On the farm Like many dairy farmers, Kate and David Dallam hire a nutritionist to regulate the feed for their cows.
Well aware that proper diet is crucial for a cow's health and milk production, the Dallams, owners of Bloom's Broom Dairy in Bel Air, learn the fat and protein content from reports every few days from the cooperative that processes the milk.
Correct protein levels in feed are important, experts said. Too little leads to low milk production, and too much can be an expensive waste of feed.
Dairy farmers across Maryland soon will have a new way to gauge the efficiency of their cows' diets when a government grant to reduce nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay gets under way.
Since milk with higher protein content usually dictates higher milk prices, producers tend to err on the side of caution by over-feeding protein, said Louise Lawrence, chief of resource conservation at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, who worked on the grant proposal.
The extra protein is excreted as nitrogen in manure, which pollutes air, soil and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay, she said.
The $788,845 grant - awarded this month to the University of Maryland by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service - will provide dairy producers with lab tests for measuring nitrogen levels in milk, known as milk urea nitrogen.
An excess of nitrogen in milk is not harmful to consumers and does not affect the taste or quality of the product, but reveals the proportion of nitrogen that is excreted as waste by the cow, said Rick Kohn, a University of Maryland associate professor of animal science and one of the study's principal investigators.
Reducing nitrogen waste is beneficial to the bay. The amount of nitrogen in the bay last year exceeded a limit established by the Chesapeake Bay 2000 Agreement by 95 million pounds, said Robert Koroncai, a regulatory manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In partnership with the MDA and Virginia Tech, the conservation and innovation grant will be used to begin routine testing of nitrogen at milk processing plants in Maryland, Virginia and possibly Pennsylvania, Kohn said.
Any information that can fine-tune feed efficiency is useful, some dairy farmers said.
"No one wants to feed a dairy cow more protein than she can use," Kate Dallam said. "That's an important tool to help the farmers save money on feed and for nutrient management."
The average dairy farmer could save a few hundred dollars a month by using the test results to develop more efficient feeding practices without losing milk production, Kohn said.
Robert Fry, a dairy producer, veterinarian and dairy nutrition consultant in Chestertown, said that nitrogen balance is important.
But testing is only one of many tools for nutrient waste management, he said, adding that it would be most effective for the few producers who do not use a nutrition expert to measure the nutrients on the input side.
"As the margin of profit for milk becomes tighter and tighter, we are not having any opportunity for waste," Fry said.
In about a year's time, routine samples from a producer's bulk milk tank used for quality testing also would be used for nitrogen testing and cost about $1 to report, Kohn said.
The government will subsidize 10 cents for each test for two years, and the milk processing plants and labs will have to pick up the additional costs of equipment and reporting.
For dairy farmers such as the Dallams, who are members of the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association, which includes more than half of Maryland's 600 dairy producers, the testing costs are their costs.
Basic nitrogen-specific testing equipment could cost $40,000. An entire lab system upgrade could cost $300,000, Kohn said.
The lab used for milk testing by the Maryland and Virginia co- operative has upgraded its system within the past six months and has technology capable of nitrogen testing, said Grant Gayman, the cooperative's member services manager.
The cost to program the lab's system for nitrogen testing will determine whether the cooperative will include itself in the project, Gayman said.
The cooperative hopes that programming costs will be manageable. "Realistically, farmers will save some money when it's all said and done," Gayman said.
Current tests from processing plants might be able to detect protein deficiency from low protein levels in milk, Gayman said, but none of the current tests can show excess protein.
Farmers who demonstrate nitrogen waste reductions through the testing will be rewarded with small incentive payments ranging from $100 to $150, Lawrence said.
Ralph Ball, a Churchville dairy producer, said his family uses an 18-percent protein ration, which has long been adequate for the farms' 50 dairy cows.
"I usually use the same old routine," said Ball, who questioned the costs and benefits of nitrogen testing. "My dad, he's an old-timer," Ball said. "He's probably not going to change."