Environmental – Economic Impacts of Management-Intensive Grazing on Dairy Farms
Profitability and life-style quality can rise dramatically for dairy farmers who successfully switch from the confined-feeding system to the production system based on management-intensive grazing (MIG). Furthermore, because MIG systems improve profitability without increasing milk production either per farm or per cow, they offer an alternative to the higher production-lower price treadmill that dairy farming has been on for decades. The literature also suggests that adoption of the MIG system allows farmers to better conserve their soil resources. Few practices improve soil quality and protect against soil erosion as well as permanent grass vegetation. However, research in several locations, including the Northeast, has questioned the environmental impact of some MIG systems with regard to their potential losses of nitrogen and phosphorus to groundwater. Such questions about environmental impacts could serve as a major roadblock to acceptance of MIG systems as best management practices (BMPs) by regulatory agencies and thus, a roadblock to the adoption of such systems by more dairy farmers. The project is collecting data on the environmental and economic performance of three well-managed farms in central Maryland — one confined feeding-based and two grazing-based farms. The project uses piezometer wells and stream sampling to measure year-round nutrient losses by leaching in two watersheds on each of the three farms. The project is also focusing on the economic impacts of MIG by conducting a cost-returns analysis of each farm. The results of the project are being communicated to small to medium-sized dairy farmers with presentations at workshops in Maryland and Pennsylvania and a farmer-authored fact sheets will be published and distributed for future use. The results are also being presented to the regulators (State Depts. of Agriculture and/or Depts. of Environment or Natural Resources) and extension agents with the aim of providing sufficient information on the nutrient issues to allow appropriate state programs to be developed for MIG systems. If the environmental findings continue to be favorable, and the outreach efforts successful, the project should substantially contribute to improving the diversity, profitability and environmental impacts of dairy farming in the Northeast.
- Maryland and Pennsylvania nutrient management regulators (state policy makers, state and private nutrient management advisors, extension agents, and conservation district personnel) that learned about the environmental and economic impacts of grazing from this project will promote grazing under certain conditions as a sustainable agricultural practice that will contribute to their state’s nutrient management goals.
- Forty of the confinement-feeding dairy farmers in Maryland and Pennsylvania who learned about the environmental and economic impacts of grazing from this project will take steps to switch to grazing
Using piezometers and lysimeters installed in six watersheds and 10 sampling stations established along two streams in the earlier stages of this project, we continued to sample through 2003. Increased rainfall in the last months of 2002 and into 2003 ended the drought of 2001-2002. We were able to sample through an active leaching season, and hope to continue sampling into 2004 to have two complete leaching seasons for more credible body of data. All of the samples collected thus far were analyzed for nitrogen and phosphorus contents. Methodology for organic nitrogen and phosphorus determination was more fully developed, and all samples were analyzed with these methods. Further inspection on the presence of organic forms of N and P may provide insight as to the significance of organic nutrients in agricultural pollution. In January of 2003, we presented the preliminary results of the first months of the 2002-2003 leaching season at session at the annual Farming for Profit and Stewardship Conference sponsored by Future Harvest CASA and Maryland Cooperative Extension. We reached an audience of about 30, made up of both farmers and regulator/agency people. In July, we presented the results of the full leaching season at the annual meeting of the Northeast Branch of the Agronomy Society. The meeting was held in Vermont, where dairy is an important enterprise, and the session was attended by approximately 60 people, many of whom are involved in grazing and dairy management. In August, we hosted the 12-member Soil Quality Team of the North Carolina NRCS. They visited Holterholm farm, and heard of our results thus far. They published an account of their visit in their Soil Quality Newsletter. Stan Fultz (Frederick County extension) and Don Schwartz (Washington County extension) organized 14 pasture walks during the year with about 15 farmers participating in each for a total of about 200 additional farmers who learned about management intensive grazing and its impacts in water quality. In August, we presented our results to 15 local dairy farmers and environmentalists at one of the pasture walks led by Stan Fultz on the Holterholm farm. At the 2003 Conference on Maryland Water Policy, held in October, results of the 2002-2003 leaching season were presented to a group of approximately 50 regulators and researchers. At the conference poster session, we had the opportunity to discuss one-on-one the grazing water quality impacts with Fred Samadani, the Program Administrator for the Maryland Dept of Agriculture’s Nutrient Management Program. In November, at the annual Soil Science Society meetings, 60 researchers and regulators were informed about our results. A fact sheet detailing the environmental impacts of grazing was prepared for regulators and policy-makers. Bruce Mertz of project partner organization, Future Harvest CASA, is presently publishing and distributing the fact sheet. f A second fact sheet, on making the switch to grazing, is to be prepared in early 2004. Now that we have one full year of reliable data to present, Bruce Mertz is planning workshops for 2004 to piggyback on existing events to reach both farmers and regulators with the environmental results. In addition, in summer 2004, we plan to participate in a regional water quality conference to be held in Maryland where we expect to reach a large number of regulators and policy makers from all the states in our target area.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
For the most recent leaching season (fall 2002-spring 2003), average nitrate-N in the groundwater was 5.2 ppm from the four grazed watersheds. Nitrate-N concentrations were higher from the two watersheds on the confined-feeding farm, with the average concentration in the watershed nearest the homestead exceeding 10 ppm. Dissolved reactive phosphorus in groundwater was much lower in both Baltimore County grazed watersheds than in the four Frederick County watersheds. Discussions with members of the USGS in Baltimore County gave further strength to the earlier suggestion that the difference may be more related to parent rock types (calcareous material under much of Baltimore County farm) than to management. Stream water in both streams on the Baltimore County grazing dairy farm showed little change in N from where the stream enters to where it leaves the farm during base or storm flow. Phosphorus was significantly higher for storm than for base flow. Winter camping areas and cow access to the stream resulted in increased P loads in the samples downstream from these points. The farmer understood the significance of this data and has adjusted his management of the camping area, accordingly. We anticipate reduced P loading during storm flow in 2004 because of these changes. The conclusions from the Fact Sheet state: Conclusions: • We found no evidence of excessive nitrogen leaching from the MIG watersheds. • Phosphorus levels in groundwater seemed related to geologic soil parent materials and were low regardless of farm management system. • Neither N nor P concentrations were increased as stream water flowed through well-managed MIG pastures. • Under appropriate management, grazing appears to engender relatively low risks for nutrient pollution. • The benefits of grazing may extend beyond the farm itself, as the conversion of cropland to permanent grass may have implications for global warming and soil conservation, as well as quality of life for surrounding communities. As suburban development continues to encroach on farmland, and dairy farming becomes more economically challenging, MIG provides an alternative that can be both environmentally friendly and financially viable. Appendixes 1. Future Outreach and continued data collection planned for 2004. Because of the exceptionally dry winter of 2002/2003 precluded our obtaining groundwater samples and prevented normal leaching processes, we have had to delay many of the outreach activities until we have sufficiently valid results to share. We have submitted a new proposal to NE SARE to fund the additional year of water sampling and analysis to make up for the year “lost” due to the highly unusual winter drought. We now plan to be able to present farmers and policy makers with data for two relatively normal leaching seasons to provide a sound basis on which to make decisions regarding the environmental impact of MIG dairy farming systems. We plan to reach extension agents and policy personnel in MD, PA and WVA at several winter meetings in 2004. If the environmental impact results and policy responses are positive, we now plan hold farmer-oriented meetings during the December 2003-March 2004 period to discuss the environmental impact results and strategies for adopting grazing based dairy systems. The production of the grazing fact sheets will be undertaken during this same period. 2. Resources: PowerPoint presentation on nutrients in ground and surface water. Title: Nutrients in ground and surface water on intensive grazing and confined feeding dairy farms Authors: Ray R. Weil and Rachel E. Gilker Date: November, 2003 Type: PowerPoint presentation. Contact for ordering: Ray R. Weil Professor of Soil Science Dept. of Natural Resource Sciences and Landscape Architecture 1103 H. J. Patterson Hall University of Maryland College Park, Md 20742 Tel: 301 405 1314 ; Fax: 301 314 9041 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Fact Sheet: Management Intensive Grazing for Environmental and Economic Benefits Authors: Ray R. Weil and Rachel E. Gilker Date: November, 2003 Type: Document Contact for ordering: Bruce Mertz (email@example.com). Newsletter Story – “Looking for a Few Good Farmers” Online at www.futureharvestcasa under “new projects” 3. Events. Workshop session for farmers and regulators at the Annual Future Harvest Farming for Profit and Stewardship Conference in Hagerstown Maryland, January 17-18, 2003. Attended by 30 farmers and regulators. Oral presentation at Northeast Branch Agronomy Society Meetings. June 30-July 2 in Burlington, Vermont. Attended by 60 regulators and researchers, with a good attendance by dairy specialists. Tour and Discussion on Soil and Water Quality under Grazing with Soil Quality Team of North Carolina NRCS. August 12 at Holterholm Farm. Attended by 12 soil scientists. Pasture Walk and Discussion on Environmental Impacts of Grazing Management. August 21 at Holterholm Farm. Attended by 10 farmers Poster presentation at 2003 Conference on Maryland Water Quality. October 24 at University of Maryland. Attended by 50 regulators and policy-makers. Oral presentation at Annual Soil Science Society Meetings. November 2-6 in Denver, Colorado. Attended by 60 researchers and regulators.
University of Maryland
Glenn Arm, MD
Office Phone: 4105926014
Office Phone: 3013714255
Deerspring Dairy Farm
Maryland Heights, MD
Office Phone: 3013717260