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New York dairy makes stewardship ‘E-Z’

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 21 June 2018
great divide between watersheds

At Michael and Peter McMahon’s E-Z Acres in Homer, New York, herd growth has always occurred alongside an intensive focus on environmental stewardship, cow comfort and community outreach. The brothers, who purchased the farm from their parents in the mid-1980s, have grown their family’s original eight cows and 150 acres into the 2,500-acre farm, milking 800 head of registered Holsteins in a closed herd.

They’ve done so while improving genetics, enhancing cow welfare and protecting the aquifer, which runs under most of their land and provides water to the surrounding communities. If that isn’t enough, some of the farm’s land is in the Skaneateles Lake watershed, a drinking water source for Syracuse. The land lies within the Chesapeake Bay watershed too, with several streams collecting surface runoff.

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Their concern for manure management and soil health began with their father and his insistence of spreading manure on fields that needed it, not on those conveniently located. From these humble beginnings, E-Z Acres is now recognized as an outstanding example of dairy environmental stewardship. Most recently, the farm was a 2018 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award winner.

E-Z Acres farm aerial

“It does no good turn to abuse the environment,” Mike McMahon says. “Most dairy farms have similar mission statements: caring for the people, cow care, land stewardship. If people know who you are and that you’ve done your best for the community and the environment,” it is much less likely that your dairy will be seen as an undesirable neighbor.

The community here knows E-Z Acres. Mike has served on the Homer Planning Board for almost four decades. For 23 years, they’ve hosted area fifth grade students each year, allowing them to experience dairy farming up close. They host college students from Cornell University, Morrisville State College and the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill. The farm has been a case study dairy farm for Cornell University’s dairy environmental research since 1997.

Profitable stewardship

When they enrolled as a case study farm, they already believed that they were being careful stewards of their land. Soil testing showed that they were doing a good job.

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However, as they found out, “there is always room for improvement,” Mike says.

With a focus on doing no harm to the multiple water sources the farm’s environmentally sensitive location could impact, the McMahons have learned to let the land’s needs inform their farming decisions. They’ve learned to monitor everything, and to collect data that documents the results of their efforts.

They regularly test all of the wells supplied by the aquifer, as well as the surface water leaving the farm. To prevent excess nitrates and phosphorous, the family began regularly sampling soil from all of the fields. Manure is also tested, to determine its nutrient content.

“The complete cycle has a lot of moving parts, but basically we’re balancing the amount of the nutrients we import with our real animal and crop needs,” Edie McMahon, Mike’s wife, explains. “We’re importing fewer nutrients, using them more efficiently and realizing greater production returns. Our feed yields and quality have increased, so we’re having to buy less feed, our milk production has increased and our cows are healthier because they’re now getting a higher forage diet of home-raised feed.”

E-Z Acres management

The farm is a valley farm, with surrounding hills of tillable land. The lower lands are planted to corn and alfalfa. Appropriately timed applications of needed nutrients via precise manure management, combined with minimal tillage, has increased both crop yields and forage quality, reducing the amounts of purchased feed needed. These fields are cover-cropped, avoiding bare soils, reducing erosion and runoff and enhancing soil health.

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The sloped land is now planted to deep-rooted and long-lived grasses. The grasses protect soils from erosion and capture large amounts of nutrients from applied manure, all while producing high-quality feeds for the cows. Because this land is also located away from any homes, the odor concerns from liquid manure applications are minimized.

Utilizing satellite manure storage units, or frac tanks, located on outlying fields helps to better manage manure applications. Manure is transported via tanker to the satellite location, where it can then be applied as needed to these distant fields.

“When we’re spraying, we’re always following right behind to incorporate the manure,” Mike emphasizes.

The family has removed sensitive lands, such as those along more than 5 miles of stream frontage running through the farm, from production. They’ve planted 360 trees and shrubs to form a riparian buffer zone. The New York State Soil and Water Conservation program has been a vital resource for best management practices, as well as for grant funding for many stewardship projects.

“E-Z Acres has been on the forefront of agricultural environmental management in New York and nationally, working to monitor and protect local water supplies, install riparian buffers, practice soil conservation and significantly reduce phosphorous usage,” Ron Orhel, director of environmental outreach for the American Dairy Association, North East, who nominated the farm for their most recent award, says. “They were one of the first farms in the U.S. to practice precision feeding.”

Farm City Day 2013 at E-Z Acres

Infrastructure

In 1995, E-Z Acres built a six-row freestall facility with 14-foot sidewalls and a 3-foot open chimney system for improved ventilation, designed by Dan McFarland of Penn State. It was the first barn in the state built in this manner.

They are also laying claim to having “the safest manure system in the world. It is a completely closed system. The affluent can’t go anywhere,” Mike says.

This storage unit, built in 2006, is 16 feet deep, constructed below ground and holds over 3 million gallons of manure. It required 12 miles of rebar, which is encased in PVC and filled with poured concrete. The concrete floor is poured over a durable plastic liner, which was welded into place. Between the liner and the concrete, monitoring pipes with electronic alarms warn of any potential concerns and lead to three fully enclosed monitoring wells.

The manure storage is located 350 feet from the barn. It is slightly elevated above the level of the barn floor, designed so that manure will flow back up through the barn floor grates before it would overflow the storage tank. This is yet another safeguard, protecting the aquifer below the farm.

data records

At a $760,000 price tag, the unit was costly. But it demonstrates their commitment to doing no harm while farming on extremely sensitive lands and ensures the community knows the farm is a true steward.

“Environmental ethics and neighbor relations are integral to all farm management decisions,” Orhel advises. “The McMahons engage neighbors to educate them about management strategies and ensure amiable relationships.”

With nitrate levels improving in all of the aquifer’s wells – from 16 ppm in 1997 when they began testing to 10 ppm today – there is proof that the changes they’ve made to their cropping and manure management programs do matter. Today, their mass nutrient balance for both P and N is almost zero.

“I’ve always told farmers that our well sampling program ... has really pointed out the difference that we’ve made,” Mike concludes. “Be a known commodity, and don’t be afraid of your neighbors.”  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

See this article featuring Reinford Farms, another 2018 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award winner.

See more photos and information of all the 2018 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award winners by clicking here.

PHOTO 1: The “Great Divide” on E-Z Acres is the approximate place where the water on one side of Mike McMahon goes to Chesapeake Bay, while the other side runs to Skaneateles Lake.

PHOTO 2: An aerial view of E-Z Acres in Homer, New York.

PHOTO 3: The management team of E-Z Acres includes (left to right) Edie, son Neil, brother Pete, herd manager Ethan and Mike McMahon.

PHOTO 4: Cortland County Dairy Princess Mikayla McNeil and one of her Dairy Ambassadors serve milk punch to guests at the 2013 Farm-City Day at E-Z Acres.

PHOTO 5: The notebooks hold records of the soil and water tests done regularly on the farm to quantify the environmental impact. Improvements made to fertility management via manure management, conservation practices such as planting riparian buffers and native grasses, and reducing tillage are reflected in the data. Photos courtesy of E-Z Acres.

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