Sustainable Dairy Cropping Systems Designed to Produce Forage, Feed and Fuel

Posted: February 23, 2010

An interdisciplinary team of 12 Penn State and USDA-ARS researchers and educators were awarded the 2009 USDA NESARE Agroecosystems grant to evaluate cropping system strategies that can produce the forage, feed and fuel for an average-sized dairy farm in Pennsylvania.
Canola will be included in the crop rotation to provide fuel for a tractor and meal for the dairy ration. (Photo by Heather Karsten)

Canola will be included in the crop rotation to provide fuel for a tractor and meal for the dairy ration. (Photo by Heather Karsten)

The team is testing the hypothesis that a well-planned cropping system can minimize off-farm inputs and environmental impacts, and be productive, profitable and sustainable.

The cropping system is designed to: i) minimize nutrient and soil loss, build soil organic matter and nutrient pools and promote biological processes for nutrient acquisition, ii) enhance biological diversity and ecological interactions, and iii) be energetically efficient and productive. To produce the forage, feed and tractor fuel for an integrated 60 cow, 240 acre dairy farm, the Penn State-USDA-ARS team designed two diverse crop rotations. They then consulted with an Advisory panel to ensure that the cropping rotations are relevant to farmers and researchers. The Advisory panel includes dairy farmers, NRCS staff, a No-Till Alliance Representative, and researchers at the USDA-ARS Beltsville Agriculture Research Center in Maryland and The Rodale Institute where they have been conducting long-term farming systems. Based on the Advisory panel feedback, the team made some revisions and are now preparing to plant in spring 2010.

Disk Injector
Manure injection is one of the innovative practices being utilized in the cropping system experiment.

Using farm-scale equipment and manure from a neighboring dairy, the cropping system will be initiated at 1/20th scale on 12 acres of Penn State’s Agronomy Research Farm at Rock Springs. Cropping system strategies include two diverse, six-year rotations with legumes, cover crops, perennials, no-till, and manure injection. Canola will provide fuel for a Straight Vegetable Oil-powered tractor and meal for the dairy ration. Canola is integrated into both crop rotations to compare two rotation approaches for dairy farms. To reduce herbicide-use and herbicide resistance, the team is also evaluating a number of weed management practices including selective tillage, a cover crop roller-crimper, a high-residue cultivator, and companion crops.

Team members include Heather Karsten (PI), Douglas Beegle, William Curran, Ron Hoover, Peter Kleinman, and Curtis Dell, (Department of Crop and Soil Sciences & USDA-ARS University Park), Tom Richard (Agricultural and Biological Engineering), and Jeffrey Hyde (Agricultural Economics & Rural Sociology), Craig Altemose (Cooperative Extension Director Center Co.), Virginia Ishler (Dairy and Animal Sciences), John Tooker (Entomology), and Roger Koide (Horticulture).  To evaluate the performance of the cropping system strategies, the team will monitor performance indicator factors such as crop yield and quality, soil health, nutrient conservation, greenhouse gas emissions, weed, insect, and mycorrhizae populations; energy use and production; and farm profitability. Five graduate students, a project assistant, and other support staff will assist with the intensive field data collection. 

In addition, two dairy nutrition and production models will predict the performance of a virtual dairy herd from the crop yield and quality results. Whole-farm simulation models (I-farm and IFSM) will simulate some whole farm performance indicators including energy efficiency. Preliminary energetic efficiency analysis of the cropping system indicate that the system has the potential to produce all of the tractor fuel needs, and energetic analysis of the USDA-ARS Beltsville Agricultural Center farming systems results is currently underway.

Watch for announcements about project field days and other events at the Cropping Systems Rock Spring location in 2011 and 2012, and the upcoming farming systems website that will include links to the USDA-ARS Beltsville Agriculture Research Center in Maryland and The Rodale Institute Farming Systems research Farming Systems Trials.

By Heather Karsten, Associate Professor, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences