A Sustainable Dairy in Full
May 24, 2011 | Melissa Keyes
From the Grade A milk products that its produces (including special cotton candy and root beer flavored milks) to the humane manner in which it treats its 1500 dairy cows to its involvement in the community and support for the local economy, Prairieland Dairy strives to embody the core tenets of sustainable agriculture. Prairieland’s commitment to use sustainable methods and practices on its fourth generation dairy operation in Firth, Nebraska began in 1998 and since then the farm has never looked back.
“In 1998, we asked ourselves: how is it we can build something that’s going to last into the future and be around for the next generation and beyond,” said Terry Landes, Marketing and Public Relations Manager at Prairieland Dairy. Prairieland Dairy answered this question by taking steps to implement environmental, economic and social initiatives to insure the sustainability of the farm for future generations. “We did it because it was the right thing to do, not because it was the current buzzword.”
Prairieland Dairy’s efforts to promote environmental sustainability can be seen in the use of its zero-waste philosophy when it comes to water, compostable waste products from cows and the surrounding community, and even crop byproducts supplied by local farmers.
According to Landes, every gallon of water used on the farm is reused a total of four times. Even the lagoon water in which barn waste is disposed is filtered for use in the barn’s flushing system.
Prairieland encourages and solicits residents and businesses in the city and surrounding township to send their compostable waste products to the farm for processing. The farm runs a commercial grade composting operation that takes the compostable waste products contributed by the community and combines it with the solid waste product from its cows to create commercial grade compost with no scent or appearance of its previous state. It then turns around and sells the composted product to the public as potting soil through Earl May stores. “It grows amazing tomatoes by the way,” said Landes. Additionally, Prairieland uses waste byproducts sourced from local food processors, including leftover cereal mix and spent brewer’s grain from a nearby microbrewery, to incorporate into the feed that its cows consume.
The farm’s environmental sustainability efforts also extend to the recyclable corn-based plastic packaging that its milk products come in. Prairieland also plans to implement a methane digester on the farm to convert cow waste into energy to power its operations. Landes said every byproduct in this operation goes to good. “Our goal is responsible management of resources and we believe that if you manage resources as responsibly as possible, then you’re being sustainable,” he said.
According to Landes, social acceptance from the community through animal welfare efforts is priority number one at Prairieland Dairy. “Our gateway into sustainability was to be proactive with the community and ask our neighbors how they felt about dairy farms,” said Landes. When Prairieland opted to place its cows in barns instead of in pasture, it made sure to reach out to the community to address concerns and clearly communicate that placing the cows in a barn was more sustainable and in the best interests of the animals. “A commitment to animal welfare has always been a part of what we do and how the community perceives what we’re doing is very important.”
As Nebraska temperatures are extremely cold in winter and scorching hot during the summer months, Prairieland designed its barns to reduce the heat and cold stresses that its cows would face if they were in pasture. For example, the farm’s open-air barn structures help create airflow that is beneficial to the cows in the hot and humid Nebraska summer. The barns also have fans and a sprinkler system that help to keep their residents cool.
Another way in which Prairieland Dairy insures the welfare of its animals is by using a unique flushing system to clean out the barns on a daily basis. Here’s how it works: Four large tanks of water are located throughout the barn and when the cows leave to go get milked, the tanks empty and gravity helps to flush the water down through the barn to rinse the floor. The water and the sand, used as comfortable bedding for the cows, go outside to an area where the sand is drained of all liquid and solid waste products. The sand is piled above the area where the liquid is drained to go to the lagoon to be filtered and used again. As the sand is drained, the high temperatures reached in the sand piles kill many bacteria. The sand is then reused as clean bedding in the barns.
Prairieland’s cows are also given no artificial growth hormones or antibiotics, provided with round the clock veterinary care, and provided fresh feed and bottle quality water 24 – 7.
Supporting the Local Economy
Prairieland makes a point of supporting the local economy in its operations by purchasing over 95% of its supplies from within a 60-mile radius of the farm and by hiring from the local community.
Insuring that the Farm is Part of the Community
Prairieland puts forth great effort to raise awareness about the connection between the food it produces, the agricultural practices that it employs, and how its operations benefit the surrounding community. For the past eight years, the dairy has hosted an open house event for the community, called Prairieland Dairy Day, in which the community is invited to learn more about the dairy and the sustainable farming practices that it employs. Last year, over 15,000 people attended to tour the dairy and learn about its operations and Landes said he expects 30,000 people this year.
So if you’re in the area on Saturday, June 24th and want to sample some cotton candy flavored milk and learn more about how a sustainable dairy operation works, you should definitely stop by.