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Dairy Farms and the Environment

September 2014

Most dairy farmers live on or near the land they farm, so it’s important to them to protect the soil, water and air for their families, surrounding communities and future generations. Environmental practices on all dairy farms are tightly regulated by federal and state agencies. While requirements vary from state to state, most dairy farmers consistently meet or exceed these standards.

Many dairy farms work with experts to find new ways care for the land, air and water — it is a responsibility dairy farmers share with the local community.

Water Conservation

  • Dairy farmers use water responsibly and often recycle it to use on their crops or to clean their milking parlors and barns. For example, wastewater is recycled to flush feed alleys and irrigate fields.
  • One benefit of fertilizing the soil with cow manure is water conservation. When manure is used to treat soil, its water-holding capacity increases by 20 percent, reducing the amount of groundwater needed to grow crops.

Nutrient Management

  • Larger-scale dairy farms are required to follow detailed manure recycling plans. These plans are continually updated to reflect new technologies.
  • Every farm must abide by clean water laws. Farmers protect the water on and near their farms through a variety of practices to minimize potential runoff from their operations.
  • Manure is spread on crop fields according to detailed nutrient management plans. These plans take into account the types of soil on the farm, the terrain of the fields, soil moisture levels, and the amount of nutrients the next crop on that field will need.
  • The federal government offers incentives to help dairy farmers protect water supplies. For example, many farmers receive technical assistance when they upgrade their irrigation systems and manure storage facilities.
  • New methane digester technology on some dairies converts manure into methane-rich biogas, a renewable fuel that can be used to generate electricity. Farms employing this technology may generate more than enough electricity to run their operations, and they can sell excess energy back to the local utility.

Air Quality

  • Dairy farmers help protect air quality by following proper manure storage practices and by maintaining clean farms.
  • Dairy farmers invest in new technologies to protect and improve air quality. University researchers and industry experts continually work with dairy farmers to identify new ways to control odor.

Farm Management Practices

  • Pesticides are used in farming to kill pests and control weeds and fungus that may grow on crops. Many dairy farmers reduce the use of conventional pesticides through integrated pest management (IPM) programs that combine various techniques to keep flies and other pests at bay.
  • Pests can be more prevalent at different times of the year
  • While all farmers use certain fuels, oils, gasses, paints, solvents and degreasers to maintain everyday farm operations, they work hard to properly store, apply and dispose of these materials.

Dairy Farm Expansion

  • Protecting the environment has more to do with proper management practices than the number of cows on the farm. Dairy farms both large and small consistently meet state and federal standards and work to minimize any impact their operations may have on the environment.
  • Many dairy farmers, like other business owners, are modernizing and improving their efficiency to better support their families and communities while meeting increasing consumer demand for dairy products.
  • Of the 51,000 dairy farms in America today, most are small farms with less than 200 cows. The vast majority of U.S. farms – whether large or small – are family owned and operated.

For more information or technical reference materials, contact National Milk Producers Federation (www.nmpf.org) or Dairy Management, Inc. (www.dairyfarmingtoday.org).