NORCROSS, Ga. – Negative public attitudes toward ‘factory farms’ are driving today’s upsurge in regulation of nutrient management.
Modern livestock farms range widely in scale and in the way they manage their nutrients. But size does not mean everything.
Examples of both poor and excellent nutrient management can be found among small as well as large operations.
The positive side. However, there is a positive side to factory farming. Successful modern factories use inputs efficiently to make quality products, minimizing wastes and their impacts on the environment. They are accountable, keeping good records and assuring worker and public safety.
Why shouldn’t farming do the same? Farms differ from factories in that their resources include the biological as well as the physical – but that is all the more reason to embrace accountability.
Following the plans. Farms large and small are writing nutrient management plans. But will that be enough? Accountability demands a plan followed through and verified.
Information systems will eventually need to track nutrients and control associated risks through the whole farm enterprise. Agri-business has already begun providing services to assist.
Examples include site-specific soil sampling and precision liquid manure application, using global positioning and geographic information systems to modify, monitor and map rates of application. But even that is not enough.
Nutrient management accountability must recognize complexity. While nutrient balances are calculated easily, the associated risks and benefits to the agro-ecosystem are not.
Risks of water contamination by pathogens, nitrate and phosphorus depend on nutrient source, crop, soil, landscape, and the sensitivity of local watersheds.
Benefits of nutrients apply to both the yield and quality of the crop and also the indirect effects of contributing more crop carbon to the soil to improve its tilth. Controlling one risk may worsen another or reduce benefits.
The complexity demands involvement of knowledgeable professionals. Producers may need assistance to guide their nutrient management.
Professional crop advisers will help ensure that all the risks and benefits for each acre of land come to bear on each nutrient management decision.
Technologies. They will help apply technologies like site-specific application, manure treatment, and new designs of hauling and application equipment to minimize risk and maximize benefits.
Among farms, both large and small, some may not be able to comply. The burden will differ depending on the chemistry of the soil, the slope of the landscape, and the sensitivity of the watershed.
The operations that can give the most attention to growing good crops and sustaining soil will be those that find it easiest.
Trying to comply. Large farms may have difficulty making the economics of manure nutrient transport work. Small farms may find water quality protection too costly to afford.
The key to success will be the ability to manage for high yields of quality crops using all sources of nutrients for maximum resource use efficiency. Farms too large or too small to focus on yields will become history.
Nutrient management planning is scale neutral. For farms large and small, it demands the same effort per unit of land and animal. But it won’t treat all farms the same.