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2022 Projects: Dairy Sustainability Key Performance Indicators

What opportunities are available to improve sustainability on your dairy farm?

Whole-farm analyses are key to regenerative agriculture, and environmental stewardship is a foundational pillar for animal agriculture's future. Our current approach using the whole-farm nutrient mass balance (NMB) evaluates N, P, and K nutrient use efficiency of participating farms. Experience shows that farms that pay attention to their whole-farm nutrient mass balance (NMB) tend to improve on those balances over time. Individual farm records show the improvements, especially in P management, and across the state we have been able to record a 20-30% reduction in N and P imports, translating into cost savings for the farms (greater economic sustainability), and a reduction in their environmental footprint. However, the dairy industry is increasingly asked to report more sustainability indicators, including ones related to greenhouse gas emissions, water use, water quality impacts, animal and plant production efficiencies, animal welfare, and biodiversity on farms. Additional key performance indicators (KPIs) are needed, as well as user-friendly and effective tools that accompany them.

In this project we are assessing a variety of KPI-related tools for their sustainability credentials (how comprehensive the tool is), their data input needs (amount and complexity of data), and the comparability of their results. We will also identify the key drivers of the results from each tool (e.g. crop yields, fertilizer use, feed purchases, herd replacement rate). This project will not only build on our existing understanding of dairy sustainability KPIs obtained from ongoing NMB work but will also help to focus on identification of management changes that have a positive impact on a range of dairy farm sustainability credentials. We then aim to develop recommendations for use of tools or specific KPIs that can be utilized by farmers to obtain robust and comprehensive sustainability assessments, and to accurately monitor the impact of management changes over time. This approach allows farms to set a roadmap for continuous improvement, meet the reporting requirements of co-operatives and retailers, and communicate better their current environmental achievements and future progress, while maintaining or improving dairy economic sustainability.

An additional key focus of this project is the education of high school students and undergraduate interns in whole-farm evaluation. The interns help to develop materials, collect farm information, analyze data, run software tools, and help produce summary reports for the participating farms, in collaboration with the Cornell University campus and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) teams. The interns also have the opportunity to gain knowledge on a range of dairy sustainability topics, assist with in-field data collection and sampling, write agronomy factsheets, and participate in other extension events. The students participate in project meetings and training sessions with those working on the dairy sustainability project and other NMSP projects, in addition to attending sessions with guest speakers actively working in dairy sustainability. They are guided in this by leading extension professionals, faculty, staff, and students, and get to interact with producers, agribusiness and other researchers. 

Our Current and Past Interns

Megan Lamb is a senior at Cornell University studying Agriculture Science and is from Hamilton, New York. Megan has enjoyed many activities through her college experience as an active sister of the Sigma Alpha Professional Agricultural Sorority, a member of the Cornell University Dairy Science Club. She is pursuing a concentration in education, as well as a minor in Horticulture. Megan chose to join the team in the summer of 2021 as a way to gain more industry and research experience in agriculture to bring into her agriculture classroom in the future. Megan looks forward to entering into a career in agriculture education and gaining more knowledge in dairy sustainability. In the summer of 2021, Megan was located at the Miner Institute in Chazy, New York evaluating soil and water quality records of the farm and the trends over time. Megan continues to work with us on high school curriculum development and is excited to be a part of this project and to learn valuable skills about the industry!

Corrine Brown is a current junior at Cornell University who grew up on a small hobby farm in Clifton Springs, New York raising beef cattle and pigs for freezer trade and show. Corrine studies Agriculture Science with a concentration in Business Management. Outside of her schoolwork, she is a member of the Cornell University Dairy Science Club and carries leadership roles as an active sister of the Sigma Alpha Professional Agricultural Sorority. Corrine joined the NMSP team in the Fall 2021 semester after transferring from SUNY Morrisville. At NMSP, Corrine works with the Dairy Sustainability Team, assisting with their Net Zero Project. In this project, Corrine runs diverse carbon scenarios through various nutrient mass balance software technologies to analyze the sustainability standards of different dairy farms. Corrine finds a true passion in wanting to be a part of improving agricultural systems through increasing a profit for the farmer, protecting the environment, and providing a better quality of life for the community without compromising resources for future generations of farmers to come. Her future career goals consist of participating in crop consulting and giving advice to farmers as to how they can improve their operations to be more sustainable.

Lydia Young was a senior at SUNY Morrisville majoring in Dairy Management and Agricultural Mechanics. As part of the Dairy Sustainability Key Performance Indicators project, she worked on determining the environmental footprints of feeds that are commonly used on dairy farms. Lydia grew up on a 700-cow dairy farm in Cortland County and plans to return to her home farm in a few years to manage crop production and machinery. She enjoys driving trucks in her free time, and she is currently working on getting her private pilot license. Post graduation, Lydia has continued to work with us and the project for one day a week this winter.

Megan Wittmeyer is a senior in Agricultural Sciences at Cornell University. She grew up on a small dairy farm in Erie County where she has milked cows every summer she can remember (until the summer of 2021!). Megan was part of the CCE Summer Internship Program working under Janice Degni with the CCE South Central NY Dairy and Field Crops team. After graduation she plans to continue working on her family farm and possibly pursue a career in extension. In her spare time, Megan enjoys working outside, cooking, and reading novels.

Mikala Anderson is a fifth-generation dairy and beef farmer. She lives in Deposit, New York and is a junior at Cornell University. Her major is Agricultural Science with a concentration in education. Mikala enjoys spending time helping on her family's farm and riding her horses. She wants to pursue ag education or work for 4H on livestock projects when she graduates college. in the summer of 2021 Mikala worked with Delaware County Cornell Cooperative Extension, researching the sustainability and environmental stewardship of organic and/or grass-fed dairy farms.

Jake Burri is currently a senior undergraduate at Cornell University, majoring in Environment & Sustainability and Biometry & Statistics. As an intern in the Dairy Sustainability Key Performance Indicators project, Jake's work focuses on assessing past, current, and feasible changes in practice for both nutrient mass balances (NMBs) and carbon emission scenarios for case-study farms. He will also create an economic and environmental cost-benefit analysis of different NMB and carbon footprint reduction strategies. Jake is originally from Southern California, and has an interest for environmental science and how it pertains to ecology, economics, agriculture, and other fields. He enjoys spending time outdoors by running, hiking, rowing, or whatever keeps him active, and focuses on incorporating sustainability in both his professional and personal life.

If you are interested in participating, contact Quirine Ketterings (qmk2@cornell.edu or 607-255-3061). You can also write to: Quirine Ketterings, Nutrient Management Spear Program, Department of Animal Science, Cornell University, 323 Morrison Hall, Ithaca NY 14853.

Goals

The NMSP works with partners to build on the success of the currently ongoing whole-farm NMB work by (1) evaluating multiple sustainability KPIs for 13 case-study dairy farms statewide; (2) providing dairy farmers with practical, whole-farm solutions that help to reduce their environmental footprint while improving farm efficiency and economics; (3) developing popular press articles and agronomy factsheets on evaluation tools and whole-farm assessments for dairy; (4) summarizing and presenting information about the available tools and main findings at extension meetings; (5) educating high school students and undergraduate interns in whole-farm evaluation; and (6) developing student internship and case-study farm impact stories to highlight student and farmer experiences with the project.

Funding Sources

This project has been sponsored by grants from Chobani, Northern NY Agricultural Development Program (NNYADP), Towards Sustainability Foundation, and Cornell Cooperative Extension Summer Internship Program.

Additional Resources

Farmer Impact Stories

Fact Sheets

Extension Articles

Journal Articles

  • Cela, S., Q.M. Ketterings, M., Soberon, C. Rasmussen, and K.J. Czymmek (2017). Upper Susquehanna watershed and New York State improvements in nitrogen and phosphorus mass balances of dairy farms. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 72(1):1-11. http://dx.doi.org/10.2489/jswc.72.1.1.
  • Van Almelo, J., Q.M. Ketterings, and S. Cela (2016). Integrating record keeping with whole-farm nutrient mass balance: A case study. Journal of Agricultural Science 8:22-32. DOI: doi:10.5539/jas.v8n6p22.
  • Cela, S., Q.M. Ketterings, K.J. Czymmek, M. Soberon, and C.N. Rasmussen (2015). Long-term trends of nitrogen and phosphorus mass balances on New York dairy farms. Journal of Dairy Science 98: 7052-7070.
  • Soberon, M., S. Cela, Q.M. Ketterings, C.N. Rasmussen, and K.J. Czymmek (2015). Changes in nutrient mass balances over time and related drivers for 54 New York dairy farms. Journal of Dairy Science 98: 5313–5329. http://dx.doi.org/10.3168/jds.2014-9236.
  • Cela, S., Q.M. Ketterings, K.J. Czymmek, M. Soberon, and C.N. Rasmussen (2014). Characterization of N, P, and K mass balances of dairy farms in New York State. Journal of Dairy Science 97: 7614–7632.
  • Soberon, M.A., Q.M. Ketterings, C.N. Rasmussen, and K.J. Czymmek (2013). Whole-farm nutrient balance calculator for New York dairy farms. Journal of Natural Resources and Life Science Education (Renamed Natural Science Education) 42:57-67.
  • Ketterings, Q.M., K.J. Czymmek, D.B. Beegle, L.E. Chase, and C.N. Rasmussen (2012). Systematic nutrient (im) balances in dairy farm systems of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. Journal of Agricultural Sciences 4:1-10. DOI:10.5539/jas.v4n11p.