Black and White and Green All Over

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Black and White and Green All Over

America’s dairies were sustainable before it was cool—or, rather, hot.

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Scott Brother's Dairy Farm

Photo by Mark Leibowitz

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!”

The Scotts can even monitor their panels’ productivity online. In early October, the lifetime production of the panels was 280,076 kilowatt-hours, enough energy to keep 100 60-watt light bulbs burning continuously for more than five years. The panels’ lifetime carbon dioxide emissions offset was at 350,095 pounds, enough to offset environmental harm done by driving a BMW M3 convertible around the Earth almost 12 times. The Scotts plan to install more solar panels when the milk market improves, but for now the panels cover between a quarter and a third of the dairy’s energy needs.

They’ve also recruited government and nonprofit partners and cleared the land for an ambitious gasifier project. Gasification is a relatively simple process: put biomass—in this case, cow manure—and water into the high-pressure system, and extract the gases necessary to make high-value liquid fuels and helpful by-products. Gasification has been around for a long time—in fact, the process was put into wide use in Europe [PDF] to make up for World War II-era fuel shortages—but few dollars have been invested in scaling  up the machinery, because fossil fuels have been so cheap. As residents of the Golden State, where gas prices inched above $5 per gallon in October, the Scotts realize this won’t always be the case. They hope to demonstrate how environmentally and economically beneficial gasification technology can be on a farm with a lot of “biomass” to burn.

Dairy farmers also see their cows as integral actors in the “eat local” movement. The Scotts farm 700 acres of alfalfa, Italian rye, and Sudan grasses. Like giant Chia Pets, these fields grow fast enough for several cuttings a year. The harvested “forages” are mixed in with protein-packed grains to produce cow feed, and the leftovers are stored in giant, air-tight bags (the Scotts refer to them as their “big sausages”) for wintertime use.

The farm has even tried no-till agriculture, which saves energy, preserves the topsoil, and can eventually sequester carbon. They planted the Sudan grass right on top of the rye grass and were pleasantly surprised by a higher-than-normal yield. Their experiment “easily paid for itself,” and they’re planning to expand no-till methods across the farm. Even under current production methods, Brad proudly reported that the farm produces 70 percent of the grasses and hay its cows need.

Brad reasoned: “The more we produce on the farm, the less we have to truck in from somewhere else,” shrinking the farm’s transport-related carbon footprint and costs.

The other components of cow feed are essentially recycled. In the southeast corner of the Scotts’ land is a commodity barn—or, rather, a series of giant stalls—where feed proteins are trucked in and stored. The stalls hold canola (a by-product of canola oil production), mill run (a by-product of grain milling for breads), ammoniated cotton seed (treated cotton seeds unfit to plant), almond hulls (which are otherwise burned, buried, or taken to dumps), distillers grain (a by-product of corn ethanol production), and bakery waste (you guessed it—ground up bread, muffins, doughnuts, and tortillas). To make the whole mix palatable, the Scotts throw in yogurt shipped over from a plant in Los Angeles. When the yogurt plant switches from making strawberry yogurt to pineapple yogurt, they flush the system and send the yogurt to Scott Brothers Dairy. The high-protein yogurt is perfectly good, but without the Scotts’ 1,100 cows, it would be thrown away.

The Scotts aren’t the only farm operators innovating to boost their sustainability; dairy farmers across the country boast lots of the same technologies. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has found that American farmers’ greenhouse gas emissions per gallon of milk produced are the lowest in the world. Over the last 70 years, dairies across the country have implemented sustainable practices because they make economic sense and because they preserve the land their families and cows have been living on for generations. Today’s dairy farms use 90 percent less land and 65 percent less water than they did in 1944 and have, since the early 1960s, increased milk production almost threefold.

Through on-farm innovations—from the Scott Brothers’ high-efficiency sprinkler to their rooftop solar panels—dairy farmers across the country are building a smarter, greener food system.

What does a truly pioneering dairy farm look like? In the next installment of “Behind the Shelf,” Slate visits the Scott Brothers’ dairy to give readers a glimpse into the world of sustainable milk production.

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