The current practice of spray irrigation of dairy parlour wastewaters is laborious and time consuming. Intermittent sand filtration systems may offer an alternative to spray irrigation when designed to remove organic carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, coliforms and viruses from such wastewaters to allow discharge of the final effluent directly into receiving waters without damage to the environment. In this study two instrumented stratified sand filter columns (0.425 and 0.9m deep, and both 0.3m in diameter) were intermittently loaded for 439 days with synthetic dairy parlour washings at a number of hydraulic and organic loading rates. At a biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) loading of 22 gm(-2) d(-1), over 92% of the BOD and suspended solids in the wastewater was removed in the two filters and nitrification was complete. The 0.9m column had a sustained ability to adsorb the influent phosphorus during the study period; however, the phosphorus adsorption capacity of the 0.425 in column began to decrease after approximately 30 days. Biomass, comprising hydrated extracellular polymers (exopolymers) and living and dead cells, accumulated in the 0.9 in column; it was assessed by sodium bromide tracer studies and by variations in the sand volumetric water contents using time domain reflectometry (TDR). The biomass growth increased the retention time of the wastewater in the filter media, and occurred mainly at the top of the first sand layer. Intermittent stratified sand filters appear to offer an effective and sustainable treatment process for the removal of BOD from high-strength wastewaters, and for the complete nitrification of ammonium. (c) 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.