Farm Food Facts

How Western Dairies Are Incorporating New Technology Into Sustainability Efforts

September 30, 2020 USFRA Episode 93
Farm Food Facts
How Western Dairies Are Incorporating New Technology Into Sustainability Efforts
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Farm Food Facts
How Western Dairies Are Incorporating New Technology Into Sustainability Efforts
Sep 30, 2020 Episode 93
USFRA

Today's guest is Rick Naerebout, the Chief Executive Officer for the Idaho Dairymen's Association. Rick grew up on his family's dairy farm in McBain, Michigan, where he learned the value of hard work, integrity, and an appreciation for agriculture that can only be learned on the farm. Rick has been with the Idaho Dairymen's Association for over 15 years, assisting with the associations, environmental legal, economic, legislative, and stewardship efforts. The IDA is a progressive association that represents all of Idaho's, nearly 500 dairy farms recently named the CEO of the association. He manages the day to day operations of the group, which includes Ida consulting services, a new division within Ida that provides on-farm services through its highly skilled staff ranging from nutrient management planning to dairy worker training and safety programs

Show Notes Transcript

Today's guest is Rick Naerebout, the Chief Executive Officer for the Idaho Dairymen's Association. Rick grew up on his family's dairy farm in McBain, Michigan, where he learned the value of hard work, integrity, and an appreciation for agriculture that can only be learned on the farm. Rick has been with the Idaho Dairymen's Association for over 15 years, assisting with the associations, environmental legal, economic, legislative, and stewardship efforts. The IDA is a progressive association that represents all of Idaho's, nearly 500 dairy farms recently named the CEO of the association. He manages the day to day operations of the group, which includes Ida consulting services, a new division within Ida that provides on-farm services through its highly skilled staff ranging from nutrient management planning to dairy worker training and safety programs

Phil:

US Farmers and Ranchers in action would like to recognize the sponsors of the 2020 Honor the Harvest Forum. Welcome to the U S farmers and ranchers and action, weekly video podcast for September 30th, 2020. I'm your host, Phil Lempert. I want to get started by reading you something that I found in The Week. Um, just this past weekend, this talks about farmers. What farmers are like, why they're so important. And let me just read it. When a North Dakota farmer had a heart attack, his neighbors teamed up to help him harvest his crops while laying on them was harvesting his wheat and canola. The combine caught fire lane went into cardiac arrest and was rushed to the hospital while he was recovering. 60 farmers showed up at his place, determined not to let his crops go to waste with 11 combine, six grain carts and 15 tractor trailers. The group harvested over 1000 acres of his crop in just seven hours. You help your neighbors out when they need it. Family friend, Jenna Bindi said, and you don't expect anything in return. My guest is Rick Naerebout the chief executive officer for the Idaho Dairymen's Association. Rick grew up on his family's dairy farm in McBain, Michigan, where he learned the value of hard work, integrity, and an appreciation for agriculture that can only be learned on the farm. Rick has been with the Idaho Dairymen's Association for over 15 years, assisting with the associations , environmental legal, economic, legislative, and stewardship efforts. The IDA is a progressive association that represents all of Idaho's, nearly 500 dairy farms recently named the CEO of the association. He manages the day to day operations of the group, which includes Ida consulting services, a new division within Ida that provides on-farm services through its highly skilled staff ranging from nutrient management planning to dairy worker training and safety programs. Rick, welcome to Farm Food Facts.

Rick:

Thank you for having me

Speaker 1:

Back in 2007 representatives from all sectors of the dairy industry, academia, government, NGOs, dairy farmers, dairy businesses, et cetera, came together and they launched the U S dairy sustainability commitment. They pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for fluid milk by 25% by this year, how did dairy West do and had its partners set off to tackle this benchmark? And where do we stand now?

Rick:

So great question and great lead in. And really a lot of, a lot of those goals were accomplished with the efficiencies that we always strive to achieve within the agricultural industries. Dairy is no different than your , your row crop industries or others that are trying to do more with less. And so we're achieving sustainability goals just by merely a w with a dairy cow , getting her to convert feed, to milk more efficiently, and being able to get more milk per cow so that you have less environmental impact, whether that's a water quality concern or an air quality concern, we continue to be able to do more with less. And that's, that's how we've really achieved a lot of our sustainable sustainability goals in the past. Uh, looking forward , uh, the U S dairy industry through the innovation center. Uh, we just recently , uh , made a commitment that by 2050 , uh , we're striving to be carbon neutral at the farm gate. And so that that's our latest goal is trying to be carbon neutral at the farm level , uh, so that we can continue to meet those expectations from consumers that want to see a continued increase in efficiency and sustainability within the individuals that are producing their food.

Phil:

What are some of the unique regional aspects that Western dairy producers have to take into account when thinking about sustainability as it compares to the rest of the U S and the rest of the world.

Rick:

So one of the more unique aspects of the Western industry that you don't have in other parts of the industry is , is how we house cattle. Uh, the majority of our cows in Idaho and across the Western us are housed in open lots and not in freestyle barns. And so that changes how you handle the maneuver. A lot of that manure is dried out in the open lots. It's not a scraped as a slurry and, and, and , uh, separated and worked with as a slurry, but it's a dry manure. And so your emission factors are a bit different because of that. Uh, some of the technologies you can use are a bit different , um, you know, right now , uh , there's tremendous interest interest in methane digesters and , and there's some good revenue streams that can be captured from , from a digester . That's capturing the gas and being able to market that as a renewable natural gas. And so that's a disadvantage right now that some of our Western operations don't have, because you're drying that manure in the open lot. You don't have as much slurry as you have in a freestyle operation. So some of those, what typically have been great efficiencies for us in the West , uh, that they create a few hurdles for us when it comes to trying to figure out how do we meet these expectations? Um, you know, a digester, it's not gonna be a huge , uh , change factor when it comes to , uh , mitigating emissions, but it does create a significant revenue stream. And to be able to capture that revenue stream to implement a digital technologies is really one of the brighter spots of a methane digester. And so it's not that that digester technology changes the emission factor significantly, but it , but it introduces the extra revenue needed to, to be able to capture some of those other technologies and implement them at the farm level.

Phil:

So I'm here in California and , uh , every night on the news , um, I hear what's going on both here in California and in other States with the recent influx of fires, droughts, other natural challenges, what are some of the key concerns that you've got when you look to the future? What are dairy farmers doing right now to take action about that?

Rick:

I think one of the key concerns are extreme weather events. We had one ourselves, you go back to the winter of 2016, 2017, and we had a very extreme rain on snow and then melt events while our ground was still frozen. The unresolved is we had sheeting of water across sections of land that flooded out a number of dairies here in the Valley. And so it's just the unpredictable nature of some of these weather events that are really creating risks for our dairy producers. And one of the things that we've seen over the last few years since that significant weather event, and some of our dairy men experience a very high , uh , catalog , is that they're looking at cross that freestyle barns as a preferred housing type , uh, across that freestyle barn is a very , uh, very technology driven , uh, type housing system where you're pulling air across the cattle , uh , 24 seven, and it's a very controlled environment. And so you can, you can walk into that bar and it'll be over a hundred degrees outside, and it'll be less than 80 degrees inside in the summertime. In the winter time , it can be zero degrees outside, and you're going to be in the 50 degree range in the inside of that part . And so you house those cattle in a much controlled environment, protect them from the elements and the return on investment from some of these dairies that have put in prostate barns . They're looking at a three to five year return on investment in that facility, which is astounding that you can see that quick of a return, but being able to control the environment and make sure that those cattle are in a better situation where they don't have production losses or health issues because of weather really make the difference for those dairy producers.

Phil:

And it's really like indoor farming, what we're seeing with lettuce and some of the other crops that are being grown. What are the dairy farmers in the West really feeling about the current state of the environment what's going on in their head and in their homes ,

Rick:

A current student environment, honestly, they feel frustrated. They feel like what they do day in day out is discounted. And that somehow they've been portrayed as being a negative impact on the environment when, when that really is not the case. And some of the research we're doing right now is looking at carbon sequestration on maneuvered soils and looking at the whole suite of benefits when you start to apply them on newer to the land and all the, all the microbial activity that you get and all the organic matter that you add. And just looking at the whole benefit that you provide to that soil, that far exceed any cover cropping or no tillage type crappy systems, at least in our region of the country, applying the newer is the single best thing that you can do to improve soil health. And it's things like that, that to dairyman and to farmers, that's just common knowledge, but the general public they're so far removed from the everyday life of what happens on a farm it's understand that. And the newer is the original fertilizer. It just becomes frustrating for the average farmer in the dairyman of this country to feel like what they're doing and their legacy and everything that their family has worked for for generations is somehow perceived as being negative. Now, when, when it really could be nothing more than, than just some of the most beneficial, hard work and some of the benefit , most beneficial practices that we see out there.

Phil:

And I think for , in a lot of cases of consumers, they're con they're confused, they don't have the knowledge. And one of, one of the things that I think they're most confused about is that term sustainability, how do dairy farmers define sustainability and measure what sustainability really is on the farm?

Rick:

So, so there's many ways to measure sustainability. The one that comes first to mind for our dairyman is economic sustainability. Uh, we typically in Idaho lose 25 to 50 dairies a year. And so we continue to see neighbors go out of business just because the economic viability of agriculture is, is not great . I mean, you look at all ag sectors and whether you're looking at a row crop farmers or dairy producers, the average farm size is getting larger. And the number of farmers is getting smaller. And as the current generation of farmers reach higher, there is a significant void in the next generation coming through. And that's why we're seeing rapid consolidation in the dairy industry is you've got individuals. I'm a great example. I grew up on a small dairy farm in Northern lower Michigan, and we know less than a hundred cows. And when I looked at my competition when I was 20, and you look around, you know, your dairies in the Western U S their , their hospital pens are larger than our entire dairy operation was. And so you start to look at your competition, I think, well, why, why am I going to struggle my entire life to milk a hundred cows? When my competition can do it so much more efficiently, and I can go to town and have a better quality of life, I can get a job where I have normal hours. I can get a job that has benefits and vacation and vacation pay. And, and so you, you look at the return on investment that it takes to operate in agriculture. And , and it's just a very difficult proposition of look at it and say, I'm going to invest millions of dollars into this ag operation and get a less return on that investment than what I could do. Just investing this in simple bonds and equity markets. It just doesn't make sense from, from a return on investment standpoint. And you have to have a true love for agriculture to be in production agriculture anymore. If you don't have a true love for it. And if you really don't have it in your bones, you're , you're just not going to survive because it doesn't make any financial or logical sense. So when we start looking at stewardship and sustainability economics are the first of it, then we start to look at environment and what can we do to improve what we're doing day in day out to make sure that our environmental impact is as minimal as possible. And how do we become, instead of being perceived as a negative, when it comes to carbon, carbon accounting, and , and trying to determine, are we net zero or better or worse, how do we become a solution in that conversation? How do other industries look to the dairy industry and say, you know what, I can get that dairy producer to sequester carbon and their operation, and I can buy credits from that dairyman through that carbon sequestration. And so it's trying to change that whole conversation and that narrative to getting people to recognize that there's some real opportunities to use, you know , the dairy industry and agriculture in general, as a solution, when it comes to air emissions and carbon sequestration, that all takes capital. Again, it comes back to the economic sustainability. A lot of those technologies are experimental today, and they're very expensive. So your average dairy producer, can't just go implement them and try them out. They need assistance in trying to, you know , raise the capital and have the O and M budget to make some of these technologies work and at least test them out. And so, again, it comes back to financial sustainability. The other pieces of sustainability that we look at are going to be animal husbandry. How can we make sure that we're taking the best care of our animals as possible, and that we're doing all the things that we need to, to assure consumers that the animals that are producing the milk and the dairy products that they're consuming are well taken care of. And then the last piece is going to be on the worker side, how are we making sure that we're taking care of our workforce in agriculture, and that we're doing the best by them because their goal is no different than ours. We all want to go home to our family at the end of the day. So how do we make sure that we're coming beside them and providing them the proper training and the resources to do their job well, but also do their jobs. And so we're looking at all those factors when we're talking about sustainability and the dairy industry.

Phil:

Now we've just come out of the Honor of the Harvest and with collaboration, transparency, bold leadership, those were the driving messages. In what ways have you seen dairy farmers already embrace those?

Rick:

Probably the best example is going to be the farm program that's administered through national mill . Uh , it's got three styles within it right now. You've got the animal husbandry aspect of it. You've got the environmental aspects . And then one piece that we've been very involved with is in the worker safety and wellbeing, a silo. So again, looking at those, those same things that I just talked about and trying to make sure we're doing things right at the farm level, but then also give the buyers of dairy and ultimately to consumers transparency back through to the farm level through second and third party verification, to be able to make sure that what we're say we're doing, we're actually doing at the farm level. And that is not just an exercise of checking a box, but not really taking it to heart. You know, we've got that verification process in place to be able to give people a surety , that what we say we're doing in U S dairy, we really are doing

Phil:

Rick. Thanks so much for joining us today on farm food facts. Appreciate it, and keep up the good work.

Rick:

Okay. Thank you. And thank you for the opportunity

Phil:

US Farmers and Ranchers in action would like to recognize the sponsors of the 2020 honor. The harvest form or movement sponsors, United soybean board and national pork board. Our presenting sponsors, Wells Fargo and Cargil. Our gold sponsors, Bayer, Dairy West, Nebraska soybean board, McDonald's, Nutrien and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Our bronze sponsors, Purina and Ernst & Young, our youth sponsor Ruan and our donor sponsor Tyson. For more on all things, food and agriculture. Please visit [email protected] Also be sure to look out for us on Facebook at us farmers and ranchers and on Twitter at USFRA until next time.