Dairy farmers must take action to define sustainability and prove they are making progress in stewardship and reducing their carbon footprint. If they don't, someone else may decide to forge those definitions and impose them on the dairy industry.
That was the message from two speakers on day one of World Dairy Expo in Madison.
"In the absence of the dairy industry doing something, some one else is going to," said Roberta Osborne, with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
Dan Rice, a partner in his family's Prairieland Dairy in Firth, NB, said projects to improve sustainability on dairy farms can help improve profitability as well as prove to customers that dairy farmers are good stewards.
It can also mean heading off the 78 pages of requirements from one retail buyer that Osborne showed to her audience. In trying to ensure sustainability of their products to their customers, the ream of questions was a checklist for dairy farmers.
Osborne, who manages the "Farm Smart" project for the Innovation Center, said that by the year 2050 there will be a 70 percent increase in food demand.
"Retailers will want to manage risk and the stakes will little higher." Retailers and food handlers, she said, are already strategically sourcing their products.
The market driver right now, she said, is for customers to see farmers demonstrating progress; programs at the Innovation Center are aiming to create one approach to help producers track their sustainability and their progress.
Buyers of end products collaborated on the "Farm Smart" program. One company told her that their corporate goal is to source 100 percent of their agricultural raw materials "sustainably" by 2020.
"Farm Smart" includes a checklist that farmers can use to evaluate their practices and offers a way for them to benchmark their operation now and chart their improvement into the future.
To see the program go to www.USDairy.com/Sustainability.
It can be used to provide a sustainability "yardstick" of the farm.
Osborne said that in her mind, sustainability means that a farm is preserving and conserving natural resources; but it also means that it is increasing the profitability and enhancing the livelihood of the farming operation.
She spends a lot of time talking with food buyers about the fact that dairy farmers have reduced the carbon footprint of producing milk by two-thirds. The benchmarking program from the Innovation Center helps provide real farm data to help convey that message, she said.
A Sustainability Council, which includes 100 companies, producers, processors, government agencies and non-governmental organizations, gives everyone a forum to talk to each other so they all understand the issues, she added.
In a Stewardship and Sustainability Guide for U.S. Dairy, they tried to identify what matters most to retailers. The top three were energy use, greenhouse gas production and animal care.
Farmers can use an on-line tool to enter information about their farm and see how they stack up in sustainability. Osborne said to protect confidentiality data from the program is going to be stored at the Idaho National Lab, where nuclear secrets are kept.
"We are the first agricultural group to place data there." But if a participating farmer wants to share the operation's information with his or her milk handler that is possible too with this tool.
Rice explained that his farming operation was formed by four local families who then had about 100-200 cows apiece. To compete in the marketplace they decided they needed to combine into a single farm entity.
"We are 20 miles outside Lincoln and by 2000 we decided we needed to come up with an exit plan for the business or embrace the community," Rice said.
It was then they decided to bottle milk themselves and add composting to their farm's manure handling system. Today, they also bring in waste from other industries to add to the compost, which is sold commercially.
For Rice, whose farm won a dairy sustainability award from the Innovation Center, "sustainability" means the farm is going to be there for the next generation because it's profitable and because it is taking care of environmental issues.
Nine members of the founding farm's next generation are now working at Prairieland Dairy, he said.
"Sustainability is something near and dear to us and it's something we think about every day," Rice said. "But these things also have to make economic sense – we still have to be in business tomorrow."
He used the Farm Smart program to benchmark his operation and explained that it has offered him ways to save money and improve profitability. It also gives them a good story to tell the 10,000 people who tour their dairy farm every year.
"This gives us the opportunity to have that conversation. If we don't define sustainability our customers will."
Rice said the "fiasco with bST" and new questions about tail docking and de-horning should show farmers that they need to be pro-active in the area of sustainability.
One of his biggest customers has told Rice that they won't sell his milk in their stores unless the dairy is GMO-free in two years.
In many of the conversations he has with corporate customers, said Rice, they care most about progress. "They want to see improvement. That's why I wanted to use the Farm Smart program. We need to show customers we're doing better."
At the same time Rice said he's not really interested in doing things that don't produce some kind of economic progress for his farming operation. He found many ways to reduce energy use and save money by doing a comprehensive energy audit of the farm.
They saved money by implementing low-temperature detergents for their pipeline, which allowed them to save propane for water heating and cut out one water heater. They also found that one of their electric meters was on a different rate and changing that has produced savings.
Other savings were garnered by replacing their lighting fixtures with more efficient bulbs over time, because replacing them all at once would have been cost prohibitive. They also replaced a diesel-driven manure irrigation system with an electric motor which produced savings.
In all, the audit found $18,700 in annual savings for the farm and reduced their greenhouse gas "footprint" by nearly 150,000 pounds per year.
That might not sound impressive to the average consumer, he said, so he puts it in terms they can understand. It's the equivalent of taking 14 cars off the road or saving enough energy to power nine homes.
"That's a big deal and they can understand that."
He encouraged farmers to try the Farm Smart program to help establish a baseline for the dairy industry and also to get their farm's energy use audited.
His was done through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, which also makes him eligible for other grants through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS.)
In many areas local power companies have incentive programs designed to improve energy efficiencies, Rice added.
The Innovation Center was formed in 2008 using dairy farmer checkoff money to tackle issues that are too big for any one entity or part of the dairy industry and includes producers, companies and cooperatives that represent about 80 percent of the U.S. milk supply as well as executives of companies involved in purchasing dairy products.