Greater impact of advisor-farmer interactions through improved tools for whole-farm evaluation

Final Report for ENE09-112

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2009: $53,847.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Dr. Quirine Ketterings
Cornell University
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Project Information

Summary:

Economic and environmental sustainability of New York dairy farms can be improved if we could make more effective use of existing knowledge and had tools for evaluating field management and farm management practices and their impact on farm productivity, environmental footprint, and long-term sustainability. Until recently, we were limited in progress towards more effective field-based and whole farm analysis by the lack of standard methods for evaluating performance of various management practices (report cards), and by lack of tools that integrate farm records for whole farm assessments. Recent research resulted in the development of an initial set of agricultural environmental indicators (AEIs) derived from existing farm records, soil testing tools and stalk nitrate testing (for corn). These tools were evaluated for user-friendliness and effectiveness in guiding management decisions at the farm by four small dairies (NESARE-sponsored project LNE08-271); the results showed that the tools implemented together with farm management team meetings involving each farm’s local extension educator and/or crop and nutrition consultants resulted in improved nutrient use efficiency. With these experiences, in collaboration with farm advisors statewide, we set out to develop and deliver a package of field-based tools that allow farm advisors to conduct field based and whole farm analysis quickly and easily.

We trained over sixty farm advisors and students in the use of field based tools, whole farm decision and evaluation tools and evaluation processes through this project. Four web-based learning modules, which include teaching guides, were created in the topics of (1) Manure Value, Cost and Time Management, (2) Liming Guidelines for New York State and (3) Nitrogen Management Evaluation for Corn and (4) Whole Farm Nutrient Use; six agronomy factsheets were also developed. We are currently working with the farm advisors to develop and implement a statewide NRCS-approved adaptive management program for corn N fertility management. Three extension educators, to date, have independently developed education programs using the training materials, and numerous farm advisors are using the evaluative tools with an increasing number of farmers.

Over the past 6 years we have determined a steady increase in farm fields that are sampled for the corn stalk nitrate test (CSNT), an end of season test that provides a reliable indication of excess nitrogen in the growing season, from 105 fields in 2007 when we introduced the test for use in New York State to 923 field sampled in 2012. Two hundred fields have been sampled using a protocol of combined CSNT and Illinois Soil Nitrogen Test (ISNT) analysis introduced in 2012. The percent of samples testing excessive in CSNT decreased from 48-49% in 2007 and 2008 to 35-41% in the last four years. The number of fields testing over 5000 ppm (greatly excessive) declined from 20-21% in 2007-2008 to 11-14% in 2009-2012. Discussions with farm advisors and the growing number of samples over the years have shown that numerous consulting firms have implemented the use of the CSNT as a “report card” for the season, and are working with their clients to evaluate excessive N situations.

With new sampling protocols and a newly proposed adaptive management approach for New York that includes CSNT sampling, we expect the number of fields sampled for CSNT (almost 1000 samples in 2012) to increase past the duration of this project. We can currently not quantify the impact of CSNT and ISNT use but analyses of data from 2009 and 2010 across the state showed the potential for an average N fertilizer savings 7 to 88 lbs N/acre in 2009 and 20 to 99 lbs N/acre in 2010 and savings ranging from 3 to 83 lbs N/acre averaged across a set of six individual farms for which all corn fields were sampled. These results show great potential for reduction of cost of production and decrease in N loss to the environment, while also illustrating that some farms had already fine-tuned their N management.

In each year of the project, 27 or 29 farm management teams completed whole farm mass nutrient balance analyses, and whole farm balances for 99 producers who contributed data in 2009, 2010 and 2011 were detailed through our database. Several farmers collaborated in the improvement or record keeping tools. The whole farm mass balance database grew to more than 440 farm years, including more than 160 individual farms. A subset of 54 farms that participated in the assessment for four years or more showed that reductions in N, P and K balances over time ranged from 30-50 percent with the largest gains made by farms that had large surpluses in their starting year. These findings illustrate both the interest among farms in reducing their environmental footprint and the economic benefits of doing so.

Performance Target:

Fifteen farm advisors will adopt the use of the tools over two years. The use of the tools will create positive farmer-advisor communication of complex issues relating to nutrient use efficiency and environmental protection. The resulting advisor-farmer discussions will lead to agri-environmental evaluation of 30 dairy or cash-grain farms of which at least 10 farms will improve one of four farm agri-environmental measures: (1) mass nutrient balance, (2) farm operational density, (3) feed use efficiency, or (4) fertilizer imports, while 10 farms will improve two of the four indicators. In addition, curriculum will be developed to teach the use of whole farm agri-environmental indicators for improved farm management through collaborations with SUNY Alfred and SUNY Cobleskill.

Introduction:

Economic and environmental sustainability of New York dairy farms can be improved if we could make more effective use of existing knowledge and had tools for evaluating farming practices and their impact on farm productivity, environmental footprint, and long-term sustainability. Until recently, we were limited in progress towards more effective whole farm analysis by the lack of standard methods for integrating farm records, identification of meaningful management indicators, and tools for assessments. Recent research resulted in the development of agricultural environmental indicators (AEIs) derived from existing farm records, which combined with soil testing and stalk nitrate testing (for corn), allowed for effective whole farm nutrient use evaluation and troubleshooting (NESARE-sponsored project LNE08-271). In collaboration with farm advisors statewide, we set out to develop and deliver a package of field-based tools that allow farm advisors to conduct field based and whole farm analysis quickly and easily. Over the past several years, we developed a new set of farm and field management tools (lime management; nitrogen for corn) and improved upon existing ones (whole farm mass balance; manure management). We trained over sixty farm advisors and students in the use of evaluation tools and evaluation processes. Learning modules were created (web-based; http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/projects/curriculum.html), agronomy factsheets were developed and/or updated (http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/guidelines/factsheets.html), trainings were delivered, and we are currently working with the farm advisors and New York State conservation and regulatory agencies to develop and implement a statewide Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)-approved adaptive management program for corn fertility management.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Kerri Bartlett
  • Dr. John Kowal
  • Joe Lawrence
  • Caroline Rasmussen
  • Patty Ristow

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
Accomplishments:

Publications

Milestone 1: Sixty dairy farm advisors and 30 farm management students will be trained in whole farm agri-environmental performance evaluation.

More than 60 farm advisors were trained in the use of field based tools (CSNT and ISNT) as well as whole farm decision and evaluation tools (MNB, lime and manure calculators). The software was used to develop whole farm balances for 99 producers who contributed 2009, 2010 and 2011 nutrient balance data with detailed analysis comparing their farm to 400+ other farm mass balance database on multiple benchmarks. In addition 56 Cornell students in animal and agricultural sciences were trained in whole farm analyses and mass balance assessment in the spring of 2011 and 2012 (course continuing with another 16 students who will be doing mass balances as well as use materials developed for lime, manure and nitrogen management this year). A lecturer at Alfred State College also used portions of the class-room and extension curriculum for his soil fertility class.

Milestone 2: Fifteen farm advisors will receive hands-on training in the form of on-farm visits and farmer to farmer meetings and will use the evaluation tools to evaluate 45 farms.

In total more than 50 farm advisors to date have been activity engaged in implementation of one or more tools on farms they work with. Over the past three years almost 2200 samples were analyzed for CSNT (it is at this stage impossible to identify the number of farms this represents but this set includes over 100 farms. We have seen a steady increase in samples per year (509 in 2010, 765 in 2011, and 923 in 2012), which shows the adoption of CSNT sampling by our farmers and farm advisors (these samples exclude samples taken as part of on-farm research projects or research station research). In addition, a growing number of farms are conducting soil sampling for ISNT, the whole farm mass balance dataset has grown to over 440 farm years, and we have held numerous farm advisor meetings to discuss a newly proposed approach to nitrogen management of corn that expect to implement in 2013 and beyond.

Milestone 3: Of the 45 farms evaluated, 30 farmers will continue whole farm evaluations beyond the duration of the project.

Although it is difficult to quantify impact beyond the project, the 54 farm dataset of farms who have done whole farm mass balance assessment for 4 year or more (since 2006) shows that farms that have implemented the annual assessment are very likely to improve their balances. We recently introduced the level 1 and level 2 evaluations and hope this two-tiered assessment will allow more producers to participate in the assessment in future years. Our current database contains about 440 farm-years and more than 160 farms.

Milestone 4: Of the 30 farms that identified the use of the tools as a positive experience 20 farms will use the evaluation to make improvements; 10 farmers will improve at least one of four agri-environmental performance measures and 10 farmers will improve three of four in two years.

The best indicator we have to show impact is a 54 farm dataset where each farm has done whole farm mass balance assessments for 4 year or more. For this set of farms, the reductions in N, P and K balances range from 30-50 percent. The largest gains were made by farms that had large surpluses in their starting year) illustrating both the interest in reducing the environmental footprint and the economic benefits. We can currently not quantify the impact of CSNT and ISNT use but analyses of data from 2009 and 2010 across the state showed the potential for an average N fertilizer savings 7 to 88 lbs N/acre in 2009 and 20 to 99 lbs N/acre in 2010 and savings ranging from 3 to 83 lbs N/acre averaged across a set of six individual farms for which all corn fields were sampled. These results show great potential for reduction of cost of production and decrease in N loss to the environment, while also illustrating that some farm had already fine-tuned their N management. The lime and manure calculators were received as useful calculators (especially the lime one) by the farm advisors but we do not have impact data on its use at this point.

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

Outcomes

The number of farmer corn fields analyzed for the corn stalk nitrate test (CSNT), the end-of-season evaluation tool for nitrogen management for corn (http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/factsheets/factsheet31.pdf) has increased steadily over the past six year, from 105 samples in 2007 when we introduced the test for use in New York State to 923 samples in 2012. We introduced a new category (marginal: 250-750 ppm) following the wet year of 2011. Based on the new interpretations, the percent of samples testing excessive in CSNT decreased from 48-49% in 2007 and 2008 to 35-41% in the last four years. The number of fields testing over 5000 ppm declined from 20-21% in 2007-2008 to 11-14% in 2009-2012. Growing seasons varied greatly in the past several years, and in drought years the CSNTs tend to be higher (suppressed yield) so the data from 2012 might in part reflect the drought. Discussions with farm advisors, and the growing number of samples over the years have shown that numerous consulting firms have implemented the use of the CSNT as a “report card” for the season, and are working with their clients to evaluate excessive N situations. Thus, we expect the CSNT distribution to improve over time, with fewer fields testing >5000 ppm or <250 ppm and a larger percentage in the marginal and optimal categories.

The reporting formats for the ISNT-CSNT were very well received by farm advisors and have been integrated into several farm advising programs. One observation, resulting from working with farmers and farm advisors over the past years, was that implementation of CSNT assessment was limited by the farmer or consultant’s ability to take samples before or shortly after harvest. We evaluated the potential to adjust the sampling protocol to facilitate sampling after silage harvest. The results of the study showed that the sample protocol could be adjusted to taking stalk samples 2-8 inches above the ground. This new protocol was released for use this winter (http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/factsheets/factsheet72.pdf) for implementation in the 2013 growing season and beyond. If samples are taken according to the new protocol, results will be 1.5 times higher than results obtained with samples taken 6-14 inches above the ground. This will require an adjustment in reporting in the laboratory to enable growers to use the interpretation tables as developed for New York (http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/factsheets/factsheet31.pdf).

In addition to the adjustment in protocol, we introduced a combined package of sampling for CSNT and ISNT. Over 200 fields were sampled for ISNT this past year (2012) and the number of consultants interested in adding ISNT sampling to their fertility management package is increasing. Also the interpretation chart of the ISNT was adjusted to include a “marginal” category (http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/factsheets/factsheet36.pdf).

Aided by an interest by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in adaptive management as an approach to fine-tuning nutrient management on a field by field basis and over time, we proposed a New York State adaptive management approach for nitrogen management of corn. This approach, which includes determination of yield, sampling for CSNT, and managing CSNTs to be below 3,000 ppm, using farm records and soil ISNTs, is currently under discussion for statewide implementation. The whole farm mass balance assessment was adjusted as well, to include level 1 and level 2 assessments. The level 1 assessment allows a farmer and/or farm advisor to develop a balance for N, phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) on a lbs/acre and lbs/cwt basis. A level 2 assessment requires more inputs (yields primarily) and results in additional AEIs. Data to date confirm what we found in the earlier projects: farmers who conduct annual mass balance assessment and evaluate trends over time, will improve their balance over time. An example is shown by a 54-farm dataset that we are working with now: averaged across the 54 farm who did whole farm mass balance assessments for 4 year or more, the reductions in N, P and K balances ranged from 30-50 percent with the largest gains were made by farms that had large surpluses in their starting year. These findings illustrate both the interest in reducing the environmental footprint and the economic benefits.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Milestone 1: Sixty dairy farm advisors and 30 farm management students will be trained in whole farm agri-environmental performance evaluation.

More than 60 farm advisors were trained in the use of field based tools (CSNT and ISNT) as well as whole farm decision and evaluation tools (MNB, lime and manure calculators). The software was used to develop whole farm balances for 99 producers who contributed 2009, 2010 and 2011 nutrient balance data with detailed analysis comparing their farm to 400+ other farm mass balance database on multiple benchmarks. In addition 56 Cornell students in animal and agricultural sciences were trained in whole farm analyses and mass balance assessment in the spring of 2011 and 2012 (course continuing with another 16 students who will be doing mass balances as well as use materials developed for lime, manure and nitrogen management this year). A lecturer at Alfred State College also used portions of the class-room and extension curriculum for his soil fertility class.

Milestone 2: Fifteen farm advisors will receive hands-on training in the form of on-farm visits and farmer to farmer meetings and will use the evaluation tools to evaluate 45 farms.

In total more than 50 farm advisors to date have been activity engaged in implementation of one or more tools on farms they work with. Over the past three years almost 2200 samples were analyzed for CSNT (it is at this stage impossible to identify the number of farms this represents but this set includes over 100 farms. We have seen a steady increase in samples per year (509 in 2010, 765 in 2011, and 923 in 2012), which shows the adoption of CSNT sampling by our farmers and farm advisors (these samples exclude samples taken as part of on-farm research projects or research station research). In addition, a growing number of farms are conducting soil sampling for ISNT, the whole farm mass balance dataset has grown to over 440 farm years, and we have held numerous farm advisor meetings to discuss a newly proposed approach to nitrogen management of corn that expect to implement in 2013 and beyond.

Milestone 3: Of the 45 farms evaluated, 30 farmers will continue whole farm evaluations beyond the duration of the project.

Although it is difficult to quantify impact beyond the project, the 54 farm dataset of farms who have done whole farm mass balance assessment for 4 year or more (since 2006) shows that farms that have implemented the annual assessment are very likely to improve their balances. We recently introduced the level 1 and level 2 evaluations and hope this two-tiered assessment will allow more producers to participate in the assessment in future years. Our current database contains about 440 farm-years and more than 160 farms.

Milestone 4: Of the 30 farms that identified the use of the tools as a positive experience 20 farms will use the evaluation to make improvements; 10 farmers will improve at least one of four agri-environmental performance measures and 10 farmers will improve three of four in two years.

The best indicator we have to show impact is a 54 farm dataset where each farm has done whole farm mass balance assessments for 4 year or more. For this set of farms, the reductions in N, P and K balances range from 30-50 percent. The largest gains were made by farms that had large surpluses in their starting year) illustrating both the interest in reducing the environmental footprint and the economic benefits. We can currently not quantify the impact of CSNT and ISNT use but analyses of data from 2009 and 2010 across the state showed the potential for an average N fertilizer savings 7 to 88 lbs N/acre in 2009 and 20 to 99 lbs N/acre in 2010 and savings ranging from 3 to 83 lbs N/acre averaged across a set of six individual farms for which all corn fields were sampled. These results show great potential for reduction of cost of production and decrease in N loss to the environment, while also illustrating that some farm had already fine-tuned their N management. The lime and manure calculators were received as useful calculators (especially the lime one) by the farm advisors but we do not have impact data on its use at this point.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Per instructions, this section is not completed for Northeast SARE final reports.

Future Recommendations

We are currently working with the farm advisors to develop and implement a statewide NRCS-approved adaptive management program for corn fertility management. One of the limitations to better nutrient management both at the field and the whole farm levels has been the lack of reliable yield records, to be combined with information from the field (field management histories, manure records, CSNTs, soil testing including ISNTs) and the farm (components of the whole farm evaluation plus indicators that were developed for herd nutrition management by others). We have met with several farm advisor groups to data to discuss the proposed protocol for corn fertility adaptive management and will continue with these meetings until we (the consortium of NRCS, NYSDEC, NYSDAM, and Cornell University in collaboration with nutrient management planners) are ready to release the agreed upon protocol for use in New York State (hopefully later this winter). Another aspect of both CSNT and ISNT sampling that we need to address in future years is the spatial variability within fields. We currently recommend a minimum sample density of 1 stalk per acre and 1-3 soil samples per acre (depending on timing of sampling). Reality is that consultants are likely to sample at lower densities. Hence, we need to do field-based assessment to evaluate the accuracy of currently existing field protocols, and to evaluate the potential gains if we can do targeted sampling over multiple years.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.