New York’s dairy cows produce enough milk each year to fill almost 3,000 Olympic-size pools.
New York’s dairy farmers produce not only milk but also feed for those cows, including corn. Most often, the entire corn plant is harvested, ground, and fermented to make corn silage, a staple of many cows’ diets.
Benjamin Lehman ’21, a Rawlings Cornell Presidential Research Scholar, analyzes the corn that dairy farmers grow to support their herds, delivering insights that support farmers in maximizing their corn yields.
The shift toward raising homegrown corn is part of an effort toward greater dairy farm sustainability. The bulk and weight of corn silage—including the husks, stalks, leaves, and ears—makes it costly and impractical to ship from elsewhere. Growing corn on-site cuts costs, shrinks the environmental footprint of dairy farming, and also means that the corn can be fertilized with the dairy cows’ manure—all of which contribute to a farm’s self-reliance.
Lehman calls it a “closed cycle”: growing corn for silage to feed dairy cows that then produce the manure to fertilize the corn.
As an agricultural sciences major, Lehman works with local dairy farmers as a researcher for Quirine M. Ketterings’ Nutrient Management Spear Program, Animal Science. Lehman studies farmers’ lands, compiling data for multiple zones within a field. His subsequent data analysis identifies the many factors—such as soil type, drainage, and manure management—that affect a farmer's crop production. Lehman’s findings can help farmers customize their growing strategies on a zone-by-zone basis, contributing to higher and more consistent yields and improved efficiency. This outcome means more homegrown feed for their dairy cattle and less imported feed from elsewhere.
Translating Raw Data into Practical Tools
Lehman is from Slater, Iowa, a small town about 20 miles outside of Des Moines. In Slater, his parents grow grain.
“Our grain, probably a little bit, gets shipped out here to New York,” Lehman says.
When he came to Cornell, Lehman imagined he would study agriculture and learn skills that he could take back to his family farm.
“I had never, ever considered learning computer coding,” he says. “I thought, ‘I am going to learn about corn and fertilizer.’”
Then Lehman found himself tasked with analyzing data for Ketterings’ lab. As a research assistant, he had to learn the ropes of coding to aid with a farm’s nutrient management—that is, decision-making concerning homegrown crops. Before long, he was gaining experience in a number of disciplines that impact farm management: statistics, spatial statistics, soil health, soil sampling, and more coding.
“I had never, ever considered learning computer coding. I thought, ‘I am going to learn about corn and fertilizer.’”
His research allowed him “to learn more about how data and technology and [their] accessibility can benefit both farms and the environment.”
Lehman aims to make testing tools and data more accessible for local farmers to see what drives yield trends. As a result, farmers may alter their “plan for how they’ll manage their crops with fertilizer, manure, and seed,” says Lehman.
Keeping track of crop yield and stability over time is crucial to farm management according to Lehman. “Farms lose opportunities when they either don’t keep records or if they don’t have a good understanding of the future needs that they might have,” he says.
Lehman’s research can partially remedy this gap. By exploring correlations between soil, rain, drainage, fertilizer, and crop yield, Lehman’s work aims to translate raw data into practical tools such as custom, color-coded maps for farmers seeking to maximize their crop yields.
Connecting People and Innovations
Lehman’s research has shaped the way he approaches challenges.
“This project has really allowed me to diversify how I look at problems and make sure that I’m really listening to people and those around me to ask the right questions when I see different problems,” he says.
This emphasis on asking the right questions will carry over to Lehman’s work after graduation. He is joining IN10T, a company dedicated to connecting farmers with agricultural innovations. Lehman will crisscross Iowa to assist farmers across the state. To help strategize for upcoming growing seasons, Lehman will analyze the current season’s yield data and ask of his team and the farmers: “Did we make the right decisions?”
As he prepares to graduate, Lehman appreciates having had the opportunity to learn how computer science can help “answer questions about what’s going on in individual farms.”
Paying It Forward
At the heart of Lehman’s research is a drive to pay it forward and help others.
“I feel like I owe people for how much they’ve helped me out and how generous they’ve been with me,” Lehman says.
It is those around him—Ketterings as well as the staff, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and other undergraduate students in the Nutrient Management Spear Program—who Lehman believes have taught him the most gratifying aspects of research. “[Research] has been a home away from home, really. Because it was tough for me to move so far away from home,” Lehman says. “The graduate students, postdocs, and faculty really cared about me growing as a person, developing new skills, and being happy.”
In turn, Lehman has gone from a mentee to a mentor himself. When COVID-19 unexpectedly shut down field research in the spring of 2020, Lehman stepped up to provide mentorship to the newest undergraduates in the lab, teaching them how to code over Zoom.
When asked when he felt most proud of himself, he responded: “I’ve really been feeling more grateful than anything else. I’ve been given a ton of opportunities to learn and to grow as a person.”