Sustainability has been important to farmers ever since consumers decided they wanted to buy products from companies that met certain criteria. They valued companies that took care of the environment, valued their employees, gave back to their communities and other positive attributes.
That began to mean something to dairy farmers when the companies that held those sustainability attributes set standards within their supply chain to validate those attributes. Suddenly dairy producers were asked to up their sustainability game, and that didn’t sit well with those farmers who had been great environmental stewards for generations.
Over time, however, the definition of sustainability became more refined and evolved to a meaning that included more than environmental stewardship. While the environmental part of sustainability is important, it’s just one leg of the three-legged sustainability stool. The second leg deals with the social impact a business has on their community, while the third leg looks at the economic viability of the business to sustain success well into the future.
The most basic element of sustainability, and the one in which most producers excel, is the environmental component. Farmers in general, and dairy farmers included, have long been known as great stewards of the land. Most farmers will say that environmental stewardship is important because they want to leave the land in better shape for the next generation than what it was when they started farming it.
That’s true for John Maxwell, who owns and operates Cinnamon Ridge Dairy near Donahue, Iowa. He started using cover crops more than three decades ago as a way to provide a cheap feed source for his herd of Jersey cows. Today, Maxwell plants ryegrass on about 400 acres in the fall and harvests it in spring to use as feed for heifers. The cover crops keep the soil in place and provide a great environment for improving soil organic matter.
Like many farmers, Maxwell got information on how to maximize the use of cover crops from an Extension publication. While Extension resources continue to be great sources of information, an important source for subject matter expertise has emerged from what was once considered opponents to modern farming practices.
These are non-governmental organizations, or NGO’s. The list of NGO’s includes organizations like the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund on a national level, and regional initiatives like the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay that partner with farmer organizations to identify ways to improve environmental impacts.
“Certainly when you ask a producer who they trust to help with environmental decisions on their farm the first thought is not to go to an environmental nonprofit,” says Nicole Ayache, director of sustainability initiatives with the National Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program. “It’s a relationship that has been shifting in the past five or 10 years. And these nonprofits have on their staffs a lot of environmental experts and we continue to build those partnerships to get that subject matter expertise to the ground level.”
While cover crops are a relatively low-cost environmental solution, there are a wide array of technologies available depending on the financial resources at the dairy’s disposal.
“The adoption of technology will vary depending on the operation,” Ayache says. “Some might be looking at covers for manure storage or solid separation and other technologies.” A resource to identify those technologies is Newtrient, a partnership between 12 dairy cooperatives, Dairy Management, Inc. and the National Milk Producers Federation to identify manure management opportunities and help producers make informed management decisions.
“Newtrient has become sort of the environmental technology gatekeeper for the industry, if you will,” says Steve Rowe, president and CEO of Newtrient. “And we’ve been pushing hard on ecosystem services, trying to get more economic value for the environmental benefit that dairy and ag can bring to the larger community.”
The National FARM program serves as another resource of information for producers and also a way to validate environmental practices. The environmental stewardship component of National FARM started two years ago and has completed environmental evaluations on around 950 farms to date, Ayache says.
“Right now the FARM tool allows producers to measure their greenhouse gas emissions and energy use footprints,” Ayache says. “The output of the evaluation lets producers see how much of their footprint comes from emissions from the cows, manure, energy and feed and then compare their results to a national benchmark.”
A reference manual, developed in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, offers best practice solutions to see what options are available for specific producers.
For more on the story, including how Maxwell tells the Cinnamon Ridge their story and how sustainability can lead to business success, click here.