Farm-System Modeling to Evaluate Environmental Losses, Profitability, and Best Management Practice Cost-Effectiveness

Animal Manure Management November 18, 2013|Print

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Abstract

To meet Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load requirements for agricultural pollution, conservation districts and farmers are tasked with implementing best management practices (BMPs) that reduce farm losses of nutrients and sediment. The importance of the agricultural industry to the regional economy highlights the need for determining cost-effective BMP solutions given the geographical and operational characteristics of these farms. This study evaluated both the environmental risk and farm profitability of common farm-level management practices for three major farm types in the region: crop, tractor-based (“English”) dairy, and horse-drawn (“Amish”) dairy.

Whole-farm simulations were conducted with the Integrated Farm System Model, a multi-year, process-based simulation model, to facilitate a broader understanding of the challenges for the farmers in finding financially feasible and environmentally sustainable solutions. Strip cropping, conservation tillage, cover cropping, and nutrient management BMPs generally reduced nutrient and sediments losses from all three farm types. However, scenarios that reduced phosphorus and sediment losses generally promoted more leaching of nitrogen. Double cropping corn with winter wheat combined with improved nutrient management was the most profitable practice for the crop farm, increasing average farm profitability by 92% over the baseline condition, while reducing combined nitrogen and total phosphorus losses by 13% and 23%, respectively.

Net profitability of the dairy farm was increased only by decreasing manure storage or using improved nutrient management. For the horse-drawn dairy, cover-cropping and harvest of rye silage combined with increased nutrient management provided the greatest increase in farm profit (+8%) and also reduced phosphorus and nitrogen losses.

Horse-drawn machinery throughputs and increased human labor hours were required to simulate a typical Lancaster Old Order Amish dairy operation in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Why Study Farms As a System?

Because southeastern Pennsylvania is a significant environmental contributor of the Chesapeake Bay, agricultural land management is under intense scrutiny by restoration groups. It is imperative to improving water quality that economically and culturally acceptable nonpoint source control practices be explored, developed, and evaluated. This is true for “contemporary” crop and dairy farms in the region as well as those that are more conservative in their use of electrical- or gas-powered farming equipment, described in this study as “Lancaster Old Order Amish”. Evaluation from a whole-farm perspective enables practical assessments of tradeoffs among management practice combinations and is particularly relevant when effectiveness relies on the willingness and dedication of the farm operators.

What Did We Do?

The expertise of regional conservationists and pooled results from farmer surveys were used to determine three major farm types in southeastern Pennsylvania and design potentially acceptable management combinations for each type. Three baseline farms were described: 400 ha corn-soy-wheat crop farm; 100 cow, 120 ha contemporary dairy; and 24 ha Lancaster Old Order Amish dairy. Whole-farm impacts were assessed with the Integrated Farm System Model (IFSM), a multi-year, process-based simulation model. Environmental tradeoffs between nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment losses were evaluated and financial cost-benefits through change in annual net return for the farmer were analyzed.

What Have We Learned?

Strip cropping, conservation tillage, cover cropping, and improved nutrient management generally reduced nutrient and sediment losses from all three farm types. However, scenarios that reduced phosphorus and sediment runoff losses generally increased nitrogen leaching to groundwater. Double cropping corn and winter wheat under improved nutrient management was the most profitable combination for the crop farm, increasing average farm profitability by 92% over the baseline while reducing combined nitrogen and total phosphorus losses by 13% and 23%, respectively. Net profitability of the contemporary dairy farm was increased only by decreasing manure storage or using improved nutrient management. For the Lancaster Old Order Amish dairy, cover-cropping and harvest of rye silage combined with increased nutrient management provided the greatest increase in farm profit (+8%) and also reduced phosphorus and nitrogen losses.

Future Plans

Cost-effective recommendations from a whole farm perspective that account for unique characteristics of particular farm types can aid officials in determining locally agreeable methods for efficiently addressing regional priority pollutants. As farms adopt and implement suggested management changes, additional management practices of interest can be evaluated. Also, IFSM is being expanded to consider air emissions and carbon sequestration effects of the management practices.

Authors

Tamie L. Veith, Agricultural Engineer, USDA-ARS, tamie.veith@ars.usda.gov

Andrew D. McLean, Water Resources Designer, McCormick Taylor, Inc.

C. Alan Rotz, Agricultural Engineer, USDA-ARS

James M. Hamlett, Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, The Pennsylvania State University

James S. Shortle, Distinguished Professor of Agricultural and Environmental Economics, The Pennsylvania State University

Additional Information

Integrated Farm System Model: http://www.ars.usda.gov/Main/docs.htm?docid=8519

McLean, A. D., 2012. Modeling best management practices on representative farms in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Master’s thesis, PA State University, University Park, PA. https://etda.libraries.psu.edu/paper/14093/, available Dec. 05, 2012.

Acknowledgements

This work contributes to the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), jointly funded, coordinated, and administered by United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Agricultural Research Service, and National Institute for Food and Agriculture. We would like to thank Mike Hubler and Larry Baum from Dauphin County Conservation District and officials at Lancaster and Lebanon County Conservation Districts for their advice and guidance categorizing and characterizing farms of Dauphin County and southeastern Pennsylvania. Thanks also to Kristen Saacke-Blunk and Matt Royer from Conewago Creek Collaborative Conservation Initiative for their time and input.  Mention of trade names or commercial products in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information and does not imply recommendation or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

 

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