Dairy producers in Idaho and Utah are hungry for answers as they consider the viability of technology and other practices to achieve the industry’s 2050 goal to be greenhouse gas neutral or better. That is why Dairy West and Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA) offer peer-to-peer learning opportunities for Idaho and Utah dairy producers. In 2022, nine farmers traveled to Royal Dairy in Royal City, Washington, and Fair Oaks Farms in Fair Oaks, Indiana, to explore the measures these dairies are taking to achieve net zero.

Schmitt jessica
Integrated Communications Coordinator / Dairy West

“As our dairymen are looking at the future of their farms, we have to figure out what is logistically viable for our region and our climate,” says Marissa Watson, vice president of sustainability at Dairy West.

Visits to Royal Dairy and Fair Oaks Farms

Financial investment and public opinion have placed additional pressure on dairy farmers to quickly find solutions to achieve net zero. To find profitable and logistically feasible solutions for farmers, Dairy West and IDA have connected dairy producers with others in their field who are leading the way. Royal Dairy uses a vermiculture system called BioFiltro, which reduces nitrogen, phosphorus and suspended solids. In this process, worms separate manure into organic fertilizer and irrigation-grade water.

Fair Oaks Farms generates sterile manure solids and clean water through Sedron Technologies’ Varcor system. This technology is based on mechanical vapor recompression, which separates manure’s components to produce water, aqueous ammonia and dry solids.

While Royal Dairy and Fair Oaks Farms have two different systems, both manage nutrients and provide an additional revenue source while also offering a solution to the industry’s net zero goals.  


Producers’ perspectives

Three Idaho dairy farmers – Lael Schoessler Jr., Alan Branch and Matt Nelsen – attended these tours and feel the weight to implement sustainability practices. First and foremost, farmers are concerned with how sustainability will be assessed.

“The number one thing I need to know about the 2050 goal is how it is going to be measured,” says Schoessler, a second-generation dairy farmer.

Schoessler milks 3,500 head of Holsteins and Jerseys across three locations. With multiple dairies, he is concerned about labor efficiency and the functionality of implementing sustainability practices.

Recently, Schoessler entered into an agreement with Rabobank to feed Agolin in his rations. The supplement optimizes feed intake, which reduces enteric methane emissions and generates carbon credits. Through this partnership, Schoessler receives a stipend based on each cow’s production and intake, and in return, Rabobank receives the carbon credit.   

Schoessler explains that the agreement began April 1, and he supplies Rabobank with the cows’ milking and consumption metrics. In return, Rabobank analyses the data to figure the appropriate amount of supplement. He sees the benefit of sharing his data to ensure that his business stays competitive in the future.

In addition to this partnership, Schoessler is considering a new corn variety that is more digestible for cattle. Enogen corn results in more energy for the cows which enhances milk production and decreases feed cost.

As he considers other sustainability practices to implement on his farm, he wonders how scalable technologies are for small to mid-sized dairies.

“I’m always open to new ideas,” Schoessler says. “I am not someone who does things because that’s how we’ve always done it.”

After attending the tours, Schoessler admits that moving all of his livestock to one location may be necessary to make any technology feasible. He also recognizes the promise within new advancements. 

“If you can run your manure through a system that creates solid stack nutrients and potable water, that changes things from a water and waste nutrient management standpoint,” Schoessler says. “If you can get manure down to commercial fertilizer, there are no limits at that point.”

Regardless of how a dairy farmer chooses to tackle the Net Zero Initiative, the most important aspect is that the farm continues to be profitable.

IDA CEO Rick Naerebout says he believes the greatest opportunity within the industry-wide goal is the potential of supplementary cash flow.

“Without that additional revenue stream, our dairymen cannot afford to employ these solutions and just absorb the expense,” he says. “If the economics don’t stack up, it could be a really good idea but not a feasible solution.”

Nelsen agrees.

“Dairymen need to ask themselves, ‘How does this make my business better and stronger?’” he advises.

Sustainability is not a short-term topic, Naerebout adds.

“Whether or not we like sustainability, it’s not something we can avoid,” he says.

“Does the goalpost keep moving?” Branch asks.

He expressed uneasiness that the 2050 goal is the first milestone of many. Currently, Branch milks 1,000 cows while maintaining a cow-calf operation, managing a feedlot and producing all needed forage in Idaho’s Magic Valley. He cover crops and uses manure separation technology on his farm. Yet, if he does not act soon, Branch fears he may fall behind.

“There’s more oversight and public opinion than ever before,” he says. “We’re under a magnifying glass. Farmers are price-and-opinion takers.”

As Branch moves through the sustainability conversation, he wants to ensure that he can provide for his family, his employees and his employees’ families.

Branch says he believes that hearing other farmers’ successes and challenges is vital for his journey.

“I try to learn whenever given the offer,” he says.

Dairying close by, Nelsen manages a larger operation that has already implemented several sustainability solutions. Nelsen oversees a 16,000-cow dairy with four anaerobic digesters and two covered lagoon digesters. Even with these advancements, he says his farm does not want to become complacent and cannot afford to stop progressing.

The dairy uses a variety of cover crops, and they are currently researching feed additives.

“We are extremely proud of what we have done so far but are always looking and exploring other opportunities,” Nelsen says.

At Oak Valley Dairy, cows are housed in a combination of facilities, including cross-vent, freestall and hybrid pressurized freestall systems. The cattle are milked in two rotary parlors and a double-60 parallel parlor.

With progress in place and more on the horizon, Nelsen shares that the best insights come from other dairy farmers.

“It’s a fresh perspective of a new way to achieve the same goal,” Nelsen says after touring Royal Dairy. “We should evaluate what we are doing today and how it could be done better.”

Progress, not perfection

The technologies seen on these visits are not meant to serve as definitive solutions for dairy farmers but as potential tools. One dairy’s solution may not be practical for all when considering varying geographies and the uniqueness of each operation.

Nelsen says he believes it is important for farmers to fully understand the opportunities that exist for their individual operations and engage in conversations across the industry.

“The most important thing is to fully understand the opportunities that are available for your business,” Nelsen says. “The second is to find people you trust and take the time to understand your operation to fully leverage your potential.”

Compared to other parts of the nation, Western dairies tend to have larger herd sizes and outdoor facilities. In Idaho, the average herd size is above 1,500 head and ranges between less than 100 cows to more than 20,000. Most operations house their cattle on drylots because there is less rainfall to manage.

Considering the varying weather and farm management practices, what works for Royal Dairy and Fair Oaks Farms may not be practical for all dairies in the West. The farmers who participated in the trips may be able to implement certain aspects of the methods they observed, but more than likely, it will not be completely replicable.

When reflecting on the farm visits and the time he spent talking to other dairymen, Branch shares that it made him feel like he is not alone.

“Everyone is trying to do the best they can, and our paths may be different,” he says.