Sustainability is Not Just About the Environment

In my husband’s office there’s a worn and weath-ered copy of a 2011 special report from The Economist called The 9 Billion-People Question. Scott was given that magazine reprint following what he will still tell you was the best sustainability lecture he’s ever heard. It drastically shifted his thinking on the subject and, over time, shifted mine as well. The lecture was given by a renowned scien-tist named Dale Bauman, the man responsible for inventing rBST. Bauman and his team of Cornell researchers discovered how it could become one of the most environmentally and financially sustainable tools the dairy industry would ever have access to.

As you know, rBST is no longer widely used in the dairy industry. In the early 2000s processors started to use rBST as a marketing tool, frightening consumers into only purchasing milk that did not contain rBST. I think it’s safe to say rBST was one of the first technologies in the dairy industry to be completely ostracized by lack of consumer education. It’s not socially sustainable.

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You see, thinking of sustainability as a three-legged-stool is one of the many lessons learned from Bauman’s lecture. We often think of no-till or methane digesters or manure separators when we think of sustainability, but those things really only represent one leg of sustainability: environmental. Really, the sustainability of our farms relies on three legs: environmental, financial and social.

While they are all unique, one (or even two) cannot exist without the others and rBST is a great example of that; rBST was environmentally sustainable. In fact, Elanco data shows Wisconsin dairy farmers would need 59,000 more cows, 164,000 more acres of cropland and would use 23.9 billion more gallons of water to produce the same amount of milk they could with rBST. And on the farm level, when used with sound management, it was financially sustainable. The social sustainability leg sent rBST to its final resting place, which by the way, is Brazil following Elanco’s sale of Posilac in August.

In reality, what sustainability asks of us is to do more with less, and on a whole we’ve been doing that. But to continue to produce more with less, we have to rely on technology. Beginning on page 10, you can read about a new technology Wisconsin farmer Lee Kinnard has implemented on his farm to manage nitrogen run off.

To survive, we also have to ensure our farms are financially sustainable. There are two ways to do that: control expenses or control income. While both are hard to do, the second is arguably the most difficult. While you can control the base price and quality of your milk, you don’t have control over base premiums, basis and deductions, which in many cases are causing the bulk of the milk price pain farmers are feeling. However, you can control cost. On page 30, learn how to right-size your heifer inventory, a task likely to be applauded by your banker.

To stay in grocery stores, our industry needs to be socially sustainable. To accomplish that, we have to continue to educate consumers about our farms, our practices and how milk is a critical component of a healthy diet.

These tasks, albeit none small, are what will make our industry truly sustainable, so we can feed the 9 billion people who will soon inhabit our world.

 
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