Twenty farm advisors will learn to conduct whole farm nutrient balances (NMBs) for dairy farms. Eight will adopt use of NMB assessments, conduct balances and discuss results with two dairy farmers each. Ten farmers will conduct the NMB a second year and show intent to continue beyond the project.
Sustainable solutions for agriculture and environmental management on dairy farms require improved nutrient use efficiency across the entire farm, both for the animals and the cropland. However, when it comes to whole farm nutrient management, nutrient cycling can be very complex and management tools available to farmers often focus on one aspect of management only (e.g. milk urea nitrogen to evaluate crude protein ration management; corn stalk nitrate test to evaluate nitrogen management for com, etc.). In an adaptive, learning-based, approach for whole farm nutrient management, farm records are kept in such a way that one can assess the nutrient status of the whole farm, pinpoint the areas where improvements can be made, and then track the progress of those improvements from year to year. A whole-farm nutrient mass balance (NMB) assessment can help farmers and farm advisors do this effectively and efficiently.
A NMB is the difference between the amounts of N, P, and K imported onto dairy farms as feed, fertilizer, animals, and bedding, and exported via milk, animals, crops, and manure. We can express a NMB per tillable acre to indicate the potential for recycling nutrients in the land base, an environmental indicator, or per cwt milk, a milk production efficiency indicator. Large positive NMBs per acre suggest high risk of nutrient losses to the environment (reflecting imbalance in land versus animals), while large positive NMBs per cwt reflect low nutrient use efficiencies (inefficient use of nutrients to produce milk), and potential economic loss for the farm as well. Negative NMBs (resulting from exports exceeding imports) reflect mining of soil P and K resources, and will eventually reduce crop yields so negative balances are not sustainable either. Annual NMB assessments give farmers a chance to compare the farm against peers in the same milk production group, and to evaluate the impact of management changes on nutrient use efficiency and production. Farmers who conducted their NMB typically improve their balances over time.
Recently, research has identified the optimum operational zone for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Farms that manage these nutrients in the optimum operational zone (referred to as the “green box”) recycle nutrients on their land base and produce milk efficiently. Here we proposed to develop curriculum and teach farm advisors (crop consultants, nutritionists, extension) the ins and outs of the NMB assessment. We aimed to teach 20 farm advisors to conduct whole farm nutrient balances (NMBs) for dairy farms. Eight were expected to adopt use of NMB assessments, conduct balances and discuss results with two dairy farmers each. Ten farmers were expected tol conduct the NMB a second year and show intent to continue beyond the project.
Workshops were held with major consulting firms that advise farmers in crop management and nutrient management, with Soil and Water Conservation District staff who are part of the Upper Susquehanna Watershed (headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay) Coalition in New York (http://www.uppersusquehanna.org/usc/), and with the New York City Watershed Program and CCE of Delaware County. In addition, zoom meetings were held with representatives in four major companies including the Caring Dairy Program of Ben and Jerry, Land-O-Lake, a collaboration of Chobani and the World Wildlife Fund, and Newtrient. Sessions consisted of a presentation on the concepts and input materials necessary for completion of an annual NMB, as well as discussion of output and results. We followed up with those had questions via phone calls and with additional visits. Farmers who completed the NMB received a personal NMB report with presentation of the farm data compared to all farms in the database as well as the “green box”, and a table that included opportunities for improvement over time.
Milestone 1. The project team will develop Extension materials and curriculum to share with farmers and farm advisors. The materials will cover the process of deriving a whole farm NMB, interpretation of results, and benefits of conducting NMBs for adaptive management over time. (Completion date: December 1, 2016)
In the winter of 2016 we developed two 45 min training sessions, one to explain the concept of the whole farm mass balance, and one to explain how to use the calculator for the assessment. The first presentation described the idea of the mass balance calculations: the farm is considered a system with an internal nutrient cycle (feed-cow-manure-soil), and for any feasibly measurable product that enters (feed, fertilizers, bedding, etc.) or exits (milk, animals, manure, etc.) this farm system we record the amount of N, P, and K. The difference between the exports and the imports is defined as the Nutrient Mass Balance. This balance is expressed per tillable acre and per hundredweight (cwt) of milk exported to provide indicators of sustainability and efficiency respectively. To provide targets for farms to aim for, the concept of the “green box” was introduced, derived from a dataset with 102 farms. Farms that operate within the feasible balances per acre and per cwt are in the green box. In addition to balances, a table of indicators to find potential areas of improvement was provided.
The second presentation contained a description of the required inputs to calculate the mass balance and how to use the calculator that is available on the website of the Nutrient Management Spear Program (http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/NYOnFarmResearchPartnership/MassBalances.html). In short: to gather the required data, a four-page input form can be downloaded. In addition to basic farm information, such as number of animals and amount of acres, details on the different imported and exported commodities are needed. For instance, for imported (or exported) feed and manure, the calculator needs the total imported weight, the dry matter content, and the crude protein, P, and K concentrations. For animal purchases or sales, the type of animal, number, and average weight per head is required. Next to information on imports and exports, the software requires information on homegrown feed (acres, average yield, dry matter, and nutrient contents). Although this information does not contribute to the balance, as it is neither imported nor exported, this data is used to calculate efficiency indicators that are included in the opportunities table that is included in the report.
The first training sessions with these powerpoint slides were held with farmers in the Caring Dairy program of Ben and Jerry’s in January and in March. The training reached about 30 farmers from the coop. Very similar training sessions were done throughout 2017 with consultant audiences.
In collaboration with Agricultural Consulting Service (ACS), we evaluated integration of mass balance assessment with record keeping, which resulted in ACS incorporating the assessment into their fields and crops record keeping system. This evaluation was published in a journal article:
- Van Almelo, J., Q.M. Ketterings, and S. Cela (2016) Integrating record keeping with whole farm nutrient mass balance: A case study. Journal of Agricultural Science 8: 22-32. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/jas.v8n6p22.
An additional extension article and impact statement were generated on this project:
- Impacts of Cornell’s Nutrient Mass Balance Diagnostic Tool:An Industry Perspective. http://blogs.cornell.edu/whatscroppingup/2016/05/19/integrating-record-keeping-with-whole-farm-nutrient-mass-balance-a-case-study/
- Integrating Record Keeping with Whole Farm Nutrient Mass Balance; A Case Study. http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/impactstatements/ACSmassbalance.pdf
In addition, in 2017, we added two publications on trends in mass balances in New York and the Upper Susquehanna Watershed that was in part funded by NESARE (incorporates many mass balances):
- Cela, S., Q.M. Ketterings, M., Soberon, C. Rasmussen, and K.J. Czymmek (2016). Upper Susquehanna watershed and New York State improvements in nitrogen and phosphorus mass balances of dairy farms. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 27:1-11. doi: 10.2489/jswc.72.1.1.
- What’s Cropping Up? Series: Phosphorus and the Environment Article 4: Greatly Improved Nutrient Efficiency Demonstrates New York Dairy Farmers’ Environmental Stewardship.
Additionally, we are currently in the progress of updating the NMB calculator to include extra farm efficiency indicators and to make it more user-friendly. To do this, we are working with a software programmer and with Cornell University animal nutrition specialists.
Milestone 2. Forty interested farm advisors and eighty farmers receive the educational materials electronically through the NMB website (http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/NYOnFarmResearchPartnership/MassBalances.html) and listservs. (Completion date: January 31, 2017)
We used the materials developed for the training with the Caring Dairy Program for meetings with consulting firms and farmers. Meetings were held with several individual farms, with staff of consulting firms (Western New York Crop Management Association [WNYCMA], Agricultural Consulting Service [ACS], Champlain Valley Ag [CVA]), with the Cornell Cooperative Extension office of Delaware County, and with the Soil and Water Conservation Districts united in the Upper Susquehanna Coalition (USC). This resulted in an audience of 69 farm advisors, with 18 mass balances completed in 2017 (excluding the Caring Dairy initiative). Talks were given at the Northeastern Plant, Pest, and Soils Conference (about 25 people), in Philadelphia, PA, at the Agronomy, Soil and Crop Science Society of America meetings in both 2016 and 2017 (about 100 people total), at the Northern New York crop meetings (about 70 people), and as part of the Center for Dairy Excellence Seminar Series (about 30 people) to reach a multi-state audience. In addition, recognizing the importance of involvement of nutritionist with NMB assessments, a presentation was given in 2018 at the Cornell Nutrition Conference for an estimated attendance of 250 people. The 2017 presentations resulting new grants with NMB assessments included by counterparts in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine. Additional talks were given in 2019 as whole farm NMB assessment was build into state policy on adaptive management for nitrogen (http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/files/AdaptiveManagementGuidelinesFor2018.pdf). We expect to release the new NY Phosphorus Index in the winter of 2019/2020 which includes whole farm P balances as part of an incentive program as well.
In New York itself (outside of Ben and Jerry’s Caring Dairy program), we were able to complete 15 whole farm nutrient mass balances for the 2015 calendar year, 19 for 2016 and 23 for 2017, and 25 for 2018, working with farmers directly and with farm advisors. The Caring Dairy initiative added 39 farms for the 2015 growing season, 52 for the 2016 growing season, and another 56 and 55 farms for 2017 and 2018, respectively. These activities expanded the number of service providers who participated (completed balances) to 69.
Milestone 3. Twenty dairy farm advisors learn how to conduct whole farm NMB assessments and interpret the results through four on-location group meetings (two meetings/year in different locations) and webinars, which can be used for reference and self-study after workshops. (Completion date: June 31, 2017)
Six New York meetings were held with several individual farms, with consulting firms (WNYCMA, ACS, CVA), with the Cornell Cooperative Extension office of Delaware County, and with the Soil and Water Conservation Districts united in the Upper Susquehanna Coalition (USC) in March through May of 2017. This resulted in an audience of 69 farm advisors in total. Through these meetings, and with the meetings of the Caring Dairy Program included, 80 farmers completed their NMBs for at least one year and 44 farms have 4 years of data.
Milestone 4. Eight farm advisors who agree to complete NMBs and discuss the results with two farmers each will receive follow-up farm visits from the project team to support their work. Mass balances will be completed for sixteen farms for two years (2016 and 2017 calendar years). (Completion date: April 30, 2018)
In the 2016 and 2017 calendar years, we completed 71 and 79 whole farm mass balances, respectively. This included 52 and 56 farms participating in the Caring Dairy Program. For the 2018 calendar year, 80 farm balances were completed and reports shared with the producers. The project and our papers triggered follow-up conversations with several interested industry and university groups. The current database includes 44 farms with four years of data. Almost all of the farms outside of the Caring Dairy Program were visited individually, while for the Caring Dairy Program group meetings were held. Almost always the meetings included the consultant, crop advisor, or coordinator who submitted the data.
Milestone 5. The eight farm advisors working with two farmers each will identify two areas of possible investigation/improvement on the farms as a result of the NMB assessments and discussions with farmers. (Completion date: April 30, 2018)
The calendar year 2016 was a challenging year for many farmers (drought). Each farm received a list with farm indicators that could be used to determine opportunities for improvement over time. Such indicators should be evaluated for at least two years in a row and were continued through the 2018 calendar year. The year 2017 was a very different year (extreme rainfall in many areas in the state) while 2018 seems a bit better. The weather extremes during the 2015-2018 time period caused fluctuations in yield levels for many of the farms. Thus, it we important to talk with the farmers and consultants about reasons for year to year differences in farm balances, and the need to evaluate management of the farm through NMB assessment over multiple years. Through our farm visits we collected feedback from farmers and farm advisors on the assessment and the reporting. This resulted in improved reporting (green box figures, trend figures for farms with multiple years of data, expanded opportunity table that farmers and consultants can use to identify areas of improvement). These meetings also resulted in improved teaching materials (presentations), farmer participation over multiple years, and the recognition that 3-year running averages better reflect farm management than single year data. Based on the feedback, we improved the NMB software and its reporting and updated software that reflects the improvements will be made available this fall.
Milestone 6. Eight farm advisors and sixteen farmers will respond to project verification surveys and report on their experiences conducting NMBs, farm management practices investigated and/or changed as a result of NMBs, and intention to continue conducting NMBs (as advisors and as farmers). (Completion date: July 30, 2018)
We followed up with producers with multi-year records and their crop consultants through farm visits in the fall of 2018 and spring of 2019. We opted for the in person visits (instead of mail in surveys) giving the challenges in farming in the previous years (low milk price, drought followed by extremely wet weather) and the need for a more personal approach to getting feedback. Two more formal individual interviews were done with two of the farms with longer-term records, and with a consulting firms who implemented the assessment in its software. These interviews were published as impact statement on the NMB website of the Nutrient Management Spear Program (http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/NYOnFarmResearchPartnership/MassBalances.html):
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:
Beneficiaries who participated in the project’s educational activities and events:
We currently have 44 farms with 4-years of NMB data (2015-2018) in the database. Progress in reduction in NMBs over time for the larger database was shown in an assessment between 2004 and 2013. This trend study shows that, in 2004, the Upper Susquehanna Watershed farms averaged an N balance of 77 lbs/acre and a P balance of 9 lbs/acre. In 2013, that average decreased to 46 lbs N/acre and 5 lbs P/acre. Similar reduction were shown for the statewide dataset (http://blogs.cornell.edu/whatscroppingup/2017/07/28/series-phosphorus-and-the-environment-4-greatly-improved-nutrient-efficiency-demonstrates-new-york-dairy-farmers-environmental-stewardship/). These reductions represent a significant effort of successful nutrient conservation by the farms in this time period. Evaluation of trends analyses that include the most recent four years of data is ongoing, for submission to a peer reviewed journal in early 2020. Similarly, state balance assessments through 2017 (agricultural census data) are being conducted at the moment. Both assessments, while outside the scope of the NESARE PD grant, will be important contributors to a better understanding of drivers for NMBs, and trends over time.
Performance Target Outcomes
Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers
Twenty farm advisors will learn to conduct whole farm nutrient balances (NMBs) for dairy farms. Eight will adopt use of NMB assessments, conduct balances and discuss results with two dairy farmers each.
Farm size ranges from small, non-regulated operations to large regulated Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.
Farms ranged from small to large (non-CAFO and CAFO farms).
- 2 Curricula, factsheets and other educational tools
- 60 Consultations
- 3 Published press articles/newsletters
- 4 Study circles/focus groups
- 4 Workshops/field days
- 10 team visits to show and discuss findings (consultants/extension, Cornell, farmers; small group meetings per farm)
Of the service providers who participated in the training sessions, 18 participated actively with data collection and discussions of findings (representing different consulting firms). We visited and met with most of the farms in fall 2018 and through 2019, including group sessions for the Caring Dairy Farms, and individual team meetings from 14 other farms with multi-year records. The feedback that we gathered resulted in updates to the software (to be released for use for 2019 calendar year assessments), release of new impact statements, and most the acceptance of whole farm NMB assessment as an adaptive management tool with New York (adaptive management policy released for New York by the partnership of NRCS, NYSDAM, NYSDEC, and Cornell: http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/files/AdaptiveManagementGuidelinesFor2018.pdf. The policy states: “Dairy farms that have whole farm nutrient mass balances (NMBs) with N balances of 105 lbs/acre or less, and that maintain a 3-year running average N balance at or below 105 lbs/acre, meet the adaptive management guidelines and do not require additional field-specific evaluations beyond recording yield.” This NMB incentive program is a testimony for effectiveness of whole farm NMB assessment in achieving improvements in agriculture environmental management over time.
Performance Target Outcomes - Farmers
Mass balance improvements were documented independent of farm size (showing opportunity for farms of all sizes). Longer-term records are need (>4 years) to really document changes over time, given the extreme weather patterns we have seen in 2015-2018.
In 2018, a total of 80 farms completed their whole farm NMB. This was an increase from 54 with 2015 NMB data, 71 with 2016 data, and 79 with 2017 data. In winter of 2018/2019, we visited about 60 of these farms, either through group meetings (Caring Dairy Program) or through individual meetings that most often but not always included the crop consultant or nutrient management planner. The evaluations after the 2018 calendar year data collection were very valuable as those allowed us to answer questions, verify inputs, and stimulate discussion about presentation of NMB results and the importance of the assessment for individual farms. As a result of the feedback we received, we anticipate continuation of the assessments in 2020 (for the 2019 calendar year) and we are actively seeking grant support to be able to continue the assessment. In addition, the partnership of NRCS, NYSDAM, NYSDEC, and Cornell University released an updated policy on adaptive nutrient management in the summer of 2018. This policy now allows farms that maintain a 3-yr running average whole farm N balance at or below 105 lbs N/acre to implement field specific N management changes without the need for further field-based N status evaluations, as long as the NMB is maintained at or below this level, and field yields are documented. The latter is an approach to nutrient management that other states have shown an interest in now as well, but has not been implemented elsewhere yet.
Additional Project Outcomes
2016: We were very happy with the involvement of the Caring Dairy program of Ben and Jerry and collaboration with other states around us (Vermont, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine) and the collaboration with ACS that allowed us to implement the software into their record keeping system. The impact for the latter development and two farmer stories were documented:
- McMahon Family’s Clear Vision Brings E-Z Acres Farm to Economic and Environmental Sustainability. http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/impactstatements/McMahon2018.pdf.
- Impacts of Cornell’s Nutrient Mass Balance Diagnostic Tool: An Industry Perspective. http://blogs.cornell.edu/whatscroppingup/2016/05/19/integrating-record-keeping-with-whole-farm-nutrient-mass-balance-a-case-study/
- Integrating Record Keeping with Whole Farm Nutrient Mass Balance; A Case Study. http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/impactstatements/ACSmassbalance.pdf
2017: We did workshops with additional consulting firms in 2017 to reach all major consulting firms in the state (a series of 6 on-site workshops). We also expanded through collaborative efforts with neighboring states through a regional USDA-CIG grant. The drought of 2016 and extreme wetness in 2017 impacted balances but some year to year variability will always be expected. Industry interest in the NMB approach as a sustainability stamp is growing and visible through interest by coops in evaluation NMBs for participating farms.
2018 and 2019: Throughout this time we worked with the Caring Dairy initiative to complete NMBs for 55 farms. For 30 farms, we conducted the NMBs for 4 years. In addition, 23-25 other farms participated and completed their balance, including 14 farms with four years of data as well. Other industry parties have showed interest in the NMB concept and discussions continue to implement programs in future years. Policy was released for use in New York, that allows farms that maintain a 3-year running average N balance at or below 105 lbs N/acre greater freedom to allocate nitrogen across the fields, as long as the NMB is maintained at or below this threshold (adaptive management policy). New software will be released for use in the winter of 2020 (data collection through 2019).
The interest in the NMB approach as a stamp for sustainability and method to identify areas for improvement is growing as reflected in requests by Ben and Jerry and Land-o-Lake to talk about the approaches and possible adoption of the tool. The approach has also been incorporated into the software used for nutrient management planning in Vermont and colleagues in Virginia are engaged in NMB assessment for phosphorus as well.
One of the participating farms received a Sustainability Award form the Innovation Center for US Dairy this year: https://www.usdairy.com/sustainability/us-dairy-sustainability-awards/2018-winners. This farm is featured in a new impact statement: http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/impactstatements/McMahon2018.pdf.
Trends in NMBs over time for the state of New York and farms in the Upper Susquehanna Watershed between 2004 and 2013 were published recently in a What’s Cropping Up? article: http://blogs.cornell.edu/whatscroppingup/2017/07/28/series-phosphorus-and-the-environment-4-greatly-improved-nutrient-efficiency-demonstrates-new-york-dairy-farmers-environmental-stewardship/. This article documents the improvements in NMBs for both the state and the watershed.
The development of the “green box” that represents feasible balances for dairy farms in New York was essential for communication of farm information as well as opportunities for improvements over time. The close contact between farmers and farm advisors or campus staff is important (trust relationship) for obtaining multi-year records. This includes farm visits and discussions about results. Future work includes incorporation of a sulfur balance assessment, expansion of the “opportunity table” currently given to farms as part of the reporting, to include more and/or more meaningful key performance indicators that can help farmers identify areas of improvement and guide management steps.