Views from the Vet: Dairy farmers are good stewards

Last week when I wrote this column was Agricultural Literacy Week in Vermont — a great opportunity to learn about new methods as our farms continue to grow and modernize. This week is also the week of Thanksgiving. The holiday is traditionally a time to give thanks for the many gifts we’ve been given. In our homes, our churches and our communities we also take time to think about stewardship — how we care for those gifts. Here in Vermont we have no greater gift than our beautiful environment.
Dairy farmers are no different. Stewardship may be defined as an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources (Wikipedia). Dairy farmers are, of course, stewards of their animals, but they are also stewards of the food they produce and the land they till. Since this is Agricultural Literacy Week I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about how farmers are becoming increasingly better environmental stewards.
Modern farming is often singled out as bad for the environment. There’s no doubt agriculture has had its challenges, but progress in technology and new ideas about feeding cows continue to improve farming’s environmental stewardship. We’ve looked at manure in this column many times in the past. Perhaps you’ve followed the big tanks down the road or seen the long drag hoses out in the fields in the past few weeks. If you have, I hope you’ve noticed that most of the manure is injected (applied deeply into the soil by claw-like injectors) or that the broadcast spreaders are followed closely by a plow. Manure applied on the surface is immediately tilled under so the nutrients are trapped there and don’t run off into waterways.
Increasingly in Vermont, manure is turned into energy. Large fermenters (also called methane digesters) extract biogas (a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide) from manure that is added to our natural gas supply. According to the Vermont Energy Atlas website, one day’s manure from one cow can produce enough energy to power two 100 watt light bulbs for 24 hours. The left over solids (plant material that is rendered clean and sterile from the fermentation process) can be composted, added to gardens or may even be used as cow bedding.
We’ve talked about what comes out, how about what goes in? Dairy nutritionists use computers with sophisticated models to make sure diets fed to cows are balanced for energy, protein and minerals. Protein is rich in nitrogen, one of the compounds that most influences water quality. Nutritionists and veterinarians can monitor the nitrogen content of milk to determine whether protein and energy are out of balance resulting in increased nitrogen excreted into the environment. Diets are being formulated with much lower levels of phosphorus, and additives like yeast cultures and essential oils may be included to improve digestion and reduce production of the greenhouse gas methane.
When you gather for Thanksgiving with your family, don’t forget to give thanks for the stewardship of your farm neighbors for the food on your table and our beautiful state.

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