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Published April 26, 2008, 12:00 AM

Every day is Earth Day for dairy farmers

Farmers are the original conservationists. Back before the ideas behind environmentalism took hold, dairy farmers were caring for their land by using good conservation practices on the land and recycling manure to enrich their crops. They did this because it was the right thing to do for their families, who lived on the land, and because it made good business sense.

Farmers are the original conservationists. Back before the ideas behind environmentalism took hold, dairy farmers were caring for their land by using good conservation practices on the land and recycling manure to enrich their crops. They did this because it was the right thing to do for their families, who lived on the land, and because it made good business sense.

And since 99 percent of dairy farms remain family-owned to this day, you can bet dairy farmers like Steve Strickler, Iola, Kan., continue these efforts.

“Our house is only feet away from the dairy,” says Strickler, “And it’s only feet away from the city limits of Iola, a town of 7,000 people that we live, work and play with. They are our friends and our family, and we want them to be happy neighbors.”

To that end, dairy farmers follow federal, state and local clean water laws and apply manure to cropland so the nutrients are used to grow crops rather than getting into the groundwater. As an extra bonus, studies have shown that when manure is used as a soil treatment, the water-holding capacity of the soil is increased by 20 percent — meaning less water is needed to grow the crops.

Additionally, using livestock manure instead of commercial fertilizer that would need to be trucked to the farm ends up saving fuel, and wear and tear on highways.

The theme of “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” is a common mantra for the dairy farmer. Jerry Jennissen, whose dairy farm is located near Brooten, Minn., says his father and grandfather recycled manure long before he began dairying.

“But I’m not sure they realized how important it really was at the time,” he says. “The cow itself is a recycler, too. It has the ability to digest cellulose and forages that we can’t consume, and make them into a new product that we can.”

“Everything we do here is designed to protect the soil and water,” says Doug Block, whose Hunter Haven dairy is near Pearl City, Ill. “We do everything we can to enhance the organic matter in the earth. That’s the way it’s always been done. After all, most farmers want that land so their children or grandchildren can continue that farm.”

That’s not to say dairy farmers have not adopted technology. New methods have allowed more efficient use of resources in a variety of ways. For example, water at the Jennissen farm is used for cooling the milk, then it goes back to the cows for drinking water. At Strickler’s dairy, rainwater collects in a reservoir and is recycled in a filtering and treatment process similar to that used by a city. The cows consume the water and it’s also used in cleaning the milking facility.

Many dairy farmers commonly recycle farm wastewater to flush cow traffic lanes and to irrigate fields.

High efficiency lighting and three-phase electric motors that use less electricity also contribute to energy conservation on today’s dairies.

Recently, methane digesters have been installed on a number of dairy farms to convert manure into methane-rich biogas, a renewable fuel that can generate electricity. In some cases, farms generate more than enough electricity to run their operations and can sell the excess energy back to the local utility. That not only helps save the farmer money, it also helps offset someone else’s energy use — all while providing the world’s most nutrient-rich beverage, milk, to customers at home and abroad.

At the Block farm, a methane digester helps recycle both water and manure. Solids are separated and used as natural fertilizer on the fields and compost bedding for the cows to stay comfortable. The methane gas from Hunter Haven Farm provides enough electricity to run 120 average homes.

At Jennissen’s, the digester is just getting up and running. It’s designed to serve as a model for smaller dairies to use as more of them consider the new technology.

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Jennissen’s digester will improve the fertilizer value for his crops and reduce the phosphorus content and odor of the manure. Heat from its engine will be used both in the digesting process and to heat his milking facility.

Additional liquid will be used to flush gutters in his barn and excess solid material will be sold as natural fertilizer to nearby greenhouses or gardeners.

“The world is getting smaller and smaller,” Doug Block says. “The milk our cows produce on this farm is sold locally as well as overseas. As we continue to confront issues of climate change, you can be confident that your local dairy farmer is doing everything in his or her power to farm efficiently while fulfilling the charge of feeding the world.”

To learn more about dairy farmers and their stewardship efforts, visit www.dairyfarmingtoday.org.

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