Dairy stewardship alliance: On-farm assessment for sustainable practices

2008 Annual Report for LNE06-243

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $86,157.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Allen Matthews
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Co-Leaders:
Allen Matthews
Chatham University

Dairy stewardship alliance: On-farm assessment for sustainable practices

Summary

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.

In 2008, we were invited to present at the annual meeting of the European Association on Animal Production. University scientists from The Netherlands and Belgium are working on similar research and we have begun to share our results with one another.

The Alliance identified a set of sustainability indicators has been working to test and refine the assessment with an original group of 52 farmers who voluntarily agreed to be a part of the research. To date, 40 (76%) of the farms identified and implemented changes, and are moving forward to complete the post-test assessment which will indicate areas of change and needs for further technical assistance.

55% of these farmers have completed the self assessment a second time, documented their results and received their final reports.

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 dairy farmers. The Alliance has gained a great deal of interest and momentum. We plan to eventually expand the availability through the internet.

Originally conceived as a hard copy set of ten modules, the 90 page manual is extremely costly to reproduce and to assess results. With farmers input, the final editing of the modules are almost complete. If additional funds can be identified, we are ready to move forward to develop an on-line version of the sustainability indicators as an on-line self-assessment that can be completed and submitted electronically.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Of 520 farms in the dairy co-op, 52 will participate in the Dairy Stewardship Self Assessment and 40 (76%) of these will each improve at least two 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.

The Alliance has successfully identified 52 farms who volunteered to complete the assessment. These farms are all involved at different stages of our process, with 40 actually involved in completing the assessment a second time after having implemented changes to increase stewardship practices on their farms within the final year of the research.

Accomplishments/Milestones

  • The Dairy Stewardship Alliance originally partnered St. Albans Co-operative and its 520 members with core advisers from Ben & Jerry’s, University of Vermont Extension, and VT Agency of Agriculture.

    Late in 2008, participation has expanded to farmers from two other regional dairy co-ops, Agri-Mark and Organic Valley. With consumer
    demand for eco-friendly products increasing,
    we have joined with Cabot Creamery and Agrimark, who have agreed to use the Self Assessment to determine a baseline in as they look to develop a “Carbon Scorecard” for dairy farmers.

    Four farmers continue to serve on our advisory task force, along with representatives from USDA-Farm Service Agency,a VT Stae Representative and the Core Advising team.

    In addition to announcements about the results of the sustainability indicators, the story of the Dairy Stewardship Alliance appeared in the American Dairyman, a national dairy industry magazine. We are highlighted in their December issue, available on line at:
    http://www.americandairymen.com/magazines/december-2008-issue

    Initially, the goal was to identify 10% of the St. Alban’s Co-op 520 farms for participation in this research by Extension, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, Vermont Pasture Network, University of Vermont Extension, Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture and by other farmers.

    As of 12/3/08, 52 farmers have completed the assessment, which already exceeds our final goal.

    The Self Assessment for Sustainability Indicators pre- and post-assessments have been completed completed by 55 of these farms, with the remainder set to complete assessments before 3/31/09

    42 farms are now actively involved using the self assessment for planning and decision making concerning new sustainable practices to implement and to identify technical assistance needs.

    We continue to refine and edit the modules in order to make the modules more farmer friendly and to standardize results.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Data Collection
Prior to 2007 all of the data existed in Microsoft Excel. While Excel provides strong presentation and shorter development time, benefits of migration to Microsoft Access include increased performance, and data extraction is streamlined through Access reports. Finally, the migration to Access gives the ability to upscale to SQL Server for web based data collection.

Access separates the analytical into components: tables, queries, and reports. These components are less sensitive to changes and create an environment where changes to the database can easily be implemented and custom analysis can be created at request without destroying previous analyses.

Ben & Jerry’s has offered to work with Unilever and develop the online version of our self assessment modules. Negotiations are now underway to align our modules with those of the Caring Dairy in the Netherlands in order to develop a standardized sustainability indicator assessment tool.

Sustainability Indicators –
Comparison of Results for Overall Farm Averages

The overall change for all the farms between the first and second assessment was positive. Energy management went up 9.6% and community health went up 8.4%. However there were some modules that went down. Soil health and pest management both went down by about 3%. Altogether the modules showed 41.8% points of improvement and 5.6% points of regressing, for a net change of 36.2% improvement.

In assessment two, on average, farmers scored lower on both the soil health and pest management modules than they had on assessment one. After reviewing the results there are some trends that can be seen. These trends could be due to certain circumstances affecting farms, primarily the weather, which is an unpredictable circumstance that tends to affect large numbers of farms in one area. The lower scores could also be due to problems with the phrasing of the questions, which are being edited for the final version.

For example, a confinement operation, not growing their own crops, may not respond accurately to the questions in these sections. Or, and organic farm, not using chemical pesticides, may score themselves lower based on their interpretation of the questions. This implies that there was something confusing or different about the question. The same trend can be seen in question four of pest management. Not all of the decrease in the total score can be attributed to questioning error, because we see some questions where some farms will score higher, some will score lower, and others will say the same.

It is true that the farms who scored lower may have been confused as to what the question was asking and thus scored themselves lower than they should have. During the first assessment people from the Dairy Stewardship Alliance were there to help the farmers navigate the questions. Without this help the farmers may not have been sure what answers best fit their farm because of the overall wording. This means that the assessment, or particular modules in the assessment might be poorly phrased and some farms may have found them confusing. Also, as mentioned earlier, one or two questions in particular may have been poorly phrased causing almost everyone to score lower on those particular questions.

Overall however, the farms that participated were able to implement new sustainable measures in certain areas without neglecting other parts of the farm. This is very important because this assessment is only pertinent if it can help farmers not only identify parts of their farms that could become more sustainable but also suggest solutions that are able to be integrated into their overall management. Individual farms seem to be implementing a focused approach to tackling improved sustainability. Whatever area needs the most work, or whatever changes seem the most feasible are made, while the rest of the farm is managed in a similar way as before.

This seems to be a very effective and doable method because farmers are able to make significant steps toward sustainability without completely overhauling their farms or becoming burnt out. If farms focus on two or three modules a year then they will be able to make changes at a reasonable pace. Eventually, they can make a full circle and implement new improvements in the areas of the farms that they tackled first. This makes implementing changes toward sustainability a systematic and ongoing process.

The work of the Alliance was highlighted in the American Dairyman magazine in its December issue, avalianble on-line at http://www.americandairymen.com/magazines/december-2008-issue

That article authored by Gary Diguiseppe is reprinted here with permission by the publisher of American Dairymen Magazine.

Dairy Stewardship Alliance by Gary Diguiseppe
A five-year-old project to help members of a Vermont dairy cooperative achieve greater sustainability in their operations is now ready to go regional.

The Dairy Stewardship Alliance was launched in 2003 by the famed, environmentally-inclined ice cream makers Ben & Jerry’s, along with the 520-member St. Albans Cooperative Creamery and the University of Vermont’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Allen Matthews of the Center explains, “It was a research project when we started, to look at how to actually identify issues on the farm that the farmers needed some additional information on; that information could come back to Extension professionals, and they could put their training programs together.”

But there was another purpose; to help the farmers self-assess their own sustainable practices, and to compare those assessments to those of other producers. “They give themselves a ranking in each of the different module areas,” Matthews explains, “and then they send that in. We’ve put all that information in a database, and then they get a report back, and the report says, ‘Here’s how you graded yourself in all these areas.’ They get a chart that shows what their score is, but then they also get a chart that shows how everybody else that’s done it have scored themselves, and so they get to compare what their practices are with the other folks.”

The modules are in areas ranging from the environment (soil health, water management, nutrient management, and biodiversity) to herd maintenance (animal husbandry, pest management, and farm financials), to social consciousness and conservation of resources (energy and community health). Each is broken down further into a number of topics; in “biodiversity,” for instance, the farmer grades him or herself on genetic diversity of crops, management of riparian areas and of adjacent areas, crop field management and other topics.

The Alliance doesn’t weight the modules by trying to assess their relative importance, but it does try to standardize the information in each. For “soil management,” as an example, Matthews says one of the topics is soil tests; they look at whether the participant conducts soil tests and how often, and whether the results are being used. The same goes for all the other modules and the topics within them. “We’re looking at the whole farm,” he says, “not just one aspect of it.”

After the participants get the results comparing them with other farmers, Matthews says they look for places to make improvement. “We provide some educational sessions on energy efficiencies, or water quality, or nutrient management practices, and then a year later they do the assessment again, and see what their changes have been, and how they now compare with everybody.” He says it’s been interesting: “The farmers are brutally honest with their own assessment of themselves, so they really don’t rank themselves highly in an area where they’re not following through on a practice.”

The Alliance got started at the same time Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture was pursuing something similar; the Agency was using guidelines from the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop Best Management Practices for dairy farms that would ultimately have the force of law behind them. Matthews says, “They needed a way to get this information out in a practical way to farmers. Ben & Jerry’s is interested in stewardship and sustainability, and so they were a natural partner, and St. Albans Coop provides the milk for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. So, that was the connection.”

The Alliance defines “sustainable dairy farming practices” as those which “enhance the natural environment and herd health while supporting profitability and improving the quality of life for farmers, their families and their communities.” As Matthews points out, “You’re not going to be sustainable unless your farm’s in business.” The program is not targeted toward farms of a specific size; Matthews says one of the most active participants milks 550 cows and is looking at installing robotic milkers, while another is a 75-head, grass-fed operation. Nor is it geared toward organic producers; the first farms in the Alliance, he says, were members of the Young Cooperators, a group of conventional confinement operations that are all at least second-generation. Matthews says, “They were the group that actually helped us look at the self-assessment modules, added the modules so that they were practical for farmers to read, and challenged some of the assumptions that were in it.”

The next step is to get more farmers involved. Only 10% of the St. Albans members participated in the research; Matthews says, “The idea is to try to now take the model and make it available on line, so that if a farmer is interested, they can complete the self-assessment, hit a ‘Submit’ button, and then they would get an actual report back that would show how their practices were related to other farms in the Northeast.”

The Alliance is partnering with a similar project in the Netherlands that also has a Ben & Jerry’s connection; the ice cream brand is owned by the Anglo-Dutch consumer products company Unilever, and eleven Dutch farms that were supplying the milk for Ben & Jerry’s in Europe formed their own module-driven project, dubbed “Caring Dairy.” Those indicators have in turn been adopted by a 500-member cooperative, CONO Coop, which is using them as part of a continuous quality improvement program for their members. Matthews says the farmers who sign up for the program get a 50-euro incentive bonus per 100 kg, roughly 50 cents/cwt; 92% of the CONO farmers have signed up, he says, adding “I’m expecting that that’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen here, too.”

Matthews is also hoping sustainability can translate into direct cash benefits to producers through the fledgling carbon sequestration market. There is already a Chicago Climate Exchange, where “pollution credits” are traded. Farmers who trap carbon with grass, crops and trees can sell the right to claim that carbon to industry. The Alliance is working with two Vermont companies, the Sustainable Food Laboratory and The Earth Partners, on using the measurements and metrics from their modules to calculate the amount of carbon their cooperators can claim. “I don’t want anybody to feel like they were going to do this just to go through the motions; that they’re really going to be able to get something out of it,” Matthews says. “And that’s why I’m really excited about this other next phase; it’s what we’re calling ‘low-carbon farming,’ and trying to put this whole world of carbon sequestration into a language that farmers can understand, and can actually benefit from.”

But Matthews says the savings from the Alliance’s project are already tangible. “Most of the farmers that I know,” he says, “are already good stewards of the land, and they know by investing in the sustainability of their farm, it’s not just an economic line, it really is the environmental health of the soil and the water quality for them and their neighbors…I guess the sustainability is trying to help to look beyond the fluctuating price of milk; how can you reduce your off-farm inputs, so you aren’t so vulnerable?”

Collaborators:

Diane Bothfield

Sr. Development Specialist
VT Agency of Agriculture
Montpelier, VT
Tom Gates

Membership Director
St. Alban’s Cooperative Creamery, Inc.
140 Federal Street
St. Albans, VT 05478
Office Phone: 8025246581
Andrea Asch

Environmental Specialist
Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream
Burlington, VT