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        Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Livestock Producers Cut Pollution and Increase Profits

Farm Management Update, June 1997

By Drs. Jim Pease and Darrell Bosch of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Virginia Tech

Does it pay for livestock farmers to adopt nutrient management? Our research says, "YES!" The bottom line is that nutrient management planning can be a win-win proposition for many Virginia livestock producers by reducing potential nitrogen losses to streams and groundwater while possibly increasing farm profits.

In research funded by the Division of Soil and Water Conservation (DSWC), we looked at four Virginia livestock farms which have adopted nutrient management plans with the assistance of a DSWC specialist. The farms include a dairy in the southwest, a dairy in the Shenandoah Valley, a swine operation in the southeast, and a poultry operation in the Piedmont. We recorded soil data for each field, collected historical weather data for the area, and interviewed the farmers about their before-plan and after-plan farming practices. We were then able to estimate the effects of the nutrient management plan on field-level nitrogen losses and farm profits.

A management practice adopted by all farms was to reduce nitrogen fertilizer applications according to the nutrient content of manure applied. One dairy installed a manure pit and now applies manure more evenly to crop and pasture land. The other dairy uses pre-sidedress nitrogen testing and splits nitrogen applications. The swine producer constructed manure storage and now applies manure on most crop land. The poultry producer constructed litter storage sheds and now sells excess litter. In addition, a poultry mortality composter has been constructed and is in use.

We estimate that nitrogen available for plant growth from this year's manure and fertilizer application plus residual nitrogen from previous applications was reduced by an average of 33 to 95 pounds per acre over the four farms. Despite reducing nutrient applications, the farmers reported that crop yields were unchanged after implementing the plan. Changes in nitrogen availability and other changes in management practices reduced potential nitrogen losses by 23 to 45 percent from before-plan levels (Table 1).

Reducing nitrogen pollution was just half the good news. Economic analysis of all costs and savings showed that farm profits actually increased by $400 to $7,300 after the plan. For two of the farms, the additional per-acre profit for the acreage covered by the nutrient management plan was less than $5 per acre, but for the other two farms the additional per-acre profit was $15 and $65. Profit increases were primarily due to reducing commercial fertilizer purchases of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash. As one farmer-participant stated, "Nutrient management planning makes good money and good sense."

Table 1.

Changes after nutrient management plan N available
N losses
Farm profit
SW Dairy -33-27+$400
Shenandoah Valley Dairy -95-33+$4,600
SE Swine -39-45+$3,000
Piedmont Poultry -51-23+$7,300

Even though nitrogen losses were cut, only one farm achieved the 40 percent reduction target associated with Chesapeake Bay program goals. Further research may show how larger cuts in nutrient losses can be achieved by improving nutrient management planning without harming farm profits. Detailed examination of the Shenandoah Valley dairy showed that nitrogen losses could have been reduced by 44 percent from pre-plan losses without reducing profits if more in-depth procedures were used to route manure away from environmentally sensitive fields.

Erosion control is critical to reducing pollution of rivers and streams. Approximately two-thirds of the nitrogen losses on these farms are in sediment runoff from fields. Nitrogen losses could be reduced further by implementing erosion-reducing practices such as terraces, strip cropping, and riparian buffers. We'll continue to examine the dollars and cents of such conservation investments. For now, we're happy to say that nutrient management plans can pay their way on the livestock farm.

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