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Sustainability key to dairy success

By Amy Hadachek for The Fence Post

The dairy industry’s goals for sustainability received a big show of support in mid-November, when the checkoff-founded Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy announced a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy said this step will allow the EPA to more deeply understand and support U.S. dairy farmers and their sustainability efforts.

This MOU was announced during the fall meeting of the Dairy Sustainability Alliance that was held Nov. 9-10.

“This MOU means we’re collaborating and working together with the EPA. Actually, we’ve been collaborating since 2012 to work with the EPA, and this MOU is more specifically about carbon sequestering,” said Nebraska dairy farmer Lowell Mueller of Vi-View Farm in Hooper on Nov. 14. “In early October, the Innovation Center announced a goal of net zero (carbon neutrality) by 2050. Some farms may meet that goal, others may get close, but it’s not going to be a requirement that farms would need to be that way… it’s just our goal with the dairy industry,” said Mueller, whose dairy includes 200 registered Holstein cows.

Some farm programs will be tied into how sustainable dairies’ operations are and reward dairies for steps they take toward that goal. Carbon neutrality by 2050, means dairy farms will optimize water usage and maximize recycling, while managing manure and nutrients to improve water quality.

“The MOU will explore mutually beneficial opportunities for dairy farms of all sizes, geographies and practices to gain benefits from EPA resources, including research grants, educational training materials and data,” said Barbara O’Brien, president of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, in a statement.

PROTECTING NATURAL RESOURCES

To have a sustainable industry; it’s about protecting water, land and animals. “That fits into something we’ve always done. It’s about telling our story of what we have done in the past, and will do in the future,” Mueller said. The Innovation Center is an ‘arm’ of Dairy Management Inc. They get industry people together to discuss problems and create solutions. “Sustainability is what people want, and we’re trying to figure out the best strategies,” added Mueller, who is on the national DMI board, and locally, is also an officer with Midwest Dairy Association (an agency encompassing nine Midwest states.)

Vi-View Farm in Hooper, Neb., where Lowell Mueller and his family raise registered Holstein cows.

With dairy and agriculture deemed essential this year through heightened public awareness when COVID hit, Mueller is glad people value agriculture even more and aren’t taking food for granted.

“I think it increased the public awareness of the public. The public has lost the knowledge of how important food production is in this country and in the world. Once COVID hit, people realized how much effort we put out in this industry for safety and variety. When the pipeline for food got shutdown they wondered about where they would get food. They lose track of where the food comes from.”

Mueller wrote out a list of the farming practices he’s been using to continue being sustainable:

“We’ve been no-till for sequestering carbon for over 30 years. It saves your soil, protects the soil from erosion. We’re increasing our yields, and we’re not losing valuable moisture, which was a big deal this year, especially being 13 inches below normal in rainfall.” Their fall harvest brought nice yields for corn and soybeans.

Instead of tilling, technology enabled them to plant their crop into the residue. “Modern technology is key for sustainability.” Mueller, and his two brothers Dennis and Larry, and nephew Jordan farm the soybeans and corn. Mueller’s wife, Lois, is the farm bookkeeper. They hire some help; mostly family labor.

They also have rolling hills, so terraces were installed where necessary, to prevent runoff.

Other sustainability processes at the Muellers’ dairy include improving their manure applications, with the purchase of a vertical manure spreader. Mueller said it spreads manure and nutrients more evenly and efficiently than the old horizontal spreaders.

Also, by using a flush system to clean the alley in the free stall barn, the Muellers re-use that water several times; sustaining their water supply.

“We separate out the solids. We apply water out of the lagoon, we chisel that into the soil. We hire that part done, and they have GPS equipment and inject that underground,” said Mueller, a fifth-generation farmer. “I have a sixth-generation nephew working with us, and we want to hand this down to the next generation and keep improving on it; which is another example of sustainability.”

Additionally, the Mueller’s dairy has a variable speed vacuum pump which saves energy in running the milking equipment. “We milk 200 cows. That pump saves us $100 a month in electricity,” said Mueller, who recently cleared numerous tree branches following a mid-November ice storm which heavily coated his trees with 1.70 inches of freezing rain. “Thankfully, we had power the whole time, although others nearby lost power for several days. You could hear the pop and snap from the ice, but it was nothing compared to the floods in Nebraska, last year,” Mueller said.

Other sustainability practices implemented at Mueller’s dairy:

A heat reclaiming system reclaims hot water when cooling their milk. “We have compressors that cool the milk (like a refrigerator) but this collects heat from the compressors and heats the water. So, I can make enough hot water for anything that we need hot water for,” Mueller said.

About five years ago, he switched to fluorescent bulbs. “They use one-third of the energy that the incandescent bulbs used. Now, I’m starting to switch to LED bulbs, since they’re getting cheaper now. You’ve got to look at all your costs, and see where you can save money, because you’ve got to make a profit to stay in business.”

IMPROVING COW HEALTH

Specific improvements for their cows include scheduling weekly veterinary visits and constantly figuring out ways to improve the cows’ health and make them more comfortable.

“We have a registered Holstein herd, and are always trying to improve the genetics; so they’re more efficient and produce more milk per cow; which a sustainability effort,” Mueller said.

“The EPA’s interest in greater collaboration with U.S. dairy is recognition of our leadership toward an environmentally sustainable future that’s economically viable for U.S. dairy farmers and the dairy community. Midwest Dairy is committed to showcasing how dairy is as an environmental solution and sharing examples of dairy farmers’ longstanding commitment to environmental stewardship,” said Molly Pelzer, Midwest Dairy CEO. Midwest Dairy’s 10-state region includes Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.

Emma Leising, age 2, helping her grandpa, Lowell Mueller, feed a calf.

Mueller loves what he does. “I chose this operation. I like working with animals. I had a privilege of raising a family on the farm. My grandchildren come to visit, and love to help, and it instills a good work ethic when they’re raised on the farm. “

Reflecting on sustainability efforts, the Muellers said it’s something they’ve always done.

“It’s just that now, we’re making people aware,” Mueller said. “There’s a new awareness of the consumer who wants to know how we take care of our land and animals.”


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