for differences in P solubility and plant availability between organic P sources. The default PSC is 0.6, a value that is also used for inorganic fertilizer P.
  • Organic P source application method – Describes the organic P source application method (e.g., surface applied, incorporated, etc.) and time of year the organic P source is applied. This information is obtained from the nutrient user.
Table 3. Standard phosphorous source coefficients (PSCs), which are used in the phosphorus site index to account for differences in the solubility of phosphorus in different organic amendments.
Organic P Source

Phosphorus Source Coefficient (PSC)

Default

0.6

Swine manure

0.6

Other manures (beef, dairy, poultry, horse, etc.)

0.5

Biological phosphorus removal (BPR) biosolids

0.5

Biological nutrient removal (BNR) biosolids

0.5

Biosolids from wastewater treatment (all except BPR and BNR)

0.2

Each of the 12 characteristics in the P Site Index is assigned a numerical value from an interpretive rating scale (i.e., VERY LOW, LOW, MEDIUM, HIGH, or VERY HIGH) or from calculations using a weighting factor based on the relationship between the characteristic and the potential for P loss from the site. At present, the interpretive ratings and weighting factors for each of the characteristics are based on the best professional judgment of the scientists who developed the P Site Index. Further research is underway to determine the need for adjustments in the interpretive ratings or weighting factors.

Phosphorus Site Index Ratings and Generalized Interpretation

Once the risk assessments for P transport from a site (Part A) and for P source and management practices (Part B) are calculated, the final P Site Index Rating is determined by the following equation:

PSI Rating = [Part A Total] × [Part B Total]

Based on the final P Site Index rating, sites are assigned to one of four categories. Each category includes a generalized interpretation of the P loss potential and appropriate P management actions. The P Site Index categories and generalized interpretations are:

Phosphorus Site Index Rating < 50. LOW potential for P movement from the site given current management practices and site characteristics. There is a low probability of an adverse impact to surface waters from P losses from the site. Nitrogen-based nutrient management planning is satisfactory for the site. Soil P levels and P loss potential may increase in the future due to N-based nutrient management.

Phosphorus Site Index Rating= 50 – 75. MEDIUM potential for P movement from the site given current management practices and site characteristics. Practices should be implemented to reduce P losses by surface runoff, subsurface flow, and erosion. Nitrogen-based nutrient management should be implemented no more than one year out of three. Phosphorus-based nutrient management should be implemented two years out of three during which time P applications should be limited to the amount expected to be removed from the field by crop harvest or soil test based P application recommendations, whichever is greater.

Phosphorus Site Index Rating = 76 – 100. HIGH potential for P movement from the site given current management practices and site characteristics. Phosphorus-based nutrient management should be used for the site. Phosphorus applications should be limited to the amount expected to be removed from the field by crop harvest or soil test based P application recommendations. All practical management practices for reducing P losses by surface runoff, subsurface flow, or erosion should be implemented.

Phosphorus Site Index Rating > 100. VERY HIGH potential for P movement from the site given current management practices and site characteristics. No P should be applied to the site. Active remediation techniques should be implemented in an effort to reduce the P loss potential from the site.

Using the Delaware Phosphorus Site Index

Based on Delaware state law, a high P soil is defined as any soil with a soil test P value ≥ 150 FIV (equivalent to 150 mg kg-1 Mehlich 3 P, 120 mg kg-1 Bray1 P, or 75 mg kg-1 Mehlich 1 P). Applications of P to “high P” soils are limited to a three-year crop removal rate unless other management strategies (i.e., N-based management during one or more years of a crop rotation) are permitted as determined by running the P Site Index. The use of the P Site Index may also be mandated in other situations, such as when federal cost-share programs are used.

Detailed information about how to conduct field assessments using the P Site Index is available in the Technical Guidance Manual for the Phosphorus Site Index. If additional guidance is needed, P Site Index practitioners should contact University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, the USDA-NRCS, or the local conservation district.

Summary

The Delaware P Site Index is a management tool that was designed to assess the relative risk of P loss from agricultural fields. The P Site Index evaluates 12 characteristics, which are separated into two groups: site factors affecting P transport (Part A) and P source and management factors (Part B) to obtain an overall rating of the potential for P loss at a site. Based on the final P Site Index rating, sites are assigned to one of four risk categories. Each category includes a generalized interpretation of the P loss potential and appropriate P management actions. This document presented a general overview of how to use the Delaware P Site Index. Practitioners of the P Site Index are strongly encouraged to review the Technical Guidance Manuals for the Phosphorus Site Index for detailed instructions on how to conduct field assessments using the P Site Index.

 



Revision Date: 

March 2016

Original Publication Date:

Cooperative Extension Education in Agriculture and Home Economics, University of Delaware, Delaware State University and the United States Department of Agriculture cooperating. Distributed in furtherance of Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. It is the policy of the Delaware Cooperative Extension System that no person shall be subjected to discrimination on the grounds of race, color, sex, disability, age, or national origin.

Disclaimer: Reference to commercial products or trade names does not imply endorsement by University of Delaware Cooperative Extension or bias against those not mentioned.

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