Hands down, New York is a great place to milk cows. Our climate, soil and water resources, and proximity to large East Coast markets are key variables that make NY’s dairy industry competitive on the national stage as a top five producer. Naturally, these resources are highly prized by New York residents and visitors alike. Keeping store shelves full of dairy products while keeping water and air clean for all to enjoy is not mutually exclusive.
While national milk production per cow continues to climb, the associated environmental impact has declined greatly since World War II. In 60 plus years, the US dairy industry has learned to produce a gallon of milk using 90% less land and 65% less water. Manure output has also been reduced by 76% and the carbon footprint by 63%. NY farmers are leaning on science and new technology to ensure future gains.
A Tale Between Two Lakes
Twin Birch Farms of Skaneateles, NY was awarded the 2020 US Dairy Sustainability Award in April 2020. Since 2011, more than 70 US dairy farms, businesses and collaborative partnerships have been honored as leaders in taking care of people, animals, and the planet. “The award was a nice acknowledgement for the 30 years of hard work that we’ve invested in the farm and the many air, soil and water studies we’ve been involved in,” said Dirk Young whose dad started the operation in 1960. “For me and my business, sustainability means I’m doing what’s right to keep the farm operating for the long term.” Most recently, the farm has been involved in carbon footprint modeling.
“With more cows and land, running this business has gotten more complicated,” said Dirk. “We’re under a microscope; probably more so than 99% of all NY dairy farms. There’s a golf course to our west, million-dollar homes over a mile away, and the cities of Auburn and Syracuse close by. It just makes good business sense to react proactively to consumer concerns. We want to be perceived as an asset to the community. It’s in our mission statement.”
Not only is Twin Birch a larger farm with 1,600 cows, it sits in one of Central NY’s most picturesque locations: the Skaneateles and Owasco lake watersheds. More than 400,000 people source their drinking water from this unique location. “We’re held to a higher standard because we control a lot of land,” said Dirk. “We have to be a partner in protecting the lakes.”
A creek runs through the Twin Birch dairy complex and roughly 80% of its 3,300 acres impacts the tributary. Continuous testing of water coming in and out has been standard operating procedure for years. “The nutrient studies we’ve done in cooperation with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and the watershed authority were surprising to me, but they were shocking to officials in terms of overall water quality. It was better coming out than what was coming in. We are an easy target, but attitudes are slowly changing as we continue to improve our management.”
According to Dirk, his soil is his most valuable resource. “We can replace barns and equipment, but not our soil,” said Dirk. “If you look at the aerial photos of the farm’s first 20 years, you will see a steady improvement.” Field tiling, cover crops, no-till cultivation and strip cropping help the soil become a better sponge. Healthier soils also reduce erosion threats and losses due to sudden flooding while improving overall carbon sequestration. To mitigate the potential impact of manure, Twin Birch has improved long term storage and buried piping so waste can be pumped to fields versus hauled by trucks. They also utilize an anaerobic digester to generate electricity from biogas. The only digester in Onondaga County, 90% of the farm’s utility bill is offset by this technology while reducing the farm’s carbon footprint. Digested manure is recycled for cow bedding and crop fertilizer.
Dirk has been joined by two partners at Twin Birch. “We’re not in this for the short term,” added Dirk. He can remember when there were 30 farms between the lakes. “To last, we need to be early adopters of new technology. There’s nothing secretive about that. As dairy farmers we need to pay more attention to what consumers want and have the willingness to change.”
Like the Farm but Not the Smell
Thomas Matthews grew up on a family dairy farm in the shadow of Philadelphia, PA. The operation caters to a city audience intent on seeing live animals, eating homemade ice cream and bringing home a pumpkin or two. “Whether you have 30 or 3,000 cows, people like farms, but not the smell,” said Thomas. “It’s hard to have your cake and eat it too. Manure is part of the cycle, like rain. It has great organic value to ensure soil health.”
Thomas is raising his own family of four daughters at Noblehurst Farms of Linwood, NY which is located half-way between Rochester and Buffalo. This seven-generation dairy has a long history of experimenting with manure management systems to keep animals clean 24/7, 365 days a year. Projects have included long term storage, energy generation, and producing manure byproducts. The farm has also participated in field trials on preferred field application methods. The end game is to make manure more valuable, sustainable, and manageable.
Given the herd size of Noblehurst, New York State mandates a manure management plan that includes best management practices. “We consider it a privilege to farm” said Thomas. “We continue to look for greener and safer methods that minimize community impact and rejuvenate soils. Our ultimate goal is to be a nutrient harvester.”
This concept boils down to basic recycling. Like separating and reusing glass, plastics and metals, Noblehurst strives to recycle important nutrients from manure like nitrogen and phosphorus. These elements are required for healthy plant and animal growth, but too much is not a good thing for animals or the environment. Constant monitoring helps the farm close the loop on nutrient losses and improve overall animal feeding and cropping decisions.
The average cow produces 17 gallons of manure daily. At Noblehurst, newly installed presses capture organic matter that can be used for bedding or garden compost. High-quality liquid fertilizer is recovered for use on farm fields. Liquid waste is also incorporated with 500 tons of unwanted food scraps per month sourced from local universities, schools, restaurants, and Wegmans Food Markets to fuel an anaerobic digester. The biogas produced can generate enough electricity to light up 300 homes.
To control the timing of when manure is applied based on weather conditions and crop needs, Noblehurst has constructed a series of engineered, remote storage sites. “No site is a cookie-cutter from the last,” said Thomas. “Our team of engineers, contractors and farm staff look at 30 different variables to construct the best design that will flow and work easily for the location. Ag engineering is a lot like military engineering for the multiple issues we have to address.” Their newest storage site resembles a giant envelope. A thick covering of plastic serves as a bottom and top liner to prevent leaching and the influx of two to four million gallons of rainwater from entering the system. The emission of gases like ammonia and methane are also controlled.
Noblehurst works hard to maintain soil fertility and improve overall soil health. Manure management is critical to this effort. According to Thomas, Noblehurst uses a third party to help manage these objectives. “We keep detailed records of each field and conduct soil sampling regularly to know where and when we can spread manure on our fields,” said Thomas. “Good soil health is evident when you can put a shovel into the ground and see fluffy soil with lots of worms, bugs and other living organisms. It’s exciting to study that microbiology and understand how to manage it better.”
Table Rock Farm of Castile, NY got its start in 1915. The first generation of the De Golyer family farmed along the banks of the scenic Genesee River before selling a portion to NYS for Letchworth State Park. The "Grand Canyon of the East" is where a 17-mile stretch of the river roars through a scenic gorge complete with waterfalls, cliffs as high as 600 feet, and lush forests. The farm name emanates from Tea Table Rock, a prominent park feature, which rises several hundred feet above the gorge floor within sight of the Wolf Creek Cascade - a 225-foot high cascading waterfall.
“Speaking on behalf of our family and employees, we have no other choice than to be good stewards of the animals, people and land of our community,” said Meghan De Golyer Hauser. “We take our responsibility seriously and have tremendous pride in the land we farm. As farmers, we have a real opportunity to make an important mark.” She estimates that between 30 to 40 consultants help guide their business to deliver on its mission to make environmentally informed decisions and to best manage nutrients, pathogens and odors produced on the dairy.
Meghan’s parents - Willard and Maureen - guided the farm through an expansion in the 1980s, growing from 250 cows to 1,100. Representing the family’s fourth generation, Meghan joined the business in 1996. “If we’re not thinking of our consumer impact, we can’t be sustainable long term,” said Meghan. “With our expansion, it was important that everyone was on board. Posting our mission statement on a plaque in the milk house has kept our commitment front and center.”
Reducing their carbon footprint has been an ongoing goal of Table Rock. For two decades, the farm has partnered with Cornell University to improve their nutrient crop management practices and to reduce noxious odors and gases emitted by the operation. Employees have also championed cropping systems to build soil carbon storage such as minimum and zone tilling, cover cropping, and injecting manure directly into soils.
A turning point in their manure management system was capping their long-term storage facility in 2017, which was a significant, but unmanaged source of greenhouse gases. The new impervious cover excludes up to 34 inches of rainwater annually, increasing overall storage capacity. Special subsurface plumbing traps methane and directs it to a flare, breaking down the gas into carbon dioxide before release into the air. Methane is roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. With more room for manure and less added water, local road traffic and soil compaction have been reduced from routine spreading. A complementary system to create clean cow bedding from manure solids has also been constructed.
“Table Rock Farm completed this project to be a responsible steward of the environment,” said Meghan. “It enables us to reduce the farm's methane and transportation-related emissions. And to be a better neighbor, we’re doing our best to reduce odors associated with the farm.”
A former Wyoming County Dairy Princess, Meghan chronicled the project on the farm’s Facebook page.Launched a decade ago, it has 2,700 followers. “It’s been a great venue to help our neighbors learn about farming in an educational, non-confrontational way,” said Meghan. “I like to tell the story of what’s happening on the farm in small snippets. It’s even a great resource for teachers, Cooperative Extension educators and our employees to use to explain what they do and why. Previously we hosted farm tours, but we’re able to reach a much wider audience this way.”
“This article was brought to you by the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition (NYAAC). NYAAC is a farmer founded and funded not-for-profit organization that strives to enhance the public’s understanding of and appreciation for animal agriculture and modern farm practices. NYAAC is effective in doing so by engaging the public in conversations about animal agriculture and empowering farmers to tell their story firsthand.”