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Dairy Defined Podcast: Sustainability, in All Its Forms, Key to Dairy’s Future, Vold Says

October 12, 2020

On National Farmer’s Day, dairy farmer Suzanne Vold is highlighting dairy’s commitments to the environment and a net-zero future, noting that her colleagues are already effective stewards and are committed to doing more.

“We need to work with our partners in government. We need to work with partners in academia, dairy science departments, and agronomy departments and our colleges and universities. And we need to work with our cooperatives, the companies that process our milk into products to sell,” said Vold in the latest Dairy Defined podcast, released today. “But we have to start the work somewhere, and we have to start the work now.”

Vold, with her husband, brother-in-law and two part-time employees, runs Dorrich Dairy, a 400-cow, fourth-generation dairy farm in western Minnesota. In the podcast, she also discusses specific practices on her farm that save money and create potential revenues as well as improve water and soil health – as well as the importance of other initiatives important to dairy and agriculture, from the Dairy Margin Coverage program to rural broadband.

The full podcast is here. You can also find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify,  SoundCloud and Google Play. Broadcast outlets may use the MP3 file. Please attribute information to NMPF.

Transcript

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined Podcast. Dairy farmers wear many hats. They’re animal health experts, agronomists, business managers, and importantly, environmental stewards. Suzanne Vold is a dairy farmer and a member owner of Land O’Lakes Inc. Together with her husband, brother-in-law and two part-time employees, she runs Dorrich Dairy, a 400 cow robotic farm. After getting her MBA, Suzanne worked in corporate finance before making a major career and life change and moving to western Minnesota, where she’s been a dairy farmer for the past 25 years. Dorrich Dairy has been in business for four generations, but it’s investments in technology and its adjustments based on science puts it at the forefront of environmental and economic sustainability. Thank you for joining us, Suzanne.

Suzanne Vold: Thank you, Theresa. I’m glad to be here.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy: So tell us a little bit about your farm and a bit about how the way you farm reflects your values.

Suzanne Vold: Well, I will say thank you for that wonderful introduction. I don’t know that I can live up to it. But I also should say that in addition to our two part-time employees, my three children certainly work on the farm and more so since COVID. I’ve got a daughter who’s a junior in college, a son who’s a junior in high school and a daughter who’s an eighth grader and they have all been invaluable to us. Our farm has been in business as a dairy since 1899. As you mentioned, my husband and I are the fourth generation. And if any of our children or nieces or nephews choose to, they’d be the fifth generation to be involved.

But our goal is to be there to give them that choice. Our family developed five value statements some time ago and they have really stuck with us through thick and through thin. We say that we do common things uncommonly well, and that’s a quote from Henry Ford for any of you who know that. We promote agriculture through education. We do a lot of tours on our farm or at least we did before COVID. We hope to get afterwards. We surround ourselves with great people. As dairy farmers, you mentioned, we wear a lot of hats. But there’s no way that we can know it all. So we need consultants from every sector of our business to help us do the very best job we can.

And we also say that we want to leave it better than when we came. That’s our environmental statement and we can talk more about that later. But it all comes down to the fifth one, which is doing the right thing. And when we ever have any decisions that we are looking at short-term or long-term, it really comes back to those five things for us.

We’re milking 400 cows. We have almost 500 on site if you include dry cows and springing heifers. We farm about 550 acres of mostly corn for corn silage, alfalfa that we harvest as baleage, soybeans, winter rye that we use as a cover crop and sometimes wheat, although that didn’t work out so well for us this year. But we mostly do that for the straw value as well. All of our feed that we raise goes into our animals, into forages mostly as you heard. And we really are trying to make sure that our children have the opportunity to choose dairy farming as an occupation if they so wish.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy: As you well know, sustainability is a big topic. It’s difficult to define it. It’s becoming even more important at all levels of the food supply chain. Earlier this year, the U.S. Dairy Industry set an ambitious goal to achieve neutral or better carbon emissions by 2050. What does this commitment mean to you on your farm?

Suzanne Vold: One of our value statements is leaving it better than when we came and really that covers it for sustainability for us. We have to remember farmers are in it for the really long haul. Unlike my former career, which dealt with Wall Street a lot and looked from quarter to quarter at financial performance. Farmers not only look from year to year or decade to decade, but we look from generation, to generation, to generation. So we’re in it for the really long haul. And because we live where we work, we want to make sure that everything is good for our family, as well as good for our entire communities. And I think that that’s something that farmers certainly understand that. People who like yourself who work with farmers understand that. But not everyone does and we want to make sure that people know when we make decisions we are considering the really long haul. That’s what sustainability means to me.

The net zero initiative, our aspirational goal is to be net zero as an industry by 2050. But the three parts of that, that I think are very important are groundwork, Dairy Scale for Good and collective impact. Groundwork is the data collection. We can’t prove that we’re net zero unless we have a baseline. Part of that is the life cycle assessment that was done that showed how much we had reduced our use of water energy, all those things, from the 1940s to 2009 and then looking again from 2009 to 2017. The people at DMI who work on data are our researchers, our statisticians, they’re so smart. They know how to do this and they can put together the data to show the good things we’re already doing.

The second part of the puzzle is Dairy Scale for Good. This is where we want to take the latest and greatest technology that will help achieve carbon neutrality or net zero for dairy farms. Put all of these things on a few sample farms, a few test farms and prove with data that it works. Right now the challenge is that some of these new technologies only work on very large scale farms. One of them, I think there’s only two on farms in the United States, will actually separate what comes out of your manure and make aqueous ammonia that can be used as fertilizer and potable water, as well as having things run through a digester to create electricity for the farm. But again, it’s like the computer that was the size of a room in 1950 and now in 2020, the computer is smaller than the palm of your hand.

Same thing with cell phones. They used to be a suitcase that you carried around and I know that dates me for some of you, but it does. And now, again, they’re the palm of our hand. The technologies are cutting edge and some of them have not been tested very often yet. But we want to make sure that we can prove that they work. So we’re trying to get a half a dozen farms all over the country. So we have different climates, different soil types, different dairy types to make sure that we can prove that they work.

The third piece of the puzzle is called collective impact. The things that we are already doing on dairy farms. No tillage, cover crops, recycling our manure, recycling our water, cooling our milk using a plate cooler and the water from the earth to take heat out of the milk, instead of using electricity in our bulk tanks to do it. We have to say, how can we spread that technology? How can we get technical, financial and educational support for these technologies to spread them to even more farms?

We need to work with our partners in government. We need to work with partners in academia, dairy science departments, and agronomy departments and our colleges and universities. And we need to work with our cooperatives, the companies that process our milk into products to sell, to make sure that we can spread these technologies as far and as wide as we can. So together those three things will get us to net zero and I believe they’ll get us to net zero well before 2050. But we have to start the work somewhere and we have to start the work now.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy: You also serve as an environmental stewardship committee member for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Can you talk about what this initiative means for the industry as a whole?

Suzanne Vold: It’s a bold step, but dairy has been leading the way in sustainability for a long time. The committee that I serve on for the U.S. Center for Dairy Innovation now is called Environmental Stewardship. It used to be called Sustainability. But as you know, sustainability is a word that morphs and changes and it’s a little bit hard to define. Environmental Stewardship, excuse me, seemed to make better sense because there are other aspects of the Innovation Center, such as the Sustainable Nutrition Committee that focus on things getting that nutrition into children, into people. Because dairy packs a powerful nutritious punch with all the nine vitamins and nutrients that it has in it. And we know that it goes a long way towards fulfilling our daily requirements as human beings. But that’s different then taking care of our land, air and water natural resources, which is what my committee focuses on.

I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done. It has been a long process. I want farmers and industry people out there to know that this is not something where we just grabbed a number out of the hat and said, “Yep, by 2050 we’re going to be net zero.” Our committee worked on these goals for over two years and not only did we work on what do we want the end result to be, but how do we want to wordsmith it so that we, as an industry, feel confident that we can achieve this goal. The other thing that people have to remember and farmers especially, is that saying the dairy industry is going to be net zero by 2050 as our aspirational goal does not mean each and every farm may be net zero or each and every processing plant.

But as a whole, we can achieve this goal and I think that, well, if you’ll pardon me for bringing in one of my favorite shows. I’ve been watching Hamilton a lot as we’ve been quarantined here since it’s been on. And I really relate to him because in one song that he is singing in act two to Aaron Burr he said, “You get love for it. You get hate for it. You get nothing if you wait for it.” By setting goals, we’re not waiting for it. We are telling the rest of the world that we dairy are an environmental solution and we are going to proudly say, “We can get there and be part of the answer.”

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy: How does your co-op help you to succeed when you’re pursuing some of these goals on your own farm?

Suzanne Vold: Well, we’re a member of Land O’Lakes and very proud to be so. It is one of the things where wow, in a world of uncertainty that we’ve all been facing this year, having a cooperative backing you is one of the greatest things ever. And I will also say that our CEO, Beth Ford, has been one of the greatest advocates for farmers and we do not take that for granted. We value that very much. We know that our milk has a home to go to. We know that that our co-op values us as producers of their raw material. And we know that we are going to work together. We as a cooperative, to make sure that that product gets into the hands of people who need it, especially during these crisis times.

As far as sustainability goes, we have an area of our co-op in Land O’Lakes, that’s called Conservation Dairy that works with each and every farm. We were one of the first co-ops to mandate participation in the FARM program, as you probably know back in the day. And we also said that our producers are all going to be part of the FARMES, the Farm Environmental Stewardship Module as well. So that we’re going to not only monitor what our Land O’Lakes farms are doing from an environmental stewardship standpoint, but our co-op is helping us to find ways that we can improve. Some of them are small ways, changing lights to LED lights. Some of them are larger ways that are more capital intense that require planning, that require cost sharing possibly from government, things like equip. Working on ways that we, as co-op members, can work together to move our entire system, our entire Land O’Lakes system towards that net zero goal.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy:

Sustainability goals go hand in hand with economic opportunities for dairy farmers. How does net zero benefit farmers?

Suzanne Vold: If you are looking at the 10,000-foot view, it’s easy to see. If you have your blinders on and you’re only looking at today it’s hard to see because it does mean that we have to make some investments. It does mean that we have to consider alternatives. Some of the things that we’re all doing on our farms are already very environmentally sustainable. Some of the things we have opportunities to change. But we need to look at it from that 10,000 foot view. So we need to say as a whole, “How is our dairy industry doing? How can I be a small part of making that change to go forward?” And we also have to look at it from our customer’s point of view and not just my neighbor who’s going to the store to buy a gallon of milk. But my customer might be Walmart or Nestle, who is making a global purchasing decision and has to say, “We have consumers who buy our products who want to know that we are supporting environmental stewardship, that we’re supporting sustainability, and we have to be able to answer to them as well.” So it really is a wide angle lens, a long-term view. And we have to know that the world is changing and we have to continue to change with it.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy: Tell us a story about how this has all worked.

Suzanne Vold: One of the things that we’ve done on our farm back in 2015, back in the day, we won a sustainability award from the innovation center. And part of it was for our IPM program, or Integrated Pest Management, and this was something that our co-op had worked with us on the application for. We had been doing these practices since 2009 and didn’t really think that much of them at this point because it was already kind of standard for us. But we changed our pest management or our fly control if you will, to using biological predators. So we use tiny little wasps that full grown are just a fraction of the size of the nail on your pinky finger.

And they’re stingless wasps. But these wasps that we put out as eggs in the warm, wet places in our barn and around our facility, around our manure pit, around our feeding area, they eat fly eggs. They eat fly larva. So the flies don’t have a chance to grow. It really has cut down on the flies on our farm, but we also know that we need to use that with a fly repellent system. And in our barn we use an organic based system. It’s a chrysanthemum based product. It’s a system that we use. We cut our fly control costs dramatically, and our cows are more comfortable. That’s the main thing. And these systems work in tandem with the ventilation in our barn. So when we’ve got fans going in the summer, flies have a harder time sitting down and biting a cow, which makes them more comfortable, which produces a better quality product for our farm.

So it really is a circle. And in all of this, we rely heavily on the vendors that provide these products, because they have the knowledge. The company that supplies the wasp eggs to us out of Texas, wow. Entomologist doesn’t even describe what this company knows. A few years ago we had more problems in our dry cows in our pasture with some flies earlier than we normally would see and called them up. And they said, “Oh, yes, the migration is different this year.” Flies migrate? I didn’t think they even lived long enough to migrate. But apparently flies migrate just like butterflies might or something like that. And because of the wind patterns that year, the fly migration was different, so they helped us tweak our program. And within a few days, the problem was really mitigated. Just goes back again to surrounding ourselves with great people.

So that’s just an example on our farm. But the good news is all farms are doing things like this to be sustainable. It might be using cover crops. It might be having a digester on a large farm that produces electricity for the farm and surrounding areas. It might be no till practices in your cropping methods. There’s so many different things that farmers are already doing, and we have great stories to tell.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy: And tell us a bit about the robots.

Suzanne Vold: I’m glad you asked Theresa. We have just passed our one-year anniversary for switching to robotic milking and wow. What a year it has been. It is the biggest single change our farm has made since, well in the 25 years that I’ve been part of it. But I would never go back. I think our cows are healthier. Our product is better. Family life, now that we’ve gotten through the first year, is much better. We have more flexibility. But the most important part for me is the cows. I see so much improvement in cow comfort, in health, all those kinds of things.

Now saying that, the first three months, well, it’s a word I can’t say on a live broadcast and other people that have converted to robots certainly told us this. We heard from many farmers, it’s going to be awful, but you have to go through it. There’s really no way to describe it. We even went to other farms on their startup weeks to see what was going to happen. But as I told many cows during our first week, the only way out is through and that works for robots as well as people. So the only way out is through. Teaching a herd of cows an entirely new way to live is, that’s a process we’ll just say.

But the great thing is we have so much data, so much more data about our animals right now. We’re still learning to use it and our startup team, they’re there whenever we need technical support. But they also get together with us monthly and just say, “All right, now let’s look at this other piece of data.” They gave us as much as we could handle at a time during those first three to six months and I really appreciate that because, well, there was only so much we could handle the first month or so. I think it’s really amazing how technology can help us as farmers do the best that we can for our animals.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy: Switching gears, 2021 sign up for the USDA’s Dairy Margin Coverage Program opens this week.

Suzanne Vold: This is a program that fits into my personal management style. There was a Disney movie called “Chicken Little” a number of years ago and he and his father had to save the alien at the end of the movie. And they went from plan A, to plan B, to plan C, to plan D, to plan E. And I think by the time they got to G or H they had a plan that worked. I like having a lot of plans. I like having A, B, C, and D as choices. I also like having insurance because, well as farmers know, there’s a lot of things in our industry that we cannot control at all, the least of which is weather. The least that we can control. Markets, weather, government, soil conditions, catastrophes like COVID, catastrophes like hail that fall under the weather. Insurance is a necessary part for me.

So, having backup systems in place is in my mind, always a good idea. I know that they cost money, but they also save you in times of crisis. So for us, DMC was an easy choice to say, “Yep.” We put it in place and we have it there. We also work with a broker. If we have opportunities through a co-op or contract or at sometimes use options to hedge our bets on milk prices. But we like to have as much locked in as we can to create that stability. As everyone in the dairy industry knows it’s the volatility that kills us every time. So the more that we can do using the tools that are available to us, like DMC to help make things more stable or at least give us a game board that we can understand if that makes sense. That those tools are things that I would really encourage everyone to at least look at for their, excuse me, for their own farms.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy:

So, let’s talk for a minute about broadband. Land O’Lakes is leading the American Connection Project Broadband Coalition, an effort to bring high-speed internet access to rural communities like yours. What has broadband access enabled you to do on your farm and why is this issue important to dairy?

Suzanne Vold:

Broadband internet access has become a necessary part of our lives. Okay? And in rural communities, as most farmers know, gosh our cellphone connections were spotty for years. Now we’ve mostly got areas that are fairly well connected by cellphone, but there are an awful lot of us who still have very intermittent connection, if any, high speed internet connections in our small communities. And it’s really encouraging and inspiring to have my co-op be part of the leadership on this coalition. Not only because they recognize how important it is to their member owners, but also because they recognize how important it is in our changed world after COVID.

And I can give you a couple of examples. First of all, in the equipment on our farm, we have to have a pretty strong internet signal because on our farm we also have a manure compost drum. So basically we take our manure every day, run it through a separator, squeeze all the water out of it, then run it through this compost drum where it looks like a giant Pringles can turned on its side, a long cylinder. And there’s an auger inside. The compost cooks itself from at about 150 degrees for approximately 24 hours and the bacteria is cooked out of it as compost does. So when it comes out of the compost drum, we reuse it every day for bedding for our stalls for our cows. So we’re recycling our manure each and every day, at least the fibers part of it. And then the liquid part of it, where most of the nutrients are retained, we have a manure holding pit for that, a lagoon. And then we apply that twice a year at agronomic rates to our field as our crop consultant gives us information for based on our soil samples and things like that. But that compost drum runs off Wi-Fi.

So unfortunately for us, our office area is about as far away in the barn building from the compost drum as it could possibly get. So we have something that’s called a repeater, which not being an electrical engineer, that’s all I can tell you about it. But intensifies the signal from our Wi-Fi to get it all the way over to that compost drum. So on our farm we had to put in a fairly strong Wi-Fi system. But in the neighborhood around us, it’s not that great. So now while we’ve got … our high school is in a hybrid system. So the kids are in school two days a week and at home three days a week, so that there’s only 50% of the students in the school at a time. And this is for seven through 12, those kids who are in our area, don’t always have great internet access.

So we have some students that come to our farm and use our lunchroom, breakroom area as their classroom, because we’ve got steady, reliable internet that they can use to log into their classes. I know that our cooperative Land O’Lakes has done a similar thing with some of their AG retailers, where they will open up their Wi-Fi system for certain hours of the day and they will let people come to their parking lots basically and use their Wi-Fi to get work done, to get classes done, all those kinds of things, which is great. But, can’t last forever and we don’t know how long our online school system is going to be. The other thing I can tell you is that at home, we’re fortunate enough to have a fairly good internet connection here. But I’ve got three students in the house. If we’ve got more than three people streaming at one time, whether that’s Netflix or an actual class, our internet doesn’t work so well either. So we know that there have to be changes in our entire system to make things work, to make schools work, to make communications, to make meetings like we’re doing right now work.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy:

Broadband DMC and the environment all add up to one word, sustainability. How do they all connect?

Suzanne Vold:

Well a lot people have said before, and I think I mentioned it earlier, sustainability is a word that’s morphing and changing as we go. But I think one of the easiest ways to think about it is a three-legged stool. Okay? And in milking operations, farmers used to sit on a three-legged stool and if one leg was broken, it didn’t support your weight. Those three legs for sustainability are social or a community leg. It has to, whatever it is, has to support your community. Economic, because we know that if a practice isn’t economically sustainable, then the business that’s doing that practice is not going to be in business. It’s by definition, not going to be sustainable.

And then it has to sustain our environment, the things around us. Again, water, air, land. All of those resources that we know as farmers are crucial to the longevity of our business. But they have to work in tandem with each other. If you have two of the three, your stool is still going to fall over. Broadband is a part of that because the connection part of it is so important these days. Working with new practices to help in our environmental stewardship is also very important. And also monitoring is important, as well as being economically viable. It has to be something that we as farmers can continue to do and continue to stay in business.

Theresa Sweeney-Murphy:

Thanks again for joining us. That’s it for today’s podcast. For more information on the topics discussed today, including the net zero initiative, USDA’s Dairy Margin Coverage Program and the American Connection Project visit our website, www.nmpf.org. And here’s something else to look out for, the Dairy Defined Podcast. It’s part of our sharing our story page at an NMPF. You can hunt for that off of the news pull down menu on our homepage, or you can make it easy on yourself by subscribing. We’re on Apple Podcast, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Google Play. We’ll talk again soon.