Dairy stewardship alliance: On-farm assessment for sustainable practices

Final Report for LNE06-243

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $86,157.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Allen Matthews
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Co-Leaders:
Allen Matthews
Chatham University
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Project Information

Summary:

Between 2007 and 2009, the Dairy Stewardship Alliance developed a self assessment for Sustainable Practices on dairy farms. Fifty-one (51) farms completed the initial self-assessment. Of those completing the pre-test assessment, 72% (37) used these indicators to guide management decisions, made significant improvements in stewardship practices which reduce environmental impacts and completed the self assessment a second time to document the changes made.

The average size of involved farms was 343 acres with 188 milking cows, and 120 young stock on the farm. All together, these dairies represented approximately 12,691 acres, and managed about 11,400 head of mature cows and heifers. Results have shown a wide range of improved sustainable production practices in the areas of animal husbandry, biodiversity, community health, energy efficiency, farm financials, nutrient management, organic practices, pest management, soil health management, and water management. The final report for documenting the sustainable indicators and changes implemented is available at http://www.uvm.edu/sustainableagriculture in our publications section. Ben & Jerry’s/ Unilever are continuing to work with St. Alban’s Co-op to update an on-line version combining this version with the format used by their “Caring Dairy” project in The Netherlands.

The greatest change in individual practices observed was found within the Soil Health Module, specifically an increase use of cover crops on farms. The second greatest change observed was part of the Animal Husbandry module. Particularly, a greater number of farms have been working to improve the health status of incoming and outgoing animals by the use of practices such as examining animals, washing animals, and/or requiring visitors to wear booties before entering barns. The third greatest change in practices observed was within the Nutrient Management module. Researchers detected an increased use of, adherence to, and documentation of nutrient management plans.

The most significant changes in overall Modules were all quantitatively positive and were seen in the Animal Husbandry (+2.59), Water Management (+1.86), Soil Health (+1.81) , and Community Health (+1.71) modules. These results were used by farmers to explore alternatives and implement changes to improve the sustainability of their farm operations.

Introduction:

Which sustainable practices contribute to increasing environmental stewardship on dairy farms? The Dairy Stewardship Alliance (Alliance) study has developed and vetted sustainability indicators for dairy farming. To be sustainable, practices guided by the indicators must enhance the natural environment and herd health, support profitability and improve the quality of life for farmers and their communities.

The Alliance’s Self-Assessment provides measurable indicators for continuous improvement in farming practices. Assessment of agricultural practices is often a reaction to market demand and administrated by external systems which focus on single products. Many farmers are independently interested is assessing and improving the sustainability for their entire farm.

Working with participant farmers, the Alliance’s sustainability indicators include modules with a focus on biodiversity, animal husbandry, community health, on-farm energy, soil health, water quality, pest and nutrient management as well as a farm financial inventory. The Alliance is a collaborative effort between dairy farmers, the University of Vermont, Ben & Jerry’s Inc., St. Albans Cooperative Creamery and Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture.

Results: Over fifty farms completed the initial self-assessment. Of those, 72% (37) used these indicators to guide management decisions, made significant improvements in stewardship practices which reduce environmental impacts and completed the self assessment a second time to document the changes made. The most significant changes in conditions/practices were all quantitatively positive and were seen in the Animal Husbandry, Water Management, Soil Health, and Community Health modules. These results can be used by University Extension faculty to provide continuing support for farmers to explore alternatives and implement changes to improve the sustainability of their farm operations.

The greatest specific change in practice observed was found within the Soil Health Module, specifically an increase use of cover crops on farms. The second greatest change observed was part of the Animal Husbandry module. Particularly, a greater number of farms have been working to improve the health status of incoming and outgoing animals by the use of practices such as examining animals, washing animals, and/or requiring visitors to wear booties before entering barns. The third greatest change in practices observed was within the Nutrient Management module. Researchers detected an increased use of, adherence to, and documentation of nutrient management plans.

The Alliance has edited and enhanced the final version of the self-assessment by coordinating with similar efforts of Ben & Jerry’s farmers in the EU, Unilever, and Beemster, N.L. to develop an on-line version of a sustainability self assessment.

Outreach: These research results have been presented at the 2007 Farmer to Farmer Exchange to Vermont with Wageningen University; 2008 Northeast Dairy Conference; the 2008 European Association for Animal Production (EAAP) Annual meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania; the 2008 Farmer to Farmer Exchange in the Netherlands; the 2009 Pacific Rim Conference sponsored by the American Society of Animal Scientists in Beijing, China; the 2009 and 2010 Vermont Grazing Conference; and has been invited as a presentation to the 2010 European Association for Animal Production (EAAP) Annual meeting in Crete. Articles summarizing this research have been published nationally in the American Dairymen Magazine, and the Organic Valley magazine, and internationally in the 2008 and 2009 annual meeting proceedings of the European Association of Animal Science.

Performance Target:

Of 520 farms in the dairy co-op, 52 will participate in the Dairy Stewardship Self Assessment and 40 (76%) of these will each improve at least two identified sustainable production practices in the areas of animal husbandry, biodiversity, community health, energy efficiency, farm financials, nutrient management, organic practices, pest management, soil health management, and water management.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Andrea Asch
  • Diane Bothfield
  • Tom Gates

Research

Materials and methods:

Strategy
The self-assessment tool has 10 modules encompassing social, environmental and economic indicators:
ANIMAL HUSBANDRY
NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT BIODIVERSITY
ORGANIC (included only for informational purposes) COMMUNITY HEALTH
PEST MANAGEMENT ENERGY
FARM FINANCIALS
SOIL QUALITY
WATER MANAGEMENT

Brief Explanation of Modules:
Animal Husbandry:
Focus on areas such as: herd nutrition, overall health, health of incoming and outgoing animals, milk quality, lactation management and cull rates, housing and handling areas, stalls, pasturing and milking equipment, parlor, and calf raising conditions.

Biodiversity:
This refers to all plants, animals, and microorganisms existing and interacting within an ecosystem. In an agriculture setting, this can be viewed in layers: microorganisms and worms living in the soil; native plants, crops, and trees growing on top of the soil; and insects, birds, and animals inhabitaing the plants, crops, and trees.

Community Health:
Community health is defined as the strength of the community in which a farmer operates. Strong community relations and respect for agriculture can lead to a better quality of life for farmers. Research shows that the support received from a community can significantly impact a farmer’s job satisfaction. Consequently, this module evaluates a farmer’s working environment through two main criteria: community relations and protection of labor supply.

Energy:
There are two main types of energy: renewable and non-renewable described in this module. Non-renewable energy is an energy resource that is not replaced or is replaced only very slowly by natural processes. Primary examples of non-renewable energy resources are the fossil fuels—oil, natural gas, and coal. Renewable energy is any energy resource that is naturally regenerated over a short time scale and derived either directly or indirectly from the sun, or from other natural movements and mechanisms of the environment. Examples of renewable energy are things such as: thermal, photochemical, photoelectric, wind, hydropower, photosynthetic, geothermal and tidal energy. In order to gain maximum farmer participation in adopting best management practices, it is necessary to outline how the dairy farmer benefits from managing their energy use.

Farm Financials:
Farm Financials is a module designed to assess the financial performance of a farm enterprise. Through the use of key ratios, and the quality of life the farmer leads, this section describes the merits of monitoring financial performance of the farms. Monitoring financial performance can help farmers control their costs for managing and perhaps even growing their businesses.

Nutrient Management:
Nutrients are needed to sustain healthy animals and crops. Adopting best practices for nutrient management is important to maintaining ground water that is safe for drinking and surface waters that can support healthy aquatic ecosystems, function as industrial and commercial water supplies, and provide recreational enjoyment.

Organics:
Note: This module is not used in the ranking and provides information and a summary of the regulations rather than certification questions.
Organic farms are those certified under the USDA National Organic Program. The USDA National Organic Program is defined in the United States Federal code and is the only legally recognized standard for organic products in the United States. Because only an accredited organization can certify a farm as organic under the requirements of the USDA National Organic Program.

Pest Management:
Since the 1940’s, chemical pesticides such as herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, and plant growth regulators have been the dominant approach to controlling and eliminating pests. There is a growing concern regarding the use of pesticides as they have the potential to cause harm to humans, animals, or the environment because they are designed to kill or otherwise adversely affect living organisms. These concerns led to an alternative approach called Integrated Pest Management (IPM), that is a a pest management strategy that focuses on long-term prevention or suppression of pest problems through a combination of techniques such as monitoring for pest presence and establishing treatment threshold levels, using non-chemical practices to make the habitat less conducive to pest development, improving sanitation, and employing mechanical and physical controls. Elements of the IPM are intregrated into this module.

Soil Health:
This module focuses on best management practices to maximize soil quality and health in order to maximize production and minimize erosion and pollution to water or air. Recommended areas of management include monitoring overall quality, minimizing erosion, maximizing organic content and preventing soil compaction.

Water Management:
This module will focus on best management practices dairy farmers can use to minimize and prevent water pollution and, to a lesser extent, to promote appropriate water use. General areas to be covered include preventing pollution from livestock yards, storage areas and milkhouse waste, general land management strategies
and management of water use.

Rank Scoring
After completing the first assessment, participating farmers each receive a report with detailed charts showing how they scored in each of the different topic areas of the modules. Their first chart shows their individual farm results and the second chart presents their scores in comparison to the overall averages for all farms for each module area. In this way the farmer can see how they’ve scored in relation to all the other farms completing the self assessment. (See Appendix)
The scoring is done based on a ‘red’, ‘yellow’ and ‘green’ color coding, in a sort of “traffic light” system where ‘green’ indicates that sustainable practices are being used. ‘Yellow’, indicates that some level of sustainable practices are being used, however additional attention could be added to improve them. Finally, a ‘red’ score shows areas within an evaluation which are in need of improvements to be corrected in order to be more sustainable overall. The organic module is included for informational purposes and there are no specific questions for this area.

Design and Process
From July 2005 until June 2009 assessments gauging a variety of indicator criteria related to sustainability were conducted on dairy farms throughout the state of Vermont. During this time, fifty-five (55) farms volunteered to become involved in the research being conducted by the Dairy Stewardship Alliance. Fifty-one (51) farms successfully completed a ten module self assessment inventory composed of 67 ranked questions on sustainability of their farming practices. Farmers then received a report ranking their results, identifying and providing a comparison of their results against all other farms completing the assessment. Seventy-two percent (72%) or 37 of those farms identified changes or improvements in their farming practices. These farms then documented the changes made by completing the self assessment a second time. Farmers were provided a final report identifying the results of their first assessment versus their second assessment for all modules, as well as a report of their ranked scores and changes compared to all other farms completing the final assessment.
The initial time a farm filled out the assessment it was referred to by researchers ‘assessment one or the ‘Pre assessment’ and correspondingly, the second time a farm fill out the assessment, the document was referred to by researchers as ‘assessment two’ or ‘Post assessment’. With a time gap of 12-24 months between the first and second assessment, researchers were able to document a number of changed conditions/practices being reported on these farms. When taken in sum, an analysis of these findings indicates an increase in sustainability related practices/indicators has occurred during the project period. Data from these assessments tell an interesting story about practices on dairy farms and selected findings are presented below.
The assessment tool contained nine distinct modules (or categories) to be ranked as indicators, plus a tenth information module on organic farming practices to consider. The indicator modules were Animal Husbandry, Biodiversity, Community Health, Energy, Farm Financials, Nutrient Management, Pest Management, Soil Healn.th, and Water Management. Each module contained a series of 6-9 questions related to the module theme. Some of these questions were quantitative in nature and others more qualitative. When assessments were collected from farms, answers to each of the 67 questions were ranked and assigned a quantitative value then weighted. When added together the values of these answers helped to create Module Index Scores (MIS) for each farm. A more comprehensive indicator score, Total Index Score (TIS) was created for each farm which consisted of the sum of a farm’s nine individual MIS scores.

Database Methodology
Scalability and Inferential Integrity
Initially, all data was entered into an EXCEL spreadsheet. Reproducing the reports for farmers, and accessing information details proved to be difficult and time consuming. During 2007 all data collected from the Dairy Stewardship Alliance has been migrated into Microsoft Access 2007. This system established a structured data base structure that provided relationships and inferential integrity between different tables (see figure 4.1). This system ensures scalability while maintaining flexibility in the development to meet future growth and complexity requirements.

Research results and discussion:

Accomplishments
Milestone 1: 520 farmers and dairy specialists receive detailed background information concerning On-Farm Self Assessment for Sustainable Practices.
Initial information on the Dairy Stewardship Alliance (DSA) was distributed to all members of the St. Alban’s Co-op through their membership coordinator and Co-op newsletter. While the DSA was originally directed at the 520 members of St. Alban’s Co-op, participation expanded to any interested dairy farmers in Vermont. As a result, farmers from two other Co-ops, Agri-Mark and Organic Valley. The Secretary of the Board of St’ Alban’s Coop participated in the research, as did all farmer advisory board members of the “New Cooperator” Young advisory board members. Throughout the project, 5 different farmers served on our DSA advisory task force.

Milestone 2: 52 farms are identified for participation by Extension, NRCS, VT Pasture Network, and Agency of Agriculture. During the Mid-Phase, these farmers complete the Dairy Stewardship Self Assessment and help to refine the tool kit.
During the course of this project, 55 farmers volunteered to participate in the assessment and received their own copies of the Self Assessment Tool Kit. Of these, 51 farmers enrolled and completed the first assessment (Pre-test). The original 12 farms served as a group of advisors who helped to revise and edit the text of the manuals. In addition, as each of the other farmers completed their assessment, their input was gathered by researchers for the final editing of the manual, which was then tested with the final group of farmers.
As of the end of the project period, Ben & Jerry’s/Unilever was working to update an on-line version based on the Dairy Stewardship Alliance’s self assessment, combined with the format used by “Caring Dairy” project in The Netherlands.
Milestone 3: Self Assessment Modules are revised, and pre- and post-assessments are completed by 40 farms for planning and decision making concerning new practices to implement and technical assistance needs.
Over the full length of this project, we continued to collect edits in order to make the modules more farmer friendly and to be able to standardize results. 72.5% (37)of the farms who completed the assessment a first time (Pre-test) moved forward to identify changes and complete the assessment a second time (Post-test) after their changes had been made.
• The final report for the Dairy Stewardship Alliance (USDA-NESARE LNE06-243) which documents the sustainable indicators and changes implemented for all farms is available at
http://www.uvm.edu/sustainableagriculture and click on publications.
• The modules and self assessments are available on-line at http://www.benandjerrys.com/activism/inside-the-pint/more-about-milk/dsa/

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

• The final report for the Dairy Stewardship Alliance (USDA-NESARE LNE06-243) which documents the sustainable indicators and changes implemented for all farms is available at http://www.uvm.edu/sustainableagriculture in their publications section
• The modules and self assessments are available on-line at http://www.benandjerrys.com/activism/inside-the-pint/more-about-milk/dsa/
• Our findings were presented to over 1,200 individuals to conferences such as the Northeast Dairy Conference Forum, the VT Grass Farmers Association, and the European Association for Animal Production annual meetings. Proceedings and published report is available through http://www.eaap.org

“The American Dairymen”, a national magazine, published a multi-page article on the Dairy Stewardship Alliance.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

Farmers and advisers involved in the Alliance assessments have made at least 30 educational presentations on the value of this experience to a wide variety of farm and community groups, and many have written numerous articles on the Alliance. (Sample article is attached in Appendix)
• Over the course of this four year research project, 51 farmers complete baseline pre-test assessments of their “Indicators for Sustainability” for all modules of their dairy farming practices. Within two years, 72.5% (37) of these farms identified additional sustainable practices to implement, and documented their changes by completing the 2nd assessment (Post-test). Farmers identified sustainable farming practices that they could consider implementing and utilized the self-assessment to guide them in meeting the state required Accepted Animal Practices (AAPs) and Large Farm Operations(LFO)/ Medium Farm Operations(MFO) certification requirements.
• Through farmer scores on the assessments, the Dairy Stewardship Alliance identified biodiversity, energy enhancement, water quality and farm safety as the most immediate areas for needed technical assistance.
• The modules were edited and the final edited version of the Dairy Stewardship self assessment Self Assessment are accessible through the Internet.
• Our findings were presented and published for over 1,200 individuals at conferences such as the Northeast dairy Conference, the VT Grass Farmers Association, and the European Association for Animal Production annual meetings.

Post-test Results: Second Assessments

Interpreting the values from the 2nd Assessments
When added together the value of the scores from each question within an individual DSA Module determines the module score. The value of these answers helped to create Module Index Scores (MIS) for each farm, which was shared with each farmer so they could see how they ranked themselves. As a more comprehensive indicator score, the Total Index Score (TIS) was created for each farm which consisted of the sum of a farm’s nine individual MIS scores, allowing them to compare their overall results with those of all other farms involved.
Across the farms making changes and completing the second assessment, researchers saw a 12.2 average increase/improvement in TIS between the first assessment and second assessment (186.5 and 198.7 respectively). The average total MIS for all farms increased by 1.35, however the level of change did deviate between different farms and across different modules. When looking at the average MIS, all of the modules except the Farm Financial module showed an increase in sustainability related indicators. Farmers were more reluctant to share the specifics of their farm financial information. Therefore, the final edit of assessment changed the format of the Financial module to include a series of positive or negative responses to their record-keeping and financial analysis, rather than asking for specific financial indicators.
The most significant changes in conditions/practices were all quantitatively positive and were seen in the Animal Husbandry (+2.59), Water Management (+1.86), Soil Health (+1.81) , and Community Health (+1.71) modules.
Chart 1 below outlines the average MIS for each assessment and the observed change between assessments for all farms. Chart 2 plots the average change between the MIS recorded during the first and second assessment for all farms. Chart 3 graphs the MIS average scores recorded during the first(pre-test) and second (post-test) assessments for all farms making changes and completing the assessment twice.

Farmer Adoption

Ben & Jerry’s/Unilever continues partnering with representatives of Wageningen University, CONO-Co-op/ Beemester and their “Caring Dairy” project in the Netherlands, to develop and on-line version of the “Sustainability Indicators” for dairy farms. CONO Coop, makers of Beemster Cheese, have already implemented the process with it’s 500 Dairy Co-op members, and there are expectations that St. Aban’s Co-op may be able to implement the process with its 500+ members within the next year .

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

Recomendations:
* Develop a matrix of “low carbon farming” practices with specific measurements of the sustainable practices and their relationship to reduced GHG emissions and increased carbon sequestration.

* Develop information for module for indicating “carbon footprint”

* Develop an on-line version of Sustainability Indicators that identifies further benefits and incentives for farmers

* Engage other Researchers and Corporations in the use of Sustainability Indicators through the newly formed Northeast Dairy Sustainability Collaborative with Stoneyfield, St. Alban’s Coop, Agri-Mark, Universities and others.

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.