Vermont Dairy Farm Sustainability Project, Inc.

Final Report for LNE01-151

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2001: $96,800.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $280,550.00
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Co-Leaders:
Bill Jokela
University of Vermont
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Project Information

Summary:

Early in 2000 Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. initiated The Vermont Dairy Farm Sustainability Project, a unique collaboration among the company, the St. Alban’s Cooperative Creamery which supplies Ben & Jerry’s dairy products, Poulin Grain, a feed company serving Coop members, and the University of Vermont Extension Service. The project was inspired by work on dairy farm sustainability done by Professor Danny Fox at Cornell University. The underlying premise of the collaboration is that stakeholders can work together to achieve significant gains in sustainability at the dairy farm level as relates to water quality while also preserving and enhancing the economic viability of family farms which presently face significant economic challenges.

Dairy farming, while not the only contributor, can negatively impact water quality through nutrient build up that can lead to water contamination. Research shows the amount of imported nitrogen and phosphorus remaining on a dairy farm over one year’s time ranges between 59 and 81% (Klausner, 1993). Phosphorus is the limiting nutrient in Lake Champlain and most fresh water bodies. Nitrogen is of concern as it relates to ground water nitrate levels.

The intent of the Vermont Dairy Farm Sustainability Project (VDFSP) was to involve all dairy industry stakeholders in making direct impacts to improve water quality while maintaining and/ or improving farm profitability. The VDFSP demonstrated methods that improve water quality and sustain the Vermont dairy industry. Involved stakeholders were not interested in imposing environmental restrictions on farmers who are already under intense economic pressure. Rather, the project was interested in impacting whole farm nutrient balances and management at the farm level through practical methods that are supported by farmers and their suppliers. To receive such support, implemented methods must maintain, or improve, farm profitability. Once demonstrated, the VDFSP is confident these methods will be transferable and replicated by other specific sets of collaborators. An underlying concept for the project was to demonstrate the methodology whereby the various dairy industry stakeholders can collaborate to reduce nutrient loading while maintaining, or improving, farm profitability. Lessons learned through the collaborative process were shared with dairy industry in order to promote similar collaborative efforts by specific sets of stakeholders throughout the region.

The VDFSP focused on three activities:

1) Identify and document opportunities to reduce nutrient loading and improve nutrient management on dairy farms.

2) Identify and demonstrate economical intervention strategies that can improve nutrient management and reduce nutrient loading.

3) Reveal to farmers and industry personnel (multipliers) the opportunities and interventions that can improve nutrient management and decrease nutrient loading in economical ways.

Note to the reader: Tables and other data referenced here can be obtained from Northeast SARE. Send e-mail to nesare@uvm.edu and request a full final report with data for LNE01-151.

Introduction:

Typical Northeast dairy farms exhibit positive net balances of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). Farm accumulation of N and P may contribute to water contamination. The Vermont Dairy Farm Sustainability Project (VDFSP), directed by an actively involved, diverse board of dairy industry stakeholders: 1) documented whole-farm, crop and feed enterprise N and P balances on eight dairy farms; 2) identified economical N and P balance improvement strategies; and 3) documented strategy impacts. Data were collected pre- and post-implementation. Whole-farm balance was calculated as nutrient import minus export. Nutrient supply relative to requirement was calculated per field, using university (Univ. of Vermont, Cornell Univ.) recommendations, and per animal group, using the Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System, to identify improvement strategies. Manure, forage and soil analyses, CropMD software and proprietary crop consultant software and measured animal feed intakes were used. Implemented practices included fertilizer reduction, reduced feed P, and ration manipulation to improve N balance. Farm changes in nutrient accumulation (lbs./acre), post- minus pre-implementation, ranged from –60 to +44 for N and –14.5 to +0.6 for P. Seven of eight farms reduced N and/or P accumulation per acre. Results demonstrate improved whole farm N and/or P balance using available feed and crop management tools. In some cases, significant cost savings were achieved.

Performance Target:

• All enrolled farmers (10 farms) will become aware of opportunity areas for decreasing nitrogen and phosphorus loading and improving nutrient management on their particular farm.

• All enrolled farmers will implement a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) that they developed in conjunction with their suppliers. Data collection will be continuous for two years in order to be able to compare baseline nutrient balances to nutrient balances after implementation of the farm-developed NMP.

• Project personnel will analyze the efficacy of each of the ten NMP’s. Educational material for farmers, support industry and consumers will be prepared and distributed based on the results of summarized baseline and post-NMP implementation data.

• Feed and fertilizer suppliers will provide recommendations to assist each farm in developing their own NMP. 15 dairy support industry representatives (feed and fertilizer suppliers) will become aware of opportunity areas for improving nutrient management and decreasing nitrogen and phosphorus loading on participating client farms.

• Educational programs based on project findings will be developed and presented to a total of 50 farmers, suppliers, consultants, and extension and agency personnel who were not directly involved in the project, thereby increasing their awareness of methods to economically reduce nutrient loading and improve nutrient management.

For accomplishments, modifications, and incompletions, see Results and Discussion/Milestones section.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Andrea Asch
  • Liz Bankowski
  • Sid Bosworth
  • Diane Bothfeld
  • Buzz Burhans
  • Jim Bushey
  • Tom Magnant

Research

Materials and methods:

In an innovative effort by dairy industry representatives, a collaborative project, the Vermont Dairy Farm Sustainability Project, Inc. (VDFSP) was created to address farm economic and water quality issues. The VDFSP involved farms, suppliers, advisors, processors, manufacturers and retailers in identifying opportunities to decrease net balances and increase profitability through on-farm research. Board members of the project reflect diverse sectors of the industry and include representatives of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, The St Alban’s Cooperative Creamery, Poulin Grain, Bourdeau Bros. of Middlebury, University of Vermont (UVM) Extension, and Bridgemanview Dairy.

Participant Farms
VDFSP board member organizations identified a list of potential farm participants. Ten farms were enrolled on a voluntary basis for the two-year data collection phase of the project. Collectively, participant farms represent better than average management levels, and a demonstrated interest in environmental issues (Table 1).

Crop Program
Crop N and P balance was assessed for each field using crop management database software. Six VT farms used the VTCropMD crop management software and one NY farm used NNYCMA proprietary software to compare crop available nutrients to calculated crop need on a per field basis. The VTCropMD is based on UVM recommendations and soil testing. The NNYCMA is based on Cornell University recommendations and soil testing. Database information was compiled from manure analyses for each source of farm-produced manure, farm reported field-specific application rates for fertilizer and manure, field-specific soil samples, and farm reported yields. An eighth farm, which grazed and used no commercial fertilizer, was not included in the crop part of the study due to difficulties in estimating nutrient application from grazing cattle and the non-use of commercial fertilizer.

Feed Program
Feed N and P balance was assessed for each animal group using the Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System v4.0.31. Ruminal N, metabolizable protein and P supply as % of requirement along with associated ration descriptions were monitored. All lactating groups were scheduled for biweekly evaluation of nutrient intake vs CNCPS calculated requirement. Actual intakes were determined by two-day averages of fed and refused amounts. Individual group milk production was based on test day information scaled to bulk tank weights. For farms on test, DHIA reported milk fat, milk protein, days pregnant, days in milk and lactation number for each group were used in the CNCPS simulations. For farms not testing for fat or protein (2), milk handler bulk tank test results were used for all groups. For one farm not on test, average milk weights per group collected biweekly, along with reasonable estimates of lactation number, days pregnant and days in milk were used for CNCPS simulations. Non lactating groups were scheduled for monthly CNCPS evaluation based on one-day fed and refused amounts. Pasture intakes were determined by subtraction of known forage and grain intake from CNCPS predicted intake.

For each simulation date, major forages (corn and hay silage, lactating pasture) were sampled (NIR w/ wet chemistry minerals) and ration ingredient lists were obtained from feed suppliers. (Dry hay and heifer pasture were sampled as needed.) A combination of book and feed company analyses were used to describe concentrate ingredients. CNCPS results were compiled by farm, group and date.

Whole Farm Nutrient Conversion Efficiency and Balance
Whole Farm Nutrient Conversion Efficiencies were calculated based import and export of nutrients over a one year period (Klausner, 1993). Total fertilizer import was calculated from crop management software data. Total feed import was based on year-long average intake results from the CNCPS database for each group. Import and export from bedding, manure, forage and animals, was obtained by interview or other farm records. Efficiencies were arrived at by dividing total exported nutrient by total imported nutrient and multiplying by 100. Balances are reported as Import – Export Nutrient per animal unit and per acre.

Identification of Improvement Opportunities
Baseline year information was summarized for whole farm, crop and feed enterprise components. Improvements were identified as areas of excessive nutrient supply relative to requirement from baseline year data. Potential improvement opportunities were discussed with farms and their suppliers. A nutrient management improvement plan was created and signed by each farm. Data collection continued in year 2, as in the baseline year, to define post-implementation impacts.

Research results and discussion:

To accomplish the project objectives, the following sequence of activities (milestones) was carried out:

a) Enrolled ten demonstration farms (ultimately only eight) supported by several different feed and crop input suppliers.

b) Conducted/coordinated baseline data collection on farms.

c) Analyzed opportunities for reduced nutrient loading as presented by baseline data.

d) Preliminary plan created by farm’s suppliers/consultants (overseen by VDFSP professionals) and presented to each farm.

e) Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) revised and finalized jointly by farmer, suppliers/consultants, and project professionals.

f) Farms implemented NMPs.

g) Project staff continued coordination with farm and farm suppliers to collect data.

h) Completed final analysis/assessment of opportunities and implementations for improved nutrient management and reduced nutrient loading on demonstration farms.

i) Carried out extension program to disseminate information and project results to the wider agricultural community, including farmers, support industry, and extension/agency personnel.

Ten farms were enrolled in the project by July 2001. Two of the ten farms ceased business operations as dairies and the project was completed with eight farms. Baseline data collection was realized on one farm in 2000 and seven farms in 2001. This data was analyzed and opportunities for reduced nutrient loading identified in the winter of 2000 (one farm) and winter of 2001 (7 farms). Improvement plans were developed in conjunction with farm suppliers and advisors and signed off on by farms before the start of the crop season following their respective baseline data collection year. Farm implementations of improvements occurred in 2001 and 2002 for one farm and in 2002 for seven farms. Post implementation data collection was continuous through 2001 and 2002 on one farm and through 2002 on seven farms. Analysis of baseline data has taken place from Jan. 1, 2001 for one farm and from Jan. 1, 2002 for seven farms through June of 2003. Analysis of implementation impacts was continuous from Jan. 1, 2003 through June of 2003.

Educational efforts have been ongoing throughout the project. Greg Weber, who served as project coordinator through the establishment and main operation phase, educated 20+ farm suppliers/ advisors, extension educators and environmental professionals through personal, individual contact. Presentations about the project were made to a variety of audiences reaching approximately 250 attendees including agricultural professionals, farmers and lay persons. Project findings were reported at the American Dairy Science Association/ American Society of Animal Scientist’s joint meeting and at the Northeast Branch Agronomy meeting. The educational phase, as well as some additional data collection, continued under the direction of Bill Jokela of the University of Vermont, who continued as coordinator during the extension period of the project. A part-time project assistant, Laura Hanrahan, was hired to help with writing, preparation of materials, and fieldwork.

Activities during this period included presentations on project results at the SARE national conference in Burlington in October 2004 (audience of 80) and the New England Regional Training for Agricultural Service Providers in Scarborough, Maine, in February 2005 (audience of 30). Other educational/outreach activities included: a) PowerPoint slide module made available on the Web, b) article summarizing results of the project published in Agri-View (publication of VT Dept. of Agriculture, Food, and Markets sent to all VT farmers twice a month; July 2006), and c) VDFSP Web page to make results and products from the project available to the agricultural and general public. (http://pss.uvm.edu/vtcrops/?Page=vdfsp/VDFSP2.html)

In addition, data collection and evaluation was conducted on two nutrient management tools used in the project, the VT Phosphorus Index and site-specific soil sampling. Results were summarized in two fact sheets available on the VDFSP Web site. Follow up survey questionnaires planned to evaluate impact of the educational program were not carried out.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Educational efforts have been ongoing throughout the project and include the following:
• Educated 20+ farm suppliers/advisors, extension educators and environmental professionals through personal, individual contact.
• Presentations to groups at professional meetings (total audience 360+)
o American Dairy Science Association/American Society of Animal Scientists annual meeting
o American Society of Agronomy-Northeast Branch annual meeting
o USDA-SARE National Conference, Burlington, VT. October 2004.
o New England Regional Training for Agricultural Service Providers, Scarborough, Maine. February 2005.
• Vermont Dairy Farm Sustainability Project Web page http://pss.uvm.edu/vtcrops/?Page=vdfsp/VDFSP2.html
• Vermont Dairy Farm Sustainability Project Slide Show. Available on the Web at: http://pss.uvm.edu/vtcrops/vdfsp/VDFSP_WebPpt_0606.pdf
• Jokela, B. 2006. Soil Sampling for Soil Test Phosphorus Variability. VDFSP fact sheet. http://pss.uvm.edu/vtcrops/vdfsp/STPVar-Grid_VDFSP-2.pdf
• Jokela, B. 2006. Phosphorus Index in the Real World: Summary of Three Farms in the VDFSP. VDFSP fact sheet. http://pss.uvm.edu/vtcrops/vdfsp/PI-VDFSPArticle.pdf
• Hanrahan, L., and B. Jokela. 2006. The Vermont Dairy Farm Sustainability Project: Reducing Environmental Risk While Maintaining Profitability. Agri-View (late summer issue), VT Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. Also on project Web page at: http://pss.uvm.edu/vtcrops/vdfsp/VDFSP_Ext_article_0606Final.pdf

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

Baseline Year

Whole Farm Efficiency and Balance
Whole-farm nutrient conversion efficiency, the percentage of an imported nutrient converted to exported product, ranged from about 16 to 50% for N (Table 2N) and 20 to 75% for P (Table 2P). This means that 25 to over 80% of the imported N and P remained on the farm (or was lost to the environment) (Graph 1). The highest conversion efficiencies were for a pasture-based operation with a large land base and no fertilizer purchases. Combined, fertilizer and feed represented most of the nutrient import, accounting for an average of 90% of the N and 96% of the P imports on dairies with lactating animals. Feed was the largest single contributor to imported nutrients on those farms, averaging two-thirds of the total import of both N and P. As would be expected, milk was the primary export product of N and P on farms with lactating cattle, ranging from two-thirds to over 90% for both N and P.

Feed
Assessment of the feeding system and its ultimate impact on whole-farm nutrient conversion efficiency involved assessment of two areas: nutrient balance at the animal level and the impact animal level nutrient balance had on farm gate nutrient balance. Nutrient balance at the animal level can be described as either a mass per head basis or as a percent efficiency (Table 3). Animal Nutrient Balance is defined as Intake nutrient minus nutrient in product, where product describes nutrients retained in milk and tissue (growth + pregnancy). Feed Nutrient Conversion Efficiency describes percentage of intake nutrient converted to product nutrient. Although these measures indicate the total nutrient balance and efficiency of nutrient use for a given animal or group, they do not describe their impact on whole farm nutrient balance or efficiency. Imported Nutrient Balance is an indicator of each animal’s contribution to whole farm balance/efficiency and is calculated as intake of imported nutrient minus nutrient retained in milk. In order to compare lactating animals across farms with varied grouping strategies, a composite average was created by weighting animal numbers per group for each farm x date observation. Observations were averaged for each farm. See Table 3. Due to inherent difficulties in describing intake and physiologic state, replacement heifer production status (Predicted Average Daily Gain) is a less reliable value. Nonetheless, results are reported.

Crops
The proportion of different crops varied among farms, but on average about a third (36%) of the acreage was in silage corn with the remainder in mixed legume or grass forage (Table 4). The importance of manure as a nutrient source for crop production is evidenced by the fact that an average of over 80% of the corn crop acreage and 2/3 to 3/4 of the legume and grass forage acreage received manure (Table 4). For most crops manure supplied a third to a half of the needed N and P with the remainder provided by purchased fertilizer.

Several terms are used in Table 4 to further characterize nutrient application rates and efficiency of use by crops. Total applied N or P (on lb/acre basis) is the total of each nutrient applied in manure and fertilizer. Applied available nutrient is the amount of field-applied nutrient available to the crop adjusted for the reduced availability of manure N based on UVM Extension recommendations (Jokela et al., 2004, Nutrient Recommendations for Field Crops in Vermont). Crop nutrient conversion efficiency is expressed as the percentage of total applied nutrients (N or P) converted to a consumed or sold product (Table 4). Crop Removal is determined as yield goal times typical crop removal (Jokela et al., 2004). Consumed + Sold is calculated from feed program information as total farm grown N and P consumed by animals on the farm plus N and P in forages sold off the farm. Field, storage and feeding losses, unaccounted for changes in forage inventory, variation in forage N and P concentrations and variation in actual yields are factors.
Typically, consumed and sold nutrients are less than total applied nutrients. This reflects the inherent inefficiency of nutrient utilization, although soil contributions and other factors can affect this. Total Applied nutrients may, or may not exceed expected crop removal for an individual farm. The percentage of crop acres in different soil test P categories varied greatly by individual farm, primarily reflecting historical differences in application rates of manure and fertilizer.

Improvement Opportunities
The cycling of both farm-produced and purchased nutrients into exportable product represents the greatest potential for improved nutrient conversion efficiency and, subsequently, improved environmental sustainability. The greatest impact to Whole Farm Nutrient Conversion Efficiency lies in conversion of feed and fertilizer to primary product (milk or tissue). These three components represent significant expense and income on dairy farms (Northeast Dairy Farm Summary 2001 p 51).

Crops
The greatest factors in variation of Crop Nutrient Conversion Efficiency are how closely Applied Available Nutrient corresponds to Recommendations and the portion of crop nutrients that are actually consumed or sold. Applied available nutrient minus recommendation is an indicator of how well a nutrient management plan is being applied at the field level. University of Vermont, or Cornell University Recommendations were used, according to state residence of each farm. There are wide ranges between farms (–10.2 to 64.7 lbs/acre for N and –7.7 to 123.5 lbs/acre for P) and marked differences between crop types (Table 4). Large variation of Applied Available – Recommendation exists among individual fields. The standard deviations of Applied Available – Recommendation between fields within farms is greater than the farm average Applied Available – Recommendation for all farms regarding N and 6 of 7 farms regarding P. The percentage of Applied Available Nutrients from Fertilizer varies across farms (0.0 – 66.0% for P and 27.1 – 87.6% for N) and by crop type (Table 4), reflecting varying potential for reduction of nutrient loading and cost by cutting fertilizer purchases.
The crop component factor most directly impacting Whole Farm Nutrient Conversion Efficiency is purchased fertilizer nutrients, as they represent a direct import. The majority of farms have average Applied Available Nutrient applications in excess of recommendations. More importantly, the variation among fields is dramatic. This indicates that some fields on a given farm typically have excessive nutrient application while others will have deficient nutrient application based on recommendations. The very large standard deviations indicate the potential benefit of improved allocation of applied manure and fertilizer nutrients. The large differences between Total N Applied and Applied Available N reflect losses from manure N; improved manure management practices could limit these losses and conserve more manure N. Therefore, the first improvement can be made at the farm level through improved management and allocation of manure nutrients. Also, four of the six farms growing corn do not utilize the Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test. The PSNT is a useful tool for more accurately adjusting fertilizer applications to account for available manure N. Secondly, there is a potential for decreasing purchased fertilizer applications where soil tests indicate adequate available nutrients. Of the three crop categories, corn silage has the highest average Applied – Required P2O5 average (39 lbs/acre) and the highest percentage of applied nutrients from fertilizer (51%) (Table 4). Most of the fertilizer P is applied as a starter, offering an excellent opportunity to reduce fertilizer P loading and save dollars on many fields. Two demonstration trials in conjunction with a participating farmer provided on-farm visual and quantitative that led him to reduce excessive starter fertilizer rates. (See Table 6.)

Feeds

Implementation of the CNCPS provides the opportunity to balance rations based on Metabolizable Protein. The opportunity exists to decrease ruminal N supply relative to requirement without negatively impacting total MP supply, and consequently, milk production. In the instance that ruminal N supply (% of req) can be reduced through N intake reduction, the potential exists to decrease both Animal and Intake N Balance while improving Feed N Conversion Efficiency. In the instance that ruminal N supply can be reduced through enhanced supply of rumen available carbohydrate, the potential exists to increase total MP supply which could result in increased milk yield, Feed N Conversion Efficiency and reduced Animal and Imported N Balances. Reduction in excess P fed relative to requirement could also improve Animal and Import P Balances.

Impacts
Changes in Whole Farm Nutrient Conversion Efficiencies and other crop and feed parameters after implementation of Nutrient Management Plans are shown in Tables 5C (crops), 5F (feed), and Graph 2. Some normal year-to-year variation would be expected so the impact of any given implementation may or may not be measurable at the whole farm level. Other management changes could also have affected results. Results for N were variable, with five farms showing improved whole farm conversion efficiencies and six farms showing decreased accumulation per acre. Seven of eight farms displayed improved Whole Farm P Conversion Efficiencies and decreased P accumulation per acre (Tables 5F and 5C).

Feed
Milk production increased on six of the seven farms. The only negative impact on milk production was on farm 2, explainable by a management change from 3x to 2x milking. Imported P balance was reduced on six of seven farms on both a per head and per unit milk basis. Imported N Balance results were variable. A portion of increased milk production may be explained by increased MP supply. Ruminal N Balance and P Intake (% of req), identified as improvement opportunities, were improved on all farms with the exception of P Intake (% of req.) on farm six. Farm six fed P at 100% of requirement in the baseline year and could not be expected to improve in year two. Significant impacts in Feed N Conversion Efficiency, Ruminal N balance and P Intake (% of req.) can be seen on farms 3 and 4. Farm six significantly improved Ruminal N balance (Table 5F).

Improved precision in P feeding was largely initiated by feed suppliers. A downward trend in ration P concentrations was identified in the baseline year. Improvements in Rumen balance is largely due to implementation of software utilizing rumen sub models in diet formulation by nutritionists. Software used included CNCPS (Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System), CPM (Cornell-Penn-Miner) and proprietary.

Crops
Improved crop nutrient management practices are evidenced by application of both N and P at rates closer to the recommended rates and by higher nutrient efficiency on five of seven farms (Table 5C). Three farms reduced corn starter phosphorus applications, resulting in decreased imports of P2O5 of one, four, and nine tons, respectively, and leading to savings of over $4000 on two of the farms (Table 6).

Discussion
Animal Density Factors
Animal Units per acre is sometimes promoted as an indicator of farm nutrient balance. For five of the seven project farms for which soil test data was collected, there is a trend for a higher percentage of soil test P in high or excessive categories with increasing animal density (Graph 3). The two outliers have much higher animal density than the trend line, perhaps reflecting higher current animal density than historical levels on much of the land base.

Risk and Quality Control
Two important considerations in the reduction of existing excesses in nutrient imports are: 1) quality control procedures at farm and supplier levels and 2) farm and supplier approaches to risk management. Historically, safety factors, particularly in the case of N, have been factored into diet formulations. There was, and remains, good cause for this. Potential errors and deviations from analyzed results throughout the feeding process have necessitated formulation of diets at higher than required levels in order to avoid negative production consequences within standard ranges of variation. Errors can be found at feed mixing points (feed mill and farm) and deviations from feed nutrient composition values used in diet formulation can be found for all feed ingredients. Additionally there is potential variation between cows in actual ingredients consumed (sorting). The degree to which errors and deviations are controlled and accounted for determines the degree to which excess can be decreased without negative impact to production. This is determined by quality control measures implemented at farm and supplier levels (Tylutki, PhD Thesis). An example of this is farm 2, which has the highest Feed N Conversion Efficiency and lowest SD for Feed N Conversion Efficiency. Farm 2 also manages the lowest diet crude protein content relative to milk production (17.3% CP, 78.6 lbs./cow). A certain level of consistency is necessary to achieve high production with relatively low ration nutrient concentrations.

Similar issues arise in the cropping program. Increased precision, with potentially decreased use of commercial fertilizer, must be accompanied by increased field level information such as accurate yield goal assessments, soil and manure analyses, recommended nutrient applications and actual manure and fertilizer application. Quality control measures that ensure accurate information and appropriate nutrient application are necessary for improved precision.

Although quality control measures will decrease the likelihood of negative production impacts after reduction of excesses, there is still inherent risk involved. Decreased yield or crop quality can have severe impacts on farm profitability, affecting an entire year. Inadequate supply of ration nutrients can directly impact production on a short- or long-term basis. Changes to a nutrient supply strategy, often based on excess as a safety factor, which has historically returned a known quantity and quality of product, must be approached with an appreciation for the risk, real or perceived, that exists for the farm. The magnitude by which a farm will increase precision in nutrient supply is determined by how willing both the farm and the farm’s supplier/advisor are to accept risk. A sufficiently stable relationship between farm and supplier that can withstand the real or perceived risk of negative production impacts in the interest of improved long-term precision must exist. This requires open and honest communication between farm and supplier and a goal focus of increased precision in ration balancing instead of evaluation of feed or crop system success based solely on yield maintained through inclusion of safety factors. Improved Whole Farm Nutrient Conversion Efficiency is then dependent, primarily, on the management approach and management abilities of farmers and the approach to, and quality of relationship that exists between farmers and suppliers/advisors.

While there will always be some risk associated with a change from a known and trusted set of management practices, management decisions that are based on accurate and current information and the input of experienced and trusted advisors will minimize that risk and support changes aimed at financial and environmental benefits. The goal of this project has been to provide a model for that approach.

The larger community also plays an important role in supporting agriculture and the sustainability of farms in the community. The public (particularly farm neighbors) and farmers have a responsibility to promote an atmosphere of understanding and cooperation in addressing issues of dairy farm sustainability. In particular, the public should understand the direct benefits they receive from efficient agricultural production and the production challenges farms face in a market economy. An accusatory or suspicious approach, while often unjustified, will be counterproductive. It is important that farmers do not feel threatened by, or isolated from, the beneficiaries of their production.

Economic Analysis

Whole-farm economic analysis was not part of this project, but the economic benefit realized by some of the participating farmers by following project recommendations for starter fertilizer are presented in Table 6 and discussed in this report.

Farmer Adoption

Changes in nutrient management practices by farmers participating in this project are well documented in tables and figures and the narrative of this report.

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.