WI dairy industry sets standard for sustainability

Wisconsin State Farmer
The Dairy Strong Alliance announced the formation of the “Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance” at a recent news conference.

Waunakee - Increasingly, consumers want assurance the food they purchase is raised using environmentally responsible, sustainable practices. Industry research has shown that 42% of consumers are willing to pay more for products that are certified according to standards – from farm to table.

Dairy farmers in Wisconsin are responding. The Dairy Strong Alliance announced the formation of the “Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance” at a news conference on the farm of Jeff Endres, in Waunakee.

Goals of the alliance include: Fostering environmental, economic and social stewardship; Ensuring long-term viability of dairy farms and related businesses; Show science-based outcomes and Proactively align with company/customer demands.

The Endres farm was chosen for the announcement because Jeff Endres is the chairperson for Yahara Pride Farms in southern Wisconsin. In 2012, this volunteer farmer cooperative began meeting to share information and strategies to improve land stewardship.

Keys to success

More than 45 farms in the Yahara watershed participate in this voluntary, non-governmental certification program. In 2015, farmers in the program reduced phosphorus delivery to the Yahara River and its connected lakes by 8,642 lbs. Since 2012, farmers have documented a total phosphorus delivery reduction of 15,872 lbs. Phosphorus is linked to algae growth and water quality issues.

Yahara Pride’s use of CCAs, scientific documentation, and on-site evaluation was key to this success. And, their use of Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) to improve farming practices serves as a blueprint to farmers across the nation.

“CCAs bring the commitment, education, expertise, and experience to make a difference,” Luther Smith, director of professional development and business relations for ASA, says. ASA provides oversight for the CCA program. Smith first proposed the use of CCAs in the creation of sustainability programs at a June meeting of agricultural sustainability leaders. “It makes sense to bring them on board, especially those with the sustainability certification. Their skill set is a natural match to the needs of environmentally-aware dairy farmers.”

The CCA program just began offering a specialty certification in Sustainability, with the first exam given in August.

Sustainability Alliance

The Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance will be encouraging their participating farmers to use CCA-certified agronomists, especially those with sustainability certification. They also plan to use the first class of CCA-Sustainability certified advisers to be a resource for data collection, collaboration and performance indicators.

Many farmers already work with CCAs to ensure best practices on their farm. Dairy farmers may grow feed for their cattle, or use manure as fertilizer. They want solutions that protect the long-term success of their farm, the environment, and their community.

“Yahara Pride Farms started five years ago with the idea that farmers are great stewards of the land and are in a position to have a huge environmental impact because agriculture is vast,” says Endres. “But beyond the scale of agriculture in the Yahara Watershed, farmers can make the biggest impact because we are innovators and we want to challenge ourselves to do better every year. We are proud to support the Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance because we believe that agriculture needs to continue to lead the way with sustainable ideas and farm practices. What we have started here in Dane County can and should be replicated across the state and eventually the nation to assure consumer confidence.”

Endres works with Rob Klink, CCA-WI, with Arlington Agronomy. He also uses consultants from Frontier FS.

Far reaching impact

The movement towards certified, sustainable dairy products impacts more than Wisconsin farmers. The Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance helps all businesses in the dairy community —from farmers to processors to retailers—focus on continuous improvements. Using success stories like Yahara Pride Farms as a model, DSSA offers a voluntary, collaborative atmosphere. Businesses that compete in the market are able to share practices that decrease waste and increase conservation practices.

“There is great work being done locally and programs already developed nationally to showcase dairy’s continued commitment to sustainability,” says Maria Woldt, sustainability lead for the DSSA and director of industry relations for the Dairy Business Association. “The role of the Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance is to bring all the collaborators together to focus on measurable results that lead to continuous improvement at every step.”

The International Certified Crop Adviser (ICCA) program of the American Society of Agronomy is the standard for true professionalism in the field of agronomy. The CCA certification was established in 1992 to provide a benchmark for practicing agronomy professionals. Over 13,000 professionals are certified by ASA in the United States, Canada and Mexico. For more information, visit www.certifiedcropadviser.org.

Organized in the Spring of 2016, the goal of the DSSA is to show tangible results in the areas of land use, soil conservation, nutrient management, water quality and use, energy use, animal welfare, food safety, greenhouse emissions, economic health and social responsibility.  The DSSA achieves these goals by taking existing sustainability tools and applying them to early and mid-stage grassroots efforts led by farmers – individually or as part of a watershed. Data from each group is compiled annually.