Sustainability on Michigan farms

Through integrated systems that are site specific, Michigan farmers are practicing sustainability.

In my years with Michigan State University Extension, I have heard sustainability used many times, and depending upon the context and the individual, it has had various meanings. Some individuals share a very narrow definition that fits with their particular view on things, while others share a broad view that becomes a bit harder to define.

The definition that is used by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program is:

“Sustainable agriculture is defined as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term: satisfy human food and fiber needs, enhance environmental quality and the natural resources base upon which the agricultural economy depends, make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls, sustain the economic viability of farm operations, enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

The definition lists 6 key components of sustainability:

  • Integrated systems that are site-specific
  • Satisfies human food and fiber needs
  • Enhances environmental quality
  • Efficiently uses resources
  • Sustains the economic viability of farms
  • Enhances the quality of life for farmers and society

Each of these components is important to sustainability, and each farm will be unique in how they approach these areas because of location, size and other farm specific factors.

This series of articles will cover what farms and MSU Extension are doing in these critical areas, starting with “integrated systems that are site-specific”.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has been a key component on farms for many years. With much of the effort occurring in the growing of plants for animal and human consumption. IPM is a great example of building an integrated system that is site-specific.

From the State of Michigan IPM Training Manual, “Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is defined as a pest management system that utilizes all suitable techniques in a total management system with the intent of preventing pests from reaching unacceptable levels or to reduce an existing population to an acceptable level. An emphasis is placed on manipulation of the pest’s environment to the point that it will not support a pest population. Biological controls may also be used.”

How does this play out in agriculture? Let’s look at an example in fruit and in dairy.

In tree fruit (Cherries, Apples, etc.), we have a number of insects and diseases that affect both quantity and quality of the fruit. In some cases, a minor amount of blemishes from diseases and insects do not affect salability, but in other cases the threshold for damage is 0 or close to 0. One such case for low tolerance is fruit fly larva in cherries. In both of these types of cases, farmers are using crop scouting, accurate pest identification, knowledge of economic pest thresholds, resistant plant varieties, beneficial insects and weather modeling to reduced pesticide use and use pesticides more effectively, all while protecting natural pollinators and producing healthy nutritious food. It’s no small task, but they do have partners in this effort. Michigan State University assist through providing IPM training, testing resistant plan varieties, and developing web-based weather modeling tools like MSU’s Enviroweather program.

Our dairy farmers in Michigan provide another great example in utilizing integrated systems that are site specific. In recent years, many dairy farmers are now using “on-farm culturing” in their efforts to control mammary infections. There are a number of bacteria that can cause mammary infections, and these bacteria may or may not respond to a specific antibiotic. Through on-farm culturing, dairy farmers can determine what type(s) of bacteria are causing problems, and whether cows are able to win the battle themselves or need help through antibiotic treatment. Through on-farm culturing, dairy farmers are able to determine when antibiotics are unnecessary, and also quickly respond to cattle that need specific antibiotic treatment. Through this process dairy farmers have been able to lower antibiotic use, and use antibiotics more effectively when they are warranted. Farmers want to keep their cows healthy and provide high quality milk. MSU Extension assist farmers in this effort by providing both classroom and on-farm training to enable dairy farmers and their employees to perform this important task on their farm.

Through integrated systems that are site specific, Michigan farmers are practicing sustainability.

Additional articles in this series:

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