By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
The dairy industry is vibrant and proactive but it has a high footprint and consumer confidence will demand transparency of how dairy farmers approach the environmental and social aspects of sustainability.
Meanwhile, dairy farmers always have to watch the economic aspects of sustainability. Their debt-loads through investment in technology, while forward-thinking, need to be watched if interest rates rise.
These three pillars of sustainability – environmental, economic and social – were the focus of a dairy panel discussion during Dairy Day at Grey Bruce Farmers’ Week. Moderated by Andrew Campbell of Fresh Air Media, the panel featured:
• Nick Betts, Director of Americas, SAI Platform
• Guy Seguin, Systems Engineer with Dairy Farmers of Ontario
• Bronwynne Wilton, Principal Consultant, Wilton Consulting Group
Leading the conversation, Seguin commended dairy farmers for their commitment to the industry. “Very few leave it and they are investing heavily in technology, which is really good.”
At the same time, he sees quite a bit of debt-load on these same farms. “If interest rates go up, that will put some producers in trouble.” He gets it, though. “Labour is hard to get and there are restrictions with hiring foreign workers. From an economic point of view, this is a real challenge.”
Also, technology has eased the burden of dairy farmers having to be in the barn at set times two or three times a day to milk their cows.
Seguin says dairy farmers are also leaders in environmental sustainability, proven by their involvement with the voluntary Environmental Farm Plan (EFP). The EFP is a great launching pad for environmental sustainability but Wilton says just checking boxes isn’t enough. “We need to show evidence that these practices are actually happening.”
Wilton applauded dairy farmers for their implementation of proAction, which is mandatory and shows farmers’ commitment to the social aspects of dairy farming.
There is no “greenwashing” involved with the proAction plan. It’s a mandatory program using trained inspectors to check farms and, if farmers do not comply or meet standards their milk will not be picked up. “Tell me somewhere else in the world where farmers have to meet such strict protocols and you will find very few,” said Seguin.
Also, Ontario producers put over $2 million into research and “that is by far more than any other commodity in Ontario,” said Seguin. Technology drives profitability and succession, said Betts.
All three panelists agreed that dairy farmers have a real opportunity to share how they approach sustainability and need to really focus on sharing the message.
“We see good public relations about donation of food to food banks and that is a positive thing but being open and transparent is a big part of the sustainability story,” said Wilton. She said preparation is critical because reporting, communication and a “line of sight” of farming practices are happening now. “This isn’t what needs to be done in a few years… this is coming down the pipeline now.”
Betts agreed. “Dairy farming has a high footprint and it’s what people target. But we need to talk about things like carbon and water and biodiversity. I say, look at what we do with water management and the sequestration of carbon. Carbon and water are big focuses and there is an opportunity to tell that story if we communicate in a language that everyone understands.”
Seguin pointed out that farmers should be sharing irrigation stories. In other parts of the world, dairy farmers require irrigation to grow crops for their cattle. In Ontario, farmers don’t need irrigation and they use rotation, soil management and manure to help soil retain moisture. “Producers do a good job. They are very much regulated and their milk quality is next to none in the world.”
Betts challenged the panelists when they kept referring specifically to dairy farmers when it comes to sustainability. He said sustainability requires collaboration. “Programs cannot just be made by farmers for farmers. They need to be made for the whole industry. If we can grapple with that at the start, it eliminates the risk of derailing so many standards and so many roads to sustainability.”
Wilton agreed. She is very involved with the Canadian Agri-Food Sustainability Initiative (CASI), a collaborative venture which is measuring and facilitating the communication of sustainability practices in Canada’s agri-food sector. Wilton hopes CASI will offer an online portal for farmers to upload their certifications so that they do not have to fill out multiple forms for multiple programs. Ultimately, it’s the collaborative approach of broad-reaching programs like CASI that will prove their effectiveness.
Streamlining is what farmers need. “As a farmer, streamlining and creating a one-stop shop is much preferred. After all, we are members of beef farmers because we sell cull cows and probably should be members of the grain farmers because we grow grain. Many dairy farms also have poultry or sheep … a range of livestock,” explaining Campbell.
Collaboration is full of pitfalls because different countries have different standards. Also, processors and companies have different requirements. For instance, in the past McDonalds did not accept the EFP as a viable option or equivalent to their own sustainability standards.
Animal welfare isn’t a new issue for farmers but interest in it continues to increase and that drives changes in the supply chain, said Wilton. “We often think research is about technology but a lot of research is being done on animal welfare and animal care,” she said. “That needs to be communicated to consumers.” Farmers invest in research to learn best housing and feeding practices and if consumers knew this, it would increase their confidence about animal welfare on farms.
Seguin said farmers should also be discussing the concept of regenerative agriculture with each other and with consumers. While the term has broad definitions, any idea that improves soil and water quality resonates with consumers.
“It’s the concept that what we do affects everyone. We have nutrient management plans and we test our soils and we use cover crops as feed. This needs to be told,” said Seguin. ◊