Conservation Can Put Dollars In Dairy Farmers’ Pockets, Report Shows

Partnerships, both formal and informal, can help dairy farmers in their efforts to adopt conservation measures to improve soil and water quality. ( Farm Journal File Photo )

A new report released on Monday, How conservation makes dairy farms more resilient, especially in a lean agricultural economy, addresses the successful adoption of conservation measures by four Pennsylvania dairy farmers.

Equally important, the report shows how financial and technical support provided by a loose coalition of partners in the food industry supply chain and others helped the farmers successfully bridge the divide that often exists between adopting conservation measures and making a return-on-investment.

“The farmers that we worked with all experienced savings and reduced costs based on labor, fuel costs, as well as improved herd health,” says Chris Sigmund, president of TeamAg Inc., an agriculture consulting firm in Pennsylvania with expertise in securing funding.

The Environmental Defense Fund and K·Coe Isom partnered to develop the report, which is available here:

Some of the key savings, by farmer, include:

Farmer A experienced several economic benefits from implementing conservation practices with assistance from EQIP and Ducks Unlimited. • A manure separator delivered significant benefits, including reduced mastitis, reduced bedding costs and reduced mortality. Cost savings included $1,000 per week in bedding costs, $51,000 per year in veterinary costs and $7,225 per year in reduced mortality.

Farmer B observed immediate water quality impacts from implementing low-cost conservation measures like no-till. • Farmer B experienced a significant yield increase from implementing no-till, which eliminated his need to purchase nearly $15,000 in feed per year. • Farmer B saw a reduction in veterinary visits and bills due to improved feed quality estimated at $2,000-3,000 per year.

Farmer C’s case provides an example of the significant value that grant and cost share programs like PennVest and NRCS’s EQIP program can provide by enabling farmers to implement these key conservation infrastructure projects.• Manure storage made a huge difference in Farmer C’s ability to get value out of manure, apply it when needed and when environmentally appropriate, and save on purchased feed by boosting yield.

Farmer D gained substantial monthly savings from some of his larger conservation implementations such as an anaerobic digester and manure separator, including 25,000 kW of energy per month from the digester and monthly savings of more than $3,000 from not buying wood shavings for bedding from the separator. • Transitioning to no-till led to numerous benefits, including estimated labor cost savings of $44,100 per year and fuel cost savings of $2,625 per year.

Case studies were done with each of the four farmers—whose operations vary from milking 40 cows to 750 cows. The studies focused on five of the most common conservation practices for reducing soil erosion and nutrient loss from dairy farms in Pennsylvania: manure storage, stream fencing, cover crops, conservation tillage and nutrient management.

Each of the farmers adopted one or more of the practices, which were implemented based on their respective conservation and nutrient management plans. The plans were the first thing each of the farms developed or refined, according to Lindsay Reames, with the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association.

She notes that, in her experience, dairy farmers often see the conservation gaps that exist on their operations – where they currently stand in the process of implementing measures that improve soil health and water quality and where they want to be. In that no-man’s land of the middle are the hurdles that dairy farmers often have to bridge to reach their conservation goals. These include contradictory or burdensome legislative policies, cumbersome application processes and paperwork, and high levels of out-of-pocket costs on the front end.

To that end, a number of groups and individuals helped the farmers, essentially funding 100% of the cost of the conservation and nutrient plans, for starters.

“Through the partnership with Turkey Hill Dairy and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, we were able to get a conservation innovation grant for just under half a million dollars,” Reames adds.

With Sigmund and TeamAg’s help, additional funding totaling $1.5 million was secured for adopting conservation measures.

“We’re using that directly on our member farms to invest in practices such as manure storage, barnyard stabilization, planting buffers and other practices,” Reames says. “They're going to directly impact the local streams and waterways within the community and downstream improve the quality of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” she adds

The Chesapeake Bay is a 64,299-square-mile drainage basin spanning six states and supporting a vibrant regional economy. Some researchers say the biggest threat to the bay’s long-term economic and environmental viability is pollution from rivers and streams, largely from nutrient and sediment runoff from farms.

The final analysis of the four case studies shows the economic benefits conservation practices can provide when viewed across the full farm budget, incorporating labor, herd health and yield impacts over time, and highlights the importance of good recordkeeping to take full advantage of economic benefits.

The report on the studies was a key topic of discussion at the Sustainable Agriculture Summit happening in Indianapolis this week, where the state’s dairy industry has grown aggressively in recent years including the arrival of Walmart’s first-ever milk facility in the state last year.

Financial support for the study was provided by The Campbell Foundation.

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