Dairy stewardship alliance: On-farm assessment for sustainable practices
Sustainable dairy farming practices enhance the natural environment and herd health while supporting profitability and improving the quality of life for farmers, their families and their communities. The Dairy Stewardship Alliance is a collaborative effort with Ben & Jerry’s Inc., UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, UVM Extension and the VT Agency of Agriculture.
Together, we have been developing and researching a self-assessment tool for dairy farmers which will promote a broader use of sustainable agriculture practices.
The Alliance provides direct support for farmers to help them develop a better understanding of their production practices, explore alternatives and to implement changes to improve the sustainability of their farm operations.
Needs and Challenges
The Dairy Stewardship Alliance helps farmers to conduct a careful analysis of their production practices as they move toward greater stewardship in the areas of water quality, soil, pest and nutrient management; biodiversity, and animal husbandry. The farms also assess their financial stability, energy efficiency and community interactions.
The Alliance has identified and begun to work to test and refine the assessment with an original group of 54 farmers who voluntarily agreed to be a part of the project. To date, 28 (52%) per cent of the farms identified and implemented changes, and went on to complete the post-test assessment.
We have now reached the point that we are ready to expand the scope of the self assessment beyond our original partnership, and make it more readily available to ALL Vermont dairy farmers. The Alliance has gained a great deal of interest and momentum. We plan to eventually expand the availability throughput the Northeast.
Originally conceived as hard copy set of ten modules, the 90 page manual is extremely costly to reproduce and to assess results. If additional funds can be identified, we are ready to move forward to develop an on-line version of the self-assessment that can be completed and submitted electronically.
Of 520 farms in the dairy co-op, 52 will participate in the Dairy Stewardship Self Assessment and 40 (75%) of these will each improve at least 2 identified sustainable production practices in the areas of animal husbandry, biodiversity, community health, energy efficiency, farm financials, nutrient management, organic practices, pest management, soil health management, and water management.
After the first 18 months, the Alliance has identified 57 farms that have volunteered to complete the assessment. These farms are all involved at different stages of our process, with 28 actually agreeing to complete the assessment a second time. This is 70% of the final 40 targeted farms who will be implementing changes to increase stewardship practices on their farms.
– 520 farmers and dairy specialists receive detailed background information concerning On-Farm Self Assessment for Sustainable Practices.
While the DSA was originally directed at the 520 members of St. Alban’s Co-op, participation has expanded to farmers from 2 other Co-ops, Agri-Mark and Organic Valley. The President of St’ Alban’s Coop is a participant in the research, and 4 farmers now serve on our advisory task force. In addition to announcements about the results of the assessments, articles about the trip of 13 farm families to The Netherlands appeared in both the St. Alban’s Coop and Organic Valley Co-op newsletters.
– 52 farms are identified for participation by Extension, NRCS, VT Pasture Network, and Agency of Agriculture. During the Mid-Phase, these farmers complete the Dairy Stewardship Self Assessment and help to refine the tool kit.
As of 12/3/07, 57 farmers have enrolled to complete the assessment, which already exceeds our final goal. The original 12 farms have served as a group of advisors who helped to edit thye text of the manuals. In early 2008, we will complete the final editing of the manual, which will then be tested with a final group of farmers.
– Self Assessment Modules are revised, and pre- and post-assessments are completed by 40 farms for planning and decision making concerning new practices to implement and technical assistance needs.
We continue to collect edits in order to make the modules more farmer friendly and to standardize results. 46% of the farms who complete the assessment a first time are going forward to identify changes and complete the assessment a second time after their changes have been made.
The final report for 2007 will be available at www.uvm.edu/sustainableagriculture in the publications section
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
— Farmers involved in the Alliance assessmnts have made at least 20 presentations around Vermont, written numerous articles on the Alliance. (Sample articles are attached below!)
— After the first 18 months of this 3 year research project, 57 farmers have applied to complete baseline assessments for all modules of the sustainable dairy practices. 46% farms have already received summary reports and identified sustainable practices to implement. During this period, farmers identified sustainable farming practices to improve in the next phase and utilized the self-assessment to guide them in meeting AAPs and Large Farm Operations/ Medium Farm Operations certification requirements.
—Through farmer input, the Dairy Stewardship Alliance identified biodiversity, energy enhancement, water quality and farm safety as the most immediate areas for needed technical assistance. The modules are being assigned partners and agricultural specialists to help to compile the final edited version of the Self Assessment when it is published, placed on-line and distributed with recommendations in a New England Dairy Stewardship Forum to be held in early 2009.
— We continue partnering with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who are also developing “Sustainability Indicators” for dairy farms as a sister project with Ben & Jerry’s – Holland. In October 2008, thirteen Vermont dairy farmers, their families and advisers (36 in all) visited the Netherlands for an 8 day tour of Holland Dairy farms and to learn alternative farming practices.
— Of special interest is that most recently, 12 UVM students within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have begun completing the assessment for their home dairy farms and UVM’s dairy research farm itself!
– Our student intern is a computer specialist, who has redesigned the database, moved it from Excel to ACCESS for ease in reporting. Our goal is to make the Self Assessment modules available on line by 2009.
A more complete annual report is available at www.uvm.edu/sustainableagriculture in the publications section. It is also available in a color printed hard copy by e-mailing project coordinator.
ORGANIC VALLEYNEW ENGLAND
NOVEMBER – DECEMBER 2007
Our Report From The Netherlands
By Beth Choiniere
For a family that rarely leaves the farm, this was a trip of a life¬time. Our family recently spent a week in Holland as part of the Dairy Stewardship Alliance (DSA). The DSA is a collaborative effort of Ben & Jerry’s, the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, the University of Vermont’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture. The purpose of our trip was to reconnect and compare farming methods with the Dutch farm family we hosted in the Fall of 2006.
All farmers had to complete a Self-Assessment Toolkit before being accepted in to the DSA. The Toolkit was an in-depth eval¬uation of our farm which covered 10 focus areas including: ani¬mal husbandry, biodiversity, community health, energy, farm financials, nutrient management, organic information, pest management, soil health, and water management.
After completing the toolkit we had to identify 2 areas of inter¬est and possible improvement on our farm. According to Andrea Ash, of Ben & Jerry’s, Program Director of the DSA, the goal of the program is to provide all farmers information to under¬stand, document and implement sustainable dairy farming practices. “This is core to our social mission,” said Asch of the project. “This is one of the ways that Ben and Jerry’s can give back to the community,” she continued. “There is a perception of Unilever as a big behemoth that doesn’t care about communi¬ty.” said Asch of the parent company to Ben & Jerry’s, “That is simply not the case.”
Our trip began in the amazing city of Amsterdam. We spent the first days of our trip in Amsterdam and enjoyed touring the city with our group of fellow Vermont farmers. The two main attrac-tions that caught our attention were the canals and the multi¬tude of bicycles.
The canals serve as a network of waterways brilliantly designed to maintain the water level within the city, which is 20 feet below sea level. The system of canals was very complex, yet simple at the same time. While serving to keep the water level constant, the canals serve equally well to keep cattle corralled on their own pasture, thus eliminating the need for fencing.
As we love to bike in our free time, we were fascinated by the number of bike riders in Amsterdam and in the surrounding villages. Bicycles serve as the main source of transportation within the country. In Amsterdam, hiking is more convenient due to the large population and the limited number of car per¬mits issued each year. The waiting period to obtain a car permit is typically five years. The villages in Holland are small and therefore hiking to the grocery store and to school is the norm. Unlike Vermont, Holland is extremely flat thus making a trip to the market a little more encouraging.
After spending two days in Amsterdam, the farmer in us was feeling a little restless. We were ready to head to our host fam¬ily’s farm. On Tuesday, we loaded onto a bus and headed out to the country. Within five minutes, we were surrounded by cows, goats, horses, windmills, and plentiful green pastures. We couldn’t believe the countryside had been so close all this time.
But before reaching our host family, we visited two farms that were operated by the local University. We learned that the University plays a large role in helping farmers deal with upgrades in agricultural regulations. One barn we were in had” four different types of floors. The University continuously searches for the best barn flooring material. Farmers reap the rewards of the government-funded research and grants for technology upgrades.
One of the farms we visited that day was a conventional farm and the other farm was organic. Although the farms were fun¬damentally different, the farms were similar in that both herds were on pasture, both herds were milked by robots, the barn styles were similar, and automation was prevalent on both farms. Both farm types allowed for antibiotic use (although much more limited on the organic farm). The organic farmer is paid only slightly more for his organic milk. This is the reason why there are so few organic farms in Holland. Chemical fertil¬izer is not allowed on an organic farm.
After a day of touring farms, we finally reunited with our host family at a nearby restaurant for a dinner meeting. After the meeting, we finally headed to our host’s home. Antoon and Angelique Stockman’s farm was approximately two hours out¬side of Amsterdam, in the town of Noordsleen. Once arriving on the farm, the relationship we started last October rekindled very quickly, and it felt like old friends getting together. Now on their turf, Antoon felt very comfortable putting us to work. Matt and I each picked out a pair of coveralls and barn boots and headed out to the barn which was separated from the house with only one sliding wooden door. Antoon was very excited to show us his new double 12 parallel parlor, which was very new and modern considering he milks 90 cows. Equipment upgrades were a common sight throughout our tour of Holland. We believe the farmers are preparing for the predicted loss of the European Union’s quota system in the next 2 years.
Beth, Hannah, Guy and Matt Choiniere
Antoon’s barn is like the others, it was a free stall barn with the cows standing on a slotted floor with the manure pit direct¬ly underneath. This system seemed to be most practical. This set up satisfies the regulation that mandates a roof over all manure pits. Antoon had a lot of field work to do which was lucky for us because we got to see how it was done.
Due to Holland’s place below sea level, and the limited amount of land, the Dutch are diligent about clean water issues. Holland has strict manure dispersal restrictions. The govern¬ment regulates farm practices closely. Farmers are told when and how much manure they can spread. Dutch rules require farmers with an abundance of manure to truck it away to another farmer needing more, or to a digester to dispose of it.
Dutch farmers must follow other strict standards. Manure must be injected into the soil, not spread upon it. All manure pits must be covered to prevent gases from escaping. Equipment must be designed to do multiple tasks at one time to reduce traffic on the land, and cover crops are required to avoid runoff from open soil.
The Dutch farmers are very organized. They have a coopera¬tive that is called upon when it is time to harvest crops. Antoon called to make an appointment and then someone showed up to do the work. The uniform standards and similar equipment
must make it easier for hired labor to fill in for any given farmer.
Erosion was a hot topic of conversation on this trip. I learned that to the Dutch, erosion is when water and nutrients leach into the water table through the ground which is 3 feet below the surface. Holland’s top soil is mainly peat moss, from the reclaimed soil, or pure sand. Both of these soils allow bad man¬agement to be detrimental to water quality.
Erosion in Vermont is caused mainly by surface runoff which results in sediment loading and nutrient loading in our rivers and lakes. Our challenges might be different but the concern is the same.
We gained a lot of knowledge from the farm connection, but we were significantly moved by another aspect of our trip. Antoon and Angelique were kind enough to bring us sightsee¬ing around Noordsleen. The most significant stop for us was a visit the Westerbork Concentration Camp.
Amazingly, the site was just 40 minutes from their home. The barbed wire fences, the lookout towers, and the house the guards lived in remain in tact. The rest of the buildings have been torn down, and the train rails have been ripped from the ground. Still, the atmos¬phere at the camp is chilling. Westerbork is the concentration camp where Anne Franke was taken after she and her family were found in hiding in Amsterdam. Anne Franke was a Jewish girl who wrote a diary while in hiding with her family in Amsterdam during the German occupation of Holland in World War II. Anne Franke was made famous when her diary detailing her time in hiding was published. We went back to Amsterdam the following day, and were able to take a tour of the warehouse where Anne and her family lived for their two years in hiding. The warehouse is now a museum in downtown Amsterdam.
We are very grateful to Ben & Jerry’s and the other groups for giving our family the opportunity to participate in this pro¬gram. Our family truly enjoyed our visit to Holland. The Dutch culture was an inspiration to all of us. All the people we met were great. We observed that family time is a priority and farming techniques are from common basic principals that work for farm and nature. Their farming practices also proved to be innovative with their dikes, canals, windmills and robot¬ic milkers.
Our farming strategies at times did seem a little different from the Dutch farmers, yet be assured that we do have sustainabil-ity in common.
VT Agency of Agriculture
St. Alban's Cooperative Creamery, Inc.
140 Federal Street
St. Albans, VT 05478
Office Phone: 8025246581
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