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Dairy farmer holding haylage

Achieving the three-peat

Better forage, creative pest control and manure make for a third win

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a three-peat. Today it was announced that Siemers Holsteins of Newton, Wisconsin, has won the 2016 Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award. This means for the third consecutive year, a Land O’Lakes, Inc. member-owner has achieved this notable industry recognition.

Since 2011, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy® has presented U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards to outstanding dairy farms, businesses and collaborative partnerships for practices that deliver economic, environmental and/or social benefit.

We couldn’t be prouder of our three winners, and all of our member-owners who are committed to sustainability. After all, since 1921 our co-op has been dedicated to being a responsible partner and good neighbor. It’s just how we do business.

But business as usual doesn’t mean our member-owners aren’t pushing boundaries. To take home this honor, the farms had to show learning, innovation and improvements—and potential for other dairy farms or businesses to adopt their practices. Our winning roster includes a long-term, data-centric look at managing forage from the field to the cow, a creative pest and weed control solution, and turning cow poop (yep, that’s right) into power.

Field to cow

It’s a family affair at Siemers Holsteins, with Dan Siemers overseeing the 2,400-cow operation that produces 85 million pounds of milk per year. That’s about 9.8 million gallons of whole milk, if you’re curious. Dan and his team also farm about 5,000 acres of corn and alfalfa, most of which goes to feeding the cows. And because well-fed cows produce more milk, the team has taken a long-term approach to a better forage management system.

Back in 2007, the farm had a dilemma. Lower quality crops meant the team was spending more money purchasing feed. Not a sustainable solution. The team needed to grow better crops, on the same amount of land, without depleting natural resources.

Enter the now award-winning forage management system. It starts with smart work in the field. The Siemers and their agronomist from Kettle Lakes Cooperative, a Land O’Lakes member co-op, began to manage the farm’s fields in 2.5-acre grids instead of the standard 5-acre grid. By reducing the grid size by half, they are able to increase the precision of their management decisions.

The team extensively tests the soil, plants and manure, comparing this data to larger data sets through mapping tools, such as the R7® Tool, Land O’Lakes’ proprietary decision ag tool. This data-driven approach again allows them to more preciously manage and focus on continuous improvement. So far, the results have been great. The team has increased yields by 30 percent for corn silage and 10 percent for alfalfa silage, while better protecting the water quality in the community thanks to precision application that reduces runoff.

Because what is grown in the field ultimately is fed to the cows, and just like us, cows need the right balance of nutrients, the team also consults regularly with their nutritionist. By growing higher quality forages and introducing the right combination of hybrid forages, overall herd health has improved and has helped increase milk production by 19 percent per cow.

The farm’s 2016 Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award win is really just the cherry on top. Through years of data gathering, planning and teamwork, Siemers Holsteins and the rest of the team has improved production, while decreasing feed and chemical inputs, ultimately improving the overall profitability and sustainability of the farm.

Creative pest control

Since 1899, the Vold family has kept Dorrich Dairy up and running. Richard and Dorothy, their sons Brad and Greg, and Brad’s wife Suzanne all work together on the farm in west central Minnesota.

Dorrich Dairy won the Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award in 2015 for its integrated pest management system. Around the barn, the family uses fly and wasp larvae to keep the flies under control. Not only is this chemical-free method good for the environment, it helps eliminate the flies’ natural resistance to pesticides that develops over time.

In the field, the Volds plant corn in smaller-than-usual 15-inch rows to help crowd out weeds. By doing this, they cut back on their chemical pesticide usage by up to 50 percent. When you put it all together—using nature to control flies and weeds—the family reduces their total synthetic pesticide use by up to 85 percent. The need for fewer chemicals helps reduce their environmental impact while saving money, something that no farm would ever turn down.

The younger generation is even helping out. After learning about food waste at the awards ceremony, Anna—Brad and Suzanne’s oldest daughter—started working with her school’s cook and an environmental coordinator from the area’s waste management facility to launch a food waste recycling pilot.

"We are so proud of Anna for taking the initiative on this project,” says Brad. “She's found a way to tie school and farm together under a sustainability platform to show how we can all work together to protect our environment."

Pure poop power

The first Land O’Lakes member-owned farm to win the Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award in 2014 was Compass Farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Cliff and Andrea Sensenig wanted to build a financially strong and sustainable farm operation to pass down to their children. And they did it with manure.

Since their cows couldn’t produce the amount of manure needed to make a methane digester a worthwhile investment, they reached out to nearby farms for support.

Together, they developed a plan to build a community digester system that converts manure from their 100-cow dairy farm and neighboring dairy, hog and chicken farms into energy. The electricity produced is enough to power the farm and an additional 140 homes. And the community’s air quality is improved, too; the anaerobic digester reduces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 206 cars from the road annually.

As community digester pioneers, Cliff and Andrea helped pave the way for the onset of new regulations and permits. These days, Andrea advocates for an easier-to-navigate permit process so other farmers can build digesters so they, too, can power their farms and communities while helping to improve air quality.

“Since winning the award, I’ve had a few opportunities to travel and speak at events, which I’ve really enjoyed,” says Andrea. “I have been using our sustainability story to do a little advocating and educating on our farm website with a few blog posts, a Facebook page, along with a few other social media platforms.”

Cliff and Andrea also use conservation farming techniques to help reduce the amount of crop nutrients that enter their farm’s watershed and stream. By growing plants at certain times of the year (known in the ag world as crop cover planting), they help reduce soil erosion. As a result, more topsoil remains on the land, reducing the risk of potential water quality impairments from sediments and nutrients.

A holistic view

While these Land O’Lakes member farms may have won the same sustainability award, each won for different reasons. Their accomplishments represent a holistic view of sustainability.

Through protecting our natural resources remain key areas of focus for us and our member-owners, sustainability is also about improving economic viability, so business can be passed down through families. It’s about building strong communities, neighbors helping neighbors. And it’s about staying innovative, while looking ahead.

“Not only is it an honor for us to have three consecutive members win, but it also validates something we have always known,” says Tai Ullmann, sustainability manager. “We are owned by great members who are doing some really cool and innovative practices to drive sustainability.”