3 myths debunked: Animal agriculture’s real impact on the environment

3 myths debunked: Animal agriculture’s real impact on the environment

The way the public and the media perceive animal agriculture’s environmental impact can, and should, change. New research from Oxford University and the University of California, Davis have recently debunked some of the most critical and long-standing myths surrounding animal agriculture. But can this breakthrough overcome animal agriculture’s bad reputation?

The current narrative about animal agriculture says that ruminant livestock animals (e.g., beef cattle, dairy cattle, etc.) produce methane. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Thus, animal agriculture is bad for the environment.

During a keynote presentation for the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience, Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor at the University of California, Davis and air quality specialist, boldly proclaimed a path for animal agriculture to become climate-neutral.

Yes, “you heard me right — climate-neutral,” said Dr. Mitloehner. He said he would like to, “get us to a place where we have the impacts of animal agriculture that are not detrimental to our climate.”

Important Greenhouse Gases to Know

Table of important greenhouse gases

3 myths about animal agriculture’s environmental impact debunked

Myth #1: Methane (the most common greenhouse gas, or GHG, in animal agriculture) acts just like other GHGs in the environment.

Fact: The three main greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, all impact the environment in critically different ways, especially as it relates to their source, life span in the atmosphere and global warming potential.

Carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are known as “stock gases.”  Stock gases are long-lived gases and once emitted will continue to build up in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, for example, has an estimated lifespan in the atmosphere of 1,000 years, meaning carbon dioxide emitted from the year 1020 may still be in the atmosphere today. Methane, on the other hand, is a “flow gas.” Flow gases are short-lived gases and are removed from the atmosphere at a more rapid pace. Methane’s lifespan in the atmosphere is approximately 10 years. This means a flow gas like methane would impact the environment for a duration that is nearly 100 times shorter than the stock gas carbon dioxide.

What causes these gases in the first place? Carbon dioxide is created by the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are used as the energy source to power most homes, vehicles and industry globally. As the graph below depicts, Dr. Mitloehner refers to stock gases like carbon dioxide as a “one-way street” because they only accumulate in the environment over time due to their long lifespan.

Stock Gas vs. Flow Gas chart

Methane can be produced in a variety of methods, but most commonly, it’s produced through the rumination process in beef and dairy livestock (i.e., belching). As a short-lived flow gas, “The only time that you really add new additional methane to the atmosphere with the livestock herd is throughout the first 10 years of its existence or if you increase your herd sizes,” explained Dr. Mitloehner. Methane levels do not increase if herd sizes remain constant because methane is being broken down at the same rate it is being produced.

“What I’m saying here by no means (is) that methane doesn’t matter,” he continued. “While that methane is in the atmosphere, it is heat-trapping, it is a potent greenhouse gas. But the question really is, do our livestock herds add to additional methane, meaning additional carbon in the atmosphere, leading to additional warming? And the answer to that question is no. As long as we have constant herds or even decreasing herds, we are not adding additional methane, and hence not additional warming. And what I just said to you is a total change in the narrative around livestock.”

Alternatively, carbon dioxide is created from extracting fossil fuels that are millions of years old and are trapped under the Earth’s surface.

“These long-lived climate pollutants are only emitted,” said Dr. Mitloehner. “They are put into the atmosphere, but there’s no real sink for it in a major way.”

Fossil fuels example diagram

This demonstrates that carbon dioxide and methane are very different types of gases (stock versus flow) and have very different lifespans in the environment (1,000 years versus 10 years), but what about their global warming potential?

 

Myth #2: The current method for assessing the global warming potential (GWP100) of greenhouse gases properly accounts for all important variables.

Fact: The initial method for calculating GWP100 misrepresents the impact of short-lived flow gases, like methane, on future warming. The new “GWP*” is an improved and more representative measurement.

The initial GWP100 measures produced by the Kyoto Protocol nearly 30 years ago marked a very positive step for assessing global warming. The initial documents included many footnotes and caveats to account for variability and unknown values. “But the footnotes were cut off, and people ran with (it),” said Dr. Mitloehner. “And in my opinion, that was a very dangerous situation that has really gotten animal agriculture into a lot of trouble, actually, quite frankly.”

The current GWP100 measurement generates an over-assessment of methane’s contributions to global warming. Currently, in short, GWP100 measurements are all standardized to a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. So, all non-carbon dioxide emissions are converted by multiplying the amount of the emissions of each gas by its global warming potential over 100 years value. Methane has a GWP100 value of 28, meaning it is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, this type of calculation completely omits the fact that flow gases, like methane, are destroyed after approximately 10 years and would not continue for the entire 100-year duration as described in the GWP100 formula. Additionally, it underestimates the impact that stock gases, like carbon dioxide, would have that persist in the environment for 1,000 years.

Dr. Mitloehner cited Dr. Myles Allen from Oxford University as the pioneer of a new calculation called “GWP*.” The new GWP* calculation better accounts for both gas intensity and gas lifespan in the atmosphere in its measurements of global warming. This is a new narrative to explain global warming emissions and, Dr. Mitloehner said, “you will see it will gain momentum, and it will become the new reality” soon.

 

Myth #3: To keep up with increasing demand and global population growth, the United States has continued to increase its numbers of beef and dairy cattle, thus increase methane emissions.

Fact: The United States reached peak beef and dairy cattle numbers in the 1970s and has reduced its number of animals every decade since, resulting in 50 million fewer cattle in total.

Over the last half-century, the United States has made tremendous progress to improve efficiency and increase productivity while also reducing total beef and dairy cattle numbers. For example, in 1950, the U.S. dairy cow herd peaked at 25 million cattle. Today, the dairy herd is approximately 9 million cows, yet it is producing 60% more milk — that’s significantly more milk with 14 million fewer cows!

Though cattle numbers have continued to increase in countries such as India and China, this means the United States has not increased methane output — thus not increasing GHG contributions from livestock — over the last five decades.

 

So, what does all this mean?

Animal agriculture, unlike any other sector, can not only reduce its GHG output, but can also create a net cooling effect on the atmosphere (i.e., actively reduce global warming).

The three scenarios shown below demonstrate the important differences between carbon dioxide and methane, and their ability to generate global cooling. With rising emissions, warming carbon dioxide increases at a growing rate, while methane also increases. With constant emissions, warming from carbon dioxide continues to increase while methane no longer contributes to additional warming.

“But now, the thing that really excites me, and that’s the third scenario,” said Dr. Mitloehner. “So, imagine this scenario here, where we decrease methane by 35%. If we do so, then we actively take carbon out of the atmosphere. And that has a net cooling effect. If we find ways to reduce methane, then we counteract other sectors of societies that do contribute ― and significantly so ― to global warming, such as flying, driving, running air conditioners and so on.”

Rising vs. Constant vs. Falling emissions chart

Examples of Dr. Mitloehner’s 35% reduction scenario have proven to be possible. Over the last five years alone, California has reduced methane emissions by 25% via a combination of improved efficiency and incentives for anaerobic digesters, alternative manure management practices and other technologies.

Though the narrative on animal agriculture has been negative on climate change, there is now increasing hope and new data to debunk even the most long-standing criticisms.

Dr. Mitloehner concluded, “because I know if we can do it here (in California), it can be done in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world. If we indeed achieve such reductions of greenhouse gas, particularly of short-lived greenhouse gases such as methane, then that means that our livestock sector will be on a path for climate neutrality.”


Access on-demand content until May 2021, with new content added monthly. Visit one.alltech.com for more information.

Dr. Mark Lyons & Dr. Frank Mitloehner photo

Dr. Mark Lyons: Unifying for a Planet of Plenty™

Dr. Mark Lyons: Unifying for a Planet of Plenty™

Post-COVID, there will not be a “return to normal.” According to Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech, now, more than ever, we must take a leap of faith and recognize that it is up to us to make positive changes in our “new normal.” COVID-19 presents monumental challenges, but also innovative opportunities, particularly in agriculture.

“We can see that ag is not a problem to be solved, but is a potential solution,” said Dr. Lyons, “and we’ve heard so many examples and so many ideas this week of ways that we can do just that.”

In his closing keynote presentation, Dr. Lyons shared his key takeaways from the launch week of the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience, which features on-demand insights from leading experts in agriculture and beyond. Many of the highlights illustrated Alltech’s Planet of Plenty™ vision of promise, possibility and positivity for the future, which centers on the belief that a world of abundance is achievable, but it will take all of us working together.

Leadership is not a title — it is action

Now is a time for leadership, both at individual companies and in the agriculture industry as a whole. However, we may need to tweak our idea of what makes a great leader.

“Leadership is not a title,” said Dr. Lyons. “Leadership, to me, is an action. You aren’t a leader because you hold a certain position or a certain role. Much as we’ve heard that love is a verb, something active, so is leadership.”

He noted that in a crisis, a leader must exemplify three traits:

1. Decision-making

2. Confidence

3. Trust in their people

There is, however, one important thing that can undermine leadership: ego.

“In a crisis, a leader must put their ego aside,” said Dr. Lyons. “We as leaders must realize that the decisions we are making are impacting so many more people and in much more profound ways during a crisis. In that regard, our personal well-being and our interests must be subjugated to the importance of others’.”

Already, we are seeing many examples of people setting aside their differences, coming together and thinking through challenges creatively. These, Dr. Lyons said, are the teams that will win in a crisis.

We must listen to the experts

An important component of Alltech’s Planet of Plenty vision is the need to listen to our experts, from farmers to scientists to economists, as well as those from many other professions. Even when we do not like the ideas that experts present, it is important that we acknowledge them.

“We need to take the time and energy to understand them and, if we agree, put a little more energy in and make sure we can communicate these ideas to a broader audience,” said Dr. Lyons. “Their insights and their ideas often hold the key to not only those new innovations, but the mere survival, at times, of our industry and our society. Making sure that we are giving time to those experts, I hope, will be a legacy of this time.”

We could be seeing a resurgence in the public’s openness to listening to experts. Their insights could make all the difference in helping us achieve a more abundant world for everyone.

Telling your story, and the story of agriculture, is critical

Trust has become the new currency of our time. Consumers are voting for brands that they trust with their money and their loyalty. Brands that showed up during COVID-19 with a strong focus on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects of their businesses, from treating their employees well to sustainability, will come out ahead.

It is important to tell these often hidden and unrecognized stories of agriculture and to celebrate the unsung heroes who put food on the table for families every day — from dairy operations harnessing cow manure to generate electricity to using insects as a sustainable protein source or farming cattle and trees together.

“You, and the stories you tell, are important,” said Dr. Lyons. “Your legacy is part of this whole story, and part of what is at stake. How and why the world is different because of what you do is an important aspect of that story, and it’s possibly one of the most important things you can do.

“Sharing your story of purpose is such a powerful thing,” he continued, “not simply because it builds the understanding of others, but it also gives them the right to do the same, and to feel empowered and make a change.”

We must unify and take action, today, for the future of agriculture and our planet

“We are on a journey, a journey of sustainability, and we’ve learned this week that this is never a destination,” said Dr. Lyons. “It’s something that we will be constantly changing, as we always have.”

On this journey, the only way that we can move forward is together. Luckily, at this moment of widespread virtual networking, Dr. Lyons believes a democracy has been created and has fostered an ability to connect across all levels and positions, increasing the spread of information and ideas.

The Alltech ONE Virtual Experience illustrates this perfectly, bringing more than 23,000 attendees from 118 countries together, which is roughly seven times the number of attendees previously seen at Alltech’s annual, in-person conference in Lexington, Kentucky.

Coming together as ONE team with many ideas represents the best chance we have to make positive change.

“If we unify and we take action, we can connect with leaders, we can bring about change,” said Dr. Lyons. “If we don’t, we will look at ourselves at this time next year and say that we missed that golden opportunity. What we need right now is that unified action to make sure that we make this difference and provide for this planet in an even better way than we have in the past, and truly create that Planet of Plenty.”

Access on-demand content until May 2021, with new content added monthly. Visit one.alltech.com for more information.

How to improve the future of food and agriculture – Jack Bobo

How to improve the future of food and agriculture – Jack Bobo

“I want us all to imagine that we are in 2050, and we’re looking back on this moment, this day, and we ask ourselves: did we do everything that we could do to make the world the place that we want it to be?”

Jack Bobo, CEO of Futurity, opened his keynote presentation at the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience with a challenging question for the audience. If our mission is for a better future of food and agriculture, what can we do to achieve this? The answer begins with a simple yet effective solution: we need to listen to the narratives surrounding these industries.

“We give meaning to the world around us through the stories that we tell… so today in my presentation, I’d like to talk about three different stories of what food and agriculture means.”

The three stories Bobo focused on were those of:

  1. Conservationists.
  2. Consumers.
  3. Farmers.

These three groups of people have one goal: a plentiful future of food and agriculture. However, these three groups tend to actively work against each other. But why is that?

Starting with conservationists and the planet

In 2018, the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report documented that 60% of wildlife populations on the planet have disappeared between 1970 and 2014. We also know that 20% of the Amazon has disappeared in the last 50 years.

“So, this dramatic loss in biodiversity has occurred within the lifetimes of many of us,” said Bobo. “Biodiversity is undergoing this incredible challenge, and things are not looking good.”

According to these findings, the future will suffer the same trend of degrading biodiversity.

“So, we have this tremendous challenge of not destroying all of our wild spaces,” said Bobo. However, the bigger question is, “How do we make sure that we leave a world for our children that’s as good or better than the one we received?”

Many people wonder: Is agriculture the problem or solution to our conservation struggles? People tend to believe the former, yet Bobo is not convinced.

“But how do we talk about it?” asked Bobo. “What’s the story that we need to tell?”

The stories we hear about biodiversity tell us that:

  1. Of global respondents, 80% believe that poverty has either increased or remained the same over the past 20 years.
  2. The food system is broken, and agriculture is failing the people around us.
  3. All deforestation is due to agriculture.
  4. We do not have the means to feed the rapidly growing population.

The stories we need to tell about biodiversity are that:

  1. Statistically, there is less poverty than there was 20 years ago — “Yet the public,” said Bobo, “think things are getting worse.”
  2. We are producing more food on the same amount of land than we were 50–60 years ago — “This is important,” said Bobo. “If food production stays ahead of population growth, well, that means people become better fed, they rise out of poverty, nutrition and hunger disease.”
  3. Better productivity and higher yields mean more food is being produced due to higher efficiency — “Improved productivity has saved a billion hectares of forest around the world. So more than a quarter of all the forest — nearly a third of all the forest — would be gone today without productivity increases.”
  4. The rate of population growth was at its highest in 1968 when we were growing at 2.1% per year. However, today we are growing at about 1% per year. As we continue to project toward the future, that number will keep going down. Because population growth will slow dramatically but, “if that productivity was to continue, every day after 2050, it gets easier to feed the world,” said Bobo.

“And so, I want to look at this question of sustainability, and how it impacts the stories we tell about the world we live in,” explained Bobo.

Diving into sustainability with consumers

Bobo says that sustainability is not a destination — it is a journey. However, sustainability means different things to different people. Is it organic food? Regenerative agriculture? GMOs? Consumers, in particular, seem the most concerned about sustainability in agriculture.

The stories we hear about sustainability are that:

  1. Farmers need to use less fertilizer and insecticide in order to reduce run-off into the local environment.
  2. We need to farm organically.
  3. Europe has pushed to intensive agriculture and is reducing the amount of fertilizer they use and the size of their farms. This should be a global initiative.

The stories we need to tell about sustainability are that:

  1. It is a challenge for farmers to use less insecticide and fertilizer because it means that they will probably produce less food — “If you produce less food on that farm, that means you’re going to need more farms,” explained Bobo.
  2. Organic agriculture produces 20–30% less food. If the whole world farmed organically, we would need to dedicate another 20­–30% to farms, and 40% of all the land on earth is already allocated to agriculture. This would have a devastating impact, according to Bobo, including the loss of our forests.
  3. Europe practices intensive agriculture but also imports 70% of its animal feed needs. Most of their imports come from Brazil, the country with the greatest level of deforestation — “So, in many ways, Europe has exported its environmental footprint to arguably the most biodiverse country on the planet,” said Bobo.

No matter how you dissect it, it is clear that we have a problem: we need to produce more food. The Food and Agriculture Organization states that we are going to need 50–60% more food by 2050, but why is that the case if we are only going to see about 20% more people? This is directly due to an improvement in income and overall wellbeing, and when people are making money and feeling well, they buy more animal protein. Yet more protein means more crops to feed animals, hence, a spike in food production.

“The former director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, once said that the amount of food that needs to be produced in the next 40 or 50 years is equivalent to the amount of food that was produced in the last 10,00 years,” explained Bobo. “Let me repeat that. The amount of food we need to produce in the next 40 or 50 years is greater than the amount of food produced in the last 10,000 years of human civilization.”

The challenge is daunting, and while agriculture is getting better, it is not getting better fast enough.

There are no silver bullets to solve this challenge, but we do know that we need to increase our food production as sustainably as possible.

Bobo explored possible solutions, such as:

  • Shifting diets: Many people believe that becoming a vegan or vegetarian is the solution to the problem. It is important to think about changing our diets to improve our health, but is this the way to also improve the environment? — “It’s not going to solve all of our problems,” said Bobo. He further explained that, even if the United States and Europe shifted their diets completely, people from low-income countries will be making more money in the next 30 years, which means they will be eating more protein. “So, shifting diets is important, but it can’t solve the problem all by itself.”
  • Food waste: A third of all food produced is lost to food waste. In developed countries, a third of food is wasted post-consumer. But, in third-world countries, food is wasted because of loss in the fields, supply chain and storage — “If we could somehow address that third of food that’s lost through food waste, then that would get us most of the way to our challenge,” explained Bobo. However, there are so many types of food waste (storage, distribution, consumer, field) and food waste issues with different products (tomatoes, soybeans, corn, cantaloupes) that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to solving the issue.
  • Technology: There are high-tech solutions, like gene editing and genetic engineering, and abundant ag-tech data that proves cover crops produce a higher return on investment and a lower environmental footprint.
  • Alternative proteins: “Of course, these alternative proteins are part of the solution,” said Bobo. “The problem we have, though, is that companies that are producing these different products… they’re talking about them as the solution. That plant-based proteins can eliminate livestock. That cell-based agriculture is going to make dairy obsolete.” This approach suggests that there is a silver-bullet solution to a really complex problem, “and as we’ve already discussed,” said Bobo, “there’s not one solution to the problem.” Bobo also notes that the protein market is a trillion-dollar opportunity and will only get bigger in 2050. “And so, who really believes that plant-based meat is going to become a trillion-dollar industry in just 30 years?” asked Bobo.

These solutions are all necessary for achieving sustainability. However, they have become competitors in the market rather than working together as a single solution. Bobo says we need to think about what the future will look like, and work toward opportunities instead of focusing on problems.

“We don’t need one solution,” explained Bobo. “We need them all.”

Actively working on these solutions with farmers is the best and most effective way to achieve the goals of conservationists and consumers.

Working with farmers

“I’m just happy that consumers and conservationists are now joining farmers on this journey of sustainability,” said Bobo. “Because we could use their help. Instead of framing it as agriculture is the problem to be solved, we need to help them to understand that agriculture is the solution to the problem.”

What we find from data collected by the World Resources Institute is that if agriculture continues to improve the way it has been, 60% of the gains we need to achieve a sustainable future will happen just by farmers continuing what they are already doing. The data also talks about incentivizing steps that will increase productivity and improve efficiency in:

  1. Livestock production.
  2. Reducing methane emissions.
  3. Using less fertilizer.

“Well, efficiency is something farmers want to do… So, these are huge opportunities. These are not challenges,” said Bobo.

However, if agriculture is the solution to our problem — the answer to improving the future of food — then why do we still hear that agriculture is the problem to be solved?

“Why do we talk about a broken food system when the food system was never not broken?” asked Bobo.

While it may be broken, Bobo assured the audience that the food system is better than it has ever been, and it will only continue to get better every day. But it is just not happening fast enough. Yet if we continue to spend our time spreading false stories and narratives about farmers being the problem, we cannot actively work with them toward a solution.

Organic agriculture may be critical to saving the planet, but it does not mean that genetic engineering and gene editing are not.

New alternative proteins are critical to saving the planet, but so are dairy farms and livestock production.

“It takes a menu of solutions to solve a problem,” explained Bobo.

Final thoughts

Bobo asked us an important question at the beginning of his presentation: Thirty years from now, will we be confident that we did everything that we could do to make the world the place that we want it to be?

Again, conservationists, consumers and farmers all want the same thing: a safe, plentiful and sustainable future of food and agriculture. The only way to achieve that goal is to start telling the same story, even if we are not always on the same page.

“Because if we do that,” said Bobo, “we all can save the planet.”

Access on-demand content until May 2021, with new content added monthly. Visit one.alltech.com for more information.

Breaking records with organic trace minerals in poultry

Breaking records with organic trace minerals in poultry

Granja Pavão, a layer hen operation, was founded in 1985 in São Paulo, Brazil. When it moved to the state of Goiás, Brazil, in 2000, it had 30,000 layers. Today, it has 400,000 laying hens, and it reached a historic milestone in 2019: achieving 500 eggs at 100 weeks of age without a molting period. This is not only a record in Latin America — it’s a feat that put the operation in second place globally.

“(We’re very grateful) because it shows that the sum of many things we (have) done right here in the company had a positive effect,” said Luis Fernando, owner of Granja Pavão.

In addition to implementing good housing management, a vaccination program and a specialized labor force, the company puts a strong emphasis on nutrition — particularly organic trace minerals — in their poultry operation.

Organic trace minerals in poultry production to support bird health and sustainability

Alltech has proven that organic trace minerals can be included at significantly lower levels than inorganic trace minerals while still improving animal performance. This optimizes animal mineral requirements and reduces negative environmental impacts, an innovation Alltech calls its Total Replacement Technology™ (TRT).

Granja Pavão has been working with Alltech to support its layer hen nutrition for six years. Some important goals for Luis and his team included reducing the rate of mortality in the birds, improving enteric conditions and supporting product quality in terms of albumen, Haugh units and eggshell quality. Overall, they wanted to optimize layer hen performance, and to do so, they use several Alltech technologies, including organic minerals, organic acids, probiotics and prebiotics.

“It is (satisfying) to know that this partnership is with a top company that brings us all (the) expertise and technical support, nutritional support — which is the main factor — where we see their product quality, the company responsibility,” said Luis.

In the past, Granja Pavão implemented a forced molting practice to prolong the use of the birds. Today, thanks to the genetic and nutritional improvements in the birds, that is no longer necessary.

Using the right minerals for a Planet of Plenty™

By supporting nutritional efficiency through organic trace minerals, the operation also saw increased sustainable poultry production. Because organic trace minerals are better absorbed, stored and utilized by the bird, fewer minerals are excreted into the environment. This, in turn, means fewer minerals make their way into our soils and water sources. It also has positive implications for the long-term sustainability of the business as a whole, such as decreasing antibiotic use.

“What we saw, also, was a better nutritional efficiency with the use of organic minerals and organic acids, those products that help us (with) better digestion and lower feed consumption,” said Luis. “That ensures a better quality of the GI tract, improving nutritional efficiency, supporting reduction of antibiotic use and seeing the sustainability of the business (in the) long term. Less excretion (into) the soil and better results overall, less mortality — that was very positive, too.”

As Granja Pavão illustrates, maximizing performance and yield through nutrition, technology and improved management is key to creating a Planet of Plenty™ in which plants, animals and people thrive in harmony.

Product quality over quantity to feed a growing world

For Luis and the Granja Pavão team, helping to feed the world is an important aspect of their job. Through organic trace minerals, they can make that idea a reality with optimized animal efficiency and more sustainable poultry production.

“Yes, of course we are very proud of what we do,” he said. “We see ourselves that way: being part of the society, helping mainly (in) the world, where we see so (many) food shortages in many countries, such as in Africa. And we see the meaningfulness of our sector producing food and bringing it to the table of the consumers.”

For Granja Pavão , farming a quality product is critical not only for their operation, but for the end consumers who are feeding their families.

“We know there are big farmers in Brazil with 5 million layers — however, that is not our goal,” explained Luis. “Our aim is working with quality and to bring a good result to the table of the final consumer.”

One of the ways they continue to build on this promise and support the quality of their products is to attend ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference. Alltech’s annual international conference is where everyday heroes from industries across the globe explore solutions to improve their businesses and the world around them, and it includes a poultry-specific focus session.

“That has been an experience of great intensity for us, because the (search) for new information, new technologies, that is all included at ONE,” said Luis. “The visit to other farms, the exchange of experiences with other farmers, that has been a very positive factor for our company.”

Charlie Crave: Long-term success in sustainable dairy

Charlie Crave: Long-term success in sustainable dairy

What is the best strategy for sustainable dairy farming that not only benefits the environment but is also profitable? Charlie Crave, a founding partner in Crave Brothers Farm and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, explains how his family-owned dairy operation has grown with the addition of a methane digester and cheese plant, all while keeping sustainability practices at the forefront.

The following is an edited transcript of David Butler’s interview with Charlie Crave. Click below to hear the full audio.
 


David:            We’re here today with Charlie Crave of Crave Brothers Farm. How are you doing, Charlie?

Charlie:          I’m doing well today, yes.

David:            Well, thanks for joining us.

Charlie:          You’re welcome. I had a great week there in Louisville and, of course, like anything, it’s always nice to be back home, too. What an energetic, wonderful time that was at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference.

David:            Yeah. Thank you. It’s always a lot of fun, really.

Charlie:          Absolutely, yup — a great place to meet and connect and, certainly, reconnect with so many wonderful folks throughout the world, yes.

David:            Great! Well, I’ve been on your farm several years ago, on a tour, and I thought it was a pretty fascinating place. I wonder if you could give us a little bit of the history and describe your operation there.

Charlie:          All right. Well, we have a family farm that was founded by my brothers and I, and we’ve expanded now to the point where — we have a total of four brothers. I have two sons and a nephew, so we now have seven principals in the business. We have the agronomy portion of our business, where we crop 3,000 acres and we raise our young stock replacements. We milk 1,900 cows and have a biogas plant for capturing methane gas. Then we also have a farmstead cheese factory, which is a separate business located directly across the road from the farm. So, in a nutshell, we have a farm, a digester and a cheese factory.

David:            That sounds great.

Charlie:          Yeah, a lot of family, and a lot of employees involved, too.

David:            Yeah, that’s nice.

Charlie:          It is. The family — not only the partners I’ve mentioned, but then we have some other family members that are employees. Our dad — although he’s never been an owner of the business, he’s here every day. Even though he’s in his 90s, he helps with chores and mowing the grass and all those things that 90-year-olds do, so what a great journey it’s been for him right here in Waterloo as well.

David:            And your dad had a farm when you guys were kids growing up, right?

Charlie:          That’s right. My dad ran a farm that was owned by my grandmother, and he decided to quit farming when I was 19. And somewhat because of the times and somewhat because of his wisdom, he felt that it’d be better to get out of the way and let us farm our own business, not necessarily on his coattails, and that’s what we did. So, now, 41 years later, we started with 43 cows, and we’ve grown up into the bigger numbers I just shared with you and brought in many more family members and resources along the way.

David:            Well, that’s probably been a lot of fun and a lot of work and some serious challenges over 41 years, I would bet.

Charlie:          Yes, it has been. We’ve had, of course, the weather challenges that everyone has, and we have family challenges and relationship challenges like every relationship or family has, and we feel it’s important to lean in and really embrace (each other) the very best that we can so that we can have those wonderful, lifelong relationships. And while not every day is warm and fuzzy, we do want to make sure we’re in a point where we can share Thanksgiving dinner together without being encumbered in conversations and the like, so it’s important to have a business that works not only for the family and the community and the environment, but it must, of course, work financially, too. If it doesn’t work on all of those factors, it becomes stressful for all involved, so we really work at that.

David:            All of those things that you just mentioned — you mentioned people and the environment and the economic factors — and those are, really, all the things that go into sustainability. I know that’s a big focus for you guys, for you and your brothers. A lot of times, when people think about sustainability, they just think about the environmental aspect and trying to minimize our impact on the environment, so why don’t we start out and talk about that first, and tell me a little bit about your anaerobic digester and how it works and how you got that.

Charlie:          Well, we partnered with — another firm built it initially, and it didn’t quite pan out for them financially and with their corporate structure the way they had hoped.

In the meantime, though, it has produced a lot of power. The methane gas is captured every day in these tanks. Just to back up, if folks aren’t familiar with a methane digester, we capture the manure from the farm, from the cows and the heifers, in our situation. We do add some substrate, which is a byproduct of industry, and together, they’re warmed up to 100 degrees using excess heat off of an engine generator. So, the excess heat — just like we would capture the heat in our automobile to defrost our windows, for instance — is captured, and that’s used to warm off the manure. So, we have two tanks of three quarters of a million gallons each, so that means we have a million and a half gallons of warm manure at 100 degrees, and that’s at temperature. That’s body temperature.

At that temperature, the bacteria will grow. It’s got the food, it’s got the moisture, and it’s got the temperature. The bacteria is working in there, and it gives off methane gas and other gasses. The methane is captured and used to power a large engine. That large engine turns on an electric generator, which produces electricity, which is sold to the power company. So, there are three products off the digester every day: it’s the sale of electricity to the power company; it’s the excess heat off the engine, which helps keep the digesters the proper temperature; and it also helps us out on the farm for heating our buildings, such as the office, the shop, the hot water for the nursery, and even the farmhouse.

Then, the third product, or the revenue source, would be the manure fiber. After the manure goes through this digester and it comes out, it goes through a squeezer, a press that removes the fiber, and that manure fiber is then dried again using methane gas off the digester, and then we use that fiber for bedding the cattle on the farm. It’s a very closed-loop system, but methane production is equivalent to a thousand gallons a day of diesel fuel in terms of BTUs, so it’s a substantial amount of power, substantial amount of heat that’s captured, and electricity and fiber.

The electricity, in theory, is enough power for the farm, the cheese factory and 300 homes. My little jingle that goes with this is, “The sun is shining, the river is flowing, and this produces totally renewable energy every single day,” and that it does. Unlike some systems, such as many of those in Europe, we use 100% byproduct, the manure or byproducts from other industries, to provide the tool for the digester. We do not raise any corn silage that would be fed directly to the digester or other energy sources fed directly to the digester. Everything is a byproduct. So, in a nutshell, we still have all the nutrients. We still have all the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, and those elements are tied to an elemental form, and they are located in the liquid manure, which we apply to the field.

For field application, we have a consistent manure product that’s got some of that manure fiber removed, so it’s much easier to agitate from the manure basin, and we can apply a good, even amount of liquid manure to our fields to meet our nutrient needs for our crops. So, we get a little better return on our manure application, as well as the other three products off the digester, and that’s where I’m going to stop for now.

Not only is the digester important for our business, but really, it’s what we do before we even get to the digester. Are we really conscious of our groundwater? How are we setting our wells, our water table? Are we conscious of our soil aggregates and what we’re doing to build soil health? Are we conscious of our grazing procedures or our harvesting and our various types of erosion and cover crops and interseeding and all those factors that go into a successful agricultural and agronomic business?

Those are discussions we have had for many, many years, and we’ve realized it’s important to really lean in on them, not just to rely on the laurels of saying, “Well, we have a lower carbon footprint.” Well, it’s just part of it. What are we really doing to be leaders? Those are topics that our family takes very seriously. What can we really do to lead, in terms of sustainability, with our agronomy, our manure digester, recycling? How do we improve? I’ve even sat in on some meetings with sustainability leaders from the likes of Harley Davidson and Miller Brewing Company, and they like the farm story, but believe me, I like their stories, too, and I think we all can learn from each other, and that’s where we want to be for our business, is really engaging with some of the very best. All right. I’ll leave it there.

David:            Okay. Well, I think it’s great that you mention (that) it’s not just the carbon footprint. If we don’t keep our soil healthy or rebuild our soils that need help, and if we don’t keep our groundwater at a good level, then it’s not going to matter if we solve our carbon footprint. We’re still going to have some serious issues, and we won’t be sustainable.

Charlie:          Absolutely. We participate in a community-based farmers’ and lake owners’ alliance, so rather than the lake owners saying, “Oh, our lakes are turning green” and the farmers saying, “We have a lower carbon footprint,” there’s a lot of unknown in that conversation. So, my son, myself and some of our other family members, we’ve engaged with some of the lake owners and the conservation groups in the area. We engage with some of the folks that might be considered, well, not quite tree-huggers, but pretty close to it, and share our story, and we learn from them what are other concerns. Are they viable concerns? Then, we, as farmers, in our case — our family, our business — what can we do to address those viable concerns? Those are topics we engage in and take action on.

Some of the action involves cover crops. It involves different forages for our livestock herd. It may involve using different hybrids so we can harvest earlier, maybe taking a bit of a reduction in yield, but then allowing us more time to get our nutrients prepped for the little crops, seeded — how do we do cover crops and handle manure? Last year, we did close to 30 million gallons of liquid manure. Well, that covers quite a few acres, so, indeed, if you’re going to incorporate manure, cover crops, forages, grains, small grains, not only is it an investment financially and in time, but management — and you’re dealing with Mother Nature, of course, too, so you really have to put on the thinking cap, leaning in on that. That’s what we’re up to, and I think that’s where a lot of our industry is heading, thankfully.

It’s not easy to say, “Yeah, we have lost perhaps more of our topsoil than we want to recognize.” Even though I’m a dairy farmer, yes, I totally have a fair amount of erosion compared to being just a crop farmer. I may not understand my soil bacteria to the level that I should. I may not understand the history of my soils the way I should. These are all topics that go on for years and years, but they do require rigor to make some headway in management and understanding — but it’s a great place to be, though. It really is. It’s a conversation we relish, so that covers part of the environment and the family that can pull that off. It involves being active in the community, whether it’s in your local town or with the lake owners, so we’ve covered the sustainability portion there.

You’ve got to make a little money on it or you’re going to disappear in a very painful manner, but we’ve been doing that for 41 years. We’ve been working at it, and we have a plan to continue on for more, so that’s good news. That’s what makes me excited about even speaking at the conference or sharing that news with this podcast. As an old guy, I’m still excited.

David:            It is exciting. I think it’s good that you’re excited about talking to all the environmental groups and trying to understand their concerns because, in the process, when you’re having a conversation with them, they’re understanding what you guys do, and a lot of times, people don’t understand what farmers are doing, and that’s a dangerous thing.

Charlie:          It is. It really is. We’ve seen a lot of misperception in terms of where our food comes from and what’s healthy for my family or my children or my community, and really, most of the fear is based upon ignorance, which has been very well-proven. Some of the concerns are definitely based upon lack of knowledge on the consumer side, but some of it is based upon lack of knowledge on our producer side as well. So, I think we, as producers, really need to learn to lean in, perhaps, more than we have. It would be one of my take-home messages as a producer: really step up to lean in with all the environmental actions that can be taken, not just one or two, but really lean in.

David:            Yeah, and in the long run, it’s going to keep your farm profitable as well, so it’s not just a matter of jumping through a hoop. I know that, probably, there are plenty of environmental regulations that might feel like just jumping through a hoop, but the things you’re talking about — really looking at your soil health closely — that’s so important for your long-term survival and all of our long-term survival. Talk a little bit about some of the conservation techniques that you use. You guys grow all your own forages, right? So, you really are crop farmers as well. What are some of the things you do to protect the soil and build up the microbial health of it?

Charlie:          Well, we really try to keep something green out there, growing, year-round. I long remember someone’s quote that “if your soil is exposed, it’s like having a hole in your fertilizer tank, and it’s just leaking out, never to be recovered.” So, we think it’s really important to keep some green growth out there. Learn to do a little better every year, whether it’s with the cover crop blends, the seeding procedures, the manure applications onto the cover crops, the manure applications onto the fields, taking proper credits for all manure harvesting, yields, nitrogen efficiency ratios — all of those things all enter into our conversations.

At the harvest’s end, it’s important that you don’t feel losses. Preserve that feed well in the bunker silos. We’ve got a whole system of wrapping our silo walls in drain tile to remove any rainwater and keep our feed just at the very best quality that we can, keep down that feed shrink, and keep feeding to the cattle preservation there in the bunks — even the use of propionic acid so you have better feed conversion. For instance, in the summer, when the weather is hot and muggy, we apply propionic acid to our total mixed ration, and even though it would keep for a day in the mangers, by using propionic acid, 3% of the feed that the cows don’t eat is still good for the next day, and we’re able to feed that back to the heifers and capture more of that feed value in our livestock. It’s been working very well. Now, all of this is not revolutionary, but it does take commitment. It takes a feeding system. It takes training of employees. It takes monitoring of your feed and going into the storage, coming out where it’s being fed. The amounts of feeds shrink every day, but you’re in and you’re out.

We’ve been proving that it works. Well, we might think of conservation as being all water waste, or grass and some fields. It’s a whole variety of interaction, all the way from the soil microbes through the fields, through the harvest, through the preservation, the feeding, the financial management of all that. That’s all part of the system we embrace here at the Crave Brothers; granted, we’re not alone in the industry (in) doing that, but we need to be a leader at it, not just another producer doing the same old thing. That’s where we’re at, and it’s a great place to be, too.

David:            That’s awesome. Tell me a little bit about the — let’s talk a little bit about the people aspect of sustainability, or the social part. What do you guys do to make sure that everybody has a good quality of life and they’re not just working 90 hours a week, and they have time for their families?

Charlie:          Yeah, that’s a great point. Well, we really try to give each of the partners an area where they can take a certain amount of responsibility and to provide them, too, with a budget, so they can have the help they need so they can get done at a decent time. For instance, we all know that a dairy farm such as ours, we milk three times a day, around the clock. Well, that means you need a good parlor manager. You need good training for the people that might be bedding the cows. They need good machinery. They need a place to store that machinery so it works every day. They need an opportunity to talk with the mechanic — and a mechanic that can respond. For instance, if their bedding wagon is not working, they (should be able to) get it fixed in short order so the cows can be bedded, and then the fellow doing that work can put in a decent day and go home at a respectable hour.

One of the things that separates our farm from many others is (that) we try and have most of the folks that work here — other than milkers or the nighttime crew — they would start between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. and go home in the afternoon, between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. Well, for a farm, for a dairy farm, those aren’t paid hours. If we can go home at 5:00 p.m. and maybe have supper or get our lawn mowed and then have time in the evening to go to a ball game for our kids or a meeting at church or school board, that’s not bad, especially when we think of when we were younger; you’d do well to be in the house by 7:30 or 8:00 at night and you still hadn’t eaten supper.

So, it’s been very much a focus on how to have the right people in the right places so we can all be successful. Try and take a day or a day and a half off or two days off every week, depending on the time of the year and the weather. That works. We take time and a half for about seven holidays a year. It helps to write a little incentive for folks to do a little extra work or sign up to do chores on those days. And, of course, it’s only fair to them; their families have to make some sacrifices, too, so we want to be fair.

Has it been easy in the last few years, with lower milk prices? Absolutely not. We have some of the same conversations others do, but in the meantime, we’re still getting our cows bred and producing good-quality milk and a lot other — having manure applied, all those things that go into every day without having the wheel fall off — and still get home at a decent hour at night, and that’s been a real focus. So, a sustainable workforce that can stick around, maybe work here for a generation — or two, even — that’s important, and that’s who we really want to be. We want to be a preferred employer, not just a default employer, and that can be said for many industries, but do you have a plan to be that preferred employer? Well, we do, using a lot of those things that I just described, and it’s been working, thankfully.

David:            Yeah. That’s great. That brings us, maybe, to the third part of sustainability, which is the economic aspect.

You can’t do any of this if you’re not profitable, and you mentioned some of the challenges, certainly, in the dairy industry. It can be really rough, and prices go up and down. You guys have insulated yourselves from that, to an extent, by having your own cheese factory, right?

Charlie:          Yes, we have. About 21 years ago, we undertook starting to spend time and money on investigating how to add more value to our farm, and we looked into doing more with what we had, such as: do we do more machinery work? Do we do more forage harvesting? Do we buy more land and raise corn and soybeans in addition to dairy cows? All those things, I think, enter into many, many conversations throughout the world and, of course, at the career.

Finally, we took a deep breath and decided to build a cheese factory here on our farm, not knowing much about it. We consulted with some folks throughout the industry and decided to build a cheese factory a hundred yards away from our milking parlor. So, we pump the fresh milk underground from the farm to the cheese factory and, from there, it’s stored and pasteurized and used to manufacture award-winning cheeses. So, we really have a whole system of procedures and investments, financially and human-wise, in place that has allowed us to become a real leader in quality cheese production. We have primary products of fresh mozzarella and mascarpone. We do some other cheese curds and Oaxaca products, and we’d market those nationwide. We work with brokers and distributors in the food industry to get our product out and try to capture enough value to make it worthwhile of all our investment. So far, after 20 years, I’d like to say yes, it’s been working.

One of the things I often point out is (that) I would hope that, for many of us, if we bought a farm 20 years ago, we would’ve had it paid off by now or made some pretty good headway on land improvements and such, and it’s the same thing with the cheese factory. A lot of folks say, “Wow, I really like your cheese factory,” but I just ask them to pause and reflect that, indeed, we have been at it for 20 years, and I would hope that, for 20 years, they would have some success with it, too, but now, it’s been a great part of our family story: the farm, the digester and the cheese factory.

David:            Yeah. Do you think that’s also helped keep the next generation involved in your operation?

Charlie:          I would think it has, yes, especially — I have a niece that probably would not be too interested in milking cows. While many families kind of enjoy some of the show cows or the registered portion of your business, it takes some real income to support the land purchases or building a cheese factory or a biogas plant, and the cheese factory has helped provide some solid financial returns, especially as the milk price has been soft. Yeah, it’s been better than taking some of those wholesale prices that we’ve been receiving otherwise, so yeah, it has provided a lot of energy for the next generation, no doubt.

David:            All right. Well, thank you so much, Charlie. That was a great conversation. We’ve covered a lot of ground here. I really appreciate your time.

Charlie:          Well, you’re welcome, David. If you’re out this way again, get a hold of the Alltech folks, and I’d love to spend some more time with you.

David:            All right. I definitely will.

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Branching out: Silvopasture for sustainable cattle production

Branching out: Silvopasture for sustainable cattle production

On most cattle farms, you don’t expect to see the livestock playing hide-and-seek between trees that are so tall, you have to crane your neck to glimpse the top. This is the striking system of regenerative agriculture Daniel Wolf and his family have been implementing on their farms in Brazil for 10 years. Known as silvopasture, farming livestock and trees together has an equally important, yet invisible, component — carbon sequestration.

“Everyone says that the best day to plant a tree was yesterday,” said Daniel, “and this kind of project, as soon as you apply this new technology, you learn a lot and you can increase your productivity and sustainability, and that’s what we want.”

When Daniel’s father, Mario, arrived in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso with friends and family in 1975, there were no roads and no communication infrastructure in place. There were, however, two important rivers nearby, as well as the Amazon biome, which includes the Amazon rainforest, a tropical rainforest and other ecoregions. Today, the Wolf family owns three farms that, together, cover 12,000 hectares, half of which they preserve as regional forest.

The local wildlife — from parrots to monkeys — is part of the Wolf family’s daily life, and they have seen how plants, animals and people can live in harmony. So, why not implement this on the farm, too?

Monkey in a tree, Amazon Rain Forest

What are the benefits of silvopasture?

Silvopasture is a form of agroforestry that combines grazing livestock with the farming of crops and trees. On Daniel’s farms, producing cattle, trees and soybeans together in a symbiotic system has allowed each element to thrive, with additional benefits to the soil and the farms.

  1. The livestock and trees work together to sequester carbon in the trunks, branches and roots of the trees as well as in soil carbon.
  2. Trees can increase animal welfare by helping protect livestock from extreme weather, such as wind and heat.
  3. Trees also provide forage for livestock to eat.
  4. The shelter and improved nutrition from these trees increase animal health as well as the production of meat, milk and offspring. In fact, some research has shown that dairy cows can improve their milk production simply by being in the shade.
  5. Livestock such as cattle provide natural weed control and fertilizer.
  6. Farmers reap the financial rewards from this decrease in inputs.
  7. The trees also provide a more diversified income by producing fruits, nuts or lumber, shielding farmers from financial risk.

Daniel has found that this system has allowed him to produce more on the same amount of land.

Beef cattle in field, looking at camera
“We increase the productivity, and we produce crops and cattle, because when you integrate the systems, you increase the fertility of the soil,” he explained. “When you do that, you can put more cows on the same amount of land, so we increase the productivity of the livestock and also the crop. So, you double your production.”

Ciniro Costa Junior is a climate and agriculture analyst at IMAFLORA, a Brazilian nongovernmental organization that works with forestry and agriculture management and certification. Through his work as a researcher with a focus on how to deliver on future demands for food with decreased environmental impact, he has seen that silvopasture systems can be carbon neutral or even generate carbon credits, meaning they can sequester more carbon than is emitted.

Growing up, Ciniro remembers only seeing bare pasture without trees used for farming cattle. Encountering silvopasture opened up a new world of possibility.

“It’s a real gamechanger, right?” he said. “Because you spend your whole life in one scenario and thinking that’s the only way to do things, and when you see silvopasture systems delivering the same products, you think, ‘Wow!’ We have a sort of evolution.”

He is also optimistic about silvopasture and regenerative agriculture’s ability to create a brighter future, even where land has previously been degraded for agriculture and other purposes.

“When I talk about this degraded land and so forth, I see opportunity — opportunity to restore, opportunity to be less impactful on the world, as a human being,” he said.

 

Producing with a passion for sustainable agriculture

For Daniel, farming is a family legacy that he hopes to pass on to future generations. It began for him when his father invited him to milk cows as a child, and afterward, they would use the milk to make fresh hot chocolate. These experiences developed in him a passion for the work, and now, he is teaching his children the same valuable lessons. During the holidays, the family’s next generation visits the farms and goes fishing, walks through the forest and learns about nature from their parents and grandparents.

“My dad is a hero for me and for our family,” said Daniel, “and I want to be a hero for my son, and for the other generations.”

He also believes it’s just as important to look beyond their family farms to how they are impacting the wider industry, and the world.

“It’s not guaranteed that my son will operate this business, or my nephew,” he said. “But we have to build a business that is sustainable for everyone. And, maybe, my grandchildren can follow the steps of my grandfather, of my father, and mine.”

 

Shedding light on silvopasture, and sharing the success

Amazon rain forest, looking to the sky through treesDaniel feels deeply tied to his family’s land, in large part because he knows the positive impact it can have on others.

“I think it’s gorgeous — I think it’s very beautiful,” he said of the land. “But it’s more than that, because here’s our life; everything that we have comes from here. And the food that we produce here can feed so many people, and they can have good moments with the food that we produce here.”

It’s why he’s convinced — despite the disinformation about agriculture and the blame it often receives — that farmers must play a central role in not only protecting the land, but also in feeding a growing global population in a sustainable way.

“Agriculture has to be part of it, because the meat that you eat, the food that you eat and the clothes that you use come from agriculture,” he said. “So does the solution to feed the planet.”

Silvopasture, with its sustainable cattle production and capacity for carbon capture and storage, is just one example of regenerative agriculture that can make a monumental difference to the health of our planet. Ciniro believes that the most important thing, now, is to create such systems on a larger scale.

“Agroforestry is not a new thing — people have been developing agroforestry forever, right?” he said. “The point is how we can translate agroforestry systems to scale, and how to scale and continue delivering products and develop value chains based on agroforestry systems.”

In Mato Grosso, cattle outnumber people, and the industry offers a rich and important value chain. Ciniro estimates that almost 10 million people in Brazil are directly or indirectly related to the beef cattle sector along that value chain.

Such staggering numbers emphasize Daniel’s belief that we are all on this journey together. Just as the cattle and trees work together on his farm, so can people from all backgrounds and walks of life.

“New technology that is invented in the city comes to the farm to increase the productivity with one thing in mind: that we are all together, and we need to preserve, and we need to make the planet better for everyone,” he explained, identifying to the solar-powered system his farms use to pump water from the ground for the cattle as an example.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the land — how it is farmed, preserved and shared by all creatures in harmony.

“My mother and my dad always said that ‘the best place to be is the place that you are,’” said Daniel. “We want to take the best of this piece of land so that we can help our family, the people who work with us, the community, the country and the world.”

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