Conservation pays on US dairy farms, even in a weak economy

By Beth Newhart contact

- Last updated on GMT

“Dairy farmers in Pennsylvania and across the US are in the fourth year of an economic downturn in which many farmers are struggling to break even." Pic: EDF
“Dairy farmers in Pennsylvania and across the US are in the fourth year of an economic downturn in which many farmers are struggling to break even." Pic: EDF

Related tags: Dairy Farm, Dairy farmers, Dairy farming, Milk production, conservation, Research and development

In a collaboration between the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and four Pennsylvania dairy farmers, a new report finds that conservation practices generally result in a farm’s good economic health. But farmers can’t do it alone.

The EDF teamed up with accounting firm K·Coe Isom and agricultural consulting company TeamAg, Inc. to author a report​ that analyzes the impact of conservation on dairy farm budgets with four in-depth case studies.

In their work with dairy farmers in Pennsylvania, they found that conservation practices can result in financial benefits like reduced labor hours, savings on external feed and bedding, and lower vet bills due to improved herd health.

The most common practices improve manure storage, nutrient management, cover crops, conservation tillage and stream fencing. Co-authors Suzy Friedman of EDF and Laura Sands of K·Coe Isom said that overall, these efforts contribute to the economic well-being and resilience of dairy farms.

The farms participating in the case studies ranged from 40 to 750 cows, produced a variety of other crops, and included a mix of conservation practices and programs.

Though the startup costs of some practices can be high, the report says that farmers found these costs usually offset by savings in another budget category. Friedman and Sands emphasize the importance of accurate and frequent recordkeeping for both economic and conservation measures.

Sands said, “Too often, farmers miss or don’t quantify the economic benefits of conservation because it’s difficult to connect the agronomic and financial sides of any ag business. Farmers only discover the real value of conservation practices when they can see them in the context of their entire operation and tallied over multiple years, which takes time, expertise and commitment.”

Other benefits of conservation saw improved soil quality, more valuable manure and improved quality of forage. This resulted in higher crop yields, higher milk production and better herd health.

No two dairies are the same

In theory, conservation is one ideal solution for dairy farmers looking to improve their sustainability and overall production quality. But it’s also not realistic for everyone. The report advises that federal and state agencies, conservation districts and business partners need to step up in the process.

They should increase support for farm record-keeping platforms and educational opportunities for farmers that combine financial and conservation management. Not every farmer has immediate access to high-quality, reliable equipment.

Marilyn Hershey, chair of Dairy Management Inc, said, “Dairy farmers share a long-standing commitment to environmental stewardship and this report recognizes that we are doing our part to protect the planet’s natural resources.

“It also demonstrates that no two dairy farms are the same, underscoring the importance of partnerships that identify new practices and technology solutions that come with economic incentives and a positive environmental outcome.”

“Dairy farmers in Pennsylvania and across the US are in the fourth year of an economic downturn in which many farmers are struggling to break even. At the same time, the impacts of nutrient loss to the Chesapeake Bay are a major challenge for bay states, which face near-term water quality milestones,” ​the report said.

“Conservation is important to farmers’ economic viability and social license to operate, but they cannot do it alone. Action is needed across the value chain.”

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