Economic and environmental sustainability of New York dairy farms can be improved if we could make more effective use of existing knowledge and had tools for evaluating field management and farm management practices and their impact on farm productivity, environmental footprint, and long-term sustainability. Until recently, we were limited in progress towards more effective field-based and whole farm analysis by the lack of standard methods for evaluating performance of various management practices (report cards), and by lack of tools that integrate farm records for whole farm assessments. Recent research resulted in the development of an initial set of agricultural environmental indicators (AEIs) derived from existing farm records, soil testing tools and stalk nitrate testing (for corn). These tools were evaluated for user-friendliness and effectiveness in guiding management decisions at the farm by four small dairies (NESARE-sponsored project LNE08-271); the results showed that the tools implemented together with farm management team meetings involving each farm’s local extension educator and/or crop and nutrition consultants resulted in improved nutrient use efficiency. With these experiences, in collaboration with farm advisors statewide, we set out to develop and deliver a package of field-based tools that allow farm advisors to conduct field based and whole farm analysis quickly and easily.
We trained over sixty farm advisors and students in the use of field based tools, whole farm decision and evaluation tools and evaluation processes through this project. Four web-based learning modules, which include teaching guides, were created in the topics of (1) Manure Value, Cost and Time Management, (2) Liming Guidelines for New York State and (3) Nitrogen Management Evaluation for Corn and (4) Whole Farm Nutrient Use; six agronomy factsheets were also developed. We are currently working with the farm advisors to develop and implement a statewide NRCS-approved adaptive management program for corn N fertility management. Three extension educators, to date, have independently developed education programs using the training materials, and numerous farm advisors are using the evaluative tools with an increasing number of farmers.
Over the past 6 years we have determined a steady increase in farm fields that are sampled for the corn stalk nitrate test (CSNT), an end of season test that provides a reliable indication of excess nitrogen in the growing season, from 105 fields in 2007 when we introduced the test for use in New York State to 923 field sampled in 2012. Two hundred fields have been sampled using a protocol of combined CSNT and Illinois Soil Nitrogen Test (ISNT) analysis introduced in 2012. The percent of samples testing excessive in CSNT decreased from 48-49% in 2007 and 2008 to 35-41% in the last four years. The number of fields testing over 5000 ppm (greatly excessive) declined from 20-21% in 2007-2008 to 11-14% in 2009-2012. Discussions with farm advisors and the growing number of samples over the years have shown that numerous consulting firms have implemented the use of the CSNT as a “report card” for the season, and are working with their clients to evaluate excessive N situations.
With new sampling protocols and a newly proposed adaptive management approach for New York that includes CSNT sampling, we expect the number of fields sampled for CSNT (almost 1000 samples in 2012) to increase past the duration of this project. We can currently not quantify the impact of CSNT and ISNT use but analyses of data from 2009 and 2010 across the state showed the potential for an average N fertilizer savings 7 to 88 lbs N/acre in 2009 and 20 to 99 lbs N/acre in 2010 and savings ranging from 3 to 83 lbs N/acre averaged across a set of six individual farms for which all corn fields were sampled. These results show great potential for reduction of cost of production and decrease in N loss to the environment, while also illustrating that some farms had already fine-tuned their N management.
In each year of the project, 27 or 29 farm management teams completed whole farm mass nutrient balance analyses, and whole farm balances for 99 producers who contributed data in 2009, 2010 and 2011 were detailed through our database. Several farmers collaborated in the improvement or record keeping tools. The whole farm mass balance database grew to more than 440 farm years, including more than 160 individual farms. A subset of 54 farms that participated in the assessment for four years or more showed that reductions in N, P and K balances over time ranged from 30-50 percent with the largest gains made by farms that had large surpluses in their starting year. These findings illustrate both the interest among farms in reducing their environmental footprint and the economic benefits of doing so.
Fifteen farm advisors will adopt the use of the tools over two years. The use of the tools will create positive farmer-advisor communication of complex issues relating to nutrient use efficiency and environmental protection. The resulting advisor-farmer discussions will lead to agri-environmental evaluation of 30 dairy or cash-grain farms of which at least 10 farms will improve one of four farm agri-environmental measures: (1) mass nutrient balance, (2) farm operational density, (3) feed use efficiency, or (4) fertilizer imports, while 10 farms will improve two of the four indicators. In addition, curriculum will be developed to teach the use of whole farm agri-environmental indicators for improved farm management through collaborations with SUNY Alfred and SUNY Cobleskill.