Sustainable cropping systems for dairy farms in the Northeastern US

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2009: $400,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Dr. Heather Karsten
The Pennsylvania State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: canola, corn, oats, rye, soybeans, wheat, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed formulation, manure management, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: technical assistance, decision support system, demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, workshop
  • Energy: bioenergy and biofuels, energy conservation/efficiency, energy use
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, agricultural finance, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, hedges - grass, grass waterways, habitat enhancement, riparian buffers, carbon sequestration
  • Pest Management: biological control, chemical control, cultural control, economic threshold, field monitoring/scouting, integrated pest management, mulches - killed, physical control, prevention, weed ecology
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, soil analysis, soil chemistry, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    As an interdisciplinary research and outreach team we will draw on previous farming system research, agroecological principles, Penn State and USDA-ARS scientific expertise, and an Advisory panel to design and evaluate a Sustainable Cropping System for a dairy farm. The cropping system will test the hypothesis that the farm can minimize off-farm inputs and environmental impacts, and be productive, profitable and sustainable. The cropping system will: i) minimize nutrient and soil loss, build soil organic matter and nutrient pools and promote biological processes for nutrient acquisition, ii) enhance biological diversity and ecological interactions, and iii) be energetically efficient and productive. Operated at 1/20th scale at Penn State’s Rock Springs Farm, this system will produce feed for and use the manure of a virtual, average sized PA dairy farm. Using two dairy nutrition models to estimate feed needs, milk and manure production, we have proposed a cropping system appropriate for an integrated 60 cow, 240 acre dairy farm. After consultation with the Advisory panel and further modeling work to refine this system, we will establish it on 12 acres using farm-scale equipment and manure from a neighboring dairy that feeds a similar ration. Strategies we propose to include are: no-till or rotational no-till, manure injection, crop rotations with legumes, intercrops of perennials and cover crops, a roller-crimper, and a Straight Vegetable Oil-powered tractor. Outcomes will include an improved understanding of management strategies for sustainable dairy cropping systems, scientific and outreach publications, educational programs and materials produced with Rodale and BARC, and sustainable cropping system field research that can leverage additional long-term funding. To extend the geographical application of the project, we will use the online farm model (I-FARM) to develop case study farms in other Northeast regions, and train educators to use them.

    Performance targets from proposal:

    The Sustainable Cropping System farm focused on dairy production will be based on ecological principles and processes, and test the hypothesis that a farm can minimize off-farm inputs and rely primarily on natural processes to be both productive and profitable. The design will be based on the following agroecological principles: i) minimize nutrient and soil loss, and build soil organic matter and nutrient pools (via no-till, cover crops, manure injection, legumes) and promote biological processes for nutrient acquisition (legumes, soil biological activity, mycorrhiza), ii) enhance biological diversity and ecological interactions to optimize crop yields and minimize pest outbreaks (ex. crop rotation with diverse crop species and lifecycles, intercrops, and cover crops for weed suppression, disruption of insect movement, and promotion of beneficial insect populations), iii) be energetically efficient and productive (produce oilseed crops for farm fuels, use ecological principles to minimize the off-farm inputs of energy, nutrients, & pest control).

    Strategies To meet the above agroecological system principles, we will demonstrate and evaluate a number of practices and technologies including: no-tillage or rotational no-till, manure injection, crop rotations and intercrops of perennials, annuals, cover crops, and legumes, a roller-crimper, and a locally produced (New Holland) Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO)-powered tractor. Research indicates that in a well designed cropping system, these practices can contribute multiple agroecosystem benefits. A number of variations and combinations of these strategies have not however been fully evaluated, particularly in combination in a long-term farming systems experiment. Therefore, for some of the strategies, we will evaluate two variations of the strategies within the crop rotation in a split-plot design. These scientific comparisons will enable us to document system impacts of the options that farmers must chose among. These comparisons are also necessary to more fully understand the fundamental agroecological processes, to share our findings through scientific publications, and to contribute to advancing the science and adoption of sustainable agriculture.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.