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'Virtual farm' website provides plethora of dairy sustainability info

Farmers can now see sustainability principles in action with just a few clicks of mouse.

Changing weather patterns pose significant challenges for modern dairy farmers. Extreme hot or cold temperatures, drought, excessive rainfall or other environmental changes can have a detrimental effect on cows' health, milk production and farmer profits.

Deciding how to best react to those changes to ensure the dairy farm's vitality while still being a good steward of the environment can present a bit of a conundrum for some farmers, especially if they are pressed for time and resources. What are recommended management practices? Are there technologies that can help? Is there any current research on the subject?

Farmers can now see sustainability principles in action with just a few clicks of mouse, thanks to an interactive "virtual farm" website developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Extension, The Pennsylvania State University's College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Extension.

"The objective of this project is to provide a 'one-stop shop' for all dairy sustainability information," said Eileen Fabian, professor with the Penn State department of agricultural and biological engineering. "The beauty of it is that one can take a tour of a sustainable dairy farm without stepping foot on an actual farm. The resources are accessible, free and can be viewed at anytime from anywhere."

Assistant scientist Horacio Aguirre-Villegas of the University of Wisconsin-Madison biological systems engineering department added, “The design of the site ensures that farmers, the general public and all stakeholders looking for all levels of information on dairy sustainability can navigate the site and find information that is useful to them. The website will also host project output from the Sustainable Dairy Coordinated Agricultural Project (funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) specifically related to climate change mitigation and adaptation on dairy farms.”

The catalyst for this major undertaking was a growing movement in the dairy industry to adopt practices that reduce the negative effects of agricultural operations on the environment while at the same time securing the future sustainability of farms. The website has two virtual dairy farms: a larger facility with 1,500 cows, and a smaller-scale operation with 150 animals. Users can click on the various aspects of the farm -- such as feed production, housing, manure storage facilities, feed silos, milking facilities and more -- and information related to that specific area will pop up to allow for further exploration.

The site's resource database includes a broad range of articles, extension fact sheets, models, images and graphics from many researchers around the country. The site also contains a link to add new resources as they are developed. Researchers plan to continue to add to the site’s content as new research becomes available. To tour the farm, visit wpsudev2.vmhost.psu.edu/virtualfarm.

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