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June 28, 2017

Measuring Farm Sustainability

 |  By: Nate Birt

As consumers and food companies seek more information about the way food is produced, dairy farmers have access to a number of programs that can help them quantify on-farm sustainability practices.

It’s important to track this information because it can help dairy operators continuously improve animal health and welfare, environmental stewardship and more, says Ryan Bennett, senior director for industry and environmental affairs at the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) in Washington, D.C.

“I think there are a lot of opportunities for us to provide value to the farmer to find those win-win areas,” Bennett says. “We can collect and process information in a way that allows them to improve their bottom line.”

Funded with checkoff dollars, NMPF’s Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program aims to help producers measure sustainability and track progress over time. The program’s animal care component covers more than 98% of the U.S. milk supply and more than 39,000 dairy farms, making it the most comprehensive dairy sustainability initiative in the country.

Companies such as Validus also can help farmers obtain paid certifications in specific sustainability categories with on-farm auditing by an independent third party. Often, a third-party certificate is sought when a farmer seeks to access a specific end user, explains Matt Jones, vice president of operations for Validus, one of several independent certification companies for dairy. The company is a division of Castle Rock, Colo.-based Where Food Comes From, which provides certification and verification services to the food industry.

“Some want to go to a retailer or wholesaler,” Jones says. “Others want to go through it because they want access to a certain market.”

Admittedly, sustainability can be confusing because several industry stakeholders have big goals and numerous tools for measuring and monitoring improvement, Bennett acknowledges. But in his view, the bottom line is that dairy sustainability has a broad base of support and that ongoing initiatives are driving on-farm progress, innovation and opportunity.

“Everyone wants baseline data for the supply chain,” Bennett says. “We have a great story to tell.”

Pencil To Paper. Many farmers already engage in sustainability practices that consumers and even food companies might not know about. Sustainability programs can help put those practices on paper and identify areas for growth.

The FARM Program, which has the endorsement of major end users including McDonald’s, is composed of three tiers. The first tier is animal care. The program educates trainers and evaluators—typically employees of dairy cooperatives and processors—to conduct live-animal observations, correctly identify body condition, evaluate locomotion and determine whether a farm has a good relationship with a local veterinarian. “It’s really a holistic look at animal care and animal health,” Bennett says. Trainers and evaluators must be recertified annually. The animal care program is updated every three years, and each farm that a second party observes must be visited at least once within that time frame.

The second tier is antibiotic stewardship, which focuses primarily on producer education including how to properly administer medications.

The third tier became available in February and focuses on environmental stewardship. Cooperatives such as Dairy Farmers of America and Land O’Lakes are using the program to verify their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their dairy supply chain, Bennett says. It includes a tool with 48 data points that can be used to assess and manage a farm’s environmental footprint.

Most farms already are engaged in the first two program components, and a growing number will experiment with the third element, Bennett says. Some producers know about the FARM Program, but others participate without realizing it. That’s because cooperatives and processors sometimes ask the FARM Program questions about animal care and antibiotics along with questions of their own, Bennett says. Participation doesn’t cost farmers any money beyond checkoff dollars and the investment of their milk marketers; it simply requires about a half-day to work with an evaluator on that specific program tier.

Broad Goals. Other dairy-industry stakeholders are assessing sustainability at a broader level beyond the farmgate. In 2009, for example, dairy producers and industry groups committed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity 25% by 2020.

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, a producer-led forum, is monitoring progress toward that objective. Eventually, data from the FARM Program could be used to measure such progress, Bennett says.

The Innovation Center’s definition of farm-to-table sustainability includes animal care, sustainable nutrition, environmental stewardship, global insights and innovation, food safety, people and community, and communications.

Committee work is focused on solutions that balance the need for nutrient-rich dairy foods that are responsibly produced and make good business sense, says Chad Frahm, senior vice president of operations and outreach for the Innovation Center.

“People want to purchase food from those they know operate in ways consistent with their personal values and expectations. And they are holding all of us accountable–from the farm to the processing plant to the grocery store–for transparency about how their food is produced,” Frahm says. “Looking to the future, the consumer landscape and business environment will be more complex and more competitive and will impose greater pressures around health, environmental impacts and ethical practices.”

Milk end-users such as Unilever—whose brands include Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Brummel & Brown, and Hellmann’s—have committed to complementary targets. Unilever reports it sourced 70% of its dairy from sustainable farms and processors at the end of 2016, up from 59% in 2015.

“Sourcing sustainably helps secure our supplies by reducing risk and volatility in our raw material supply chains,” notes the website for the company, which seeks 100% compliance with its Sustainable Agriculture Code by 2020. “It also opens up opportunities for innovation: by focusing on people’s sustainable living needs and consumer preference, we can build stronger brands.”

Interest in food production practices at all levels of the supply chain suggests sustainability is here to stay. For dairy producers, participation can be as simple as learning how sustainability is defined and what you can do to document existing practices and measure progress.