Economic, Ecological, and Environmental Analyses of Farms under Long-Term Lower Chemical Input Management

1990 Annual Report for LNC90-026

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1990: $92,344.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1992
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $366,379.00
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Benjamin Stinner
Ohio State University, Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC)

Economic, Ecological, and Environmental Analyses of Farms under Long-Term Lower Chemical Input Management


1) To develop whole-farm economic budgets and document, in detail, management practices for
family-operated low chemical input mixed crop/livestock and cash grain farms representing
diverse geographical regions.
2) To assess nutrient cycling budgets of the farming systems in relation to biological and
ecological processes in soils.
3) To evaluate the influences of soil amendments on soil chemical, biological and physical
characteristics and crop growth in farm plot experiments.
4) To disseminate information from on-farm studies handbooks, bulletins, field days, workshops,
and a farmer-mentor/farmer-apprenticeship program.

The ecological and economic functioning of varying farm types with long-term sustainable
management were analyzed in this study. Participating farms included the Spray mixed cash
grain-beef cattle operation in central Ohio, the Hartzler dairy farm in northeastern Ohio, and the
Elston cash grain farm in the northwestern region of the state. The farms were analyzed as
whole-farm ecosystems in terms of nutrient cycling and for economic functioning. Major
agronomic soil and crop information and nutrient cycling process data were obtained in
comparisons of these sustainable farms with neighboring conventional farms on the same soil
types. The effects soil organic and biological amendments in a series of laboratory and field
controlled experiments were also investigated. In addition, the project had a major outreach and
education component.

The economic analyses show that the Hartzler sustainable dairy farm had very good economic
performance. Dairy input costs were lower by an average of $443 per animal unit, and total net
returns were considerably higher, by an average of $598 for net cash return, per cow than Ohio
State University's data for conventionally managed dairy herds. Yields for corn, oats and hay
were at least as high as county averages and most often substantially higher. Hartzler was able to
produce more corn, oats, and hay than county average with 41 percent less input costs and with
up to 61 percent greater cash returns. Because of the Sprays' management that required less than
47 percent of conventional costs, their high yields, and marketing strategies, they were able to
obtain very high net cash returns for their enterprises, over double in some cases compared to
conventional management. Although the Elston cash grain farm did not yield as high as either of
the other two farms with animal enterprises, the Elston farm did receive up to 110 percent net
returns per acre compared to conventional farming.

The overall conclusion from the three sustainable farms' nutrient budgets is that the farms are,
for the most part, in balance between inputs and outputs at the whole-farm level. The dairy and
cash grain farms showed higher per acre nutrient balances, owing to purchased feed in the
former and fertilizer in the latter. Still, the Spray system of management, despite having small
net losses in P and K on a yearly basis, was able to maintain high levels of crop production with
no commercial fertilizer inputs for 20 years. Soil tests form the farms indicated that nutrient
levels remain adequate for crop production.

In comparing the three farms with respect to nitrogen cycling processes, the Hartzler dairy farm
showed the largest gains in nitrogen (25-64 lbs/acre). This pattern was reflected in available soil
nitrogen levels; the dairy farm on average had higher mineral nitrogen levels than did either the
beef or the cash grain farm. Analyses of crop biomass and elemental concentrations showed that
crop tissue quality from the sustainable farms was comparable to the conventional comparison
farms. Analyses of soil biological activity showed greater earthworm abundance on the
sustainable farms compared the neighboring conventional farms, which positively correlated
with organic matter decomposition. In these same comparisons, particulate organic mater
dynamics were a good predictor of nutrient mineralization in the soils from the sustainable
farms. On farm demonstrations and tours attracted hundreds of farmers and provided
opportunities to discuss the project and its results.

Potential Contributions and Practical Application:
This study demonstrated the process of analyzing farm systems from a holistic perspective and
discovering new ways of reducing input costs. A context has been provided for further, more
specific on-farm research of components. The case study farmers developed their farming
systems through trial and error, directed towards a goal of achieving balance in their systems
rather than maximum production, and the documentation of this study indicates they have
succeeded. Their methods can be used effectively as examples for other farmers wanting to
adopt sustainable practices.