Linking soil quality, plant health, and animal nutrition on dairy farms through energy and nitrogen balance

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2000: $110,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Federal Funds: $28,600.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $48,600.00
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Charlotte Bedet
Innovative Farmers of Ohio

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed rations, pasture fertility, grazing - rotational, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: nutrient cycling, organic fertilizers, application rate management, tissue analysis
  • Education and Training: display, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Pest Management: field monitoring/scouting
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis, nutrient mineralization, soil quality/health


    In a two-year study of 22 grazing and confinement dairy farms in northeast Ohio, we investigated carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) balance in soil, plants and animals. Most conventional dairy farmers applied too much soluble N to the soil, whereas most grazers fed too much soluble N to their cows. Conventional dairy farmers worked to solve soil C and N imbalance by reducing fertilizer rates based on their soil test results. Grazing dairy farmers brought rumen C and N into balance by supplementing pasture with grain for energy and hay for rumen health, using milk data to fine-tune their cows’ diets.


    The goal of this project is to build upon farmers’ observations that healthy soil grows healthy plants, which in turn grow healthy animals. For years, dairy farmers have known that, “in the soil and rumen, microbes eat first.” Biologically-minded farmers maintain the health of their crops and cows by “feeding the soil and rumen bugs” (microbes) using good organic matter management. Dairy farms rely on microbes to recycle nutrients through the food chain. In both the soil and rumen, nutrients are released from plant material by microbial action. Since microbes require carbon (C) for energy and nitrogen (N) to build protein, the balance of organic matter C and N is very important. Thus, organic matter can be managed for nutrient content to promote microbial efficiency. Health and productivity of the soil, plant and ruminant animal increase when carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) are in balance because metabolism and production are closely linked.

    Project objectives:

    1) Identify key linkages between the soil and plants in terms of nutrient and energy balance.

    2) Measure the quantity and form of substrate available to microbes in the soil and rumen, in the context of nutrient and energy balance.

    3) Collect whole-farm data on nutrient inputs and outputs to describe the link between nutrient balance, efficiency, and health on dairy farms.

    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.