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 collected 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 used piezometer wells and stream sampling to measure year-round nutrient losses by leaching in two watersheds on each of the three farms. The project also focused 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 through the use of presentations at workshops in Maryland and Pennsylvania and a farmer-authored booklet that has been published and is being distributed. The results have been presented to the regulators (State Depts. of Agriculture and/or Depts. of Environment or Natural Resources) and extension agents. With the positive environmental findings and outreach efforts, the project has substantially contributed to reducing environmental roadblocks to the development of appropriate state programs to encourage MIG systems. In this way, the project has contributed to improving the diversity, profitability and environmental impacts of dairy farming in the Northeast.
- 1. 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.
2. 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
Piezometers and lysimeters were installed in six watersheds and 10 sampling stations established along two streams in the earlier stages of this project. Because of additional support from NESARE via a phase II grant (LNE04_213), we were able to continue sampling through July 2004. Increased rainfall in the last months of 2002 and into 2003 and normal rainfall during 2004 ended the drought of 2001-2002. Because of the funding of the Phase II grant, we were able to sample through a second active leaching season, and now have two complete leaching seasons that provide a credible body of data. All of the samples collected have been analyzed for nitrogen and phosphorus in both inorganic and organic forms. The presence of significant amounts organic forms of N and P demonstrate the significance of organic nutrients in agricultural pollution.
In January of 2004, we presented updated results of the 2002-2003 and first months of the 2003-2004 leaching season at a 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 35, made up of both farmers and regulator/agency people. In March, we were invited to present our environmental impact information to the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a group of 15 high-level scientists who advise the state and federal agencies involved with the Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts. In June, we presented the results of the full leaching season at the annual meeting of the American Forage Grassland Conference. The meeting was held in Virginia, and was attended by 75 farmers, researchers and policy makers. In September, we were able to take advantage of an existing conference that brought together most of the major actors in the regulation of water quality in mid-Atlantic and other regions, as well. At this conference, the 12th National Nonpoint Source Monitoring Workshop, held in Ocean City, Md, we addressed a session with approximately 50 policy makers, government officials and environmental managers and discussed our data showing no increase in nitrate leaching from grazing dairies. Finally, project collaborator and extension educator, Stan Fultz, conducted 5 pasture walks which spread the story of grazing and its environmental impacts to 111 farmers.
In a project effort not directly related to the environmental impact goals, we also created a 14-page booklet entitled Making the Switch: Two Successful Dairy Graziers Tell Their Stories. Some seven to eight years after they began to use grazing instead of confined feeding for their milk cows, two successful Maryland dairymen sat down for leisurely interviews on how they changed to grazing and how grazing changed their lives. The highly readable, intimate and well illustrated booklet contains their stories in their own words, edited only minimally for readability and brevity. By the time Rachel Gilker conducted these interviews for this booklet, she had developed a close rapport with both farmers during the three years she had been studying the groundwater quality under their pastures. The booklet includes sidebars with some of the factual information from her investigations into the nutrient balance and economics of these farms. As would be the case for any two farmers, their stories are at the same time distinctly different and strikingly similar. We hope that these stories will inspire others to explore the possibilities of grazing, while perhaps helping others to avoid or better deal with some of the struggles these dairymen experienced along the way. More than 1000 copies of the have been distributed to extension personnel, regulators and farm advisors. Distribution of the unique booklet will continue in 2005 to the end of the project and beyond.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Based on the three leaching seasons sampled, including the first year which was exceptionally dry with little normal leaching, and the third year which we completed under phase II grant funding, the average nitrate-N in the groundwater was 4.8 ppm in the four grazed watersheds and 8.9 ppm in the two watersheds on the confined-feeding farm. These values are below environmental standards and well below what had been predicted from previous research models.
Dissolved reactive phosphorus in groundwater was much lower in both Baltimore County grazed watersheds, at an average of 0.04 ppm, as compared to 0.19-0.20 ppm in the four Frederick County watersheds. The lower P levels in the Baltimore County watersheds are almost certainly due to the presence of calcareous parent material underlying those watersheds, rather than a difference in 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, indicating minimal impact of the grazed pastures on the surface water quality. There were higher levels of P during storm events than during base flow, as would be expected. Winter camping areas and cow access to one stream resulted in increased P loads in the samples downstream from these points. As a result of seeing the data on stream P, the farmer adjusted his management of the camping area to reduce its impact.
These results should alleviate pr4evious concerns about excessive nutrient loss from MIG pastures.
Title: Nutrient losses from management intensive grazing dairy farms., In K. Cassida, ed. Proceedings American Forage and Grassland Conference, Vol. 13, June 12-16 2004, Roanoke, VA.
Authors: Ray R. Weil and Rachel E. Gilker Date: June 12-16, 2004
Contact for ordering:
American Forage and Grassland Council
P.O. Box 94
Georgetown, Texas 78627
PowerPoint presentation on nutrients in ground and surface water.
Title: Nutrient losses from management intensive grazing dairy farms in central Maryland
Authors: Ray R. Weil and Rachel E. Gilker Date: September 26-30, 2004
Type: PowerPoint presentation.
Contact for ordering:
Available online until July 2005 at:
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
Fact sheet 2: Making the Switch: Two successful dairy graziers tell their stories
Authors: Ron Holter and Bobby Prigel
Editors: Ray R. Weil, Rachel E. Gilker, Bruce Mert. Date: October, 2004
Contact for ordering:
Online until April 2005 at: http://www.agnr.umd.edu/FileExchange/Making_the_Switch_to_Grazing.pdf
Hard copies from:
106 Market Court
Stevensville, MD 21666
Phone: (410) 604-2681
Fax: (410) 604-2689
Revised fact Sheet “Management Intensive Grazing: Environmental Impacts and Economic Benefits” is available on line at:
Oral presentation at American Forage and Grasslands Conference. June 12-16, 2004 in Roanoke, Virginia. Attended by 75 regulators and researchers, with a good attendance by dairy specialists.
Oral presentation at 12th National Nonpoint Source Monitoring Workshop, held in Ocean City, Maryland from September 27-30, 2004. Attended by 50 researchers, environmental managers and government officials.
3. For photographs, see on line BOOKLET at http://www.agnr.umd.edu/FileExchange/Making_the_Switch_to_Grazing.pdf
University of Maryland
Glenn Arm, MD
Office Phone: 4105926014
Office Phone: 3013714255
Deerspring Dairy Farm
Maryland Heights, MD
Office Phone: 3013717260