Austin Allred, owner of Royal City Dairy, (center) receives the 2018 Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award.
Dairy cows the star of sustainable agriculture
By AUSTIN ALLRED
For the Capital Press (Published July 20, 2018)
With National Dairy Month over, it’s an excellent opportunity to reflect on the cow’s contributions to society and its vital role in the sustainability cycle of agriculture.
Today we feed more people on this planet on less land than ever before. The decrease in farmland is an accelerating trend here in the United States where we lose an average of 1 million acres of productive farmland each year. The current world population is 7.6 billion, and in just 12 years, another billion humans will require a significant expansion of food production, on even fewer acres.
Man has much to learn about inventing, improving and adopting “Best Management Practices” within the very diversified agricultural production systems. Cows are a great example of adaptation and adoption of practices which make dairy critical in obtaining a genuinely sustainable cycle in the food sector.
While innovative technology can do wonders, it is no match for the natural biological systems built into the dairy cow. Sunlight and carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — combined with soils and water to grow forage and grain plants which are consumed by cows in a very scientifically designed diet. Their four-part stomach can digest materials that man cannot — and produce milk, meat and manure in return.
The value of milk and meat is obvious and goes back to creation. However, while the United States had almost 23 million dairy cows in 1950, producing 116 million pounds of milk, by the year 2000 cow numbers had plummeted to 9.2 million, producing a total of 167 million pounds of milk, these animals are incredibly efficient. Today, over 16 percent of this high-quality protein in the form of whey, powdered milk and cheese is exported, much of it to food deficient areas of the world. Regions like Asia have seen incredible benefits recently since starting to eat more of these superior proteins.
What makes the dairy cow the star of truly sustainable modern food production? It all starts with the amazing four-part stomach, able to take in a wide variety of plant-based nutrition and convert it to metabolic energy, milk and meat. Every kind of traditional forage in the form of hay, haylage or silage forms a base in the cow ration.
This is diversified substantially with trim and cull materials from food processing plants — carrots, peas, potatoes, beets, onions, cotton seeds, sweet corn which would otherwise be filling up our area landfills provides a wide variety of high-quality feed to be mixed into the cow ration. Wet brewers mash from beer makers, dry distiller’s grain left over from ethanol production, grape pomace from wine and juice making join all the fruits like apples, pears, cherries and more and add palatability and nutrition to the cows diet.
Some of the energy consumed by dairy cows is lost to metabolic requirements, some is found in the milk, and the remainder — some people have incorrectly labeled as “waste” — we call it manure. This manure can be applied to soils in lots of different ways. Composting is one of the most popular, cow manure makes up the majority of most composts, the consistent source of cow manure allows for high-quality compost that can handle all sorts of green waste, food waste, even paper and cardboard to be mixed in and converted to plant food, again keeping more and more out of our landfills.
Our dairy creates more than 50,000 tons of compost a year. Most of this compost contains different wasteproducts from cities. Testing confirms what common sense tells us — that manure was once plant material — and it contains almost the same ratios of nutrients required for optimum plant growth. Even better yet, these nutrients are naturally slow release when compared with most synthetic sourced nutrients, so they are more likely to stay in the plant root zone and
be taken up by the plants for growth.
As the soils warm in the spring and irrigation water is applied, plant growth peaks in late June and July, just when these organic-based nutrients become plant available as the manure or compost breaks down. They also positively alter soil characteristics, increasing the water infiltration rate — reducing runoff, and increasing overall soil water holding capacity.
All in all, it’s a perfect circle of recycling that makes this resource truly sustainable and crucial in the whole cycle of the $28 billion food sector in America. By continuing to increase productivity with fewer cows on less land and improving practices of manure management the cow is taking on more and more of responsibility in making our world work how is was meant to work. These incredible animals are not only feeding the world with arguably the best protein out there, but they are keeping more and more out of landfills and instead creating a critical product needed to grow and manufacture food sustainably.
Austin Allred is the owner of Royal Dairy in Royal City, Wash.
We live in a time when farm critics and activists are complaining ever more loudly about the "powerful" farm lobby, "corporate farming" and, their favorite: "industrial agriculture." They try to build anger against family farmers, particularly if they are larger than they think they ought to be. About 97% of farms across the nation are family farms, that is owned and operated by family members and usually handed down from generation to generation. Some are large, some small and many in the middle. But family farms just want to survive and pass the farm and land to the next generation.
These farm families for the most part are hurting, as this May 17 article in USA Today makes clear. Farm income is at or near the lowest in 12 years.
Think about this next time you are enjoying a steak, a cup of yogurt, or a fresh baked slice of bread. If you paid $10, for that steak, the farmer who raised the beef got only $2.20 of your dollars. That compares to $4.40 of it just four years ago. That was 2014! Remember way back then? Milk? Today's dairy farmer gets 30 cents of the dollar you spend on dairy products, compared to 51 cents just four years ago! Wheat farmer gets just 12 cents of your delicious bread, bun or donut dollar.
Numerous stories about farmer suicide rates (highest of any work category) highlight the difficulty and uncertainty that face today's farmers. This is why the effort of some so-called environmental groups to load massive new requirements on our farmers in these conditions (requirements that would not improve the already impressive and improving environmental performance) is so frustrating to farmers.
We noticed in this advertising for Coastal farm stores an interesting little tidbit about dairy farming.
This innovative greenhouse located in Blaine, Washington (near a number of dairy farms in the far northwest corner of Washington state and Whatcom County) uses output from a dairy methane digester to heat the greenhouse and grow lots of beautiful plants.
Here's what the Van Wingerden message said:
Keeping Greenhouses Warm
Of course, plants need heat to grow. To ensure growth year-round, Van Wingerden teamed up with a local manure digester to utilize the heat the power plant creates.
“We pump the heat through our water lines,” Tom said. “It’s a wonderfully sustainable solution.”
Other cool technologies the Van Wingerden Greenhouses have implemented include the hanging basket carrousel that takes the hanging baskets you find at Coastal along a conveyer that takes plants along a path of watering, fertilization, and shipping. In addition, an automatic transplanter takes seedlings out of large trays and packs them into individual pots in mere seconds.
The Center for Food Integrity does an outstanding job of studying and analyzing perceptions about farmers and all things food. Their Earth Day blog post was especially on target and explains exactly what Save Family Farming is really all about.
The problem is simple: growing food for everyone has always impacted the environment. But, farmers understand the problem and the issues and have changed practices dramatically, as CFI reports:
Comparing 1980 to 2015, a study of corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops shows all primary environmental indicators for land use, soil conservation, irrigation water use, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions showed improved environmental performance. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, livestock production accounts for only 4.2 percent of greenhouse gas emissions compared to 27 percent by transportation and 31 percent by energy production.
So, why are so many doubtful?
The latest survey done by CFI shows the huge gap in public perception and reality:
In the latest trust research from The Center for Food Integrity, we asked respondents to rate their level of agreement with the following statement: “Do U.S. farmers take good care of the environment?” Only 30 percent strongly agree, more than half – 60 percent – are ambivalent. They’re just not sure farmers are doing enough.
There are a few good reasons for this. Anti-farm activists like the ones you are familiar with if you review this site, are consistently misrepresenting and distorting the truth about farmers and the environment. Why? Money is the simple answer. They need new targets to raise funds. If a ready-made one isn't available, they need to create one. They intentionally target "industrial agriculture" using this vexed term to attack all except the smallest farm-to-market farms. The fact is nationally about 97% of our farms are family owned and operated and size has nothing to do with environmental performance per se.
The activists play a role needed by our audience-starved media outlets. Activists deliver the emotion – particularly outrage – that anyone seeking to attract eyeballs on a screen knows is essential. Then we have the "white knight" politicians eager to ride to the rescue. Then, of course, follow the attorneys representing the litigation industry that scoops up their share of the money from this activist-media-politician-attorney blame game.
The Center for Food Integrity is right to issue this call to farmers to address this problem. We see this large gap between perception and reality precisely because farmers much prefer to farm and grow food for the rest of us than spend time and their limited dollars to defend against these self-centered attacks. But, they are starting to realize, and Save Family Farming and its local affiliates prove it, that farmers are realizing as never before that they can't just farm. The right to keep providing food needs to be protected against those who for their own agendas seek to take that right away. The battle for the understanding of the public and consumer is underway. May the truth win.
Chico Bay, a portion of Dyes Inlet near Silverdale, may be closing to commercial shellfish harvesting due to bacteria. This is of interest to farmers as farmers have been consistently accused of causing the bacteria contamination shutting down shellfish beds in Whatcom and Skagit counties. But, where the farms near Chico Bay?
Washington state has consistently pointed out that urban encroachment in marine areas is a primary cause of bacteria contamination, which makes a good argument for why we need to keep farmland in those areas. Farmers in Whatcom and Skagit have pointed to the large population of wintering birds on their lands as a significant source, which has been poo pooed by some. However, this news story suggests that it may be the birds that are causing the contamination. If that turns out to be the case, those concerned about water quality should be looking much more at the ever increasing winter bird population in Whatcom and Skagit. State officials estimated about 18,000 swans in those two counties this winter, and many hundreds of thousands of snow geese, let alone Canada geese and ducks. We all love them, but they do significant damage to fields, and leave their substantial droppings behind during the rainiest season while digging up the fields turning them to mud contributing to the runoff into streams. While the birds are doing this to the farm fields, regulations appropriately keep farmers from applying manure to those wet fields to avoid runoff. This is why farmers get pretty frustrated with those who keep blaming farmers without knowing what is really going on.
Some seem to think farmers are trying to play the victim card when we talk about losing our farms, and much worse, losing our farmers to suicide. Anti-farm activists refuse to acknowledge that while the primary cause is global economic conditions and trade issues, the lawsuits, demands for more regulation, false accusations just compound the terrible financial situation.
This story from Wisconsin reveals it is not just a Washington state problem, but we share a similar story. It has become international news as this story from the British newspaper The Guardian shows.
Some don't understand. Sure, farmers can lose the farm but others lose their jobs, too. Why should farmers suffer more or resort to suicide? Most family farms are handed down from generation to generation, with many of them existing for three, four, five generations and even more. A number go back to homesteading days. One of Save Family Farming's leaders dates his family's dairy history in the Netherlands back to 1450. Folks, that is before Columbus sailed. The hopes of most family farmers is to pass this legacy on to the next generation of stewards. Farmers in a sense don't feel they "own" anything other than an opportunity and responsibility to carry on and pass it on. When one is the keeper of that kind of legacy, facing the end of generations of pride and hard work is more than some can bear.
We're not playing the victim card here. It is a reality that everyone needs to understand. The pressure on our family farmers is real and is likely greater than any previous generation experienced except the Great Depression. Those enduring look forward to those days when they can look back at this time and say "we survived."
This guest editorial from Capital Press on March 23 is spot on. Anne Marie Ross, communications director for Oregon Farm Bureau expresses the thoughts of many in her comments about the five things she learned about farmers and ranchers.
Read the whole editorial, but here are the five things:
1. There is room and need for all types of farming (conventional, organic, commercial-scale, direct-to-consumer, etc.)
2. Big doesn't mean bad. (97% of Oregon farms are family owned and managed, some are large but that doesn't mean we don't need them)
3. Part of sustainability is profitability.
4. There's no such thing as a simple farmer.
5. There's more that unites agriculture than divides it.
CNBC on December 21 carried this commentary on the role of clean tech in helping our family farms survive. This is one thing that farmers have been saying for some time to those anti-farm activists who are trying through regulations to push them out of business. Farms are making tremendous progress in addressing legitimate environmental concerns. But give us time, help us, support us, don't destroy us with massive and unproductive regulations.
This article makes a few important points worth noting:
- 97% of our nation's farms are family farms--please note the USDA definition of a family farm. It is where the family owns and operates it. That's the definition we use, not an arbitrary size number.
- family farm income has dropped 45% since a high in 2013. It's something we have been trying to tell Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and RE Sources who are fighting to impose the dairy farm killing regulations: give us a break! We're losing our farm shirts here and you want to pile on regulations that would cost us over $1100 per cow! That would destroy our family farms.
There are a great many examples of innovative farmers employing new technologies to improve operations and reduce environmental risks. We know where most environmentalists stand– solidly behind our farmers who are working hard to do it right. We just need to have them tell their environmental activist groups like Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and RE Sources to work with us instead of working for the end of our family farms.
The sad reality of farmer suicides is made so much worse when you know that those who should be the greatest friends of farmers are causing some of the greatest problems. Farmers are so sad and frustrated that non-profit groups like Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Western Environmental Law Center, and RE Sources are working together to impose completely unnecessary regulations that would destroy virtually all our family dairy farms.
Here is the Guardian story on farmer suicides:
Farmers keep wondering why environmental groups like Puget Soundkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance, RE Sources and Western Environmental Law Center keep trying to force our dairy farms out of business. Shouldn't they be focusing a bit more on urban pollution, the clearly established cause of most pollution?
This new study out of the UK gives a one-two punch to the attacks on farming by these groups. The Osteoporosis society finds that urban pollution from roads contributes to the disease suffered by millions. Then prescribes a diet with dairy products as one of the most important things people can do to prevent this disease.
We think they should have mentioned that perhaps moving to the country would help reduce the exposure to the road-born pollution. Oh wait, we may not have a country-side left if those groups attacking our family farms have their way. And we certainly won't have any more dairy products coming from Washington state.
Save Family Farming
We're working to build public understanding of the environmental stewardship of our family farmers.