Precision feed management for improved profitability and environmental stewardship in Yates County NY

Final Report for LNE11-308

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $69,672.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Dr. Gerald Bertoldo
Cornell University Extension
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Project Information


Precision Feed Management (PFM) is defined as “Providing adequate, not excess, nutrients to the animal while maintaining environmental and economic sustainability through the integration of feeding and forage management.” By implementing PFM, owners of small dairy farms can have the knowledge, tools, and economic resources needed to be good environmental stewards while increasing profitability.

The objectives of this two year project, based on the original Precision Feed Management program in the New York City Watershed, were to inform producers about PFM and achieve adoption of PFM on their farms.  Unfortunately, this project failed to achieve the numbers and impact outlined in the proposal. Dairy farm operators were recruited by outlining the benefits of feeding cows more accurately to save money, increase milk production, and ultimately reduce nutrient export into the environment. Difficulties with project personnel turnover, communication with the Mennonite (plain folks) farm owners lacking cellphones and e-mail, unexpected lack of perceived value by owners, and long travel distances necessary to cultivate data collection proved problematic to intended results. 

Only eleven producers contributed to data input and not at the level that was predicted. Interested farmers proved to be the better managers. They fell close to benchmark project goals from the start. Those obviously with room for improvement were generally not interested in collaborating. The degree of sophistication in delivering well balanced rations designed by nutritionists was notable on most participating farms.

Valuable spin off events occurred as a result of contact with the plain folks community during the project period. Informational meetings on double cropping (particularly triticale for forage), anaerobic digesters for small dairies, manure storage gas awareness and small scale manure injection were examples. Most of these were not envisioned as milestones in the project proposal.


Yates County is in the heart of Upstate New York and contains three of the largest Finger Lakes. It is also one of the fastest growing agriculture counties in New York State and home to 262 dairy farms. Due to their small scale, 258 of these 262 farms do not fall under federal and state Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) (>200 cows) regulations that mitigate and monitor their environmental impact. This means that their environmental impact has limited regulation and there is no private or public institution that is advising their nutrient management decisions directly. Even though these farms are small, they have a substantial environmental impact due to the nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that leaves their farms in the form of manure and potentially enters the water supply of the surrounding community.

Many of these dairy farms import more nutrients than they export by purchasing grain such as corn and soybeans. Over time, this will result in either an accumulation of nutrients in the farm soils or nutrients leaving the farm in the form of runoff and leaching. With high grain prices as in 2010-11, these imported nutrients not only effect the environment but also have a negative effect on the farm’s profitability. Yates County stands out as one of the top agricultural growth counties in New York State. In addition, it has the highest percentage of agriculture land (58.3%) of any county in the state comprising 126,118 acres of active agricultural land. The largest agricultural economic sector in Yates County is dairy production. The number of dairy farms increased from 223 to 262 from 2002 to 2007 (17.5% increase). When comparing the 2002 Agriculture Census to the most recent 2007 Agriculture Census there is a 50% increase in the number of livestock animals in the county from 22,000 to over 33,000.

Yates County is the only county in the region that has seen an increase in the number of farms. In the last 15 years, Yates County has seen a migration of Mennonite dairy farmers into the area. Given the increased number of animals and livestock operations in these Finger Lakes watersheds, water quality is a major concern.

Yates County is unique due to its water features (surrounded by three Finger Lakes) and heavy agriculture occupancy. By educating a relatively small number of dairy farmers the water quality of over 200,000 people will be protected and improved. The lakes have been identified through the New York State Department of Conservation (DEC) as having high levels of nutrients with agriculture listed as the primary source of concern. Additionally, the New York State Small Dairy Work Team is made up of members of Cornell University, Cornell Extension, and small dairy farms across the state listed research and outreach on efficient feeding as a priority.

By implementing PFM, owners of these small dairy farms can have the knowledge, tools, and economic resources needed to be good environmental stewards while increasing profitability. Dairy nutritionists usually work within the dairy community formulating feed rations to improve milk production with economy in mind. A few have introduced PFM to a small number of Mennonite dairymen in Yates County with great success. These dairymen have seen an increase in milk production and herd health, while reducing feed costs mostly through the reduction of off farm purchased feed concentrates high in nitrogen and phosphorus. Often this process leads to a better understanding of manure as both a crop nutrient and source of pollution.

Delaware County Cornell Cooperative Extension has had proven success implementing PFM with small dairy farms. The Delaware County Precision Feed Management program was developed to mitigate water quality issues in the New York City Watershed. The project has reduced manure phosphorus and nitrogen excretions significantly. Phosphorus levels dropped an average of 14.3 grams per cow per day and nitrogen levels dropped 34 grams per cow per day. As a result of decreased P and N feed intakes and increased milk production after implementation of PFM, excretion efficiencies (kg milk/g manure nutrient) increased. The whole farms mass nutrient balance (amount of nutrients remaining on the farm) improved, with an average reduction in the amount of P and N remaining on the farm of 16.3 and 167.5 kg/cow/year respectively.

Given the statistics from Delaware County, the Yates County Precision Feed Management project was predicted to save approximately 339,825 lbs. of nitrogen and 32,775 lbs. of phosphorus per cow per year in manure excretion. This figure was calculated by multiplying 920 cows in our trials (twenty farms participating in this project, each farm has approximately 46 cows) by the figures calculated from the Delaware County CCE nine year average above. Through successful implementation these 20 dairy farmers on average would have a $5,826 increase in milk income over all grain costs.

Performance Target:

Milestone 1

One hundred seventy dairy farmers from Yates County, NY become aware of the Precision Feed Management (PFM) project via announcements, newsletter articles, press releases, and other audience-specific approaches and learned about the purposes, benefits, and next steps of the project. Since Mennonite families operate many dairy farm businesses in Yates County, audience-specific approaches included posters in community specific locations such as farm stores, hardware stores and others, and individual contact with key leaders in the communities to initiate neighbor-to-neighbor communication about the project (September 2011).

Achieved: Many key influencers of these farms were personally contacted via individual meetings and phone conferences prior to a general mailing and posting of project flyers. Nine nutritionist and seven practitioners from two veterinary clinics were presented with PFM project details and material to be distributed to producers. These individuals represented the majority of their respective industry services in the county (August 2011).

An article in the Yates County Cooperative Extension October newsletter outlined the project. Distribution is to most dairy producers in the county. A two-sided mailer describing the project was mailed to 232 Yates County Mennonite producers. The same flyer was made available to feed representatives and veterinarians and was posted in two well patronized farm supply stores. A reminder postcard was sent three week later. Individual farm visits to 10 farms were made for promotion and suggested strategies for participation (November 2011).

Milestone 2 

Eighty dairy farmers attend one of four, day long, initial PFM meetings. Farmers

  • learn that PFM is an approach for using resources more wisely on dairy farms

  • learn more about specific PFM practices and tasks

  • learn about project expectations. Farmers develop attitudes that PFM is an approach that would lead to wiser uses of resources on their farms, and is worthy of their consideration. Farmers state their intentions to be one of twenty farmers that will continue on with the next steps of the project (December 2011).

Achieved: Two identical meetings of 2.5 hours each featured cropping strategies, ration component selection in an unusual cropping year and an explanation of PFM with examples of successful applications. We were advised by community leaders that day-long meetings would be very difficult for the horse and buggy crowd to attend late in the year. Two of the presenters who have thorough knowledge of PFM traveled significant distance to attend. A second day of meetings would have been difficult to arrange. There were only 25 attendees comprising 20 producers and 5 feed company representatives. Two producers have committed with others wanting visits to look into their situations (December 2011).

Milestone 3

Twenty dairy farmers attend a series of workshops to learn about PFM steps and build skills for collecting necessary data, and other benchmarking tasks, including the use of the PFM Benchmark Calculator – a tool for identifying strengths and weaknesses as they relate to feed management on the farm, and for monitoring changes in dairy herd management, environmental, and economic measures over time (March 2012).

Changed on December, 2012 to…. Twenty dairy farmers in Yates County, NY will successfully adopt precision feed management practices impacting feeding practices on 960 mature dairy cattle and increasing milk income over feed costs, a measure of profitability, by 5 percent, while contributing approximately 339,825 pounds less nitrogen and 32,775 pounds less phosphorus annually to the environment by July 1, 2014. Prospective and participating farms have averaged 46 adult cows rather than the 60 projected in the proposal necessitating a downward revision of expected nutrient reduction to the area environment.

Achieved: Producers were individually visited to outline and promote the program. According to community elders, the post-harvest period offers many “free lunch” meeting sales promotion opportunities for these producers competing with informational workshops without perks. The success of group meetings during the cropping season is weather dependent and difficult to plan. A short highlight of PFM was given before 40 producers at a Yates County veterinary client meeting in March, 2012. Two “shop meetings” were held for 26 participants and prospective producers in early 2013. Topics were focused on manure nutrients and doubling cropping small grains for silage.

Milestone 4

With the help of project team members in one on one settings, 20 farmers apply their PFM knowledge and skills to identify possible areas for improvement, evaluate alternatives, state their intentions to adopt PFM practices via a written plan for improvement, and implement changes (through June 2013).

Achieved: 12 producers had expressed interest or had been enrolled in the program. The number of quarterly benchmarks varied amongst them.

Milestone 5

With the help of project team members in one on one settings, 20 farmers will apply their PFM knowledge and establish baseline measures and monitor progress using the PFM Benchmark Calculator (September 2012, December 2013, March 2013, June 2013)

Achieved: Baseline measures indicated that the 11 farmers providing data were achieving baseline measurements that were close to benchmark goals. The one furthest from PFM standards opted not to continue the project. Difficulties in communications and participation prevented significant monitoring outlined in the project outline.

Milestone 6

Twenty farmers provide data to project team members estimating N and P excretions using the Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System (CNCPS) nutrition model (<>) (September 2012, December 2012, March 2013, June 2013).

Achieved: The PFM Benchmark Calculator has been shown in other field work to estimate N and P in cattle waste well given accurate feed analysis and delivery eliminating the need to use the CNCPS model for assessment. This saved the expense of a license agreement for the model. All participants to date utilize total mixed ration mixer with scales. Quarterly N and P benchmarking has been behind schedule as well. Early results indicate less than anticipated variance from PFM goals. Rations have invariably been near the threshold value of 16.5% crude protein in milk cow rations. In addition, periodic testing for nitrogen efficiency using the Milk Urea Nitrogen test (MUN) has been unnecessary as milk plants now provide these values upon request each month.

Milestone 7 

Twenty participating farmers attend one day, mid project meetings to learn from others the types of changes being implemented, and the progress being made. Farmers will learn about what is working, and what is not working, including barriers, and suggested solutions from others (December 2012).

Not achieved: Not enough progress had been made to date to warrant a project update meeting. Sharing non-sensitive findings amongst participants and prospects has been useful in the interim

Performance Targets

Twenty dairy farmers in Yates County, NY will successfully adopt precision feed management practices impacting feeding practices on 920 mature dairy cattle and increasing milk income over all grain cost, a measure of profitability, by 5 percent or $5,826, while contributing approximately 339,825 pounds less nitrogen and 32,775 pounds less phosphorus to the environment (per CNCPS Model estimates).

Not achieved: Producer enrollment, data collected and potential for nutrient management improvement were not significant enough to approach envisioned targets.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Gerald Bertoldo
  • Nancy Glazier
  • Nicole Landers
  • Elizabeth Newbold
  • Bill Verbeten


Materials and methods:

This project focused on the Mennonite community (also referred to as plain folks) of Yates County. This is a rather conservative sect or conference with regard to electronics. The local group of church bishops in the conference sets the guidelines for the community. Electricity is used in the home and on the farmstead. There are home/barn phones, but no cell phones used. Computers and internet access are not allowed. Fax machines are permitted.  Although personally owned means of travel is restricted to horse drawn vehicles, hired automobiles and vans with drivers are used regularly. Personal communications is limited to personal visits during chore time, at a prearranged time or via phone around meal times or in the evening.

From the beginning, we realized that recruitment and implementation for this project would involve mail, meetings, personal visits and word of mouth. All resources intended for the producers would have to be hard copies or related in person.

A general mailing went to 232 Mennonite dairy farms in the county, area nutritionists and veterinarians. These were placed in two supply stores frequented by dairy producers. Two informational meetings brought in two veteran PFM researcher, but less than hoped producers. Several meetings with nutritionists and veterinarians designed to give background information and sign up material to these important influencers. The amount of time required to outline the possible value of the project, spell out what inputs were needed and gain the trust of the farmers was underestimated. This was in spite of being provided a list of “interested” parties by a community member to start. Nutritionists were wary of what the project would mean for customer satisfaction of their programs. None were convinced to actively participate in data collection and promote the program preferring to provide data when asked.

On interested farms during initial visits, a good deal of time was spent reviewing the current nutritional strategy of the herd, checking records, shaking out TMR to determine effective fiber and looking at manure characteristics. It provided a starting point for suggesting a closer look at total feed management by visual means many times not frequently investigated by the nutritionist due to time. This proved to be of interest to producers and led to some ration changes, but was not feasible to continue due to time constraints and scheduling with the farms.

Farm equipment is modern, but on steel wheels. Equipment such as TMR mixers and electric and gas powered feed carts are used within the barns. Silos are all upright. Kernel processing has been adopted by a small percentage of plain producers. A high percentage of corn grain and variable amounts of soybean needs are home grown. Custom roasting of beans is common. These are fed after milling without fat removal. Open top, concrete, manure storage is fairly common usually with 5-7 month carrying capacity.

 Labor is almost exclusively family with some “hired” help usually in the form of a recently married sibling or nephew. Chores are managed primarily by the owners with help from wives and children. As with other plain folk, the community engages in collaborative building projects for relatives and neighbors. Field work especially harvest can be a shared event regarding labor and machinery particularly amongst family members. The usual “free time” most dairy producers can have in the non-growing season is taken up by group projects, weddings and other community events. Owners are unavailable year round during milking and feeding chores, lunch time and when away from the barn spreading manure, buying supplies, etc. Wives are usually not conversant in matters related to production, specifics about herd health or feeding. This makes scheduling a series of visits on a given day ahead of time by phone difficult.

Plain folks are known for their efficiency and resourcefulness. The Yates community is no exception. Few farms appear to be financially stressed although they internally aid the struggling without fanfare. The small cow numbers averaging near 45 milking and dry cows per farm are easily manageable by the owner with help from family. Almost all milk cow housing is in conventional barns, however the vast majority have been modernized to some degree with varying degrees of cow comfort accommodation. Big families, large gardens, roadside produce, nursery and craft sales, home raised farm animals for meat and eggs, home canning and processing of meat, few amenities and socialization mostly in the area make for a very economical family budget. A significant level of comfort derived from family and community stability, economic success and business structure does not favor expansion nor embrace the economy of numbers strategy.  Any concept proposed claiming improved efficiency and profitability must show that it is worth the time and effort to try.

The high degree of self-sufficiency as compared to most other agricultural families creates a curiosity for new methods that are efficient, productive as well as economical. Perceived value of things that are new based on economics alone can be viewed suspiciously. The tightness of the community through church and community endeavors gives a forum for new ideas, methods and hardware. They work hard, have limited free time and do not volunteer for projects that are not of value to them personally or for their community. Word of mouth is as powerful an endorsement as personal experience.

Precision Feed Management and Use of the Benchmark Spreadsheet

In New York State, PFM is defined as the continual process of providing adequate, not excess nutrients to the animal and deriving a majority of nutrients from home grown feeds through the integration of feeding and forage management for the purpose of maintaining environmental and economic sustainability. The New York PFM working group views PFM as a continuous improvement process adopted and directed by the farm management with goals of:

  • Improved nutrient efficiency, homegrown feed utilization and milk income over purchased feed cost

  • Optimized purchased feed nutrient imports and crop production for the feeding system

  • Reduced or minimized nutrient overfeeding, manure nutrient excretions and soil nutrient accumulations

    A critical aspect of PFM is that it is quantifiable, measureable and therefore manageable. The PFM benchmark spreadsheet calculator most adequately accomplishes this.

     The Precision Feed Management Benchmark and Goals:

  1. Forage NDF intake as % of body weight:                 ≥ 0.90%

  2. Forage as a percent of diet:                                        ≥ 60%

  3. Home grown feeds as a % of diet:                             ≥ 60%

  4. Ration Phosphorus (P) as % of NRC requirement: ≤ 110%

  5. Diet crude protein as % of dry matter intake:         ≤ 16.5%

  6. Milk Urea Nitrogen (MUN):                                              8-12

  7. Cows dead or culled less than 60 days in milk:        ≤ 8%


    Benchmarking explanations


    Benchmark 1 & 2 – High Forage Diet – a diet where forage content of the diet dry matter (DM) is 60% of greater (and grain content is less than 40%) and the forage NDF (neutral detergent fiber) of the cattle is greater than 0.90% of a cow’s body weight. Both measures are important to characterize forage feeding levels of the diet. NDF intake as could consume, which is a function of animal body size. High forage diets require an adequate inventory of consistently high quality forage.

    Benchmark 3 – Homegrown Feeds Level – For most farms this will be all forage, and will mirror the forage % of diet DM. An increasing number of farms are producing their own grain again, many as high moisture ear or shell corn which can impact this benchmark and decrease purchased grain nutrient imports to the farm.

     Benchmark 4 – Ration Phosphorus Levels – Research and experience has shown that are no benefits to supplementing cattle with more phosphorus (P) than required. Excess P is excreted in cattle manure. With dramatic increases in the cost of P, there is an economic incentive to feed no more than required.

    Benchmark 5 – Ration Crude Protein levels – With the high cost of supplemental protein and the fact that excess crude protein (CP) in the form of nitrogen is excreted in manure, the goal is to meet nitrogen and amino acid requirements for a desired milk yield with a minimum amount of dietary CP. This requires meeting but not exceeding the two sets of the N requirements: the N requirements of ruminal (rumen bug) fermentation and the amino acid requirements of the cow. Many herds are finding that high levels of milk production can be maintained with diets that have less than 16.5% total CP. This requires adequate rumen available carbohydrate (starch and digestible fiber) and nitrogen (protein), and often some supplemental rumen bypass protein.

    Benchmark 6 – Milk Urea Nitrogen (MUN) – This measure is a very good indicator of the adequacy/ excess of nitrogen (protein) and carbohydrates in the rumen. Herd average MUNs less than 8 can indicate inadequate protein levels in the diet (often resulting in limited milk production and milk protein %. Herd average MUNs over 12 can indicate excess dietary protein and/or inadequate carbohydrates. High component breeds may run at the upper end of the range.

    Benchmark 7 – Cows dead or culled less than 60 days in milk – This measure is an indication of the soundness of the dry cow and transition cow ration and management. A productive lactation depends on a successful transition period. Every pound of peak milk yield results in 200-250 lbs. more milk per lactation. Cows that leave the herds early in lactation never produce enough milk to cover their dry period costs.

Research results and discussion:

The project began August 1, 2011 with data collection beginning in early 2012. The original time frame called for the grant work to be completed by July 31, 2013. A one year extension was granted in December 2012, however circumstances led to a minimum amount of work being accomplished past mid-2013. Of the 11 producers providing information there were only 20 “snapshot” data points in total over the period. Plans had been for 20 producers and 6 benchmarking entries each. Changes and loss of key staff, significant competing demands for time, inability to attract summer interns, unexpected communications issues and negative perceptions of the projects intent led to a very disappointing rate of progress. Due to the lack of producer numbers and consecutive quarterly reports for each producer, originally planned analysis of project goals is limited and assessment of impact is not possible. 

A tabular summary of quarterly data is attached in addition to the PFM Benchmark Calculator used. 

Unexpectedly, the majority of producers participating in the project scored well against the benchmarking standards from the start. The poorest scoring herd was not interested in continuing with the project due to difficulties measuring feed inputs and getting support from his feed representative. The only organic herd in the group ranked at or near the top on all benchmarks for nutrient efficiencies and profitability despite being in the middle range (73.7%) of homegrown feeds.

The drought conditions of the summer of 2012 were more intense in parts of Yates County than surrounding areas and had a major impact on ration strategies. Forage supplies going forward were less than usual. This was reflected in late 2012 and 2013 by lower forage inclusion rates and decreased forage NDF levels.  Forage NDF intake as a % of body weight went from an average of 0.93% in 2012 to 0.885% in 2013. Forage as a percentage of the diet decreased from 62.3% to 59% over the same period. Homegrown feeds as a percentage of the diet dropped from 82.3% to 76.9%. The Mennonite community in Yates typically grows a high percentage of their grain needs as well as forage. The 2012 harvest may alone have led to difficulty in showing improvements as far as the PFM benchmarking even if participating numbers and documented quarters were ideal.

Home grown soybeans are commonly custom roasted and ground on farm in Yates County. Quality assessment by lab analysis to determine the suitability of the roasting temperature and the steeping process is not addressed routinely. Particle size of ground/milled beans often is large enough to easily find soybean pieces when manure screening contributing to an efficiency of use of both ration nitrogen and phosphorus.

Opportunities in ration formulation were most obvious when particle size and effective fiber was considered. Upright silo unloaders do not favor long cut forages. Conventional chopping of corn by the vast majority focused on kernel alteration sacrificing forage particle length. Hand feeding of dry hay is favored over inclusion in stationary TMR mixers. Sorting is common. Paper rations are more ideal than the consumed one. Corn processors will help this situation out more heavily weighing the physical effectiveness of corn silage fiber.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

None undertaken

No milestones

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

Engaged dairy producers have sought advice from project personnel regarding feeding as well as other dairy management areas more than in the past. We have been able to educate these producers on topics that their feed reps do not have time or possibly background in. The function and dynamics of the rumen as the key to efficient feed/nutrient utilization is one. These discussions and investigations include forage particle size, high moisture corn characteristics, manure screening, forage chopper head settings, processing of home grown and locally roasted soybeans and utilization of high effective fiber feedstuffs like quality straw and cottonseed hulls.

The tight forage supply due to the regional drought conditions in 2012, plus the high cost of purchased feeds raised interest in double cropping and its contribution to nutrient balance. Community interests in 2013 ancillary to this project included small scale anaerobic digesters and hazardous hydrogen sulfide production in manure storage with the use of ground gypsum wallboard as a bedding supplement. These address nutrients, but outside of the realm of feed management.


Economic Analysis

Not performed due to lack of significant data.

Farmer Adoption

Two producers were quite interested in the economic aspect of the benchmark calculator for being able to determine the real improvement made by a different approach to ration formulation. Switching feed companies is always fraught with doubts about what really changed in the big picture. The sensitivity and scope beyond just production, components, net milk price and purchased feed costs offered by the spreadsheet takes out much of the “smoke and mirrors” common in the competitive feed business.

The true value of PFM was not demonstrated by this project to rightfully judge farmer potential for adoption or at least their suggestion of its use to nutritionists. This is most likely due to the defacto PFM practices used by most nutritionists engaged by project participants.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

While not directly related to mass nutrient balance i.e. nutrients imported to the farm versus those shipped of as milk or land applied, the impact of increased manure storage use by small dairies with or without the use of anaerobic digesters would be valuable to this community. Daily manure spread is still a common practice in Yates County. The terrain is invariably sloped. While the principals of PFM seem to be well on their way to adoption, nutrient loss to the watershed via animal waste disposal is still problematic.

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.