Dairy farmers are working on several strategies to improve water quality. Record numbers of dairy producers are opting to participate in training to learn new approaches to manure nutrient application that will prevent manure impacts to both surface and ground waters.
In a recent WSDA progress report to the Legislature entitled “Implementation of nutrient management training program for farmers,” a total of 296 ag-producers who use manure nutrients in their cropping systems participated in 10 accredited training sessions that were conducted by local conservation districts. Farmers learned how enhanced practices – when applying manure nutrients at the right time, right place and right amount – help to avoid over- application on field crops.
In 2015 approximately 100 dairy farmers attended pilot manure management training programs conducted by the Whatcom and South Yakima conservation districts. According to Brent Barnes, Assistant Director at WSDA, “These early events were well attended and prompted the industry to ask the 2016 Legislature for additional funding for future training and related activity. There has been good response from ag producers in early 2016. There will be additional training events during the next year hosted by WSU and local conservation districts.”
The work with producers gets more productive as recordkeeping on land application is available for use in developing their field nutrient budgets. Barnes explains, “WSDA rulemaking resulted in specific recordkeeping requirements in November 2012. The Dairy Nutrient Management Program has done a great job working with dairy producers to make sure they are meeting the recordkeeping requirements and using them to make good decisions about land application of all nutrients.”
“The program has also identified how to measure success through the evaluation of producers’ soil test reports,” he said. Field inspections over the last 24 months focused on applying manure nutrients to meet crop needs and the soil nitrate levels showing promising results.
“Dairy farming was unique as a commodity,” Shumway says. “Over the 41 year period between 1964 and 2005, consolidation resulted in a 95% decline in the number of U.S. farms with milk cows. Consolidation occurred largely because of the opportunity to produce milk and other by-products at a lower cost. This allowed dairies to remain competitive while maintaining regulatory compliance. Larger dairy farms continue to benefit from economies of scale. They are more specialized than smaller dairies, but dairies of all sizes have become more diversified over time,” he says. “The evidence was similar in Washington state and across the U.S. in that the average cost of milk production decreases as farm size increases.”
He expects more consolidation in the future based on economies of scale estimates. Survival of smaller dairies is occurring through diversification and a range of other changes, including conversion to organic production and more off-farm work by the farm household. Dairies are diversifying beyond the production of grain and purebred calves to by-products such as compost, soil amendments and bedding.
“Larger dairy operations can embrace an ecosystem that is economically driven. They can afford to put in an anaerobic digester of sufficient size to economically produce renewable energy, compost and even convert digestive fiber into a peat moss substitute,” Shumway said. “It is rarely economical at present for dairies with fewer than 500 milking cows to invest in an anaerobic digester or benefit from the environmental credits of producing renewable energy,” he continued. “However, a revenue neutral carbon tax with offsets for the reduction in carbon emissions by renewable energy compared to fossil fuel could make anaerobic digestion economic on smaller dairies.”
Critics of Valley dairies used outdated information from 2008-2011 to justify their recent call to EPA and others for “de-funding” the Yakima Valley Clean Air Agency for their work in cooperation with dairies and other industries to improve the Valley’s historic air quality challenges.
Increasing population density, related car emissions, wood stove smoke, some farming operations and many other factors contribute to seasonally poor Valley air quality. To say dairy producers are the only ones responsible and don’t’ care about air quality is simply not true, but for clarity experts put it in perspective.
A study of the carbon footprint of high-performing confinement, or concentrated dairy animal feeding operations, tracking milk production in three countries shows encouraging results. A combination of breeding, technology and nutrition results in lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from dairy cows.
“The single most important factor in explaining differences across all farms is production efficiency,” said one of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Judith Capper, a WSU Animal Sciences Adjunct Professor and international sustainability consultant. “More efficient production results in a lower carbon footprint.”
In cooperation with the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency, Valley dairy producers embrace the “Air Quality Management Policy and Best Management Practices for Dairy Operations” as an extension of their required Dairy Nutrient Management Plan. Enclosures to reduce particulate matter emissions; elimination of pooling; applied technology from weather monitoring to specialized equipment for more precise application; minimal or “no-till” cropping; cover crops; and the installation of windbreaks and shelter belts are helping improve Valley air quality. In support of Valley air quality objectives, these processes are ongoing, evolving and growing more effective as new technologies are applied.
Dairyland News is distributed to dairy farm families, business leaders/dairy farm suppliers, government staff, elected officials, and news media to show how dairy farmers contribute to the community, with safe operations, best farm management practices and effective stewardship of land and animals. Dairyland News is produced by the Washington Dairy Products Commission in cooperation with the Washington State Dairy Federation.