A new interactive “carbon calculator” tool can help dairy farmers see sustainability principles in action and improve farm management decisions related to climate change.
The carbon calculator expands on the existing “virtual farm” website developed by researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Extension, in partnership with several universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an industry partner, the Dairy Innovation Center, and the creative services team at WPSU.
Website users can tour two virtual farms. One is a model of a 1,500-cow facility, while the other is a smaller-scale operation of 150 animals. Users can click on a particular aspect of the farms — such as pastures, housing, manure storage facilities, feed silos, milking facilities and more — and information related to that specific area will pop up, allowing for further exploration. Sustainability topics focus on milk production, herd and nutrient management, crops and soils, and greenhouse gases.
“The carbon calculator is a handy tool that allows the site user to consider management options and see how they impact overall farm carbon release related to climate-changing methane and other farm greenhouse gases,” said Eileen Fabian, professor of agricultural engineering and environmental biophysics in Penn State’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.
Fabian noted that the carbon calculator is supported by research-based emissions data from real farm measurements and modeling.
Another enhancement involves simplified “fast facts” about how dairy cows are managed on modern dairy farms. Topics include the cow life cycle, crop production, feed and energy on the farm, and manure management.
The website offers multiple layers of information, from user-friendly extension educational materials to peer-reviewed sustainability research findings. “Science-based information is found at all levels, yet users do not feel ‘blinded by science’ beyond their level of interest in a topic,” said Fabian, adding that farmers interacting with the site have noted its benefit for employee training.
In recognition of the site’s high-quality content, the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers awarded the website the national Blue Ribbon award for educational extension websites.
The website is based upon two projects funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The lead principal investigator of the more recent USDA multistate, multidisciplinary project was Luis Rodriguez, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Illinois. Deanne Meyer, livestock waste management extension specialist at the University of California-Davis, also provided major support.
“Importantly, a cohort of graduate students from institutions across the U.S. collaborated on this project over several years,” Fabian said. “Part of the grant’s goal was to encourage these interactions while developing a key product with their information, particularly the carbon calculator.”