Virginia Ishler Livestock & Environment

Pennsylvania is working on meeting goals for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment reductions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Nitrogen is the nutrient of greatest concern because the state is 37% short of its goal.

The ways Pennsylvania agriculture has changed and will change could have a big influence in agricultural runoff.

The release of USDA’s 2017 Ag Census presents a somber reality about the past 20 years.

In Pennsylvania, the largest increase in the number of farm operations occurred in the categories of 1 to 9.9 acres and 1,000 or more acres. Losses occurred in all the other categories in between.

Over 5,000 dairy operations left, along with 600 beef and 1,500 hog farms.

The number of sheep farms increased by over 350, and layer operations increased by over 4,000.

As a percent of the total operations, dairy farms fell from almost 31% in 1997 to 19% in 2017.

Layer operations increased from 14% to 26%. The other animal operations remained about the same.

The cropland numbers also show some interesting trends.

Total harvested acres have dropped from 4.2 million to 3.9 million. Of the main production crops, acres of corn grain have dropped 6%, corn silage by 28% and hay-crop by 17%.

Even though harvested acres have been lost, amounts harvested has increased.

Corn grain went from an average of 96 bushels per acre to 152 bushels per acre. Corn silage increased from 13 tons per acre to 19 tons per acre.

Soybeans have been the most telling, with an acreage increase of 79%. Average production went from 37 bushels per acre to almost 49 bushels per acre.

Quantifying these changes over the past decades raises the question of what animal agriculture will look like in another 20 years, in 2037.

How will changes in animal agriculture affect efforts to improve impaired watersheds?

The Penn State Extension dairy business management team has speculated that animal agriculture is moving to the extremes — the small-scale and large-scale operations — with the middle section losing operations.

This could have significant implications for manure management and precision feeding.

Moving toward the large scale makes sense from a financial standpoint. However, public perception is that large-scale farming is the culprit for environmental issues.

The reality is that the larger-scale farms are best situated to handle and comply with government policies and regulations.

It will be the smaller-scale farms with potentially greater than 2 animal equivalent units per acre that will be problematic in managing nutrients.

This divergence in animal agriculture will probably continue as the dairy industry struggles with unsustainable margins.

As both cropping and animal enterprises become increasingly efficient on a smaller land base, what will be taking their place and how will that affect the environment?

Not that we have the answers, but maybe we should be thinking more seriously about that question.

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