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By Megan Wittmeyer and Madeline Hanscom
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  • PRO-DAIRY
  • Animal Science
  • Agriculture
  • Climate Change
  • Environment
  • Dairy
  • Soil

Noblehurst Farms, a seventh-generation, multi-family dairy farm co-owned by Rob Noble ’79, is helping shift the dairy industry toward greenhouse gas neutrality through an on-farm research partnership with Cornell CALS’ Nutrient Management Spear Program. The research is part of the U.S. Dairy Net Zero Initiative, which aims to accelerate progress toward environmental sustainability by advancing research and technology, on-farm pilots and new market development.

Noblehurst, located in Linwood, New York, is one of two farms directly collaborating with Cornell on a project called “Dairy Soil & Water Regeneration: building soil health to reduce greenhouse gases, improve water quality and enable new economic benefits.” The research is led by Quirine Ketterings, Cornell professor of nutrient management in the Department of Animal Science and director of NMSP, in close collaboration with Kirsten Workman, nutrient management and environmental sustainability specialist with the Cornell PRO-DAIRY team.

Dairy Soil & Water Regeneration employs on-farm research partnerships in top dairy production states throughout the U.S. The project is led by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy in partnership with the Soil Health Institute, seven research institutions, six national dairy organizations, and numerous private and public sponsors across the country, including a $10 million grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research.

Sustainability and on-farm research are not new concepts for Noblehurst Farms. In 2001, the farm built an anaerobic digester to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Full of hungry microbes, Noblehurst’s anaerobic digester effectively repurposes the farm’s manure and over 20 tons of commercial food waste each week. The result? Nutrient-rich products that make excellent crop fertilizer and biogas that gets converted into electricity.

In addition, over the last two decades, the farm has often partnered with Cornell to test new strategies to improve economic and environmental sustainability. Those partnerships have helped Noblehurst embrace new nutrient management practices and increase the farm’s operational efficiency while reducing its environmental footprint.

When Innovation Center leadership approached Noble, he immediately agreed to join and host on-farm trials.

“We saw this project as an opportunity to learn how to better utilize manure,” Noble said. “Manure is your greatest asset and your greatest liability.”

Dairy manure is an excellent fertilizer, providing plants with essential nutrients, including lots of nitrogen. However, as manure is moved and spread on fields, significant amounts of nitrogen can be lost. “We want to use our resources – especially manure – to the best of our ability and continue to try and make improvements based on sound data,” Noble said.

The project, now in its third growing season, started with a large-plot experiment that evaluates impact of reduced tillage, cover crop use and different manure sources, including liquid dairy manure and manure solids. An experiment was added this year to determine the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that can be saved by using various manure sources in forage crops, like corn grown for silage.

A team of staff and students routinely measures soil health indicators and greenhouse gas emissions to evaluate changes from one growing season to the next. As the database grows, conclusions can be drawn about the impact of soil health management practices on field productivity and nutrient use. The results will help dairy farmers choose nutrient management methods that can increase farm economic and environmental sustainability over time.

“Working with the team has been great,” said Josh Putman, crop manager at Noblehurst Farms.

“We encourage people to come out and look at the research we’re doing. If other people can learn from us, that’s a win.”

Ketterings emphasized that this collaborative spirit is essential for advancing data-driven decision making about sustainability, which is precisely the goal of the project. She added that the team is looking forward to the results of this year’s growing season and analyzing trends over the first three years of the project this winter. 

 

In memoriam

We are sorry to share that our former postdoctoral researcher, Perejitei (Pere) Bekewe, passed away after an automobile accident in Washington State on June 8, 2023. Pere joined the NMSP team in July of 2021 to work with us on the Dairy Soil & Water Regeneration project. He was a dedicated, enthusiastic team member who was firm believer in dairy farms as an environmental solution. With his death, we have lost a passionate advocate for dairy sustainability and soil health, full of ideas and plans for the future. He is dearly missed by all of us. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and those impacted by his untimely passing. 

 

Megan Wittmeyer and Madeline Hanscom are writers for the Cornell Nutrient Management Spear Program.

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