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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What information can you give me on water buffalo?

North Carolina

Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. I am pleased to provide you with information on water buffalo.

The water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a domesticated animal that makes up about 0ne-ninth of the domesticated cattle numbers in the world. It is used for meat, milk, and work in many regions of the world. Swamp buffaloes are found from the Philippines to India, and the River buffalo is native to India, Egypt, and Europe. Water buffalo are genetically dissimilar to domesticated cattle (Bos species), and are not know to interbreed.

The first herd of water buffalo in the US arrived in 1978 from Guam, and the numbers of water buffalo in the US have increased, especially in the southern humid climate of Florida to Louisiana.

Water buffalo of the Bubalus genus are relatively docile, like their domestic cousins of the Bos genus. They are certainly adapted to humid environments, but they do not necessarily need water to thrive. Shade is important especially in hot climates, as they do not have the same number of sweat glands that domestic cattle do. Water buffalo have been known to thrive in cold, northern climates of northern Europe and are widely adapted to many regions.

Water buffalo are able to digest cellulosic plant material like cattle do, however they are able to subsist on much courser vegetation, and are very efficient at utilizing low-quality forage. Given their adaptation to low quality feedstuffs, water buffalo will likely not perform as well in a feedlot or other intensive production environment as domestic cattle can. They are, however, adapted to low-input systems, and can perform well in forage-based systems. Water buffalo meat is similar to domestic cattle beef, and the dressing percent is similar as well, ranging from 50 to 53 percent. Water buffalo meat is much leaner than beef as well.

A very good paper that deals with water buffalo management, including nutrition, health, and management is The Water Buffalo: New Prospects for an Underutilized Animal, National Research Council, 1984, developed by the Commission on International Relations of the National Research Council. This article goes into detail and includes references for further reading.

Another good resource is Water buffalo – identifying questions and possibilities from a Swedish perspective (PDF/860KB). This paper includes information on feeding, housing, health, reproduction, and milking systems. Also included is a section on starting a water buffalo farm.

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Permalink What are some resources for information on using wind or solar to heat a hoop house?

New Mexico

Answer: Thank you for your recent request for information from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.

Unfortunately, there is very little information on using solar or wind to heat a hoop house. Most of the information available is on using alternative fuels for supplemental heating in a hoop house or using wind or solar to power roll-up or roll-down sides of a hoop house. I recommend that you investigate solar and wind options for a greenhouse and see if there are systems that may be compatible for a hoop house. I would also like to mention that there are several options for heating a hoop house that do not require a fuel source. These options include using double poly walls with a blower and using low tunnels inside of a high tunnel. This method is described in detail in Eliot Coleman's newest book, The Winter Harvest Handbook.

New Mexico grower Don Bustos uses a solar-heated greenhouse that includes a root-zone thermal heating system. Bustos received funding from a SARE grant to help fund his solar-heated system. For more information on this project, please visit the SARE web site ( and click on the western region.

Here is a list of additional resources that may be beneficial to your request:

ATTRA's Solar Greenhouse Resource List
This resource list discusses basic principles of solar greenhouse design, as well as different construction material options. Contains information and resources on high tunnels. Also has a list serve for growers to ask one another specific questions on high tunnel production.

Growing for Market

Publication for market farmers; web site contains great information and past articles on hoop house growing and energy sources.

NREL Information on small photovoltaic systems for homes and farms. Plans, tools, and information on do-it-yourself renewable energy and conservation projects.

Home Power Magazine Information, plans, and resources for renewable energy



Permalink What information can you give me on converting a pasture to organic grain crops without using herbicide or tillage?


Answer: Thank you for contacting ATTRA for information on converting a pasture to organic grain crops without using herbicide or tillage.

This is a tricky question. Obviously, you have figured out that you want to keep the soil structure that good pasture provides, but are a bit stuck, since much of organic weed control depends on tillage.

Be aware that no perfect organic no-till system has been developed. You will probably have a lot of trial and error to figure this out. Rodale is really the leader in developing an organic no-till. However, even in their system, there is some tillage. So it might be better called “minimum till.”

Here’s some of my thoughts. I would start by reviewing some of the innovative work being done by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District near Bismarck, North Dakota. They are not organic, but are doing some innovative things with cover crops in a no-till rotation. I was just out there this past summer. They have a website with some interesting PowerPoints. The one I would suggest is Bringing CRP Into A No-Till Cash Grain System. You can find the website at: The presentations are in the Soil Health category. This particular presentation talks about Glenn Bauer in Regan, ND.

He started preparing the ground in the fall. He sprayed with RoundUp and then hayed off 2/3 of the residue. He then combined the remaining 1/3 of the residue and used the spreaders to get an even distribution of the residue. Next he did 3 passes with a disc. But it’s important to note that the disc only ran on the surface and acted more like a leveler to smooth out the bumps. (There is an illustration of this in the PPoint.) You wouldn’t want the disk to really rip into the soil… this would break down the beautiful soil structure that developed with the pasture years.

In the spring he did a light harrow operation, then a roller pass. Next he seeded field peas with a roller pass after seeding. (He recommends a deeper seeding depth in expired CRP than in a normal field.) After seeding he had 2 herbicide applications. A week after harvesting the pea, he seeded a cover crop cocktail of about 8 species. This cover crop was predominately low C:N species to help with further residue breakdown. In addition, he had some forage radish and turnip to help with infiltration. (The details of the mix are in the PPoint.) I believe that this cover crop terminated with winter kill and no herbicide was used.

This spring he planted no-till corn into this field and it looks great.

Now, the big question for you is… how can you do this in an organic system? This is the big unknown. Some suggestions… Obviously, you’re not going to use RoundUp for termination. But the haying, residue spreading, and discing are still workable options. Also, I would consider planting a different crop than field peas the first spring. I’m not sure that peas would be competitive enough. Also, I am making the assumption that your pasture was predominately grasses. Is this correct? If so, you will want to be putting in as many broadleaf crops at first to help with this residue breakdown. And, since grassy pasture can tend to be nitrate deficient, you would want most of those to be legumes.

So… the trick is to find the highest competitive legume that you can. I’m not sure there would be time to get a fall-seeded legume in due to all the disc operations required in the fall. However, a fall-seeded species would give you that extra jump on the growing season. The fall vs. spring seeded would be a question you would have to answer.

Would hairy vetch do the trick? Alternatively, is there a mix of species that would outcompete everything else? My guess is that by planting an annual mix of about 7 or 8 species you could get canopy cover at all levels, which would really help to choke out any weeds. You could then use a swather and lay down the cover crop residue in an even layer (not windrows), or try the roller crimper.

As you may know, the roller crimper is not a perfected technology. Burleigh County tried it on a mix of pea and oats. The pea terminated, but the oats bounced back. This year they rolled a crop of only peas and it worked very well. Notice that you wouldn’t want to hay off this cover crop, because you would want all of the residue to feed the soil biology.

Another option for termination would be to do some intensive fall grazing. The advantages of this strategy are that you kill the cover crop, feed your livestock, and get manure value. Stocking rates need to be relatively high to get an even kill and an even distribution of manure.

After you terminate your first cover crop off, you would want to seed your fall cover crop right away for soil building and weed control. The fall cover crop could all be species that winter kill. Again, I would recommend using a mixture of species. Your residue levels will determine the mix of species in this crop.

In addition, I would highly recommend doing some baseline soil tests for nutrients and organic matter. Make sure you don’t have too much residue to tie up the nitrogen. I would advise that you not plant a cash crop the first year after a grassy pasture, so that the nutrients in the residue have a chance to cycle into the soil. It might be that you could get your first cash crop in 2012 if you begin your transition this fall. That would really depend on the condition of your soil, the weed pressure, and the soil test results.

Dr. Pat Carr at the Dickinson research station might also be a good contact as he is doing some work on developing organic no-till, although his research his in drier climates than Minnesota. His number is: (701) 483-2348 x.143



Permalink What information can you give me on elderberry production?




Thank you for calling ATTRA to request information about elderberry production.

Elderberry, Sambucas Canadensis, is a native plant throughout much of the U.S. The fruit and flowers are edible, and are traditionally used for making wines, jams, syrups, and natural food colorings. The fruit is currently receiving increased attention because of its antioxidant and antiviral activity. At the 2010 Missouri Small Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Conference, researchers and growers extolled the virtues of elderberries.

Terry Durham, a Missouri grower, has planted at least 17 acres to elderberries; the juice is sold in 11-ounce bottles priced at $15 per bottle. The Missouri River Hills Elderberry Producers Cooperative will host a conference and farm tour on June 17 and 19, 2010 at the Carver Center, Jefferson City, Missouri, and Eridu Farms, near Hartsburg. Call 573-999-3034 or check the website for details.

Other resources provide information on propagation, planting, pruning, fertilization and irrigation, weed control, and harvest. The bulletin Growing Currants, Gooseberries, and Elderberries in Wisconsin should be available through your local University of Wisconsin Extension office. You can also access it online at:

Birds can be a significant problem on all small fruits. (Cardinals, brown thrashers, and mockingbirds stripped the fruit on the one elderberry shrub that volunteered in my market garden; maybe it was planted by the same birds?) Netting may be an effective tactic for saving the berries for your own harvest.

As with any perennial crop, it is best to eliminate as many weeds as possible before you plant elderberries. This can be done through cover cropping before planting, and mulching the shrubs annually after planting. Mulching also helps to keep the soil cool and moist during the typically dryer and hotter months of summer.


Anon. 2009. Minor Fruits: Elderberries, Sambucus spp. Cornell University Department of Horticulture. 2 p. Online at:

Byers, Patrick, and Andrew Thomas. No date. Elderberry Research and Production in Missouri. University of Missouri Cooperative Extension and Southwest Research and Education Center. 5 p.

Byers, Patrick, and Andrew Thomas. 2009. Elderberry: Culture and Potential in Missouri. Microsoft PowerPoint presentation at Small Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference. 7 p. Online at:

Durham, Terry. 2010. Elderberrylife newsletter. 2 p. Online at:

Roper, Teryl R., Daniel L. Mahr, and Patricia S. McManus. 1998. Growing Currants, Gooseberries, and Elderberries in Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. 12 p. Online at:



Permalink What are the top energy efficiency measures for dairy farms to consider?



Answer: Thank you for contacting ATTRA for information on energy efficiency measures for dairy farms. In Appendix 2 of NCAT's report "Farm Energy Audits: Availability, Usefulness, and Cost"(Audit Program Profiles), we asked several agricultural energy efficiency programs "What are the most common energy-saving measures included in your recommendations?" The following three answers were directly relevant to dairies:

  1. Alliant Energy said, "Vacuum pumps, transfer systems, compressors, water heaters."
  2. Efficiency Vermont said, "Plate coolers, variable frequency drives on milk vacuum pumps, electric heat or hot water fuel switches, lighting, variable speed drives on milk-transfer systems, heat recovery units."
  3. Focus on Energy said, Plate coolers, VSD vacuum pumps, refrigeration system heat recovery, and commercial liquid propane and natural water heating systems.
  4. I also highly recommend Scott Sanford's article:
    Capturing Energy Savings on Dairy Farms : Obviously no two farms are alike. But based on my conversations with experts, I'd go out on a limb and say the top three energy efficiency technologies are probably refrigeration system heat recovery, well water pre-coolers (plate coolers), and variable-speed vacuum pumps. Lighting improvements also often have very short paybacks. And simple maintenance (e.g. cleaning fans, louvers, and condensers) can save surprisingly large amounts of energy with little or no capital cost. Scroll compressors, variable-speed milk pumps, and high-volume-low-speed fans are often well worth doing, but tend to have somewhat longer paybacks. Also see ATTRA's Dairy Energy Efficiency Resources publication.


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