UNH Organic Dairy Farm agroecosystem study

2008 Annual Report for LNE08-277

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2008: $379,087.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Dr. John Aber
University of New Hampshire

UNH Organic Dairy Farm agroecosystem study


Background and Summary

This project was funded beginning in May of 2008, and so this report covers only a seven-month period.

The purpose of the work funded by SARE is to understand the energy and nutrient transfers within the Organic Diary Research Farm (ODRF) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), and to then develop and test methods for reducing nutrient losses to groundwater and the atmosphere, and to meet all farm energy requirements with on-farm resources. In the first three years funded through this award, we proposed to quantify the nutrient and energy budgets on the farm and to investigate and propose alternative operational systems. Development testing and implementation were originally proposed for a second three-year time-span.

We are on target for the first year’s activities and hope to move into development and testing within the first three year award. While the early-summer start for the award precluded intensive field work in 2008, we did undertake an immediate characterization of the nitrogen and energy budgets and energy solutions by engaging three teams of undergraduates who were excited about the opportunity to do research projects and to become engaged with the unique research setting at the ODRF. Two graduate students have been recruited to work on the most challenging part of the nutrient cycle. We view engaging undergraduates in the project as an effective mechanisms for recruiting bright young minds to the help solve the challenges facing agriculture in general in the region.

Progress and Results

One undergraduate team used existing Farm records and literature values to create rough draft budgets for both nitrogen and energy. This work actually began in anticipation of the award, and two posters were presented at the UNH Undergraduate Research Conference in late spring 2008.

A first nitrogen budget was produced using data on milk production, feed purchases, manure production and estimates of grazing intake by the herd. One of the students engaged in the nitrogen project will produce a more complete and technical version of this report as an honors thesis in 2009.

One of the most difficult, and important, parts of constructing the nitrogen budget for the Farm is estimating leaching losses to groundwater. The Farm is on the banks of the Lamprey River, a Federally-designated wild and scenic waterway, enhancing the importance of minimizing nitrate pollution. Two graduate students have been recruited and are being supported by this award to provide accurate estimates of current rates of leaching loss, creating a baseline for comparisons with the effects of altered management that will occur as a result of the research supported by SARE. The two students, Michelle Galvin and Jennifer Campbell, are pursuing Masters degrees with Bill McDowell (Natural Resources and the Environment) and Matt Davis (Earth Sciences) respectively.

We are also actively recruiting other faculty and students to work on different aspects of nutrient dynamics. There is a wealth of expertise in the measurement of trace gas balances on campus and a number of students looking for projects. Encouraging colleagues to join the project and work at the Farm is part of a long-range plan to establish the ODRF as a sustainable agriculture field station. In this way, the initial support provided by SARE will be multiplied several fold.

The energy requirements at the Farm complex have been determined by tabulating invoices and by repeated monitoring of the several electrical meters present. In this way we have estimates of total annual energy usage, in terms of electric service and diesel, oil and gasoline purchases, and can separate this among different functions. Two small apartments attached to the office, as well as the office itself, are heated electrically. Meters have been installed that separate these uses from the milking parlor where milking, cooling and cleaning make up a significant fraction of the total electrical demand. By reading the meters during the milking cycle we have separated demands for each of the component functions.

Knowing energy demand, we can begin to assess on-farm resources to meet that demand. Old-field, successional forests comprise about 160 of the 300+ acres included in the Burley-Demerritt/Dudley-Bartlett Farm complex that supports the Organic Dairy. This fall, we worked with a second team consisting of 7 undergraduates who stepped forward to be part of a project to measure the forest resource at the ODRF. Over several weeks of field work, this team determined standing woody biomass and biomass production in the Farm woodlands. As a first approximation, all of the energy and bedding needs for the Farm could be met by harvesting ~40% of the annual wood production in the Farm woodlots, or managing those stands on a 133 year rotation. Old-field woodlands are a common feature on farms in northern New England, so developing an effective system for using this resource could have high value.

Translating the potential energy in wood into useful energy and heat requires the selection of a technology for combustion and transfer. We are pursuing another proposal to investigate the potential for the small-scale co-generation of electricity and heat. Another proposed project, if funded, will exam the potential for using the wood resource to generate bedding for the barns, which will then generate a compostable manure/bedding mixture that can be decomposed aerobically to produce heat for on-farm use. Initial estimates of the potential energy yield from this process suggest that it could meet the total heating demand.

Another critical aspect of on-farm energy production is the growth of forage in the pastures. The ORDF is very heavily grazing-based, and a system of intensive, rotational grazing has been adopted. While we do not anticipate using grass and forb production from the pastures for energy production, understanding the productivity of the pastures is important if we are to have a complete understanding of the energy and nitrogen cycles, and the impacts of alternative management strategies on the capture of manure and the need for bedding. Alternative grazing strategies and feeding trials are being conducted at the Farm with funds from other sources. Measuring pasture production, and the effects of intensive rotational grazing versus occasional mechanical harvests for hay, will be a major field activity in the summer of 2009.

We are somewhat ahead of the pace of research that was promised in the original proposal, which established the goal in the first year of only measuring and understanding the nutrient and energy budgets of the Farm. The majority of this information should be in hand by the end of 2009. We have already begun the investigation and analysis of alternative strategies for manure and wood management for energy, and will begin soon to look at processes in the milking parlor which could be modified to reduce energy demand. A third team of undergraduates is engaged this semester in the initial characterization of wind, solar and geothermal resources on site, and ways in which these could be harnessed to reduce reliance on off-farm sources.

Collaborations and Stakeholders

While this is a new project, and we do not yet have significant results to share with stakeholders, we have met with several of the individuals, groups and companies that have supported the establishment of the ODRF. These meetings have been part of a larger set of interactions between UNH and supports of the ODRF, and have provided good opportunities to present the outline of the work to be done and to receive feedback.

In August, a group of four people toured the farm, including Robyn Nick and Cindy Masterman from Horizon Organic and Shannon Horst from Holistic Management International. In October, an additional meeting was held with Nancy Hirshberg (Stonyfield Farm), Sonja Tuitele (Aurora Organic Dairy), Robyn Nick (Horizon Organic) and John Cleary (Organic Valley).

These meetings provided the opportunity to ask this direct question: “What are the biggest challenges facing the organic diary producers in our region?” The response was the same from both groups: importation of off-site products and services. Primary among these three were energy, bedding and grains.

These same challenges are reflected in the operations of the ODRF at UNH. In our operation, energy and bedding combined represented about 50% of non-labor expenses, and this is likely to increase. In the past bedding has been provided as wood shavings from local sawmills, but with the increased demand for biomass energy and the decrease in building, this supply has nearly disappeared. The resources we are examining under this SARE award can provide both energy and bedding, and we will be testing different methods to do so.

We have also developed a number of productive collaborations with other research groups that bring resources and expertise to the project. These include:

– A joint effort with the NRCS and a private sector firm to compare results from several instruments designed to detect soil conductivity. Non-UNH Participants included:
Brian Jones, Application Specialist, Geophysical Survey Systems, Inc., Salem, NH
Jim Doolittle, Research Soil Scientist, USDA-NRCS-NSSC, Newtown Square, PA
Karen Dudley, Resource Soil Scientist, USDA-NRCS, Concord, NH
Kimberly McCracken, State Soil Scientist, USDA-NRCS, Durham, NH

– Continuing collaborations with ARS offices in Maine and Pennsylvania which provide crucial soil and vegetation information across the farms.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Performance Targets— The following table is reproduced from the funded proposal.

Year 1:

Finish outline of energy and nutrient flows at the Organic Dairy Research Farm.

Years 2-3:

Conclude research into those flows which are most significant and least well quantified. These include:

– Water and nutrient flows to the Lamprey River

– Rate and composition of manure production as well as current storage practices and effects on decay and energy and nutrient balances

– Productivity of pasture and woodland systems

– Investigate alternative methods for increased efficiency of resource use, generation of energy and minimization of nutrient loss. These include:
Wood energy from woodlots
Methane from digestion of manures
Direct generation of electricity from manures in fuel cells
Addition of additional synergistic animal production systems (e.g. pigs, chickens) that increase efficiency of energy and nutrient use
Extended grazing cycle to reduce feed imports and manure handling
Seasonal calving cycles to improve efficiency
Forage-only feeding to reduce grain inputs and costs
Producing animal bedding on-site

– Analyze economic impact of alternative systems
Reduction in energy costs
Increase in sales of products (e.g. organic compost and milk products)

Years 4-6:

– Develop and test methods selected in the first round of funding. We cannot at this time determine which alternatives will be seen as most effective. This is the nature of research. Over the next 3 years, it is very likely that new processes and new approaches will be developed in the agricultural community. We will monitor such developments closely.

Years 7-9:

– This third phase of the project will see the selected and developed technologies and practices taken from research scale to production scale. At the end of 9 years, our goal is for the UNH Organic Research Dairy Farm to be energy independent and to have a nearly closed nutrient cycle, with only small amounts of supplemental feed required, if at all, and the primary off-farm movement of both energy and nutrients will be in products.


Milestones – The milestone for year one, as listed above, was to develop an outline of energy and nutrient flows at the Organic Dairy Research Farm. This has been accomplished as described above and summarized initially in two student research presentations. In addition, we have begun to make progress toward milestones promised in years 2 and 3. Specifically, we have:

– Begun measurements of water and nutrient flows to the Lamprey River
– Measured the biomass and productivity of woodlands on the Farm
– Completed an initial investigation into alternative methods energy generation including:
Wood energy from woodlots
Methane from digestion of manures
An analysis of wind, solar and geothermal resources and applicable technologies

Initial results suggest that wood and geothermal resources offer the best opportunity for meeting energy needs from on-farm resources. Geothermal may be especially useful for initial milk chilling and the partial heating of barn and work spaces. The potential for co-generation of electricity and heat from wood offers a very promising avenue for exploration. The wood resources on the Farm produce several times the annual energy required for operations. The outlooks for solar, wind and methane generation appear less promising.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes


With the short duration of the project so far, we do not have publications to list. Several graphical presentations have been produced, and these will be available on an enhanced ODRF website early in the new year. Additional funding is being pursued to support development and testing of a wood-fueled co-generation plant, and a system for converting wood biomass into bedding, which is then composted aerobically to produce heat. The potential for combining both heat and CO2 generated in the composting process to enhance greenhouse operation will also be explored. We are also exploring another potential source of funds to translate the energy research supported by SARE into an on-site multi-resource alternative energy demonstration project that would provide side-by-side, real-time data on energy generation from several sources (e.g. live, continuous and automatic presentation of energy data from solar, wind, geothermal, wood and composting systems).


Matt Davis

[email protected]
Associate Professor
University of New Hampshire
Department of Earth Science
Nesmith Hall
Durham, NH 03824
Office Phone: 6038621718
Bill McDowell

[email protected]
University of New Hampshire
Department of Natural Resources and the Environmen
Nesmith Hall
Durham, NH 03824
Office Phone: 6038622249
Charles Schwab

[email protected]
University of New Hampshire
Dairy Nutrition Research Center
Durham, NH 03824
Office Phone: 6038621341
Kevin Brussell

[email protected]
Special Projects Director
University of New Hampshire
Dairy Nutrition Research Center
Durham, NH 03824
Office Phone: 6038621281