27 dairy farmers improve nitrogen management on 1,500 acres of corn (100 fields) by increasing yield, reducing fertilizer rate, or reducing nitrogen losses from planting cover crops by September 15, resulting in a total annual savings of $54,000.
Many dairy farms store cow manure in a centralized area, and must then transport manure long distances in order to spread it over soils at sustainable rates. Transporting manure is resource intensive and economically prohibitive so farmers apply as much manure as possible to fields closer to major operations in order to reduce costs. If moisture conditions are unfavorable in some areas, more manure might be spread in dry areas compared to wet areas, creating an uneven distribution of nutrients within and among fields. When sampling soils for fertility recommendations, this uneven distribution of nutrients may not be apparent in measurements and testing, which results in misleading fertility recommendations for corn fields where manure is applied.
In order to help dairy farmers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine improve nutrient management on corn fields, we will collect soils form multiple fields in those states and present the results to participating farmers. Fields will be partitioned into wet and dry areas and nutrient analyses will be accompanied by biological soil tests, and aerial imagery to provide farmers with a more accurate representation of the fertility of their soils. We will also conduct workshops with farmers to have direct discussions about the implications of our results and encourage farmers to better optimize nutrient management in their corn fields.
1. Soil chemical and biological test results from manured corn fields differ between wet and dry areas in the fields.
2. Current soil sampling protocols do not adequately describe the variability of soil nutrients in manured corn fields.
3. Revised soil sampling protocols for manured corn fields will indicate a minimum distance between soil
samples that would provide independent chemical and biological test results.
4. Sampling of partitioned manured cornfields based on drainage and revised soil sampling protocols will result in less variable soil test results and more accurate fertilizer recommendations.
- Designate fields as wet and dry to account for uneven application of nutrients (from manure and mineral fertilizers) due to soil moisture
- Collect whole field samples from wet fields and dry fields
- Analyze nutrient content using Modified Morgan
- Analyze biological activity using Solvita® CO2 Burst and labile amino nitrogen measurements
- Capture Aerial imagery of the fields to compare ‘greenness’ of the corn crop
- Conduct workshops with farmers and convince a majority of the farmers to change some aspects of management
- Collect whole field samples from the same fields after management has been changed and conduct the same analyses
- Continue to meet with farmers and discuss the implications of our results
We will conduct multiple workshops for farmers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine where information will be shared about soil fertility on differently managed fields owned by participating farmers. The educational workshops are intended to encourage farmers to change their management so that fertilizer and manure nutrients are more evenly distributed across fields.
1. Farmers and Service Providers are recruited in each state by email, phone or in person using existing contacts from previous collaborations and by contacts made at CCA meetings. One service provider and 12 farmers from each state agree to work with project. 9 of the farms agree to intensive sampling of one corn field. Completed by September 1, 2018.
Progress on this and other milestones was delayed because of heavy rainfall throughout the months of September and October. More than 10 inches (254 mm) of rain was recorded in September, which is more than twice the historical average of rainfall for the month.
Despite the delays, at 12 farmers in each state (36 total) agreed to participate in the research. Soil samples from farmer fields were collected by the end of November 2018 and are currently being analyzed using standard nutrient measurements and biological assessments using Solvita® CO2 Burst and labile amino nitrogen measurements.
2. 36 farmers, 12 each state, and 3 service providers, 1 each state, attend a half-day, first-year workshop in each state (2 identical workshops in each state each winter to reduce travel by farmers) to learn protocols/use of tools: aerial images, Adapt N, fall soil nitrate concentrations, the SLAN soil biological test and other soil biology tests, soil sampling procedures, and effect of planting date on recovery of residual nitrate by cover crops. January 2019.
During Winter 2019 one workshop was conducted in Maine on February 20, one workshop in Massachusetts on March 11, and workshops in Connecticut on March 13 and March 14. 20 of the 32 farmers involved attended workshops. We informed farmers about results for their soils that were sampled in Fall 2018. Farmers attending the meeting had already volunteered fields they believed were low in P and fields they believed were high in P. We presented information about standard nutrient tests with a focus on N and P, and we also included information about CO2 respiration and N mineralization to incorporate biological components of soil nutrient management.
We presented farmers with information about potential future nutrient management challenges for dairy farms in New England and juxtaposed that with current nutrient results for their fields. Farmers asked for comments about their existing management practices and wondered how likely existing practices would be able to sustain without causing concern. After the presentation and discussion we asked farmers to consider volunteering fields for intensive sampling study, and we were able to obtain enough fields for that part of the research. As of November 2019, 9 corn silage fields managed by dairy farms (5 in Connecticut and 4 in Massachusetts) were intensively sampled to analyze nutrient variability and the samples are being processed in the UConn soil nutrient analysis laboratory.
Farmers were informed about plans for winter 2020 meetings before being dismissed
3. 30 Farmers create a learning plan for themselves and a nitrogen management plan for the 4 fields they enroll in the program in the winter meetings. January 2019.
This part of the research proved to be too ambitious as most farmers make decisions based on the amount of time and money they have in the moment. We coordinated with some farmers during Spring and Summer 2019 to assist in their nitrogen management decisions using the Adapt-N software, but in most cases farmers ultimately decided to either follow their previous plans or use a hired consultant to manage nutrients throughout their fields. There is also the regular limitation of farmers wanting to move manure from their pits when and where it is convenient for them rather than waiting for software to inform them of that decision. We were not successful at convincing farmers to follow specific plans for these four fields during the 2019 corn season, but we are hoping that data we show farmers for 2018 and 2019 soil samples will convince some farmers to make a change to manage fields more efficiently in some way.
4. 30 Farmers review their nitrogen management plan with the project leader in their state either through phone calls or email. March 2021.
Instead of making nutrient management plans with farmers during the 2019 meeting, we instead plan to meet with farmers after comparing 2018 and 2019 data and suggesting specific actions to farmers to alleviate issues that may be observed based on our 2 year data set. Our suggestions will be limited to actions that farmers may be able to take without requiring significant financial investment or risk to their crop.
5. 30 Farmers notify project leaders about when their fields will be expected to tassel to ensure correct timing of collection of aerial images of the corn fields. Early July 2020.
Imagery for most corn fields was collected in summer 2019 and will be shown during winter 2020 meetings with participating farmers. We hope that the images will inform farmers about topography and nutrient application/availability patterns that affect corn yields. Because of variable weather during summer 2019, it was difficult to coordinate accurate timing of tasseling in each field, but we managed to collect images during critical periods of the corn season for most fields.
Depending on patterns observed in imagery in 2019, we will try to convince farmers to adjust management during the 2020 growing season and compare images.
6. 33 farmers/3 service providers meet in winter in each state in second year to review concepts and discuss results of objective tests from their individual fields, from their state, and aggregate results from the three states in first year. Based on the new knowledge the farmers learn from this meeting, learning plans and nitrogen management plans are updated by farmers in consultation with project team. January 2020.
Because we did not initiate nitrogen management plans with farmers in year 1, this objective is unlikely to be completed in time. We expect to have simple nitrogen management requests ready for famers this year and will hopefully convince farmers to execute those plans for 2020. We will sample soils and capture aerial images again in fall 2020 and compare results to past results from the same fields.
7. 5 farmers make changes to their nitrogen management; 3 farmers plant cover crops by September 15 to ensure good recovery of residual nitrate. April to September 2019.
This milestone was delayed into 2020. Most farmers who had already been using cover crops continued to use them, but there were farmers who reduced cover crop use because of financial burden. We believe farmers will be more likely to make a change in nitrogen management in year 2 after we show a trend in nutrient availability in their fields. Although, financial restrictions may continue to limit our process.
8. 30 farmers/3 service providers meet in winter in each state in third year to review concepts and discuss results of objective tests of the nitrogen status of their individual fields, results from their state, and aggregate results from the three states in first and second year. Based on the new knowledge the farmers learn from this meeting, learning plans and nitrogen management plans are updated by farmers in consultation with project team. January 2021.
There is no significant progress to report as of January 7, 2020
9. An additional 15 farmers make changes to their nitrogen management and 5 plant cover crops by September 15. April to September 2020.
There is no significant progress to report as of January 07, 2020.
10. 12 Certified Crop Consultants from New England learn about objective tests and the results of the project at the annual CCA meeting in New Hampshire in late January 2021.
There is no significant progress to report as of January 07, 2020.