April is all about Earth Month, but for Florida farmers, sustainability is a way of life and not just a trend. Dairy farmers strive to employ innovative and greener ways to manage and care for farms, their cows, and the environment.
“Their efforts are paying off too,” said the team at Florida Dairy Farmers (FDF). “Due to innovative practices in cow comfort, improved feed and genetics, and modern barn design, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 shrunk significantly, requiring 30% less water, using 21% less land and garnering a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007.”
The experts at FDF shared some of the innovative and sustainable practices their farmers use:
NEW: Methane digesters
Methane digesters are a great new way to collect methane gas released from manure and convert it to energy. This “biogas” is a renewable fuel that can be used to generate electricity for both the dairy farm and the local community.
U.S. dairy farmers are committed to achieving carbon neutrality or better, optimize water usage and improve water quality by 2050 in a nationwide Net Zero Initiative. They’ll achieve this by making further improvements in feed production, cow care, energy efficiency, and manure management.
In December 2022, Larson dairy farms in South Florida broke ground on methane digesters by partnering with global-waste solutions provider, Brightmark. The digesters will turn cow manure into renewable natural gas and will generate enough energy to power about 4,000 homes.
And just this past February, Full Circle Dairy – a local dairy farm in Madison County – announced they’ll be the first farm in their area to install a methane digester. The project will capture and clean methane from manure generated by cows, producing 100,000 average dekatherms of renewable natural gas annually. The digester should be up and running in 2024. Full Circle Dairy partnered with FPU Renewables LLC.
Florida’s dairy farmers are experts at conserving and reusing water.
Fresh water is used for cows to drink and to sanitize and clean equipment like milk storage tanks. Wastewater is used to flush manure and excess sand bedding out of the barn, and then separated into solids and the now nutrient-rich water.
Solids, like sand, are washed during the flushing and recycled, and then used as bedding once again. Nutrient rich water is used to fertilize and irrigate crops where it turns back into wastewater, and the process begins again.
Agricultural byproducts that are inedible to humans, such as orange peels, cottonseed hulls and expired baked goods, can make up around 30% of a dairy cow’s diet. Thanks to a unique digestive system, cows can process and convert these byproducts into nutritious milk and keep them out of landfills. Florida dairy farmers upcycle around 170,000 tons of these byproducts as cow feed each year!
“We’re talking tons and tons of stuff that these other industries would have no use for if it weren’t for the dairy industry,” said dairy farmer Matt Lussier of Alachua County. “Byproducts are huge for dairy farmers.”
Citrus peels and pulp are common byproducts in Florida, a state known for its juice. The leftovers from fruits used to make grapefruit and orange juice are dried and converted into pellet-shaped dairy cow feed that provides a healthy source of energy and calcium for cattle.
They enjoy it too. “Citrus pulp is very palatable,” Lussier said, “That’s one of the main reasons I feed it [to my cows]. You can put the best ingredients in the world in front of a cow but if she doesn’t eat it, it doesn’t do her any good. So you put stuff in that they want to eat.”
Other common byproducts that cows love eating are almond hulls, brewers grains, distillers grains, and molasses. All of these are delicious and nutritious for the cows and keeps them out of landfills.
How to get your kids involved
Wondering how you can get your child more interested in sustainability and caring for cows? How about adopting a 1,500-pound dairy cow child’s classroom? Throughout the Adopt a Cow program, you’ll find out what the cow’s name is, when her birthday is, where she lives and how the farmer takes care of her. They’ll also receive photos of the cow, activity sheets for the students, a PowerPoint full of information and photos, and a suggested lesson that follows Common Core standards.