Final report for ES17-133

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2017: $79,064.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2019
Grant Recipient: University of Kentucky
Region: Southern
State: Kentucky
Principal Investigator:
Greg Halich
University of Kentucky
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Project Information

Abstract:

The broad goal of the program is to help Cooperative Extension and NRCS practitioners work with conventional cattle farmers that haven’t yet embraced basic operational practices that can improve soil health and reduce environmental impacts.  The specific goals of the program include:

1) Identify current operational practices on farms in their localities that if changed, have the most potential to reduce environmental impacts and improve profitability.

2) Identifying the most effective ways to implement changes.

3) Facilitate improved linkages between agricultural extension agents and NRCS field personnel.

The proposed program would be delivered by a combination of University of Kentucky extension, NRCS specialists, and University of Tennessee extension.

Regional day-long meetings (2-3 per state) bring together county extension agents and NRCS conservationists. Basic and intermediate programming would cover soil health, water quality, and sustainability (including profitability).

Local area meetings (3-5 county areas) organized by extension agents and NRCS field personnel would identify those operation practices with the most potential in their locality. Participants would start the process at this meeting of developing a local action plan for their locality and would also start the process of identifying a demonstration farm in each local area that had the most potential for showcasing improvements identified in the local action plan. NRCS and extension would work as an integrated team in implementing the local action plan on this demonstration farm as well as other farms. Adoption of practices at the farm-level would be the ultimate evaluation criteria of the success of this program.

Project Objectives:

The main objectives of the project include: 

1) Increased knowledge about how livestock production impacts the environment.

2) Increased knowledge of connection on soil health, water quality impacts, and nutrient recycling.

3) Increased knowledge of how production practices affect farm profitability.

4) Identify key current operational practices at the farm-level in their geographic area that if changes, have the most potential to reduce environmental impacts and improve profitability.

5) Increase capacity and confidence to help farmer’s correct identified problems.

6) Facilitate improved cooperation and networking between agricultural extension agents and NRCS field personnel.

7) Creation of demonstration farms in each local area to serve as a model for improved soil health and water quality.

8) State-level specialists will gain knowledge about soil health in livestock operations.

Cooperators

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Education

Educational approach:

Regional and more localized meetings throughout Kentucky and Tennessee will incorporate lecture-style presentations and interactive group work, followed by field work to enhance the subject matter for extension and NRCS personnel. The meetings will also facilitate the collaboration between both agencies. 

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Soil Health Training, January 17th, 2018
Objective:

Increased knowledge of connection on soil health, water quality impacts, and nutrient recycling.
Facilitate improved cooperation and networking between agricultural extension agents and NRCS field personnel.

Description:

Extension and NRCS personnel attended a soil health training in which NC State University agents covered the importance of soil testing, understanding the limitations and potential of soil productivity, important environmental issues related to livestock production, and methods of protecting the soil. The NCSU agents also shared their experience with multi-agency workshops to help streamline the development of the meetings intended to facilitate improved connections between Ky and TN cooperative extension and NRCS practitioners. 

Outcomes and impacts:

N/A

Profitable Pastures Regional Meetings (Kentucky), August 2018
Objective:

Identifying key livestock production practices that impact soil health and productivity, as well as methods for implementing changes that would reduce the environmental impact while increasing sustainability and profitability. Facilitating cooperation and collaboration between extension and NRCS agents.

Description:

Kentucky hosted 3 regional meetings in late August 2018. The first meeting was held in Clark County, the second in Hardin County, and the last in Christian County, KY on August 28th, 29th, and 30th Each meeting consisted of classroom setting presentations followed by field demonstration on a nearby farm. The workshop addressed topics such as overstocking, grazing and forage management, soil ecology, reducing hay usage, and winter feeding practices. There was also time incorporated into the schedule for cooperative extension and NRCS personnel to start talking to each other to gain a better understanding of the abilities, limitations, and resources that each agency has to offer so that they can better serve the producer. The last portion of the workshop was the field demonstration held on an actual farm. Here participants met with producers who had a cooperative relationship with agricultural professionals and were in the midst of making changes to their production and management to address environmental concerns and increase sustainability. Some of the major hands-on activities performed at the field demonstration were: 1) Water infiltration tests performed at each site demonstrated the impact that continuous vs rotational grazing, 2) Identifying soil compaction by plant indicator species, 3) Forage assessment of quality species present, and 4) Evaluation of winter feeding areas. NRCS and extension also indicated their interest in demonstration farms held on a more localized level.

Outcomes and impacts:

N/A

Profitable Pastures Demonstration Farms (Kentucky)
Objective:

1) To provide a place where extension and NRCS can implement and explore practices and ideas presented in the regional meetings, 2) To facilitate collaboration between extension and NRCS personnel by getting them to work together at the same location at the same time. Extension and NRCS discuss their different approaches, resources, and strengths to meet a common goal to better serve the producer.

Description:

Extension and NRCS personnel had a wide latitude to determine the focus areas for each demonstration farm, and this was a key to making the demonstration farm work well. In general, the demonstration farm team met to assess each farm for both production and environmental concerns and areas for improvement. They determined the appropriate management practices that could be implemented/modified based on the specifics of the farm that could improve the profitability and environmental concerns identified.  The project team then integrated these management practices with the appropriate infrastructure needed to carry them out (the NRCS side). A project team member initially led and coordinated each demonstration farm. This helped make sure the participants fully understand the objectives of the demonstration farm, and got each group moving in the general direction.  However, the extension and NRCS participants at each demonstration farm ultimately took control of the direction of each farm, and determined the specifics to focus on.  At two of the demonstration farms, they took the approach of having three management/infrastructure plans based on cost (we called them the Cadillac, Ford-Chevy, and On-the-Cheap). These plans were presented to the farm owner and together they decided on the merits of each. There were three demonstration farms, and had a combined ten total farm visits/meetings; two in Marion County (March 22 and April 3, 2019), five in Madison County (April 1, May 16, July 16, August 23, and September 30, 2019), and three in Campbell County (April 15, May 16, and June 18, 2019).

Outcomes and impacts:

N/A

Profitable Pastures Regional Meetings (Tennessee), October 2018
Objective:

Identifying key livestock production practices that impact soil health and productivity, as well as methods for implementing changes that would reduce the environmental impact while increasing sustainability and profitability. Facilitating cooperation and collaboration between extension and NRCS agents.

Description:

Tennessee hosted 4 regional meetings in late October 2018. The first meeting was held in Spring Hill, Jackson, Knoxville, and McMinnville on October 22nd, 24th, 29th, and 31st Each meeting consisted of classroom setting presentations and addressed topics such as overstocking, grazing and forage management, soil ecology, reducing hay usage, and winter feeding practices. There was also time incorporated into the schedule for cooperative extension and NRCS personnel to start talking to each other to gain a better understanding of the abilities, limitations, and resources that each agency has to offer so that they can better serve the producer.

Outcomes and impacts:

N/A

Educational & Outreach Activities

18 Consultations
3 On-farm demonstrations
3 Tours
7 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

116 Extension
75 NRCS
6 Farmers/ranchers

Learning Outcomes

60 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
37 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

23 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The first phase of this project was the Regional Meetings. These were full-day long sessions that had both a classroom and on-farm components that covered important aspects of beef cattle production that were relevant to both the extension and NRCS mandates: Overstocking, grazing/forage management, reducing hay feeding, winter feeding techniques, and soil ecology. The on-farm demonstrations at the end of each day provided an avenue to apply these topics at the farm-level. There was also a special session on extension-NRCS dynamics and relationship. This got the two groups talking to each other and raised issues that could cause potential conflicts between the two groups.

The regional meetings provided much of the learning outcomes for the overall project. Extension in particular, had not been exposed much to soil health and soil ecology issues, and these sessions were a main learning outcome for extension. The winter feeding session exposed NRCS to feeding options that relied more on management (as opposed to engineered structures) that could effectively address resource concerns. Both groups were exposed to material that they would normally not see.

However, potentially the most important outcome/impact of the regional meetings was during the session on extension-NRCS working dynamics. It provided a candid forum for each group to discuss where they have worked well together, and more importantly, where they have not. This sparked deep discussions between the two groups. Participants came out of this session with new ideas on how they could create a real working relationship with their counterparts.

The second phase of the project were the joint Demonstration Farms. The objective here was to use actual farms as a testing ground to improve extension and NRCS cooperation. Thus, this phase provided the main “action” outcomes of the project. Instead of meeting separately with the landowners (as they normally would), NRCS and extension met together to work through the goals of the farmer, determine the management and infrastructure improvements that would meet these goals, and work together to achieve them. A short-term impact has been a better-coordinated farm plan between NRCS and extension rather than two separate plans/recommendations, as they would normally have given. As a result, there is less chance for contradictory advice to the landowner, and better integration of management (extension focus) and infrastructure (NRCS focus). A long-term impact is that we have created a mechanism for future improved relationships between these two groups. We are still learning about these group dynamics and how to proceed long-term in better developing these relationships. A main take-away message at this point is just getting the two groups together working on the same project at the same time can do wonders for collaboration and working in the same direction for the landowner. We are at the start of what will hopefully be a long-term improvement in collaboration between Extension and NRCS.

16 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
4 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Additional Outcomes:

Surveys composed of both numerical rating and written comments were collected via email from NRCS and extension agents after the regional meetings held in Kentucky. For the numerical portion of the survey, participants were asked to indicate how much they learned about the various topics covered during the meetings. 1 indicated nothing learned, while 5 meant that a lot was learned. Below are a handful of the 15 questions asked on the survey that requested a numerical response and the average score.

Problems resulting from overstocking – 3.7

Methods to alleviate overstocking in short-run – 3.9

Using grazing management to improve nutrient cycling – 4.0

Using hay feeding to improve nutrient cycling – 3.9

Importance of organic matter for increased nutrient availability – 3.8

Importance of grazing management and stocking rate in promoting biological health – 3.7

Advantages/disadvantages of various hay feeding methods – 3.9

In the written segment of the surveys, several comments provided insight about improved communication and cooperation between the two agencies, how to better serve producers collaboratively, and interest in future teamwork. Some ideas about inter-agency cooperation include “NRCS could provide Extension with a breakdown of what NRCS does, something less than one page bullet format, same for extension. Extension and NRCS could have a shared bulletin (via email) that goes out every couple of months about what’s going on.”, “Getting together on farm visits to offer NRCS technical knowledge/cost share assistance and extension’s awesome documents and research to better serve our customers.”, and “By NRCS programs more mirroring current UK Ext research.  I think NRCS could benefit from UK expertise in studying the economics cost/benefit of cover cropping on row crop fields.”

When asked how NRCS and extension could better work together to assist producers, comments included “More personnel to make farm visits again and help with questions we (extension) still get a lot of such as: soil erosion control, pond construction, pond repairs/leaks, landslides, soil stabilization, improving poor soil drainage, dealing with sink holes, etc.” Related comments like “[Extension agents need] Better knowledge of NRCS programs to help tell farmers what is available cost share and technical advice wise.”, and “Extension agents are going to need to be involved early in the planning process, let NRCS use their notes along with their own information to develop the initial plan and add the technical practices as needed.” were also left.

Overall, the program was ranked well among participants. There was an improved understanding of overstocking and stocking rate, nutrient cycling, soil biology, hay feeding, and NRCS/Extension working dynamics. NRCS and extension agents showed a better understanding of how the other agency operates, including their strengths and constraints, as well as a willingness to continue developing a cooperative working relationship.

Recommendations:

A main objective of this project was to improve the working relationship between extension and NRCS in Kentucky and Tennessee. The Regional Workshops provided a baseline understanding between extension and NRCS and the initial discussions on how working relationships could be improved. However, we found it was only by working together on the demonstration farms where the real collaboration and relationship development began between the two groups.

Given this, our intent is to use what we learned through this grant project and to continue with at least one of the current demonstration farms and initiate other demonstration farms where the two groups can work together. Ultimately, once these relationships have been developed they can be continued at the county level.

Recommendations for Applying this Elsewhere:

I don’t think the Regional Meetings were critical for improving the working relationship between extension and NRCS. The meetings were informative and helpful, and did provide an avenue to start the dialogue between the two groups. But in hindsight, I don’t think that they were critical. A shorter duration multi-county (district?) meeting approach where NRCS and extension are brought together in a more limited geographic area with the focus being from the beginning on developing demonstration farms is what I would recommend. Part of this meeting should be devoted to discussion on extension-NRCS dynamics and ideas to improve that relationship, just like in the Regional Meetings. The advantage to a shorter meeting and smaller geographic focus is that fewer specialists at the state-level would have to be involved, and logistically, it would be much easier to accomplish. You would also have participants that already know each other to some extent and I believe more chance that they will take this initial meeting seriously.

I do not believe that the working relationship between extension and NRCS is unique in Kentucky or Tennessee in terms of a lack of real collaboration. It is hard enough to have good integration between two federal agencies, much less good integration between a federal (NRCS) and state/local based agency (extension). I do not believe that good working relationships (and by that I mean real collaboration not just getting along) will easily develop on their own without a mechanism to foster their development. We certainly had a few instances of fair/good working relationships in Kentucky before this project, but they were by far the exception. The demonstration farms are one mechanism to foster those improved working relationships. However, there may be other mechanisms that we have not thought of that might work as well. The key is to get the two groups together and pointed in the same general direction. The demonstration farms were a good way for us to do that in Kentucky.

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.