DURHAM, N.H. — University of New Hampshire researchers have received a significant grant to study the university’s Organic Dairy Research Farm as a sustainable closed agro-ecosystem, exploring viable strategies for becoming energy independent.
The $380,000 three-year grant, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education program, aims to explore whether closing energy and nutrient cycles could help small family dairy farms in the Northeast survive economic vulnerabilities.
The study comes as rising energy, feed and capital investment costs shrink the already narrow profit margin of dairy agriculture in the Northeast, threatening the regional sustainability of the industry.
“In a closed system, the only thing leaving the farm is the milk,” said John Aber, professor of natural resources at University of New Hampshire and the principal investigator on the grant.
“The goal is to see whether we can have a closed-nutrient-cycle and energy-independent organic dairy.”
In a closed system, for instance, cow manure fertilizes the fields on which the herd grazes. Sawdust from woodlands on the University of New Hampshire’s 300-acre farm might be used for animal bedding, which is becoming increasingly expensive; woodlands might also provide fuel for small cogeneration plants. Methane digestion could produce usable methane from manure.
The first step for Aber, his faculty co-investigators and University of New Hampshire students who are working on the project, is to assess energy and nitrogen budgets and balances.
Nitrogen, he said, is the nutrient more critical to plant growth in the Northeast than any other; it comes from rainfall but can also be replaced by legumes like soybeans or clover.
“If you want to maximize dairy production and dairy output, you need to replace the nitrogen leaving the farm in milk,” he adds.
In the second and third years of the grant, the researchers will look at alternative ways to close the energy and nutrient cycles.
This past spring, five University of New Hampshire undergraduates and a graduate student worked with Aber to study nitrogen flows and energy inputs and outputs.
Results of those studies suggested that both energy independence and a closed nitrogen system could be achieved through intensive management of manure; changing the bedding method of the farm’s 40 cows; increasing the cows’ time on pasture; and growing grain, hay bedding and silage on-site instead of purchasing them from external sources.
This research will point the University of New Hampshire — and, Aber and his collaborators hope, organic dairy farmers from around the Northeast — toward alternative farm management practices that could lead to more stable economic outcomes for small family farms.