University Park, Pa. — It may sound overly simplistic, but when it comes to feeding livestock, what goes into an animal greatly influences what comes out.
On that obvious principle is based a promising Penn State research initiative involving precision feeding of dairy cattle. Feed management is now a leading component of comprehensive nutrient-management plans, according to project leader Virginia Ishler, nutrient-management extension specialist in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
The Chesapeake Bay Commission has determined that, by far, the most cost-effective way to minimize the environmental impact of the large volumes of manure generated within the estuary's watershed is by adjusting feed formulation for poultry and livestock, Ishler noted. According to that commission, nitrogen reductions of 30 to 50 percent and phosphorus reductions of 40 to 60 percent are achievable using a variety of diet-modification techniques for poultry, dairy cattle and swine.
"Until recently, the focus has been on dealing with manure and its nutrients post-excretion," she said. "However, now we are focusing on research and on nutrition programs to better balance nitrogen and phosphorus being fed to dairy cows. The feeding management -- or how the ration is implemented and presented to the cows -- can greatly affect nutrient levels and utilization. But that is just one component."
The other component of the new enlightened management approach, Ishler explained, is utilizing as much home-grown feed as possible, especially forages, to minimize nutrients being imported onto a farm.
Penn State's Department of Dairy and Animal Science is involved in several precision-feeding projects across the commonwealth. One such project, conducted in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is combining both on-farm research and education.
Ishler, representing the Penn State Extension program Dairy Alliance, worked with a team of extension educators to develop the educational materials and design the program, which is funded by a Conservation Innovation Grant awarded by the U.S Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service.
"In this project, a Web-based instrument called 'Profitability Assessment Dairy Tool,' was developed and implemented by an extension team to help dairy producers," she said. "It evaluates the financial health of an operation and determines bottlenecks to profitability, which can be eased by starting precision feeding. Currently, there are approximately 500 dairy herds that have used or are using the tool."
With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Ishler and research assistant Erica Cowan also are collaborating with the University of Maryland on a project in the Monocacy Creek watershed. In the Pennsylvania portion of the watershed, in Adams County, a Penn State team is monitoring dairy farms to determine the correlation between precision feeding and financial health.
"Every three months, ration information is collected, and total mixed ration and feed/forage samples are analyzed," said Ishler. "We are also testing milk and monitoring urea nitrogen. Reports are sent back to the producer and their nutritionist after every sampling period to show where the herd is in relation to nitrogen and phosphorus goals."
In southwestern Pennsylvania, Ishler and Indiana County extension educator Eugene Schurman are working with 12 dairy producers and their nutritionists, collecting nutrition and feed-management information every other month. This project is funded by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, a USDA competitive grants program supporting agriculture that is profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities.
"Visits with the dairy producers and their nutritionists are conducted to relay results and to implement precision-feeding improvements," said Ishler.
Finally, Ishler and Lancaster County extension educator Sarah Dinh -- in collaboration with Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland and the Washington State University -- have implemented a program to certify feed-management planners. The effort has been supported by the Mid-Atlantic Water Program and USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Currently in the United States, there are 65 certified feed-management planners, and 57 are in the Northeast, Ishler pointed out. "Pennsylvania has the largest number at 30. This is the result of workshops conducted in the past two years in the mid-Atlantic region. There are ongoing workshops and continuing-education programs geared towards the certified feed-management planners.
"This is to prepare the feed nutritionists for writing plans as dairy producers sign up for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. We expect in the next few years that feed management will become a mandatory component of comprehensive nutrient-management plans."