Nutrient Management Boosts the Profitability, Stewardship of New York Dairies
From feed and fertilizer to manure and milk, managing the complex cycle of nutrients on a dairy farm requires accurate information, which often means the difference between maximized efficiency and lost profit. Or, as Lowville, N.Y., dairy farmer Marc Laribee puts it, “If you don’t measure, you can’t manage it because you’re always guessing.”
For Laribee and hundreds of other New York dairy farmers, the guesswork is being taken out of nutrient management, thanks to a SARE-funded team of Cornell University researchers, educators, farmers and consultants who are developing and promoting a suite of on-farm nutrient assessment tools. The farmers who use these tools to understand how nutrients enter, exit and remain on their fields are then able to modify practices to improve environmental stewardship, profitability and in some cases, productivity.
A group of 54 farmers who have conducted these assessments for at least four years made improvements that have allowed them to maintain farm production levels while cutting their use of nutrients by 30-50 percent. Improvements can take many shapes depending on each assessment’s results: One farmer might apply less fertilizer or use manure more effectively and still maintain crop yields; another might increase production of home-grown forages and buy less feed; while a third might refine their herd’s diet to lower feed costs or increase milk production, or both.
Both conventional and organic farms in New York have participated in assessments, ranging in size from small dairies to concentrated animal feeding operations.
Crop consultant Peg Cook, who works with Laribee, says the assessments have helped many of her clients who ordinarily buy commercial fertilizer see the value of manure as a free, farm-generated source of nutrients. “Several farmers have come to me saying that I’ve helped them save $6,000-$10,000 on their fertilizer bill,” she says.
The team, led by Cornell nutrient management specialist Quirine Ketterings, received SARE grants in 2008 and 2009 to evaluate new additions to the assessment toolkit and to train more than 60 educators on their use. The most notable addition has been the corn stalk nitrate test, which was developed in Iowa for use at the end of a growing season to determine if a crop got the optimal amount of nutrients. “That’s been one of the most powerful tools over the last couple of years,” Ketterings says.
During these two SARE projects, the Cornell team collected nutrient data from hundreds of field samples. Based on that data, Ketterings estimates that in 2010, these tools saved farmers between 20 and 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. This translates into welcome savings for farmers who face rising input costs. The average cost of common nitrogen fertilizers nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to USDA statistics.
Next, prompted by requests from farmers and crop consultants, Ketterings and her team received a 2012 SARE grant to make the corn stalk nitrate test easier to use. Previously, the test had to be taken in standing corn, which meant a time-consuming process of walking through fields to collect samples. But the Cornell team found the test can be taken from stalks after harvest with the results adjusted to ensure accuracy. “This means you can zoom around your fields in a four wheeler and do it quickly,” Ketterings says. “Farmers save money because it takes them less time.”
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) LNE08-271, Use of Whole Farm Analysis to Reduce Nutrient Losses, Improve Nutrient Cycling, Carbon Status and Energy Use on Small Dairies in New York State , ENE09-112, Greater impact of advisor-farmer interactions through improved tools for whole-farm evaluation LNE11-307, Potassium and sulfur management of alfalfa; Farmer-driven testing of management methods and ONE12-162, Developing a practical guide to using the CSNT and ISNT for improved nitrogen balances on dairy farms .
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