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Reusing Resources on the Dairy Farm

Recent tours of North Carolina dairies have opened my eyes to the many ways these farmers recycle and make the most of the farm’s resources. Farmers taking care of the land and natural resources isn’t new, but I’d never looked past the cute cows to really see the details how these farms are sustainable.  

One dairy I visited milks 600 cows, feeding more than $1.2 million in feed every year. The farm mixes 13 different recipes, or rations, every day. They put enough feed out for 24 hours and then pick up uneaten feed. The leftover feed is weighed and the amount fed the following day is adjusted based on what the cows actually ate to cut down on food waste. Uneaten feed is composted.

Dairy Cows Eating
Heather Barnes

In the farm’s “pantry” there are large bays full of the ingredients used in rations, many of them by-products of other agricultural processes. For example, citrus pulp, which used to be thrown away, is made into pellets and used as a feed ingredient. Soybean hulls, leftover after the whole soybean is processed, are a nutritious ingredient in many rations.

Citrus Pulp

Last year, I toured New Belgium Brewing, a craft beer brewery in Asheville, North Carolina (also in Fort Collins, Colorado). The brewery uses grain to make beer. The spent grains, which are left over after nutrients, sugars and proteins have been extracted, are a waste product of the beer industry. New Belguim works with the Western North Carolina Brewers Grain Alliance to deliver brewers grain to local livestock farmers, turning a waste product into a valuable feed.

Every dairy I’ve visited recycles water. On the 600-cow dairy, water is used at least four times on the farm. When milk comes from the milking parlor, it is warm, around 100˚F., the body temperature of the cow. Water is used to cool the milk by about 25˚F. before it goes into the bulk tank (which holds all the farms milk), where it is cooled even more.  

That water (which has not come in contact with the milk) is then used as drinking water for the cows. Residual water from drinking, which may contain urine, is collected in a waste storage pond. This “grey” water, so named because it can’t be used for human drinking water, is then used to clean manure and soiled bedding out of the barn.

From there, the water is held in a pond until it can be used to irrigate the farm’s crops, which will be harvested and end up in the pantry to make the cows feed.

Dairy calves are kept in the nursery in individual hutches, or houses. The ground is covered with gravel, which helps with drainage. This keeps the hutch area clean and cuts down on sick calves. 

Dairy Calf Hutch
Heather Barnes

Once the calf is moved to pasture, the gravel is removed and recycled in the farm driveway. Each new calf gets new gravel in the hutch, which is also disinfected between calves.

These are just a few ways dairy farmers are being good stewards of the resources they use to care for their animals and bring us a nutritious beverage.  

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