Sustainability: Why Dairy Farmers Have Much to Say

Published on Mon, 03/07/2016 - 1:58pm

By Suzanne Vold,
Dairy Farmer,
Glenwood, Minnesota

When the word sustainability was first brought up in the dairy circles where I was involved, I was cautious. Sustainability, as I knew it, usually related to organic practices, and our farm wasn’t organic. But it wasn’t long before I realized the dairy industry was approaching sustainability in a much broader way. In fact, when the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, led by our dairy checkoff, established its definition, it defined sustainability as providing consumers with nutritious dairy products they want, in a way that makes the industry, people and the earth economically, environmentally and socially better — now and for future generations. With that definition, I’m on board! Our dairy is a century farm, and we’ve been in business not just 117 years, but four generations. What we do has to be the right thing for the long haul. It was six years ago that the Innovation Center started its Sustainability Council and its work to assess, measure, improve and communicate the sustainability efforts of dairy. Over that time, it’s become the Dairy Sustainability Alliance, a form for sharing knowledge and working together so that every part of the dairy industry structure, from farmers through processing and food companies to consumers, can meet the expectations we all have for our businesses, and our Earth. Why is that even important to a dairy farmer? Well, I’d rather be part of showing how our products come from sustainable practices than waiting for someone else to tell us what they think we should be doing. Companies all over the world are adopting social responsibility and sustainability policies, and if we can’t show our practices meet or exceed their vision, we could face unrealistic demands. The words “continuous improvement” are tossed about within those statements. No dairy farmer is a stranger to that concept; we work toward continuous improvement in everything we do. Now we’re explaining it in a way others can understand.

For instance, most of us rotate crops, which protects water quality. We scout pests, we map soils, we reduce energy costs every chance we get. We recycle water, manure, sand, plastics and just about anything else we can. And each year we try to do it a little better. We’ve been doing our part for a very long time. In fact, in the last 60 years, the dairy industry has increased milk yield by four times, while reducing cropland use 90 percent, water use 65 percent, and our carbon footprint by 63 percent. That’s sustainability we need to be talking about! And once in a while, something totally new comes along, showing a new side to sustainability. At Dorrich Dairy, we started introducing wasp larvae into fly nests, which had a measurable impact on our farm environment. We also use natural pyrethrum spray (made from chrysanthemums) in our free-stall barn. Those two things and other practices on our land have reduced the use of our insecticide, and our costs, by 85 percent. Meanwhile, a group of dairy co-ops and others have started an initiative called Newtrient, which will work to find new ways to get the most from manure. It’s looking at emerging technologies that go far beyond our usual use of manure for organic fertilizer and energy. While it’s just begun its work, it’s already joined with the Environmental Protection Agency on a competition to identify the best technologies for recycling livestock manure. Winning entries will provide concepts Newtrient will pilot next year. So you see, there’s a whole new world of sustainability we haven’t even discovered yet. We shouldn’t be reluctant to answer demands for sustainability; we can embrace them because, while each farm does it differently, we each live sustainably every day. Dairy farmers don’t like to boast, and since very few of us market directly to consumers, we’re not always talking to them. But raising the profile of dairy sustainability presents us with an opportunity to toot our horn, and maybe even capture new ways to keep our family businesses successful.
Suzanne Vold is a partner of Dorrich Dairy, which includes her husband, Brad; his brother and sister-inlaw, Greg and Charity; and Brad’s parents, Richard and Dorothy. She is a corporate board member of Midwest Dairy Association and represents the Midwest on the national checkoff board. Dorrich Dairy was a winner of the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards in 2015.