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The View from Here: The 55-minute stage of the hour

Mike Gangwer Published on 06 November 2014

The planning process requires a lot of effort. I often say or write that if we have one hour to plan, then 55 minutes is committed to inventory, evaluation and developing options. The options or alternatives provide the landowner with choices.

Decisions are made by the landowner, not the planner. Our role is providing the options based upon acceptable standards that meet the lawful requirements of participation in a USDA farm bill program such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP).

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Where do these options come from? To be sure, they come from many sources. Good planning requires gathering help. Good planners are comfortable with asking others for help and insight – to do otherwise puts the landowner at a disadvantage.

Later this morning, several of our staff with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service and I are visiting a dairy farm. We are not meeting with the dairyman; he is busy making hay on another farm.

During a lengthy discussion with the dairyman several days ago, we talked about the resource concerns and how we will plan to mitigate them. We have already done much of the inventory work, and the evaluation includes where the resource concerns are and when during the year are they most degrading.

This may seem odd language, but all planners are looking for leaks, discharges and runoff of a particular contaminant (for example, manure nutrients or pathogens, organic acids from silage leachate) on production area site (farmstead) and the land application sites (crop and pasture fields).

Many times the resource concern is a function of time of year or perhaps after a rainfall event. Nevertheless, the planner is attempting to close the system, so to speak, by containing the contaminant in such a way that a resource concern is avoided: We do not have a pollutant event.

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One of the more difficult components of planning is finding the options that will mitigate this potential event. This is difficult for two reasons. One, every farm is different and in some cases dramatically different from even the farm across the road.

We cannot boilerplate the option list; yes, we do have some good ideas and rationale for addressing certain events, but many times we have to be creative. Two, no landowner or dairyman manages the operation the same as the landowner across the road.

The classic example is handling manure in the context of storage. All manure is stored … even manure that is freshly deposited from a herd of animals on pasture. In this scenario, manure enters the surface soils immediately (urine) or resides on the pasture surface for a short period of time (feces).

The dairyman we are visiting with this morning has a daily haul operation and therefore uses the cropfield as a storage site. We inventory the fields and evaluate if there is a resource concern, not only at the time of application but later if the manure is still on the surface of the field.

The other context is a manure storage facility on the production area site. We will suggest this option when the inventory and evaluation of both sites shows that for a period of time of more than a year, the landowner should store manure instead of land-apply.

Therefore, the term “storage” is relative to the fate of manure generated by the animal herd at the time of excretion. It is not meant to be relative to the size of a structure on the production area site.

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For our work this morning, we are thinking about what options might help the landowner take better care of his cows in the context of resource concerns. A packed-dirt exercise area sits adjacent to the tiestall barn.

The dairyman uses a mixer wagon and commodity feeding including corn and alfalfa silage in an Ag-Bag. However, the TMR is carted by hand-cart into the tiestall barn twice a day. This task takes about three hours per day for the 60-cow to 70-cow herd.

We are planning a covered barnyard to mitigate a resource concern that results when rain falls on the dirt exercise area and flows downslope to a water course, which eventually flows into a large river system.

The dairyman would like to have a feeding rail on the long side of the structure so cows can eat and his feeding time is dramatically shortened. We do not build housing, as in freestalls, so the dairy herd will still be milked and housed in the tiestall barn.

Our question is this: What happens when the cows are done eating and want to lay down somewhere? Our covered barnyard is not sized for a bedding pack and we would not typically recommend this method of housing for lactating cows.

The dairyman suggested allowing the cows to have access to a nearby field; this creates another resource concern and generally the cows will not want to be laying down on a wet or snow-covered surface in winter.

I have asked the Cornell folks to visit this site and help me work through what options we can suggest to the dairyman. My guess is this: We will recommend continued feeding as he does now, although some hay could be fed along a feeding rail.

But access to the covered barnyard is more for exercise and heat detection rather than consuming a TMR and finding a place to lie down. Obviously, one other option is building a parlor and freestall barn, but the dairyman had ruled this out from the onset.

Planners should seek out others for help and insight. No matter how confident we may be in our ability to think these options through, another set of experienced eyes is essential. Again, our objective here is giving the dairyman the best suite of options or alternatives possible.

I am meeting with the dairyman next week to present a list of options. He will pick one and if unable to decide we will go back to work. The work may include visiting other farms and reaching out to other insightful people.

We are in the 55-minute stage of the hour. I do not worry about how long this takes. When in fact the dairyman or landowner makes a decision, it is the one we plan for. And more importantly, it is the one he or she implements and performs long after we have left the driveway.

We have to get this right. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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