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Manure management research from an integrated perspective (Research Brief #24)

Posted October 1996

Solving complex agricultural problems like how to improve manure management systems requires strong disciplinary research combined with farmers and scientists coming together to apply adaptive, collaborative approaches to problem-solving. And existing institutional and reward structures need to be explored and developed to support long-term, collaborative research.

That’s the conclusion of a CIAS-sponsored study, commissioned in partnership with the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (UW-CALS) Research Division. The study was designed to synthesize current UW-CALS work on manure management and to identify successful research approaches that could lead to improved management on Wisconsin farms.

Mark Powell, a private consultant in livestock systems research, interviewed 25 UW-CALS researchers about dairy farm systems, animal nutrition, manure handling and storage, nutrient recycling, policy issues, and approaches to studying manure management. He concluded that collaborative, integrated agricultural systems research involving scientists, farmers, and policy makers will construct the best range of flexible, responsive solutions to manure management challenges.

Building systems from the ground up

It’s a challenge to build, adapt, and maintain any farming system, and animal manure management is no exception. It involves complex interactions between cropping and livestock systems, farm families’ quality of life needs and available labor resources, a farm’s management profile and marketing plans, investment in machinery, and use of on- and off-farm nutrients.

How these components are managed, overall, depends on the farm family’s resources and goals, as well as on outside forces such as environmental regulations, public awareness and pressure, and broad-scale socioeconomic forces.

Observes CIAS director Rick Klemme, “This means that integrated systems research on animal manure management has to reflect this complexity…and overcome some long-standing challenges.”

The respondents in Powell’s study identified manure management research themes that underscore and reflect that complexity. These include:

  • reevaluating animal nutrition to reduce pass-through nutrients in feed
    developing low-cost storage facilities and improving the accuracy and reliability of manure box spreaders
  • including small to medium herd size confinement and grazing-based farms in research
  • understanding the effects of manure on soil biology and physics
    developing alternative uses for manure
  • understanding the attitudes of farmers, policymakers, and citizens on manure management issues.

Powell’s study of dairy manure management research at UW-CALS found both disciplinary, basic research projects–those that focus on specific biological or technical components of manure managment–and adaptive, whole-farm approaches to understanding how these components interact.

The study identified 22 research projects dispersed across five UW-CALS departments and three interdepartmental units that involve some aspect of dairy manure management. Most of this is component research on manure management issues related to dairying: studies on soil nitrate testing, manure application levels, assessment of land vulnerability, and manure-soil tillage interactions.

Some projects, however, study manure management from whole-farm, participatory, and adaptive approaches. These include studies on farm practices, nitrogen management, and on-farm nutrient management.

Lessons from integrated approaches

Basic, disciplinary research is crucial to understanding and building more effective manure management systems. At the same time, study participants agreed that multidisciplinary, farmer-involved approaches are also necessary.

As Powell pointed out, “These two kinds of research approaches complement each other. The combination of approaches lets scientists respond more readily to changing dairy farm needs while they integrate scientific knowledge with on-farm knowledge yielded by collaborations with farmers.”

And yet, the study pointed out, university and institutional structures–including how research gets funded–often favor disciplinary projects over multidisciplinary, participatory ones. Bob Steele, associate dean of the UW-CALS Research Division, explains, “In the world of university science, incentives and rewards tend to flow to individual, rather than collaborative, work. There are lots of reasons for this, but in terms of effects, it offers a range of disincentives to scientists who may wish to do multidisciplinary, participatory research. This is a problem because their professional advancement often depends on single-authored articles reporting on basic research.”

Collaborative, adaptive research can be more time-consuming and yield unpredictable outcomes, making it risky for young researchers whose reputations aren’t yet proven or even for experienced scientists, who must raise money to keep their research programs going.

The importance of developing alternative or creative ways to reward scientists who do adaptive research is one of the Powell study’s conclusions. “There’s plenty of ground for experimentation and leadership in this arena,” reports Powell. For instance, research on a complex system such as improved dairy manure management may involve specialists in agricultural engineering, agronomy, animal science, agricultural and applied economics, sociology, and soil science. A collaborative project will also involve farmers, extension specialists, policy makers, and others.

How to manage these complex, dispersed research teams is one of the key areas of focus for CIAS, which uses a “radial team model” and strong citizen oversight to work toward this end.

Integrated research in progress

Powell identified CIAS and UW-CALS projects that have used collaborative, participatory approaches successfully to study whole-farm problems. These include case studies of the Krusenbaum organic dairy farm (see CIAS Research Briefs #16 and #17), the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials (see #11), and the management intensive rotational grazing trials (see #12).

What makes for successful collaborative research? Powell identified these factors:

  • A focus on significant, systems oriented, whole-farm problems
  • Examination of both the biological and socioeconomic features of the production system being studied
  • Good project management and leadership that clarifies team members’ roles and sets up solid communications channels
  • Support for university scientists who need to derive disciplinary publications from interdisciplinary projects
  • Building farmers into the research process so they can contribute their expertise and knowledge
  • Expanding the circle of collaborators to include other institutions, policy makers, and consumers.

Table 1. UW-CALS research programs related to dairy manure management

  • Department of Agronomy
    • Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials
    • Crop rotation options program
  • Department of Biological Systems Engineering
    • Discharge rate from manure spreader
  • Department of Rural Sociology
    • Nitrogen crediting on Wisconsin farms
    • Farm practices inventory
  • Center for Dairy Profitability
    • Dairy herd management
  • Nutrient and Pest Management
    • On-farm demonstrations
    • Whole farm nutrient budgets for conventional farms
    • Whole farm nutrient budgets for grazing farms
  • Department of Soil Science
    • Nitrogen management on dairy farms
    • Nutrient management to sustain production and improve water quality
    • Soil nitrate testing
    • Best management for starter fertilizer
    • Nitrogen availability from manures
    • Timing of manure application to soil
    • Assessment of land vulnerability
    • Whole farm nutrient budgeting
    • Manure/soil tillage interactions
    • On-farm nutrient management
    • Environmental Resources Center
    • Priority Watershed Project, East River
    • Priority Watershed Project, Stevens Point
    • Nonpoint source program

Published as Research Brief #24
October, 1996