For Farmers, Sustainability is a Way of Life

October 03, 2014

From our From the Tractor series in Food, Nutrition & Science.

by guest columnist Janet Bremer

I feel confident we have all heard of the three R's of the environment: reduce, reuse, and recycle. For example, I take my reusable shopping bags to the store rather than use paper or plastic, and my family uses cloth napkins rather than paper napkins, and we make a concentrated effort to fill our recycling bin rather than our trash bin. But, as you know, there’s more to conserving the environment than this. We as dairy farmers know that consumers, just like us, are increasingly considering sustainability when making food choices for their family. 

What does sustainability mean? Sustainability could be defined as an ability or capacity of something to be maintained or to sustain itself. It’s about taking what we need to live now, without jeopardizing the potential for people in the future to meet their needs. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to a healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.” With the ever-increasing population and the diminishing of natural resources, dairy farmers recognize the importance of producing safe, nutrient rich dairy foods efficiently and responsibly. 

It’s not just more food that is needed, but nutrient-rich food. Milk, cheese and yogurt are an important part of nutrients in our diet. Dairy provides us with more than half of the total calcium and vitamin D, about one fourth of the total vitamin A, vitamin B12, and riboflavin, and nearly one fifth (18%) of total protein. 

Dairy farmers, and consumers, know we have a great tasting, nutritious, and safe product, but how are we doing on sustainability? Compared to 1944, the United States dairy industry now produces a gallon of milk using 90% less land, 65% less water, 75% less manure and a 63% smaller carbon footprint. These improvements are attributed to cow health and nutrition, cow housing, renewable resources, and energy efficiency efforts. These improvements benefit all of us. Our goal is to attain healthy people, healthy communities and a healthy planet.

So what have we at Bremer Farms done, and continue to do, to produce wholesome, nutrient-rich dairy foods in an environmentally responsible way?

Comfortable cows produce more high quality milk. We keep our cows as comfortable as possible. Our cows have the freedom to move about our well-ventilated barns, which provide them with plenty of fresh air, but still protect them from wind, rain and our cold Minnesota winters.

Our cows have free access to food and water at all times, day and night. Yes, our animal feed does contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This biotechnology is found in most of the corn we plant to feed our cows. This allows us to grow more crops using the same amount of land, water and other natural resources since we care about and respect our land. We follow strict rules in regard to the amount of GMOs we can plant. The United States Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration have all confirmed the safety of food and animal feed containing GMOs. 

A comfortable cow is a clean cow. Each day we “change the sheets”. I'm talking about our cows bedding. Our goal is to "change their sheets" frequently so our cows are clean and dry, which helps to keep them healthy. We provide our animals with comfortable beds to encourage resting so they can concentrate on producing the milk we love. 

Along with using straw (the stalk of the oat plant) for bedding, we also use corn stalks. This is what is left in the field after the corn is removed. The stalks do well at absorbing moisture and they are readily available. Even after baling the corn stalks to use for bedding, this process still leaves behind plenty of crop residue in the fields to protect and enhance the soil. The residue provides cover which aides in preventing erosion and adds to the soil's organic matter. And when the "sheets" get soiled, the mix of stalks and manure is returned to the field. 

That brings me to the topic of poop, or what we call manure. Manure is another way that we recycle. So here is the scoop on poop. A cow will eat 30 to 50 pounds of food each day. She then poops about 10 times a day. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on average, a full-grown cow produces approximately 120 to 148 lbs. of manure per day. Now on to the bigger question, "What do you do with all the doo-doo?" The manure is removed every day. We recycle the cow manure and use it as a fertilizer for crops. The manure helps the fields get back the important nutrients needed to maintain soil fertility and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizer. By returning most nutrients from their feed back to the land, dairy cows create an efficient nutrient cycle. The manure from one cow has enough nutrients to grow 56 pounds of corn. This recycling of nutrients helps make producing crops more sustainable. Federal, state and local clean water laws regulate how manure is applied on cropland, so nutrients are absorbed by crops, not groundwater. 

Did you know dairy cows drink about a bathtub of water each day? We at Bremer Farms recycle water too. One of the ways we do this is by reducing energy and reusing water through the use of a plate cooler. So how does it work and why is it good for the environment? When milk leaves the cow it is a warm 101 degrees F. It needs to quickly cool to 40 degrees and a plate cooler helps with this. After the milk leaves the cow it travels from the milking machine through stainless steel pipes to the cooling tank. It is never touched by human hands. Along the way, before reaching the cooling (bulk) tank, it goes through the plate cooler. The milk enters the cooler and stays enclosed in these pipes but winds its way through this cooling system, which has cold water cooling these pipes, therefore cooling the milk that is safely inside the pipes. The milk then moves on to the bulk milk tank. What about the water that was used for cooling the milk? That water is piped to a tank in our cow yard where the cows enjoy a clean, fresh drink of water that was just used to cool the fresh milk they produced. Since the cooling process begins in the plate cooler, this reduces our electricity used by the bulk milk tank to cool the milk. The water serves double duty by helping to cool the fresh milk and then moves on to supply the cows with the necessary water needed to produce more milk. 

Energy is precious and how we handle it can impact our farm, our community and our planet. Dairy farmers are cutting costs and saving energy on lighting, refrigeration, and water heating and cooling. We even use a low-temperature detergent, which cuts our water heating costs. All of this is done, while continuing to produce a safe, healthy product for you and I to enjoy. You may have heard the phrase, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” We believe these small steps add up to make a big difference.

We, at Bremer Farms feel a personal responsibility to protecting the environment. We believe that a healthy body and a healthy environment go hand in hand. Farmers are steadily doing more with less to be good stewards of the earth. It is our duty, through good citizenship, to continue to make changes on our dairy farm to reach our goal of improved sustainability.  

I invite you to follow our journey to improve and protect our environment by learning, from a farmer, what we do on our farm to bring our dairy foods to you. Please visit my blog, or follow me on Twitter @mybarnyardview, or on Pinterest/mybarnyardview. I encourage you to ask questions to learn more about what we do each day. My family and I live by the motto, “leave this world a little better than you found it”. We became farmers because of our love for our land and animals. What better way to show this love than to respect our natural resources? 

When it comes to sustainability, we are all in this together. My family and I will continue to bring our reusable shopping bags to the store. We will still use cloth napkins. Filling our recycling bins rather than our trash cans will always be a concern to us. But as dairy farmers we have also made a commitment to contribute to making the world more sustainable through our farming practices and our cow care.

Janet Bremer dairy farms with her husband John, children Sara and Michael, and John’s parents on their 270-acre farm in Hastings, Minnesota.

From the Farmer’s Tractor is an editorial column written by farmers in their own words about issues that matter to them. If you are a farmer interested in sharing your views on farming and the food industry, please contact