Dairy farmers are finding ways to conserve water and reduce waste while producing more milk than ever

ST. GEORGEIn 2020, the U.S. Dairy Council introduced the “Net Zero Initiative,” with the goal for the nation’s dairies to become carbon neutral by 2050. The initiative’s other goals included optimizing water use and improving nutrient and manure management.

A dairy cow keeps a wary eye for strangers, Newcastle, Utah, July 7, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Along with other dairies in the region and nationwide, Holt Dairy of Newcastle, Utah, has committed to implementing sustainable practices. Kimball Holt, the dairy manager, said his family plans to meet or exceed every standard set by the industry.

Robert Holt Farms got its start in 1965 when Robert Holt started growing potatoes on an 80-acre plot. As the family grew, so did the farm, with the Holts switching from potatoes to livestock feed, and even adding a dairy in 2009.

Their success has relied largely on a willingness to try new things and their efforts to optimize each part of the farming process, said 78-year-old patriarch Robert Holt.

“My sons say the worst part about the dairy business is that we haven’t been in it very long,” Holt said. “But they also say the best part about it is that we haven’t been in it very long. We try to experiment and get new ideas. We try things to save water, get better cattle and be more efficient.”

In addition to managing a herd of more than 5,500 milking cows, the Holts raise beef cattle and grow alfalfa, corn and other livestock feed. 

As one of the largest dairies in Southern Utah, Holt Dairy faces many of the same challenges faced by other farmers in the region. At the same time, their commitment to finding creative solutions to their obstacles mirrors the priorities of the dairy industry as a whole.

Water use

The fact of the matter is that wherever dairies are established, there will be a significant demand for water. Compared to more wet regions like the East Coast or Pacific Northwest, dairy farmers in Southern Utah face more competition for water resources as well as greater scarcity. 

Cattle in the pens are watered and fed regularly. During milking, the pens are cleaned new sand is brought in for bedding, Newcastle, Utah, July 7, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

“The dairy industry uses a lot of water,” said Allen Young, Utah State University Extension dairy specialist, “Milk is 87% water, so if you’re going to make milk you have to have water to sustain the animals. Plus, because milk is a consumable product, there are a lot of regulations and laws in terms of cleanliness, so it takes water to make sure the cows are clean.”

One small advantage for dairy farmers in the west is that less rainfall and more arid environments keep the cows clean for longer, requiring fewer cleanings and therefore less water use, Young said. 

Holt Dairy’s solution to the water problem? Recycling the water “lost” as waste by cleaning, filtering and storing the water for use on the fields.

“Virtually all our water is recycled,” Kimball Holt said. “Not much is lost besides evaporation.”

According to Dairy West, an agriculture advocacy group based in Salt Lake, this model has become more widespread as farms are looking to stretch their water resources and make every drop count.

“Reusing water is something that I’ve seen on a lot of dairy farms,” said Marissa Watson, vice president of sustainability for Dairy West. “Harvesting water that’s relatively clean and having it ultimately end up on their crop fields so they can feed their animals. It not only improves the health of the animals but also allows us to use resources appropriately.”

A pivot irrigation system outfitted with water-saving LEPA nozzles, Newcastle, Utah, July 7, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

While the water collected from cleaning alone cannot sustain the fields at Robert Holt Farms, the family has been focused on bringing in new irrigation systems to cut water use as a whole.

“We’ve spent over $1 million implementing water-saving tools, including LEPA (low energy precision application) systems,” Kimball Holt said. “We’ve applied about 20% less water than last year on these pivots, saving about 1.33 billion gallons compared to traditional water application.”

Robert Holt Farms produces all of the forage for their own cattle, dairy and beef alike. The Holt family relies on irrigation allotments and their own well system to keep the farm operational – water-savings for their crops and cattle contribute directly to their productivity and their profits.

Manure and nutrient management

The principal export for a dairy is it’s milk: in the case of Robert Holt Farms, each cow produces an average of 10 gallons – roughly 80 pounds – of “whole and a half” milk which is 1 1/2 the fat content of whole milk, Kimball Holt said.

In order to keep the cows healthy and productive, their diets are carefully maintained by providing forage in the form of alfalfa and corn from the fields and adding nutritional supplements that are carefully measured and distributed by dairy nutritionists.

Chopped alfalfa from the fields is gathered to be packed into cubes for easier transport, Newcastle, Utah, July 7, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Milk is not the only byproduct of the careful diets the dairy maintains. The cows will of course eliminate waste in the form of urine and manure, and resource-savvy farmers can make the most of their animals’ waste by using the digestive byproducts as fertilizer.

“All the stuff the cows need, the fields provide,” Kimball Holt said. “And all the stuff the cows don’t need, the fields do – it’s like a perfect little system that God designed.”

Robert Holt Farms has an extensive composting program where waste products are prepared for application on the fields. Managing the cows’ diets ensures that fertilizing waste has the best mix of nutrients and minerals when it’s applied to the soil. 

If a farm produces more waste than it can use on its fields, the compost can even be sold as valuable fertilizer.

Watson said the field of waste management is ripe for research and development. Along with Watson’s new position as head of sustainability, Dairy West has been expanding its partnerships with research institutes and universities to improve the processes used on local dairy farms.

This structure serves to filter the water used to clean the dairy pens. The leftover manure can be used as compost, Newcastle, Utah, July 7, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

“Starting this year, we’re going to start to loop sustainability into the research projects,” Watson said. “One project that’s on the table is “vermicomposting” – spreading manure onto acreage and then filtering worms through it in an effort to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen. We’re really excited to start doing some of that research through the Western Dairy Center.”

Efforts to manage resources more effectively are ongoing, with organizations like Dairy West and the USU Extension collaborating with dairies to improve sustainability and to help farmers’ bottom line. Early signs indicate that these efforts are gaining momentum and starting to show results.

According to U.S. Dairy, the dairy industry contributes just 2% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Due to new techniques and tools, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 shrunk significantly, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007.

“Because of genetics and better feeding management, we can produce more milk with fewer cows, so our carbon footprint has actually gone down,” Young said. “From what I’ve seen, we’re making strides. We’re still trying to find our way through all of this, and we are making a pretty good impact from what I’ve seen.”

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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