The state of phosphorus balance on 58 Virginia dairy farms

J Environ Qual. 2020 Mar;49(2):324-334. doi: 10.1002/jeq2.20054. Epub 2020 Mar 4.


Managing a sustainable dairy farm requires balancing phosphorus (P) imports and exports that enter and leave through the farm gate. Over the long term, P surpluses will elevate soil-test P concentrations above crop requirements through routine land applications of manure. The objectives of this study were aimed at Virginia dairy farms (a) to determine P mass balances, (b) to define potential guidelines for a sustainable and feasible zone of operation based on P balance and P use efficiency, and (c) to assess risk factors driving P surplus and P use inefficiencies. Data on farm-gate P imports and exports via feed, manure, crops, fertilizers, bedding, animals, and milk were collected for 58 dairy farms in Virginia. There was no relationship between farm P balance and milk production, indicating that a P surplus was not necessary for good milk productivity. A feasible P balance limit was calculated below which 75% of farms could operate, and this was 18.7 kg P ha-1 . Two risk factors were identified for farms having a P balance above this limit: (a) land application of poultry litter and (b) excessive import of P through feed. Combined dairy and beef operations generally had more land and a lower P balance, whereas having combined dairy and poultry did not raise the P balance as long as poultry litter was exported. Dairy farms in Virginia can operate with a sustainable P balance as long as they avoid using excessive poultry litter and pay attention to P imported through purchased feed.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Feed / analysis
  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Dairying*
  • Farms
  • Nitrogen / analysis
  • Phosphorus / analysis*
  • Virginia


  • Phosphorus
  • Nitrogen