This summer’s drought sent the global price of animal feed through the roof, resulting in painful losses for dairy farmers and higher milk prices for consumers nationwide. But the American dairy industry is not helpless in the face of unpredictable weather and high input costs. Many milk producers have taken innovative steps to make their farms environmentally and economically resilient.
A look at one family’s dairy farm shows how innovative management techniques could help milk producers around the country cope with increasing energy, water, and feed challenges. The Scott Brothers Dairy has stayed in business for 99 years, even though it’s in the middle of a desert, by continuing to innovate with the most effective techniques in farming.
Along with his brother, Bruce, and father, Stan, Brad Scott manages a 1,100-cow farm in Moreno (meaning “Brown”) Valley, Calif. The farm is about an hour and a half southwest of Los Angeles, cradled in the basin between the San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountains. Driving up there is like emerging from one of Arizona’s infamous "haboob" dust storms to find yourself in the Emerald City. Fields of alfalfa and rye grass are laid out like bright green area rugs amongst the dry, brown soil that surrounds them.
Next year, the Scotts will celebrate the centennial of their family business, which got its start when Brad’s great-grandfather Ira came from Iowa to found the family dairy in Chino, Calif. Today, Chino is still home to the company’s processing facility, which churns out milk, frozen yogurt, cream, and even a few non-dairy items, but the family moved the milking operation an hour down the road in the late 1970s. Chino was too urban to host a big farm, and the Scotts realized it made more sense—for their budgets and the Earth—for the cows to live on the same wide-open plot where the feed grows.
Brad joked: “That was our big worldly move.”
As it turns out, it was this move that inspired the Scott brothers to embrace environmental innovation across the farm. The only reason their oasis of green space is possible—and profitable—is that they’ve spent the last 34 years drought-proofing it.
In the desert, water is liquid gold, and the Scotts clearly recognize that. The family had been pulling groundwater from the local aquifer, originally sourced from the State Water Project and the Colorado River until population growth in the basin began to overwhelm the scarce water supply. The Scotts got proactive and entered into a partnership with the city, which had been trucking out used water, to treat and reclaim the water for on-farm irrigation. Today, all their irrigation is made possible with reclaimed municipal water, and they’re still careful with it. The Scotts use a center pivot irrigation system—the rotating sprinklers that result in the eerie “crop circles” you see from an airplane window—that uses less water and distributes it more evenly.
The Scotts’ business model could soon be copied by dairy farmers around the world. The International Food Policy Research Institute predicts that by 2050 more than half of the world’s population will be exposed to severe water scarcity, so innovative irrigation solutions are likely to become increasingly necessary. The continued vitality of the American dairy sector, which produces protein-rich milk, might also compensate for the drought-induced meat shortage predicted over the coming year.
The Scotts have also worked to address the energy challenges typical of any dairy in America. Milking the cows; pumping the milk, water, and fuel around the dairy; and keeping the lights on all take power. Looking to capitalize on a few key tax credits, the Scotts installed overlapping solar panels five years ago. Brad wasn’t wild about the black behemoths sullying his pastoral landscape, but Clear Skies Solar managed to get them on the barn roof, totally out of sight.
He pointed to the barn, still incredulous: “They’re so stealth!”