Virginia Ishler Livestock & Environment

Agriculture is an evolving industry.

There are events playing out that many of us never imagined happening.

It was assumed that dairy and meat would always be food item choices for feeding our families. However, as people become further removed from agriculture, there is a reduced understanding about how food is produced. Increasing public demand for transparency on animal welfare and environmental impacts is challenging production agriculture. Alternative food sources are being researched that do not include animals. Some think removing livestock from the food production equation would solve the nutrient management problem.

Education about production agriculture is going to be the biggest hurdle to our survival. We are currently struggling with this issue, and as time goes on it will get worse.

Focusing on the manure management aspect, even if the end-game was to have zero animals and zero manure, what would fill that spot?

Most people live in the moment and think short-term, but what about the long-term implications? If the worst-case scenario played out that our diets would consist of all plant and fake dairy and meat products, what would happen to the land? What other businesses or developments would move in?

Land that remains in crop production will need fertilized, but without manure it will be difficult to replace organic matter. If land is used primarily for grain crops, then the strategies for diverse crop rotations will be minimized. This opens the door for insects and weeds to infiltrate the system and create a lot of problems. Challenges are already arising from corn and soybean rotations and their impact on quality and quantity.

Transforming land into concrete and development is not going to solve the nutrient management problem. People generate waste and the same concerns associated with animals will happen with human waste management facilities. It has been noted through published research and this column numerous times that pharmaceuticals excreted in human waste is significant and this has implications to water quality and aquatic life. Even in the central region of Pennsylvania, numerous odor complaints have been reported from waste water treatment plants as they are undergoing construction. The complaints are identical to those who live near an animal production area. Eliminating animals is not going to eliminate water and air quality issues.

The most pressing issue on the radar is phase III of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan, where goals set for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment need to be met by 2025. One aspect that has gotten my attention lately is the educational background of advisers to dairy and livestock producers, especially in relation to nutrient and conservation practices. Many have an education in biology or environmental science, and this does not necessarily relate to real world production agriculture. In no way am I implying that they don’t appreciate what is happening in the industry right now or have a broad understanding of the issues, but in livestock agriculture it all comes down to the details. It is no different from me having a basic understanding on environmental issues, but I am in no way an expert on testing and measuring metrics in streams and groundwater.

One example of detail that has implications on cropping practices and nutrient management are features related to the cropping enterprise and the success or failure of double/cover cropping. Over the years, the Extension dairy business management team has been determining success by examining quality, quantity and costs related to various strategies. One aspect is interpreting a forage analysis report and determining if the feed is appropriate for the animal being fed and if the cost to produce the feed is economical. This encompasses all the management aspects to define if a conservation practice is working for the producer, not just the environment. Based on my experience, advisers understanding this level of detail are more the exception than the rule.

If we truly want to meet the nutrient reduction goals set forth by EPA, every one of us working with producers needs to walk in their shoes.

Virginia “Ginny” Ishler is a nutrient management specialist and the manager of Penn State University’s dairy complex.