Is Dairy Farming Sustainable? An Inside Look From A Dairy Farmer
Climate change and the environment is a big topic and “sustainability” is the buzzword you may have heard from your family, friends, the media, and maybe even from the people you follow on social media. Dairy farmers play an important role in protecting our natural resources, and they continue to use innovative ideas and tools to create a sustainable future on their farm. You may have wondered if dairy farming is sustainable. The good news is YES. In fact, from 2007 to 2017 to produce a gallon of milk, dairy farmers have used 31% less water, 21% less land, 20% smaller carbon footprint and produced 21% less manure. Huge changes in just 10 years!
The Milk Means More team sat down with dairy farmer, Aubrey Lettinga of Walnut Dairy Farms, to learn more about how and why dairy farmers in Michigan are fostering a sustainable future and providing nutritious dairy foods to our table. Read her story below!
MMM: Share with us a little about yourself and your dairy farm. Why do you love dairy farming?
I am a fourth generation farmer on our family’s dairy farm. I studied dairy management at MSU, and now manage the family farm. I am beyond grateful to have been born and raised on a dairy farm, and I am thankful to be raising my five kids around the farm as well. Teaching them the importance of what we do and how much of an impact we have on the lives of others is fulfilling. In life, things are not always easy and we have had many struggles, but we are dedicated to this way of life and even through the hard times, we press on.
MMM: Speaking of struggles, we know your farm experienced a fire in 2010. Can you tell us about that?
Our farm experienced huge devastation when our milking parlor and a freestall barn burned down. The parlor is the heart of a dairy. It’s where the cows are milked so without the parlor we could not continue to keep the cows on our farm. We moved all of our cows to neighboring farms where they stayed for six months until our new parlor was ready. It was the hardest thing our farm has ever been through but it taught us so much, and the biggest thing is that when you are a dairy farmer, you are not alone. The amount of support we received from farmers and other businesses was amazing and we are so grateful.
MMM: From this experience, we understand that your farm has implemented new technology to make a positive impact on the environment. Can you share with us why this was important to you?
The environment plays a crucial role in what we do because we depend on the land to grow the crops that will feed our cows, which in return will produce our milk. We care about the land we farm and make sure that we are applying nutrients, including manure to the land in the right amounts so that we continue to protect the water for our use and the community. We also make sure our cows receive the highest quality feed, are comfortable and healthy so they relax and produce more milk. More milk per cow saves valuable water and land resources.
MMM: How do you utilize new technology on your farm for sustainable farming practices?
We use GPS in all our tractors and we use grid sampling of our soils in our fields to figure out what added nutrients our crops need and we apply them at a variable rate, so if one part of our field needs more than another we apply specifically to the area. This helps us to not under or over apply which protects our environment. The GPS also makes sure we do not apply nutrients outside the specific field so any potential runoff goes into the border area. It’s a very cool process!
MMM: What type of strategies has your farm implemented to reduce your dairy’s carbon footprint?
From our planting to our harvesting, using efficient equipment means less time running the machines on the roads. Because we leave the barn lights on at night, we use all energy efficient lights and have them on timers so that they are only on when they are needed. The water that helps cool our milk is fed to the cows so that it is used twice. Software helps us specify our cows ration to make sure that we are giving them what they need to be healthy but to also make sure that we are not wasting or over feeding a nutrient that they don’t. In the fall we plant cover crops, like triticale, makes great heifer (a cow that has not had a calf) feed and is great for the soil because it protects from soil erosion and provides natural nutrients to the soil.
MMM: Besides environmental impact, what impact do you see dairy farming have on the community and the economy?
Dairy farming does not just support the farmer, it also supports all its employees and their families. It gives them the means to support other businesses in the community, whether it be for groceries, or insurance. Dairy farmers buy feed, equipment, build barns and the list goes on. Every time the farmer spends money, it directly impacts the success of other businesses, allowing them to be successful and grow. Dairy farming gives the community an opportunity to know where and how their food is produced.
MMM: Why do you serve milk and dairy to your family?
I always want to provide my kids with all the nutrients they need to support their growing bodies. With every glass of milk, dairy farmers pride ourselves on producing this amazing, nutritious food that our families enjoy the same as you.
Did you find this interview and impactful for your thoughts on sustainable nutrition? Share with the comments and stay tuned for upcoming interviews where we highlight dairy farming and sustainability!