Moving Virginia Dairy Farms Toward Phosphorus Balance

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Virginia Tech


Sustainability for Virginia dairy farms requires balancing phosphorus (P) imports and exports at the farm-gate level. Balancing P helps prevent further accumulation of P in farm soils through routine applications of manure, which over time contributes to surface water quality issues. The objectives of this research centered on guiding dairy farms in Virginia toward lower, more sustainable P balance, and without adversely impacting profitability. First, the state of P balance had to be determined for a sample of dairy farms, including risk factors for excessively high P balance. Second, a repeated assessment of P balance on those dairy farms sought to determine any key factors of change in P balance between years. Lastly, a small Virginia dairy farm was used as a case farm to evaluate whether or not it could reduce its P balance while maintaining or improving farm profitability. An initial assessment of 58 dairy farms in Virginia showed that 75% of farms could operate with a P balance less than 18.7 kg ha-1. The two risk factors that led to excessively high P surpluses were the use of poultry litter and excessive P imported with purchased feed. The repeated assessment included 30 of the 58 original dairy farms. Increases of 1.0 kg P ha-1 of total P imports and exports were respectively correlated to a mean P balance increase of 0.76 kg ha-1 and a mean P balance decrease of 0.43 kg ha-1, suggesting that changes in P imports affect changes in P balance more than changes in P exports. Reduced poultry litter use was highly correlated to reduced P balance, and increasing cow manure exports also reduced P balance for the farms with the opportunity. As a significant portion of the farms assessed were small (less than 200 milking cows), a case farm of 105 cows on 100 acres was used to explore how farm profitability could be affected as P balance was reduced through additional acres, increased crop production, and with a grazing-based farming strategy. Results from partial budget analysis showed that after expanding the land base from 100 to 150 acres for crop production, the change in potential net return ranged from $-0.90 to $1.26/cwt of milk, with accompanying changes in P balance ranging from -9.0 to -14.7 lbs/ac. The analysis also showed that changes in potential net returns after converting to a grazing-based system ranged from $-2.14 to $1.39/cwt, with greater change in P balance ranging from -9.7 to -17.8 lbs/ac. The most profitable strategy, generally, for this farm seemed to be expanding the land base and growing a cash crop. Phosphorus balance on Virginia dairy farms can be reduced, potentially without negative impacts on farm net return, though challenges remain for farms with limited land or areas with high density of animal agriculture.



Phosphorus balance, dairy farm, Sustainability, profitability