7 Ways Dairy Farmers are Supporting a Sustainable Future

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Source: Dairy Farmers of America
When you choose to not take a plastic bag at the grocery store or to compost your food scraps, you’re contributing to a more sustainable future. And just like you, dairy farmers across the nation care about preserving the planet.

A sustainable future is at the forefront of every dairy farmer’s mind, and the farmer-owners of Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) are taking measures to reduce their carbon footprint. Dairy farmers are stewards of their land and animals, and sustainability is a way of life to them. They invest in sustainable dairy farming practices to continue their family’s legacies and pass their land down to a new generation of farmers, ready to feed the world with nutritious dairy products with a focus on healthy soil, clean water and renewable energy.

Here are the top ways DFA’s farmer-owners are preserving the planet.

1. KEEPING SOIL HEALTHY

Healthy soil is key for both dairy farmers and a sustainable future for the planet, and DFA’s farmer-owners are helping tend to the humble dirt at our feet through regenerative agriculture practices.

So, what is regenerative agriculture? Also called regenerative farming or conservation agriculture, it includes timeless concepts that DFA’s farmer-owners have used for decades coupled with new technology.

Regenerative agriculture practices include planting cover crops to protect and replenish the soil during the winter, using low-till or no-till field practices to minimize disturbance to the soil and using natural fertilizers, such as manure.

These farming and grazing practices help to replenish soil nutrients, reduce runoff, increase the longevity of the soil’s quality and maintain soil carbon stocks. In fact, there is a lot of evidence in recent studies that these regenerative practices can even increase the amount of carbon sequestered in soil.

More than 90% of DFA’s farmer-owners have a soil management plan for their operations, which are designed to maintain or improve overall soil health.

By ensuring their farms have healthy soil, dairy farmers not only benefit the surrounding water and plant and animal life, but they can continue to preserve the legacy of their land for the next generation.

SUSTAINABILITY IN ACTION

Lou Brown, a DFA farmer-owner in Ohio, decided to be part of the solution when a nearby lake turned toxic because of an algae bloom caused by erosion and elimination of local wetlands (which are also a biodiversity hotspot with thousands of species of plants and animals nestled inside).

Lou took action, planting oats, radishes and wheat as cover crops to prevent erosion, testing his soil nutrient levels and not spreading his herd’s solid waste for fertilizer during freezes or heavy rain to prevent it from entering the water supply.

“The fact that we live here on the land, we want to do the best we possibly can and we want to pass it on to the next generation,” Lou says. “The things we have been doing for best management practices have collectively made an impact. The water quality has gotten better within the streams, but there are still high readings in the lake from time to time. It’s a work in progress.”

2. TURNING COW MANURE INTO RENEWABLE ENERGY

On a dairy farm, energy is needed to run the facilities and to power equipment, but valuable energy is also being expelled by the cows in the form of manure.

Thanks to an innovative technology called an anaerobic digester, DFA’s farmer-owners are turning manure back into a form of renewable energy. This energy is used to power their farm or sold back to the grid to power their local towns. This is a favorable alternative to nonrenewable natural gas typically pumped from the ground.

Anaerobic digesters, also referred to as methane digesters, take organic materials, like the manure from dairy cows, food waste or biosolids (like sewage sludge) and break down the materials using bacteria in a sealed environment (called a reactor) with no oxygen. From here, this energy can be reused in the form of electricity, heat or natural gas, while the solids exiting the digester can be used as a natural fertilizer or animal bedding (when dried).

SUSTAINABILITY IN ACTION

Adam Graft, a DFA farmer-owner in Georgia, says his farm’s anaerobic digester, which he installed in 2020, is a longtime dream come true.

Each day, water from his farm’s lagoon flushes sand and manure out of the cows’ barn. The sand is separated from the manure and is reused for bedding for the cows, while the manure makes its way into an anaerobic digester. This machine transforms the manure into renewable natural gas.

“This allows us to turn a large volume of manure into a resource that benefits the environment,” Adam says. “That is obviously a huge win for us and for the Earth, but the digester also helps with odor control, which makes for a smaller footprint and better-smelling air.”

3. CREATING RENEWABLE ENERGY THROUGH SOLAR POWER

As dairy farmers continue to focus on using renewable energy, solar panels have begun to pop up on dairy farms around the country.

Many dairy farmers have found powering their farms with sunlight to be an efficient way to reduce their electricity needs, especially when solar energy peaks from May through August.

SUSTAINABILITY IN ACTION

Solar panels line the outskirts of DFA farmer-owner Robert (Bob) Vander Eyk’s dairy in California — 3,600 of them to be exact. In 2016, Bob took advantage of California’s sunny climate and installed his one-megawatt solar farm, which powers half of the farm’s electricity needs each year.

By utilizing the energy from his own solar farm, Bob and his operation are reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which benefits humans, wildlife and ecosystems alike. Solar farms also reduce water consumption and improve nearby air quality.

“We’re running a multi-generational farm,” Bob says. “Everything I do, I do with that in mind. “When I think ‘How can we make sure we’re still able to run a dairy farm in 100 years?’ it becomes clear that we need to invest in lowering our carbon footprint and find ways to run our operation more efficiently,” he says. “It just makes sense to utilize solar energy and digesters.”

4. MAKING EVERY DROP COUNT WITH WATER RECYCLING

Natural resources like water are precious to everyone, but especially dairy farmers. On average, water gets recycled four times on a dairy farm.

It all starts with fresh water, which averages 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it the perfect temperature to cool down fresh milk. When milk leaves a dairy cow, it’s about the same temperature as her internal body heat — a toasty 101 degrees F. As milk is pumped into storage tanks and awaiting pickup, water is pumped into a separate chamber alongside the milk, cooling it down gradually on its way to the storage tank, where it will be kept chilled at 38 degrees F.

At this point, that water is still clean, and some is used for drinking water for the herd. After that, it’s generally used to clean off machinery and equipment first, then used to flush out manure from barns and, finally, used for watering crops. That’s right — the same water used to cool milk and clean barns (which means it’s extra nutrient-rich from the solid and liquid waste) is used to grow the feed cows will go on to eat!

In the summertime, dairy cows living in hot climates might be in for a special treat: farmers might opt to use some of their farm’s water to lightly mist their cows to keep them cool and comfortable. Many of these misting systems are designed with sustainability in mind, making sure they’re energy efficient and using the smallest amount of water possible to get the job done.

SUSTAINABILITY IN ACTION

Paul Heins, a DFA farmer-owner in Missouri, says he takes pride in his farm’s water recycling processes.

Water begins its journey on his farm by cooling down fresh milk. Then, it’s routed to misters to help cool down the cows during the summer. From there, it’s used to flush out and clean the barns, before moving to the farm’s lagoon, where it is stored to irrigate crops.

“My grandchildren are proof that sustainability is important,” Paul says. “They are the seventh generation of the Heins family to have the opportunity to milk cows and run a dairy farm on this land. When I think about the future of sustainability, I think of all our children.”

5. FIGHTING FOOD WASTE

Dairy farmers have a unique opportunity to fight food waste on their operations. Some people call cows the ultimate recyclers, all thanks to their hearty stomachs. Because cows are ruminants, which means they have four different parts to their stomach, they can digest food that humans cannot, often diverting it from a landfill in the process.

Not only is food waste a humanitarian concern, but it’s also an environmental one. When food is wasted, so is all the water and energy it took to grow it — not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions produced when it ends up in landfills.

Dairy farmers take this into account when developing their herd’s feed, often including things that are indigestible to humans but delicious to a dairy cow, like almond hulls, citrus pulp and other grasses and grains. Other times, though, fighting food waste is as simple as feeding cows produce or leftover products not deemed up-to-standard to sell to humans.

SUSTAINABILITY IN ACTION

AJ De Jager, a DFA farmer-owner in Colorado, feeds his herd carrots and sugar beets that have been deemed too ugly or broken to sell at grocery stores, as well as wet distillers’ grain, brewers’ grain and cottonseed. This food recycling makes a big impact on lessening the load of landfills, and the cows love it, too.

“We’ve been blessed with an amazing opportunity to dairy,” AJ says. “Doing our best and doing it the right way is how we can honor that. The most untold story of our industry is what we are doing as recyclers.”

6. OPTIMIZING COWS’ DIETS TO REDUCE METHANE EMISSIONS

Our farmer-owners are exploring ways to reduce their herd’s carbon footprint, like using feed additives and optimizing feed rations. Healthy, comfortable cows utilize feed more efficiently, which lessens the emissions per pound of milk.

SUSTAINABILITY IN ACTION

Clement Gervais, a DFA farmer-owner in Vermont, is participating in a year-long trial with Agolin®, a company that produces a feed additive that is expected to reduce each cow’s carbon emissions. The feed additive is a blend of essential oils that work with a cow’s microbiome to reduce burps, which emit methane into the atmosphere.

“It’s important to look forward to the things that could potentially hinder dairy farming,” Clement says. “The methane emissions from the cows are something we’re working to address and improve. If this trial finds that this feed additive works, both in how it benefits the cows’ digestion and reducing methane, then I think it’s a win-win.”

7. RECYCLING DAIRY COWS’ MANURE THROUGH MANURE MANAGEMENT

Cow manure has many potential round-two uses. Most commonly, it can be reused to fertilize crops or for animal bedding (when dried).

By implementing good manure management practices, like properly storing, treating and reusing it, dairy farmers can ensure their herd’s solid waste doesn’t end up in the water supply — and the fact that manure is valuable for other uses is a nice bonus.

SUSTAINABILITY IN ACTION

Scott Vieth, a DFA farmer-owner in Texas, installed a manure scraper and separator on his farm. A small robot runs underfoot on the floor of the barn, scraping up the manure. It then goes into a pit, and a press pushes out all the water to dry it completely. The dried manure is then recycled and used for the cows’ bedding, spread on Scott’s 600 acres of crops or sold to a local mushroom farm to be used as fertilizer.

“Recycling our composted manure for bedding is both cheaper and easier on our equipment than buying sand is, and it makes great fertilizer for crops,” Scott says. “Not only is this a smart business decision for my farm, but it’s better for the environment. By finding second uses for my herd’s solid waste and properly storing it, I’m protecting my community’s water supply and supporting crop farmers who would like to purchase it for fertilizer.”

HOW YOU CAN CONTRIBUTE TO A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE AT HOME:

  • Recycle milk jugs. About 62% of U.S. recycling centers have the capability to recycle milk jugs, making them a sustainable packaging option
  • Choose sustainably made dairy from DFA brands. As you shop and make healthy choices for your family, there’s no need to ask, “Where can I get farm fresh milk near me?” Thanks to our Cooperative’s network of nearly 6,000 family-owned farms, milk from any of our 23 regional brands travels less than 300 miles in under 48 hours before hitting shelves near you — it doesn’t get much fresher than that
  • Compost your food scraps. If you don’t have the space to start a compost pile, look for a composting service in your area
  • Use reusable food wraps. Cover leftovers with reusable food wraps in the refrigerator rather than plastic wrap
  • Bring reusable bags when shopping for groceries. You’ll eliminate the waste of using plastic or paper