UNH Organic Dairy Farm Agroecosystem Study, Phase II; A closed system, energy independent organic dairy farm for Northeastern U.S.

2013 Annual Report for LNE11-313

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $392,658.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Dr. John Aber
University of New Hampshire

UNH Organic Dairy Farm Agroecosystem Study, Phase II; A closed system, energy independent organic dairy farm for Northeastern U.S.


The current project was funded in the fall of 2011, the second three year award for a projected nine year project. Our original grant for the first three years was completed in the fall of 2011 and a final report has been submitted. This report covers the second full year of the second award.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Overall Project Objectives:

The overall purpose of this project is to use the UNH Organic Dairy Research Farm (ODRF) as a test bed to achieve: A Closed-System, Energy Independent Organic Dairy Farm for the Northeastern U.S. We are pursuing a farm-ecosystem level approach to the measurement all of the material and energy flows occurring across the annual production cycle at the ODRF. Natural and human vectors are being compared, including, for example, inputs of nutrients in precipitation, feed and fertilizer, and losses in product shipment, surface water runoff and ground water leaching. The following text lists the goals of the project, with results from efforts in 2013 highlighted.

The major efforts within this project can now be divided between establishing baseline conditions on the ODRF, and a focus on research to address major identified needs.

Establishing the Baseline

The objectives for this segment of the work include establishing background energy, water and nitrogen budgets for the farm. Progress and outcomes in these areas have been listed in previous reports and will not be repeated here as they are continuations of that previous work. At the end of this second round of funding, we will have concluded these monitoring projects and will prepare final reports. The components of this part of the study include:

1. Hydrology and Water Quality
     a. Continued hydrologic investigations
     b. Continued water quality monitoring
     c. Calculating the water footprint of the Farm

2. Closing the Nitrogen Cycle
     a. Measurement of gaseous N exchanges
     b. Updating data on the nitrogen cycle
     c. Minimizing nitrogen inputs

NOTE: During a recent visit to UNH, Dr. James Galloway of the University of Virginia presented a new framework for calculating the “nitrogen footprint” of an institution or operation. As a result of this presentation and following discussions, our research team is a participant in a proposal to EPA to support and coordinate a multi-institutional application of the Virginia methodology at UNH. We will be the only institution with significant agricultural activities to be included in the project. This work will build on the basic measurements of the nitrogen economy of the ODRF as developed under this SARE award and is applications-oriented, including commitments to reduce nitrogen exports, which is a central goal of this SARE project as well.

     Testing and Developing New Practices

3. Moving Toward Energy Independence
     a. Finalizing the current energy budget and energy system analysis
        • We continue to monitor energy use across the farm.
     b. Geothermal application for milk cooling
        • Develop a geothermal well on site and, using the specifications of different possible components of the three approaches outlined in the original proposal, identify the combination most likely to reduce the use of electricity.
     c. Integrated wood shavings/bedding/energy/compost system
        • Develop a static-pile, aerobic composting facility and acquire wood shaving equipment to test different operational approaches to reducing expenses for bedding and energy (Major activity this year, see “Accomplishments/Milestones” and “Impacts” below).
     d. An alternative energy demonstration center
        • Develop a single location where energy gain from a solar collector, energy output from the composting system, energy exchange in the geothermal cooling system, and a simple estimate of available wind energy developed from anemometer readings will all be available in real time.


1. Hydrology and Water Quality
     a. Continued hydrologic investigations.
The expanded and hardened system for measuring water budgets and flowpaths described in last year’s report has been utilized in this year to improve our quantitative understanding of the water budget on the farm.

     b. Continued water quality monitoring
Water quality monitoring has continued monthly for nutrients and major ions in all groundwater wells, in all ponds on the farm, and in the creek draining the wetland below the dairy operations. Our understanding of water quality will be greatly enhanced by deployment of state-of-the-art water quality sensors with separate funding from an EPSCoR grant managed through UNH. Data will be collected continuously and streamed live on the web.

      c. Calculating the water footprint of the Farm
To date, we have developed an algorithm using data from previous years that takes into account pelletized feed composition; balage amounts, dates, acreage; measured pasture yield and forage schedules; and evapotranspiration computed from local meteorological data. This method is being applied using data from the Farm.

2. Closing the Nitrogen Cycle

In addition to the on-going work described below, we have begun investigating the process and value of Life Cycle Analysis in determining the environmental footprint of a dairy operation. A review report summarizing these findings will be posted on the website (see below) early in 2014. This work is also linked to the “Nitrogen Footprint” project with the University of Virginia described above.

     a. Measurement of gaseous N exchanges
Sampling of nitrous oxide gas fluxes continues from the wetland area on the Farm. We also continue to measure N2O in groundwater, and the isotopic composition of nitrate in selected groundwater wells. Each of these measurements will be used to help constrain the spatial variability in denitrification, and quantify its significance for the overall N budget. There are other studies on going at the Farm that are measuring fluxes of greenhouse gases to and from the property.

     b. Updating data on the nitrogen cycle
Monitoring of all inputs and outputs of nitrogen to the Farm has continued. This includes the major transfers of products imported and exported, as well as background biogeochemical processes.

     c. Minimizing nitrogen input
On hold pending results from 2.b. Both 2.A and 2.B will be a focal points of our cooperation with the University of Virginia project mentioned above.

3. Moving Toward Energy Independence

     a. Finalizing the current energy budget and energy system analysis
Monitoring of energy usage on the farm continues.

     b. Geothermal application for milk cooling
It has been determined that geothermal cooling of milk using a ground water source is not practical for this farm. The rates of flow required based on the timing and flow of milk from the parlor to the storage tank would necessitate a geothermal system that would be too expensive to be of value.

     c. Integrated wood shavings/bedding/energy/compost system
As our picture of the energy, nutrient (and financial) systems of the ODRF becomes more complete, we have increasingly focused on the potential value of this integrated woodlot-shavings-compost system as the part of our work most likely to have a positive impact on dairy farming and other agriculture-related activities in our region. As energy-recovery composting emerges as an increasingly attractive solution to the high cost and environmental impact of organic waste disposal, our work with the static-pile, aerated system is gaining increased attention. In particular, the existence of our newly-constructed research facility described below provides the opportunity to test different hardware and process alternatives to maximize value and efficiency of this process.

In 2013, we saw the completion of the $550,000, donor-financed composting facility, and the purchase of a Tremzac wood shaving machine (see link to presentations and images in the “Contributions” section below). In cooperation with the staff at the ODRF, we have developed a plan for a year-round cycle of bedding and manure management, and completed the first full fall portion of that cycle, including loading of material into all four bays of the facility. We continue to work closely with Agrilabs LLC. on this project, and have made our facility available to them for testing of alternative designs of fans, ducts and heat exchangers for this kind of facility. We are in close contact with Tremzac representatives as well regarding the optimization of the wood shaving machine in a dairy farm setting.

Built to support research and to test different methods and practices, our facility is designed with more duct work, tubing, controls and instrumentation than would be the case for an operational facility (again, see link to website below). Careful monitoring of both the construction and early operation phase of this project has already yielded a detailed description of this type of system, with suggestions for optimizing performance, and for pitfalls to be avoided. This document is in final review and our intent is to publish it through the NH Cooperative Extension service in the spring. It will also be posted on the website.

Output for the heat-recovery compost facility, has come in the form of developing the most economic method to build such a facility. As these facilities are in their infancy, our research team has spent the past year working closely with UNH engineers and those from Milestone Engineering and Construction Inc., as well as Agrilabs LLC to optimize the design and operation of future production facilities. Site visits and initial economic data have been provided to help practitioners interested in building an aerated composting facility.

We have also developed an operations model for the use of the Tremzac shaving machine for the production of bedding, and have begun to collect time and cost data. During this testing period, equipment needs required to produce bedding in a farm setting have become evident, and will be reported. We are working closely with representatives of Tremzac to optimize this operation in our situation.

As data accumulate, we are refining the “on-farm animal bedding production model” mentioned last year.” The goal is to provide farmers with an easy to use model that will allow them to plug in their own farm variables and determine whether it is profitable to purchase a shaving machine. We are still testing the model and will refine it further following the running of the bedding machine. Outreach for this portion of the project has included discussions with local sawmills, which are the primary providers of woody animal bedding in the region. We have delivered shavings produced by this machine to the equine facility on the UNH campus. They were pleased with the product.

An allied project funded by the NHAES will support both an extensive survey and intensive interviews with dairy, equine and other bedding users to determine current sources of material and bedding practices. This research will inform our development of shaving operations and identification of economic opportunities for the product.

     d. An alternative energy demonstration center
On hold pending further development of composting process. We have restored operation of a solar panel that will be used as part of the drying process for shavings, and will also be part of the demonstration center.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

This year saw the completion and launch of a website that will be a major method for communicating results to the farming and composting communities. The site (http://www.aberlab.net/) contains links to previous reports and theses, as well as detailed descriptions of the composting facility and its construction. While we will pursue classical peer-reviewed outlets for some of our work, the slow response time for such outlets, and the documented lack of relevance of most of them to stakeholders and practitioners causes us to focus on presentations and the website as our major outlets.

A presentation of this project and work is, however, planned for inclusion in the journal “Biocycle” in the coming months. We are working closely with Brian Jerose of Agrilabs LLC on this article.

Recurring impacts of this project, consisting largely of visitor days and class use by UNH and surrounding institutions (including K-12), have been highlighted in previous reports. Additional presentations are listed on the website under “Outreach” and include:

• November 15 – Presentation and discussion at the Harvard Forest, Petersham, MA entitled: “Sustainability and Sustainable Agriculture at UNH: An Overview and a Case Study.” Consulted on new venture by the Harvard Forest into local and sustainable agriculture.

• November 8 – Field day as part of the annual meeting for members of the New Hampshire Farm Bureau Federation.

• October 22 – Presentation on the static-pile aerated composting project to Faculty of Science and Technology, Free University of Bolzano, Italy as part of an overview of recent research in sustainable and organic agriculture at the University of New Hampshire

• June 1 – Community Tree Farm Field Day – A field demonstration day for Tree Farm participants as well as UNH and NH Cooperative Extension personnel. As part of the tour we asked representatives from Tremzac to come and help with a demonstration of the shaving machine, and also provided a tour of the composting facility. The discussion included some interesting financial comparisons of the relative value of old-field pine as sawlogs, pulp, energy (chips) and bedding.

• May 22 – Founding Donors Day at the Organic Dairy Research Farm – An event to thank donors who have contributed to the success of the farm, and to provide field-based updates on recent projects and progress. Among the 40+ attendees were personnel from Stonyfield, Organic Valley, Kent Nutrition Group, the State Commissioner of Agriculture and Foods, and several individual supporters, as well as UNH leadership from the Provost’s Office, the Sustainability Institute, the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture and the NH Agricultural Experiment Station. A tour of shaving machine and new composting facility were highlights of the event.

• February 7 & 8 – Presented preliminary research at the 2013 Northeast Pasture Consortium Annual Conference & Meeting in Manchester, NH. Presentation was on “Reducing costs for bedding and energy on organic dairy farms throughout the Northeast.”

• January 8 – Presented preliminary research at the New York Certified Organic (NYCO)/ Cornell Organic Dairy and Field Crop Program Work Team Meeting in Geneva, NY. Presentation was on “Creating a closed agroecosystem at the UNH Organic Dairy that is a model for farms throughout the Northeast.”


Dr. Matt Davis

Associate professor
Univ. of New Hampshire
James Hall
Durham, NH 03824
Office Phone: 6038621718
Dr. Bill McDowell

James Hall
Durham, NH 03824
Office Phone: 6038622249