June is National Dairy Month and the staff at the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Idaho want to give a tip of our hats to the Gem State’s milk producers. Whether they be large scale or small, they are an important part of how Idaho feeds the world.
In recent years, there has been a surge of people who have either taken up or returned to farming with an eye to a market consisting of their neighbors and local community rather than the nation. As part of the USDA’s commitment to urban and small-acreage agriculture, NRCS has an array of practices to help these farmers address their natural resource concerns and needs.
Let’s imagine a farmer who has 20-acres. On two acres, they are growing fruits and vegetables in addition to cut flowers for sale at the local farmer’s market. The remaining farmland is pasture, with some poultry and a couple head of beef cattle. NRCS has already worked with them on procuring a high tunnel to help them extend their growing season as well as some technical assistance related to water management. Now, this individual wants to branch out and add a small raw milk dairy consisting of a few head of dairy cows.
So, they call their local field office to ask the NRCS Soil Conservationist to come out and talk about their operation, their vision for the future and for help identifying resource concerns.
During the visit and a walk around the property, the Soil Conservationist takes note of the condition of the pastures, some cheatgrass incursion and the slope of the property, which makes the historic flood irrigation used on the property inefficient. Since the farmer intends to primarily graze the dairy cows while also producing some hay for feeding during the winter, the Soil Conservationist suggests focusing their efforts on water, soil health, forage and a putting together a Nutrient Management Plan.
By following the NRCS recommendation, the farm switch from flood irrigation to a K-pod system, the producer will both improve their water efficiency and ensure a more even application. This means low areas on the pasture will not be over watered and the high areas receive enough. It also reduces soil erosion on the slope.
The farmer says they want to deal with the cheatgrass creeping into one of his pastures before it gains a bigger foothold and becomes a serious problem. The Soil Conservationist prescribes tackling the invasive annual with herbicide for two years, and then do a pasture planting in the treated area.
As they continue their tour of the property, the Soil Conservationist points out that a Nutrient Management Plan will help the farmer in a number of ways. Routine soil testing will help them determine how much well the manure left on the pastures by the cows is being reintegrated into the system. The plan might include raking the manure to break it up and spread it out over a wider area. It would also outline practices and efforts the farmer could utilize to keep those nutrients on the farm where they can do the most good instead of running off into an irrigation canal or stream.
And what about those soil health practices the NRCS Conservationist mentioned at the beginning? They were integrated throughout the conversation – reducing erosion, nutrient management for optimal organic matter content and periodic soil testing.
At the close of their meeting, the Soil Conservationist also mentions that in addition to what they discussed, if in the future the farmer wants to look at ways NRCS could assist with one or more shelters for the cows or additional information on NRCS programs, not to hesitate to call. They also suggest the producer call the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to see what other financial aid is available to help them realize their vision of a small raw milk dairy, such as a loan for specialized equipment. The farmer nods and asks, “when is the deadline to apply for another Environmental Quality Incentives Program contract to do some of the things we just talked about?” The Soil Conservationist notes they are happy to take the application any time, and that it will be submitted for the next available funding cycle. The farmer smiles and says “I’ll be in touch, soon. I think I want to tackle the irrigation and cheatgrass as soon as possible.”
Is it really that straightforward? It is. All it takes is that first call to the local NRCS field office to start the consultation process. Once a producer – beginning or experienced – makes that call, our staff can guide them through the entire process. For farmers and ranchers who are already verified as Farm Bill program eligible, NRCS can talk about cost-share program options. For those who are just starting out and have not worked with NRCS before, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordinator can put them in touch with the appropriate people at FSA to help them do the paperwork needed to receive financial assistance from NRCS or FSA. And to make things even simpler, after the in-person visit to the farm or ranch, much of the paperwork can be handled digitally. That means things don’t have to be signed at the office anymore.
“We really work hard to be a convenience and a top-notch resource for our farmers and ranchers,” said Curtis Elke, NRCS State Conservationist for Idaho. “We believe they are the world’s most dedicated conservationists, and we want to help them help the land as much as we can.”