- Animal Products: dairy
- Animal Production: grazing - rotational
- Education and Training: extension
- Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, agricultural finance
- Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
- Production Systems: transitioning to organic
A team of individuals from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan produced and distributed two publications that offer unbiased, side-by-side comparisons of a wide array of dairy and poultry system options: the 125-page Poultry Your Way and 100-page Dairy Your Way. Farmers were involved in project development and served as reviewers. The publications included include farm and farmer profiles of the systems described. The books proved to be very popular and in some cases, audience demand for the publications has already exceeded the supply of books.
Livestock can be an important diversification strategy for the Upper Midwest. Livestock farming is well suited to the natural resource base and to the needs of many farmers and rural communities. Integrating livestock can provide important biological and economic benefits by providing a source of nutrients for subsequent crop years, interrupting pest and disease cycles, providing opportunities to grow a wider array of crops, adding value to crops and crop residues produced on the farm, which are then sold as meat or milk, and reducing risk from weather, pest, and market forces. (Kirschenmann, 1994) Livestock can provide quality of life benefits to farm families – some farmers say they raise livestock simply because they like animals and want their children to grow up with animals (Stassen, 2002, personal communication).
The livestock sector has been particularly hard hit in some North Central states. In Minnesota, for example, the number of Minnesota dairy farms dropped from 14,500 in 1992 to less than 7,000 in 2002. Fewer livestock producers mean fewer local markets for Minnesota’s farmers and fewer processors and support industries. Ultimately, it means fewer purchases on Main Street, fewer businesses and schools, and further decline of Minnesota’s small towns. In an attempt to alleviate this troubling trend, the Minnesota Legislature directed the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to develop a “Livestock Friendly Counties” program to encourage local communities to enhance their local livestock sectors (MDA, 2002). Promoting animal agriculture is a priority issue for the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF, 2003). In Michigan, a multi-partner “Revitalization of Animal Agriculture in Michigan” won legislative funding in the 1990s and is focusing on research and outreach in livestock systems. (Animal Agriculture Initiative, 2003). What will the desired animal agriculture expansion look like?
When Hogs Your Way: Choosing a Hog Production System in the Upper Midwest (Bergh et. al., 2001) was first published, numerous farmers commented that they did not realize the breadth of options available to them. To date, hundreds of copies have been distributed. At least 24 websites provide a direct link to the electronic version of the publication, while 62 mention Hogs Your Way. The on-line version averages 150 visits per month. Based on calls and requests from producers and others, project team members know similar interest exists in the case of dairy and poultry.
Our team identified a need for further volumes in the Your Way series: Dairy Your Way and Poultry Your Way. Alternative poultry and dairy systems have been researched by farmers in various regions of the country. SARE grants have funded about 100 poultry projects and nearly 200 dairy-related projects. Other sustainable agriculture organizations such as ATTRA and the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) have produced publications on various aspects of poultry and dairy production. Yet, there was a need for publications that synthesized the fragmented information on these systems in a compare-and-contrast format, provided encouragement to farmers to give new options a try, and at the same time identified the resources they need in order to continue deeper exploration of the options they have identified as most suitable for them.
This project set out to develop unbiased materials to introduce producers to the various systems, provide an overview of each system in a user-friendly format, and direct readers to further resources on the systems of most interest to them, and document the experiences of some of the farmers who use these systems.
When our team formed to undertake this project, there was limited regionally-focused information on poultry alternatives in the north central states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. SARE had funded 27 poultry-related projects in the North Central region. Most of those relevant to poultry production systems were projects focused on a particular model of production. The production models included free-range poultry, pastured poultry, integrated greenhouse and poultry production, and integrated orchard and poultry production. In addition there had been three SARE-funded projects on processing of pastured poultry, as well as several projects dealing with marketing of poultry. Both ATTRA and SARE have publications dealing with pastured poultry (see Resources for Poultry in literature cited). While there was a great deal of “how-to” information on various forms of pastured poultry and processing, there was limited information available to help farmers evaluate costs and potential profits from various systems. The CIAS research brief, Raising Poultry on Pasture, provided some economic analysis of pastured poultry systems, but did not compare these to other types of systems.
At the time, State Extension services in Minnesota and Michigan offered series of publications dealing with small farm flocks of layers, chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese. Most pastured poultry publications were also focused on the small-scale operation. Information on management and options for the mid-size poultry producer was difficult to find. Also hard to find were comparative data on poultry processing options. There were SARE projects that discussed development of pastured poultry processing units, but we saw that economic analysis of these versus using a custom processor would be helpful information for farmers. We also thought producers might be unfamiliar with other marketing options available. The goal of this publication was to present a wide range of poultry production and marketing options, along with resource lists relevant to each option.
Grass-based dairying had been a hot topic in sustainable agriculture circles for more than a decade. Research on pasture legumes and rotational grazing schemes had been done through University-sponsored research, as well as through numerous SARE-funded farmer projects. The North Central SARE had funded 59 dairy-related projects, many of them dealing with some aspect of rotational grazing. Knee Deep in Grass (Loeffler, et. al., 1996) and Pastures for Profit (Undersander, et. al., 1997) both looked at the economics of grass-based enterprises. The Grazing System Planning publication (Blanchet, et. al., 2000) discussed the nuts and bolts of actually setting up a grass-based operation, while Small Dairy Resources (Dunaway, 2000) provided a comprehensive list of resources on specific topics.
Unlike the situation in poultry, there were already several publications comparing conventional dairying with grass-based dairying; such as the SARE-funded project, Quality of Life Study: Comparing Conventional and Rotational Grazing Dairy Systems; and the CIAS research brief, Dairy Grazing Can Provide Good Financial Return (see Resources for Dairy in literature cited). There had also been a number of projects and publications on dairying transitions: from conventional to grass-based, and also transition to organic dairying (see Resources for Dairy in literature cited). As with the poultry publications, most of these dairy publications focused on a single system. A farmer might be able to find a publication that compared a conventional system with a rotational grazing system, but not a wider comparison with other types of systems.
This project team was particularly interested in gathering information on “hybrid” systems that may have some features of both conventional and grass-based dairies. This interest was due in part to the geographic location of the team in the Upper Midwest. “How-to” information available on grass-based dairying often involved seasonal dairying and reduced reliance on stored feeds, such as in ATTRA’s The Economics of Grass-Based and Seasonal Dairying (Johnson, 2002). These aspects may be difficult for Upper Midwest dairies to implement due to climate.
The participants, all traditional dairying states, had a wealth of Extension information available on dairy cattle genetics, reproduction, feeding, herd health, and milk quality. This information was primarily directed at conventional dairies. The project team understood that one of its challenges would be to sift through these conventional resources and suggest ways to apply them to alternative systems.
In the experience of team members, farmer profiles strengthen the credibility and readability of publications. Therefore, Dairy and Poultry Your Way publications featured farmer profiles from each participating state.
Short term expected outcomes for this project included:
S-1 Increased awareness of livestock management options available (farmers and agricultural advisor/service providers, including Extension educators, NRCS staff, lenders, farm business management instructors, state inspectors, etc.)
S-2 Increased confidence in the viability of non-conventional methods of raising livestock (farmers and agricultural advisor/service providers)
S-3 Stronger relationships among the Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan participants involved in the project
Intermediate term expected outcomes for this project include:
I-1 Farmers change their farming enterprise based on information provided (seasoned and existing farmers).
I-2 Team members continue to collaborate to tackle needs and issues that emerge during the project.
Long term expected outcomes for this project include:
L-1 Team members work together on subsequent (unrelated) projects because of relationships formed during the “Your Way” project.
In addition, as described in the project proposal it was important to offer unbiased, side-by-side comparisons of a wide array of dairy and poultry system options.