CALIFORNIA DAIRIES PROVE CULTIVATION TECHNIQUES COULD SAVE MILLIONS AND PROTECT CLEAN AIR AND WATER
February 7, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO, CA — At Zylstra Dairy in Turlock, Calif., Andy Zylstra improved the dairy's profitability through innovative farming techniques that protect clean air and water – techniques that could save millions annually if implemented by dairies throughout California's Central Valley according to a study by Sustainable Conservation. Dairy farmers can begin right now – with the spring planting – to use these methods in their own operations and reap the economic and environmental benefits.
"Facing the prospect of tougher regulations, California dairy producers rose to the challenge and worked with Sustainable Conservation and University of California Cooperative Extension to test the profitability of farming practices that can benefit the environment," said Kristen Hughes, Dairies Project Manager for Sustainable Conservation. "Sustainable Conservation's 2005 pilot project demonstrated the economic and environmental value of using conservation tillage techniques to 'triple crop' – to grow three forage crops per year instead of two."
A dozen dairy farmers conducted field trials in partnership with Sustainable Conservation and U.C. Cooperative Extension in 2005 and typically reduced their total costs by $28 per acre. They saved money on feed purchases by growing a third forage crop on their land. They saved money on fuel and labor because conservation tillage involves fewer tractor passes than traditional cultivation techniques. The upside for the environment? Triple cropping utilizes more of the dairies' manure as fertilizer and reduces the risk of excess manure nutrients reaching local waterways or groundwater. And, conservation tillage dramatically reduces the amount of dust released into the air by tractor passes – by up to 80%.
"The more feed you get off the land, whether it be from corn, oats or sorghum-sudan, the more nitrogen you can take up and the more feed you have for your cows," said Zylstra. "We planted two corn crops and one oats, and harvested 50 tons per acre on 76 acres, about 3,800 tons total. That's about 30% more than our typical yield." Zylstra is also President of the California Dairy Campaign, a producer organization.
Sustainable Conservation estimates that Zylstra's extra corn crop increased nitrogen uptake – absorption of the major nutrient in cow manure – by 125 pounds per acre, or 9,500 pounds farm-wide. That means the extra forage crop recycled more of the manure's nitrogen and kept the nitrogen from harming local groundwater or waterways.
John Knutson of J&B Dairy in Modesto, Calif. reported, "I can't believe how much nitrogen the additional crops of sorghum-sudan removed on my farm. If you have a nitrogen problem, this method should take care of it." Knutson harvested four cuttings of sorghum-sudan and one cutting of triticale.
While both triple cropping and conservation tillage have been practiced in the Central Valley for years, combining the two approaches is a new farming strategy. With conservation tillage, farmers plant the next crop right on top of the stubble of the first crop, thereby saving time, labor and fuel by reducing tractor passes and other cultivation work.
"These pilot trials proactively address the concerns that California dairy producers share with the rest of us: having clean water to drink, clean air to breathe and a profitable business to support our families," said Ed Burton, California State Conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "These innovative trials represent two of the types of conservation management options for which NRCS provides technical and financial assistance. NRCS has recently pledged $10 million to assist livestock producers with manure management in 2006."
Jeff Mitchell, a U.C., Davis Agronomist and leading expert on conservation tillage said, "California dairymen have really shown ingenuity and tenacity in the last couple of years in adapting and refining a variety of conservation tillage approaches, and they're making these techniques work in their dairy forage production systems."
Ladi Asgill, Agricultural Economist with Sustainable Conservation, explained, "The participating dairy farmers were impressed by the results of the pilot program. They recommend that each farmer test these techniques on a small portion of their land, see what works best for their particular situation and then expand those practices."
The triple cropping pilot program is part of an ongoing partnership between the dairy industry, Sustainable Conservation and U.C. Davis Cooperative Extension to find, implement and promote dairy practices that are both environmentally and economically sound.
"California dairy farmers are learning first-hand how to enhance their profitability while they protect the environment," Asgill said.
To learn more about triple cropping, conservation tillage and Sustainable Conservation's 2006 program, contact Ladi Asgill in Sustainable Conservation's Modesto office, 209-576-7729.
About Sustainable Conservation
Sustainable Conservation partners with business, agriculture and government leaders to find practical ways that the private sector can protect clean air, clean water and healthy ecosystems. The independent nonprofit organization leads powerful collaborations that produce lasting solutions and sustain the vitality of both the economy and the environment. Recent accomplishments include: demonstrating conservation tillage, which decreases particulate air pollution while reducing farmers' energy and labor costs; establishing a set of business practices for automobile recyclers to keep toxic materials out of waterways; and creating a regulatory framework for private landowners to get prompt one-stop approval of sound habitat restoration projects.