As National Dairy Month comes to an end, it’s an excellent opportunity to reflect on the cows’ contributions to society and its vital role in the sustainability cycle of agriculture.
Today we feed more people on this planet on less land than ever before. The decrease in farmland is an accelerating trend here in the United States where we lose an average of 1,000,000 acres of productive farmland each year. The current world population is 7.6 billion, and in just 12 years, another billion humans will require a significant expansion of food production, on even fewer acres.
Man has much to learn about inventing, improving and adopting “Best Management Practices” within the very diversified agricultural production systems. Cows are a great example of adaptation and adoption of practices which make dairy critical in obtaining a genuinely sustainable cycle in the food sector.
While innovative technology can do wonders, it is no match for the natural biological systems built into the dairy cow. Sunlight and carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — combined with soils and water to grow forage and grain plants which are consumed by cows in a very scientifically designed diet. Their four-part stomach can digest materials that man cannot — and produce milk, meat, and manure in return.
The value of milk and meat is obvious and goes back to creation. However, while the United States had almost 23 million dairy cows in 1950, producing 116 million pounds of milk, by the year 2000 cow numbers had plummeted to 9.2 million, producing a total of 167 million pounds of milk, these animals are incredibly efficient. Today, over 16 percent of this high-quality protein in the form of whey, powdered milk and cheese is exported, much of it to food deficient areas of the world. Regions like Asia have seen incredible benefits recently since starting to eat more of these superior proteins.
What makes the dairy cow the star of truly sustainable modern food production? It all starts with the amazing four-part stomach, able to take in a wide variety of plant-based nutrition and convert it to metabolic energy, milk and meat. Every kind of traditional forage in the form of hay, haylage or silage forms a base in the cow ration.
This is diversified substantially with trim and cull materials from food processing plants — carrots, peas, potatoes, beets, onions, cotton seeds, sweet corn which would otherwise be filling up our area landfills provides a wide variety of high-quality feed to be mixed into the cow ration. Wet brewers mash from beer makers, dry distiller’s grain left over from ethanol production, grape pomace from wine and juice making join all the fruits like apples, pears, cherries and more and add palatability and nutrition to the cows diet.
Some of the energy consumed by dairy cows is lost to metabolic requirements, some is found in the milk, and the remainder — some people have incorrectly labeled as “waste” we call it manure. This manure can be applied to soils in lots of different ways. Composting is one of the most popular, cow manure makes up the majority of most composts, the consistent source of cow manure allows for high- quality compost that can handle all sorts of green waste, food waste, even paper and cardboard to be mixed in and converted to plant food, again keeping more and more out of our landfills.
Our dairy creates more than 50,000 tons of compost a year. Most of this compost contains different waste products from cities. Testing confirms what common sense tells us — that manure was once plant material — and it contains almost the same ratios of nutrients required for optimum plant growth. Even better yet, these nutrients are naturally slow release when compared with most synthetic sourced nutrients, so they are more likely to stay in the plant root zone and be taken up by the plants for growth.
As the soils warm in the spring and irrigation water is applied, plant growth peaks in late June and July, just when these organic-based nutrients become plant available as the manure or compost breaks down. They also positively alter soil characteristics, increasing water infiltration rate — reducing runoff, and increasing overall soil water holding capacity.
All in all, it’s a perfect circle of recycling that makes this resource truly sustainable and crucial in the whole cycle of the $28 billion food sector in America. By continuing to increase productivity with fewer cows on less land and improving practices of manure management the cow is taking on more and more of responsibility in making our world work how is was meant to work. These incredible animals are not only feeding the world with arguably the best protein out there, but they are keeping more and more out of landfills and instead creating a critical product needed to grow and manufacture food sustainably.
Austin Allred is the owner of Royal Dairy in Royal City, Wash.