- Animal Products: dairy
- Animal Production: manure management, pasture fertility, grazing - rotational
- Crop Production: no-till, nutrient cycling
- Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, on-farm/ranch research
- Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, whole farm planning
- Natural Resources/Environment: riparian buffers
- Production Systems: agroecosystems, holistic management
- Soil Management: soil analysis, nutrient mineralization
Profitability and lifestyle quality can rise dramatically for dairy farmers who successfully switch from a confined-feeding system to production based on management-intensive grazing (MIG). 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 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 ground water. 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.
A NESARE-funded project collected data for two years on the environmental and economic performance of three well-managed farms in central Maryland — two grazing-based and one confined-feeding-based farms. The project installed piezometer wells to measure year-round nutrient losses by leaching in two small watersheds on each of the three farms.
Because of severe drought during the first year of sampling, leaching was limited and groundwater in two of the four grazed watersheds dropped below the reach of the piezometers. Data from this first year was incomplete and not representative of normal leaching. A third year of sampling is proposed to supply the data needed to draw realistic and credible conclusions about the environmental impact of MIG.
Through the use of farmer-authored fact sheets and project workshop presentations in Maryland and Pennsylvania, the research results will be communicated to dairy farmers, regulators (state departments of agriculture and environment/natural resources), and extensionists. With the additional year of credible data, dairy farmers will be more confident in switching to grazing. Regulators and advisors will be able to evaluate the potential of MIG as a Best Management Practice, and to develop programs that promote MIG as a means to improve the diversity, profitability and environmental impacts of dairy farming in the Northeast.
Performance targets from proposal:
- 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.