Sustainability on Michigan farms: Part 3

Enhancing environmental quality and the natural resources base upon which the agricultural economy depends.

In this six part series, we are discovering what sustainability on Michigan farms means, looking at examples of how farms are demonstrating that sustainability, and how Michigan State University Extension is working with producers to become even more sustainable.

As a reminder, the definition that is used by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program for sustainable agriculture 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.”

Although enhancing our environmental quality and natural resource base may seem difficult, it nonetheless is critical for agriculture and for our communities that rely on the food agriculture produces. We continue to ask more of our farmable land in order to feed a growing population. We may be able to meet some of those needs with gains in genetics and technology, but without an enhanced environmental quality and natural resource base, those gains will be short lived.

Michigan farmers continue to make improvements in this area, including involvement in voluntary programs such as the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP). According to the program’s website, MAEAP is an innovative, proactive program that helps farms of all sizes and all commodities voluntarily prevent or minimize agricultural pollution risks. MAEAP‘s mission is to develop and implement a proactive environmental assurance program ensuring that Michigan farmers are engaging in cost-effective pollution prevention practices and working to comply with state and federal environmental regulations.

At this point, we should point out the obvious, farmers are not perfect at this, but the vast majority are very good at it and getting better. Just as there are some homeowners still putting on 10 pounds of 12-12-12 fertilizer on their lawn, with no soil test to justify that application, there are a few farmers that have more ground to gain in this area. But as farmers and home owners both do their part to improve practices, we can actually improve the natural resources upon which we all rely.

One way that MSU Extension is helping to enhance environmental quality and the natural resources base is by working with farms to fully account for the nutrients that manure brings to the soil, and also utilizing those nutrients to the greatest benefit of crops through proper timing of spreading.

MSU Extension recognizes the positive and negative impacts of manure. Manure is a valuable resource on the farm as a great source of nutrients for crop production and it can help to improve soil health. When not managed properly, manure can pollute the environment. This includes ground or surface water pollution due to Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P) and Carbon (organic matter). Mismanaged manure can also contribute to air quality concerns (dust and odor), pathogens in water supplies and presence of vermin.

When is the best time to spread manure for optimal crop production and minimize environmental losses? The simple answer is it depends on many factors. The right timing depends on the manure handling system, cropping system, field conditions, weather forecasts, time and labor available, volume of manure in the pit and many more factors. What is the right decision when there are so many factors out of our control? The best answer is to know the risk factors during the time of manure application and minimize those risks while optimizing crop production with those additional manure nutrients.

To help solve this complex scenario, a new tool is available for Michigan livestock producers to use when making decisions on when and where to spread manure. The Michigan EnviroImpact Tool is part of the Michigan Manure Management Advisory System that was been developed through a partnership between National Weather Service/NOAAMichigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD)Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP)Michigan State University (MSU) Institute of Water ResearchMichigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension.

Michigan EnviroImpact provides maps showing short-term runoff risks for daily manure application planning purposes, taking precipitation, temperature and soil moisture and landscape characteristics into account. Anyone handling and applying livestock manure in Michigan can use this tool to determine how risky it will be spread manure on their fields.

Through efforts like these, MSU Extension continues to help Michigan producers enhance our environmental quality and the natural resource base.

Additional articles in this series:

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