Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Extension, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Dairy Innovation Center, and WPSU, has developed an interactive “carbon calculator” tool to help dairy farmers make informed decisions on improving farm management practices related to climate change. The tool is an expansion of the existing “virtual farm” website, which allows users to tour two virtual farms of varying sizes and click on different aspects of the farm, such as housing, pastures, feed silos, and more, to learn about sustainability topics such as milk production, herd and nutrient management, crops and soils, and greenhouse gases.
How Does the Carbon Calculator Work?
- Farmers are able to consider various management options and see how each option impacts the overall carbon release related to climate-changing methane and other greenhouse gases by inputting input information about their farming practices, such as crop types, tillage methods, fertilizer use, and livestock management.
- Information is based on research-based emissions data collected from real farm measurements and modeling.
- The website offers multiple layers of information, from user-friendly extension educational materials to peer-reviewed sustainability research findings, ensuring that science-based information is available at all levels, making it accessible and easy to understand.
- The calculator estimates the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted from the farm, as well as the amount of carbon that is sequestered in the soil and vegetation.
Additional features include a “fast facts” section 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 simplified “fast facts” section helps users quickly access the relevant information they need.
In recognition of its high-quality content, the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers awarded the website the national Blue Ribbon award for educational extension websites. The virtual farm site is based on two projects funded by the US Department of Agriculture and the 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, and Deanne Meyer, livestock waste management extension specialist at the University of California-Davis, also provided support.
As a result of the combined efforts at the universities and departments, the website benefits not only dairy farmers but also other stakeholders in the dairy industry, such as employees and consumers.