Development of a Dairy Farm Sustainability Checksheet and Establishment of Distance Education Program for Training CES and NRCS Personnel to Work with Dairy Farmers

Final Report for ES99-044

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1999: $54,621.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Ann Wells
National Center for Appropriate Technology
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Project Information


In this integrated management systems training project, NCAT/ATTRA has collaborated with personnel within the Arkansas CES, NRCS, farmers and the University of TN Middle TN Experiment Station. The goal is to train educators and key producers through an interactive partnership designed to share and improve skills and resources useful in monitoring sustainability and making recommendations for farms primarily involved in dairy production. The group has developed a sustainable dairy farm checksheet. The checksheet has been taken to seven farms for testing, five in Arkansas and two in Tennessee. A group of University of Arkansas CES has traveled to the Middle TN Experiment Station for training on the checksheet and to see their grazing dairy operation and how it contrasts with the conventional confinement operation. The checksheet has also been used as an agenda for a Sustainable Dairy Workshop held at the Middle Tennessee Experiment Station. It is now available through the ATTRA project and plans are in the works for an update. A listserv has also been created for interested dairy people. Videos taken of grass-based dairies are being incorporated into a website. That work is ongoing.

Project Objectives:

Through the design, evaluation and subsequent use of a dairy farm sustainability checksheet, educators and producers will learn what to consider in assessing a dairy farm (cattle, sheep or goats) with an emphasis on whole farm planning and forage systems.

Through the use of well-planned demonstrations, farm visits and workshop attendance, educators and farmers will learn the complex (biological, financial and social) interrelationships that must be considered in order to increase the sustainability of family dairy farms.

Through training in the use of distance learning techniques, 50 educators and producers will learn an appropriate technology they can use on their farms and in future programs that will save time and money.


Our experience in visiting farms through the 1997 SARE-PDP beef sustainability grant has convinced us that on-farm interviews and multiple visits are necessary for educators to be successful in assisting farmers to develop whole farm plans. The beef sustainability checksheet is effective in guiding that process, first in letting a farmer assess his or her program before the educator visits the farm, and second, by guiding the educator to areas which need to be addressed without having to spend valuable time with prolonged visits. We need a similar tool for educators of dairy farmers.

Dairy farmers are facing tough economic times as well as facing many constraints related to environmental issues. High inputs along with low prices and lack of labor is making dairying unprofitable and unattractive as a way of life. In Arkansas, there has been a 42% drop in the number of dairy farms the last 10 years and a 31% drop in the last five years. There are similar trends in adjoining states. Environmental concerns and regulations are making it more costly and more difficult to be in the dairy business. Milk price volatility compounds problems. Many farmers want to stay in business, and educators are looking for ways to help them. But many educators are not trained in the dairy business and are struggling to figure out themselves what to tell farmers. Eleven out of twenty county agents in dairy counties in Arkansas had no dairy experience before joining extension. Even educators with a dairy background have difficulty getting farmers to think about what they can change. A dairy farm sustainability checksheet, patterned after our beef checksheet, would place all the areas a farmer needs to consider in a form that would allow them to assess what aspect requires the most attention.

The vast majority of the dairy farmers in the southern region can and should emphasize use of pastures in their program. The case for consideration of grass-based dairies has been presented through SARE-funded research by North Carolina State University (Benson et al., 1998; King et al., 1998). Because farmers in Arkansas can grow both cool season and warm season forages, grass-based dairying has excellent potential. Widespread adoption, however, necessitates training the educators about grass-based dairies. For example, producing quality forage is essential, and harvesting surplus forage as part of a controlled grazing program is sometimes necessary. Therefore, farmers and educators need information on low-cost forage harvesting as well as grazing mechanics. To aid in this, the work done in other states should be transferred to farmers and educators, and programs developed to encourage adoption of grass dairying.


Koelsch, R. 1998. Whole farm nutrient balance for concentrated livestock operations. American Society of Animal Science and Dairy Science meeting, Denver, CO. July 27-31.

Morrow, R., C. A. Wells, D. Onks, F. Martz, J. Gerrish, A. Beetz, P. Sullivan and C. West. 1998. Teaching sustainable beef cattle management workshops. Southern Section, American Society of Animal Science meeting, Little Rock, AR.

Myer, D. 1998. Nutrient management and water quality. American Society of Animal Science and Dairy Science meeting, Denver, CO. July 27-31.

Novak, Pete. 1992. Why farmers adopt production technology. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. Vol. 47, No. 1, January-February. Pp 14-16.

Wells, C. A., R. Morrow, C. West, K. Coffey, T. James, R. Seay, M. Gross, A. Beetz, A. Fanatico, and P. Sullivan. 1998. Development and use of a checksheet for assessment of sustainability of cow-calf operations using pasture as a primary feed source. Southern Section, American Society of Animal Science meeting, Little Rock, AR.

Education & Outreach Initiatives


Develop a dairy farm sustainability checksheet and train personnel on its use.

The same procedures will be used to develop the dairy checksheet as was successfully employed with the beef checksheet. A diverse group of individuals made up CES agents, NRCS personnel, NCAT/ATTRA technical specialists, dairy farmers (conventional, grass-based, dairy goat farmers and farmers who use value-added processing) and industry representatives will meet for a brainstorming session. After listing the important points of consideration, the group will vote by "stars" on the most important items. Those items will then be developed into questions and grouped into categories for delineation.

A second meeting of the group will be held to discuss the draft of the checksheet, rephrase questions, place emphasis on certain categories and placement of questions in the categories. After that revision, the checksheet will be evaluated for completeness. At this point, the draft checksheet will be taken out on working farms for further evaluation; CES and NRCS personnel not part of the brainstorming process will be added to the group to form teams. Each team is composed of CES, NRCS, NCAT/ATTRA and a producer. The checksheet will be sent to the producer two weeks prior to the farm visit. Wells and Morrow will participate on all teams to make observations about the process and make adjustments in the checksheet. Three teams will visit two farms each for evaluation.

Dairy farmers in the Souwill have the checksheet presented to them. A listserv will then be established for discussion of the checksheet. County level educators will also be part of the listserv. Questions from the checksheet can be addressed with all information going to the participants and the opportunity for each person to respond with his/her thoughts is available. We have a listserv presently being used by a beef producer group, and it works very well.

Special training sessions for CES, NRCS, industry persons and top producers will be held after completion of the checksheet. It is beneficial for producers and educators to attend training sessions together. Educators have the opportunity to see how the producers view material presented and hear the questions the producers have, and affords the opportunity for producers and educators to learn from each other. This experience gives the educator the opportunity to be more prepared when actually using the material.

2. Conduct demonstrations, visit farms and attend workshops to learn practices that increase sustainability of dairy farms.

Farmers adopt new practices when they can see those practices being applied, especially by their neighbors. The same is true of educators-they tend to be critical of alternative management practices until they see them applied or until research information supports their use. For this reason, the following activities will be used to collect information for the checksheet, assist in training personnel and show agents how some practices can be applied.

Grass based dairy management training:

The first activity will be to participate in the "train the trainer" workshop that is part of a 1998 SARE-PDP grant on pasture-based dairies that is being led by Steve Washburn at North Carolina State University. A group of CES agents, NRCS personnel and producers will attend this program in the summer of 1999 to learn how to more effectively plan a grass-based dairy program. That PDP project has summarized worldwide information and prepared materials needed by educators and farmers; therefore, there is no need to duplicate that effort. The need, though, is to have that information applied on farms in Arkansas to test the suitability of the information in this environment. By educating farmers on their options about alternative management, they will have less fear of regulations. Funding is requested to send personnel to that training effort.

Harvesting quality forage:

The second activity will be a demonstration of harvesting quality forages as part of a grazing program. The use of harvested forages will be emphasized as part of a controlled grazing program to impact the efficient use of pasture rather than harvesting forages first and grazing second. The demonstration will focus on lower cost methods of harvesting silage, primarily as baleage, and how that fits into a grazing program. Information from the demonstration will be prepared and disseminated through the web-based training.

Processing dairy products:

Information on processing dairy products will be prepared by ATTRA technical specialists. One producer working with the group milks dairy goats and processes her own cheese for sale through direct marketing channels. The collaborators in this grant will tour other units and assemble information for use through the training program. This information is intended primarily for smaller family-oriented dairies. One section of the checksheet is devoted to on-farm processing of dairy products.

Other demonstrations:

As referenced, the University of Arkansas does not own or operate a dairy. Therefore, collaborating farms are important for training personnel. Some collaboration will be developed with the University of Tennessee Middle Tennessee Experiment Station (UT MTES) to use the dairy unit for training and evaluation of the checksheet and other demonstrations. The UT MTES will serve as a subcontractor in this grant for special educational activities. One demonstration is the development of dairy replacement heifers on pasture systems. MTES will be used as a training site for the checksheet.

Since an important section of the checksheet that will need considerable effort is nutrient management, other projects, such as EPA 319 projects, NRCS demonstrations and riparian management projects at MTES will contribute information that can be used in training. The contribution of pasture-based systems for nutrient management will be presented in training sessions. This contribution can help farmers deal with regulations in a way that is not economically disastrous.

Farm and other site visits:

Additional fact gathering trips will be used in preparation of training materials including video taping footage and taking pictures to use on distance learning activities.

Buchmayer Dairy-grass-based dairy with on-the-farm processing unit and direct sales.
University of Missouri Southwest Center-demonstration of seasonal dairy
Fulton County, AR
3. Train CES agents, NRCS personnel and key producers to use distance education tools.

Both educators and farmers will be trained in the use of distance communication and conferencing computer software and hardware. This will help them become more familiar with cutting edge technologies that will assist them in communicating with each other without having to be physically present. Educators (NRCS and CES) will be trained as a group within a small geographic area in Northwest Arkansas, while at the same time working on above procedures. The following will be equipped with cameras, microphones, and software for web-based videoconferencing:

Five CES offices with dairy agents.
Five NRCS offices with a viable dairy clientele.
Four farmers.
Middle Tennessee Experiment Station.
This will save time and money on travel. Meetings to present the checksheet will be held over the Internet to allow educators and farmers in the initial group assembled to try out the software and hardware. Different ways will be used to communicate, such as white boards, chats, audio and video meetings. As this initial group learns to use the software and which ways work best for them, the group will be expanded to include more educators within other counties for training. Exploration of educational procedures will be accomplished by using videotapes and pictures of production practices and demonstrations. This objective is an investment in the future by procuring equipment and testing its use as a primary training device.

Outcomes and impacts:

As a result of this project, ATTRA has sent out 250 dairy farm sustainability checksheets, with Arkansas extension distributing checksheets through their county offices. Extension and NRCS personnel have been taught how to use the checksheet.

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.