Every day is Earth Day for dairy farmers. They rely on the land and water to farm and care for their animals. Caring for these natural resources is good for the farmer, and the environment. We asked Ron Ohrel, director of Environmental Outreach for American Dairy Association North East, for his perspective on how dairy farmers are making a difference for the planet we all share.

Q: Working with environmental groups and dairy farmers, what do you find they both have in common?

A: Both groups are striving for many of the same things. Everyone wants a clean, healthy environment. The environmental community that I work with wants dairy farmers to succeed economically and have the farm thrive. They recognize that not only do farms feed us all, but farms represent some of the greatest opportunities for environmental protection. And the dairy farmers I work with want to leave the landscape at the same level of quality–if not better–as when they first started managing their farms.

Q: Why is soil health is important to dairy farmers and environmentalists, and how does it affect species, like bees and other insects, important for crop pollination?

A: Soil health is a hot topic these days. There’s a lot of interest in soil’s ability to capture carbon and help limit climate change. In terms of the farms, healthy soils mean less erosion. Some of the practices that farmers use, help to increase organic matter and make the soil more porous. That leads to less stormwater runoff from the fields and reduced erosion. Less erosion means increased field productivity.  Many of the techniques that dairy farmers use to keep their fields productive and prevent erosion have the added benefit of supporting biodiversity.

Q: What are some of those practices that farmers use to improve soil health?

A: Farmers have options and different farms use different techniques. You’ll see many dairy farmers keep their fields covered with vegetation year-round. When not growing crops that are used to feed cows, they grow a mixture of plants called cover crops. There’s also the practice called no-till, which is a way of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil.

Q: Why are cover crops important?

A: Those plants serve multiple purposes. First, their roots hold the soil in place, reducing erosion. They also grow deep into the ground, helping to loosen the soil and make it more porous, which helps keep water and nutrients in the soil rather than running off the soil surface. Finally, diverse plants support diverse soil life, from microscopic fungi to worms and insects. By promoting a complete soil system, dairy farmers are supporting biological diversity.

I’m reminded of one dairy farmer who noticed that, by promoting biodiversity in his fields using no-till and cover crops, he’s able to minimize pesticide use. Now beneficial insects thrive and feed on the pests that would otherwise harm his crops. He remarked, “If you promote diversity, some problems will solve themselves.”

Q: How have dairy farmers reduced their carbon footprint?

A: The U.S. dairy farmers have become very efficient over the years. While milk production per cow has increased, the associated environmental impact declined greatly since World War II. Compared to 1944, the U.S. dairy industry now produces a gallon of milk:

  • Using 90% less land
  • Using 65% less water
  • Generating 75% less manure
  • Having a 63% smaller carbon footprint

Q: There’s a saying that nothing goes to waste on a dairy farm. What are farmers doing to prevent food waste from ending up in landfills?

A: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food waste comprises 22% of what’s in our landfills. When landfilled, food waste is converted to methane–a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Some dairy farms are turning that trash to treasure–for example, accepting food waste from local schools and restaurants and converting that waste to valuable compost. Other farms add food waste to their on-site anaerobic digesters, which produce energy and fertilizer for crops.\