Steve Schlangen
Steve Schlangen

On our farm near Albany, Minnesota, we recently began measuring the environmental impact of some of our conservation practices. We are doing so to help determine which practices make the most sense for us to continue and for fellow farmers to consider adopting. We participate in several programs through the Headwaters Agriculture Sustainability Partnership, a collaboration of farmers and organizations including Midwest Dairy and Minnesota Milk Producers Association. The program is committed to helping farmers identify practices that provide the most environmental and economic benefits for their farms and communities.

An industry-wide effort was recently announced to help the U.S. dairy community become carbon neutral or better by the year 2050 — the Net Zero Initiative. Why the new program? Because research shows it’s crucial for consumers to know their food is being produced sustainably. In addition to carbon neutrality, key on-farm targets within the initiative include reducing water usage and improving water quality by optimizing manure and soil nutrient use.

With the help of funding from HASP, we’re able to measure the return on investment for specific processes, helping to show which efforts are truly beneficial. We chose to participate to ensure dairy farmers have a voice in the changes that are being asked of us. We’re advocating for decisions and creating practices that work for us all while also working to reach the NZI goals. Doing the right thing doesn’t need to put a burden on farmers if the whole supply chain pitches in.

Many feed production, cow care, energy efficiency and manure management practices that will help reach the industry’s goals are already being implemented across the country. With the use of on-farm pilot programs and other initiatives, we can help make these practices more widely accessible and affordable while also improving the industry’s economic viability.

So, what are we doing on our farm? In addition to a crop rotation plan that includes alfalfa, recycling the water used to cool milk, installing a variable speed vacuum pump and switching to LED lighting, we’re planting cover crops to improve soil health and increase yields, grid sampling to ensure we’re applying nutrients only where needed, and improving manure management. With the HASP, we’ll be able to quantify the ROI for these efforts and learn what’s impactful. We will also closely document our specific practices to showcase how they can be replicated.

Another way to find out what’s working – and what could work for you – is to talk to other farmers. Ask why someone in the area is doing something different. Learn more about it. Share successes. Share failures. Most farmers love to visit and share tips that might inspire others to try incorporating a more sustainable practice. Every farm is different, but there is something for everyone. Improvements don’t always mean expenses – some actually save money or time while making us more productive.

Fortunately, as farmers, we’re not alone in our quest. Processors have also committed to reaching these goals, and ours, Associated Milk Producers Inc., has implemented production efficiencies that improve the environment and economics of dairy. As of October, 27 dairy companies – including AMPI – representing 70% of the nation’s milk production have voluntarily adopted the U.S. Dairy Stewardship Commitment and contribute to U.S. dairy’s ability to track progress in environment, animal care, food safety/traceability and community contributions. A step in the right direction, and a story we should all tell. Ask your processor or your local soil and water conservation district representatives what practices are being implemented in your area to help reduce dairy’s environmental footprint.

Dairy farmers have always been great stewards of the land and natural resources, so the NZI won’t require much more effort from us. We just need to continue seeking opportunities to tell others what we are doing and track our progress along the way.

This is an incredible opportunity for our industry. The truth is consumers have choices about what they eat, and they often make decisions for reasons other than price, nutrition and flavor. They want to feel good about what they’re buying, knowing it’s responsibly produced and environmentally sustainable. Let’s work together to tell our sustainability stories and give consumers the confidence they need to fill their carts with dairy.