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March 13, 2020

How One Washington Dairy Farmer Turned a Liability Into a Profit Center

 |  By: Anna-Lisa Laca

 

From the road, Royal Dairy looks like many of the farms in eastern Washington. Take a closer look and you’ll see it’s truly state-of-the-art when it comes to sustainability. 

Not only is the feed going into Austin Allred’s cows unique, but what’s done with the manure that comes out of them is equally extraordinary. It’s his commitment to sustainability that earned Royal Dairy the 2018 Dairy Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

First-Generation Fire

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Allred didn’t grow up on a dairy farm, something he considers a business advantage. His family grows potatoes, cherries and apples. When he was a kid, Allred was intrigued by the neighboring dairy farm (Royal Dairy) and wanted to learn all he could about dairy cows. Fortunately, his neighbor, turned boss, then mentor, then partner, Nelson Faria, was willing to give him a job. 

“We were growing feed for Nelson for a long time,” Allred explains. “Sometimes I would work for Nelson over my dad, just because I enjoyed the cows so much.”

According to Allred, working with cows lit a fire in him and he dived head first into dairy farming, eventually buying Royal Dairy in 2010. 

“The relationship started just from growing the crops and raising heifers [for Nelson]. Then, it just worked How one Washington farmer turned a liability into a profit centerWaste Not, Want Notout to where he wanted to go to Texas, and I was just the right age to be able to learn from him for a few years, which was priceless,” Allred explains. “Then, eventually, over time buy them out.”

The dairy and family fruit and vegetable farms have a great synergy now, Allred says. 

“This farm was next door to my family’s farm, and so it was kind of a seamless connection that we get involved with both and are able to you know, improve the farm, improve the dairy and have that synergy between two,” he says. “It’s really a positive thing.” 

One area of synergy is crop rotations. Potatoes, which is one of the main crops grown by Allred’s family, require a four- to five-year fallow period between crops. During that time, Allred’s dad grows corn and triticale that is fed to Allred’s cows.

Waste Not Want Not 

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Royal Dairy is 100% committed to having zero waste. How is that achieved? Well, for starters, the 6,000 cows at Royal Dairy are fed a diet made mostly from byproduct feeds. While the ration changes, right now they are being fed potatoes (specifically, McDonald’s French fries that aren’t up to specs), cantering which is sweet corn from the processor, grape pomace and mint silage, which is the byproduct after they pull the oil out of the mint.

Byproduct feed ingredients are not new to the dairy industry. For several decades farmers have been using them to fill in rations. 

“In addition to lowering feed costs, commodity or byproduct feeds can be used to increase the nutrient density of the diet,” says Brinton Hopkins, North Carolina State University professor and extension dairy specialist emeritus. “Because of their often unique nutrient composition, byproduct feeds must be used as a component of a nutritionally balanced ration.”

According to Allred, when those feeds are affordable, they are a win. 

“They’re really palatable for the cows, and as long as dry matter and nutritional value are consistent, then they’re a home run,” he says.

Consistency has long been an industry concern when it comes to feeding byproduct feeds to dairy cows and is a critical factor in success of a feeding program using them, according to Virginia A. Ishler, a dairy Extension specialist with Penn State University. 

“Cost should not be the sole factor alone that determines where a commodity gets purchased,” she says. “There is a price for a consistent quality byproduct. If cows are performing well and receiving a consistent ration, there is a price associated with that milk income.”

Over the years Allred has developed strong relationships with different processors and worked with them to be consistent. “It’s a win, win, win all around because they have to get rid of them, [and] they make a little bit of money on them, and our cows love them,” Allred explains. 

Worm Power

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Royal Dairy is just as committed to reusing what comes out of the back end of their cows as they are reusing what they put in the front end. 

Allred journeyed to the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., in 2015 looking for a solution to the farm’s water problems. After talking through many different management systems and techniques at the show, a new concept peaked his interest. BioFiltro seemed a simple and effective, albeit expensive, solution. 

Curious to see how it would work, Allred convinced BioFiltro to do a pilot project on his farm. After seeing it’s success, Allred dived in. 

In 2017, Allred installed the largest BioFiltro water fi ltration system in the country, turning his waste water into clean water for use on his farm and creating a byproduct that’s become a new revenue stream.“

All the water and all the manure that comes from our dairy ends up in a central location, and then all that manure and dirty water is put through a mechanical separator. The solids come out, and those are all composted, but then we’re left with the liquid manure,” Allred explains. 

Before the BioFiltro system, Royal Dairy ran thousands of trucks to haul their manure water to local farms. 

“It was really expensive and hard to handle,” he says, adding it’s good for crops but expensive to get to the fi eld. That’s where the BioFiltro system comes into play. 

“We’re just sprinkling [the manure water] on the top [of the beds] and it settles through the worms, wood chips and then a layer of rocks, and then it comes out of the bottom as clean water that we can integrate with, fl ush freestalls with, or whatever we need to use it for,” he says. “Then also those nutrients are pulled out and we have worm castings that we’re able to take off the top and sell as a compost soil amendment.”

The system takes advantage of proven theories that are in the earth, according to Allred. 

“The different incredible digestive systems of the worms and the different bugs and biology that live within there to really clean your water,” he explains. “It’s a pretty incredible, but really simple, system.”

Allred says the compost, worm castings and irrigation water turn what used to be a liability into an asset. Today, Royal Dairy’s BIDA System is the largest of its kind in the nation, recycling 200,000 gal. of water per day with average removal ratings of 97% total suspended solids, 93% total nitrogen and 90% total phosphorous. While the system came with a hefty price tag, offset by a grant from the Dairy Farmers of Washington, it has helped Royal Dairy be more profi table, Allred says. 

“Everything that comes out of the back end of a cow is good for a plant,” he says. “So, if we can process it right, and get it on the plants the right way, then the manure is almost just as valuable as the milk because it helps grow the feed for the next round of milk.”