Sustainability on Michigan farms

Efficiently using resources & bio-controls.

In this six part series, we are discovering what sustainability on Michigan farms means, looking at examples of how farms are demonstrating that sustainability and how Michigan State University Extension is working with producers to become even more sustainable.

As a reminder, the definition that is used by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program for sustainable agriculture is:

“Sustainable agriculture is defined as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term: satisfy human food and fiber needs, enhance environmental quality and the natural resources base upon which the agricultural economy depends, make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls, sustain the economic viability of farm operations, enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

This fourth article’s sustainability topic is “Efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls”. We’ll focus on efficient use of resources.

At a recent conference, I had the opportunity to hear from Phil Rasmussen, professor emeritus, Utah State University. Dr. Rasmussen delivered an excellent keynote on the blending of sustainability with technology. He titled the presentation “Sustainability: High Tech with Horse Sense.” Sustainable high-tech agriculture, he said, includes the best technologies, sound science, a sustainable approach, with a good dose of horse sense (common sense).

In the presentation, Dr. Rasmussen challenged the group (including educators from Michigan State University Extension), to follow Thomas Jefferson’s model of embracing technology and innovation in agriculture while managing our precious soil, water, air and other resources with prudence and thanks-giving. Too often, technology and sustainability have been pitted against each other. One reason for this is a viewpoint that sustainability is some sort of static end point, and in many cases that endpoint is somewhere in our “golden” past. Visions of a red hip roof barn with grandpa inside milking a cow by hand, come to mind. As romantic as that sounds, is it really sustainable, and why is it that some feel that farming needs to stay in the past, while almost every other area of our lives embrace technology?

What if we looked at sustainability as a journey instead? The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences puts it this way: “…sustainability is a process that moves farming systems along a trajectory…as opposed to achieving any particular end state.”

In this definition, sustainability has a place in whatever system or frame of reference that you are working in. Every individual and every farm can continue to make progress in this area.

So, what does technology have to do with efficient use of resources? One of the key factors in farms becoming more efficient with our non-renewable and farm resources has been adoption of appropriate technology. One example worth noting is our carbon footprint on the modern dairy farm.

The modern dairy farm’s carbon footprint (on a milk produced basis) is 37 percent as big as it was in the past. Through advancements in animal health, reproduction and production, the modern dairy farm is producing more high quality milk while using less non-renewable resources per gallon of milk than ever before. Adoption of technology has been a major factor in these advancements. Many modern farms utilize activity monitors on cows to determine things such as reproductive and health status. Milk yield monitors in the milking parlor allow farmers to determine if a cow’s milk meets their quality standards, and help farmers make management decisions on efficiently feeding and managing the cows.

One way Michigan State University Extension contributes to this area of sustainability is in working with dairy farms to reduce their energy use. Charles Gould and Al Go of MSU Extension have worked with Michigan farmers to encourage the use of energy audits to reduce energy use and increase the adoption of renewable energy projects. In 2015 these projects resulted in saving over 15 million kilowatt hours of energy in Michigan. The projects also resulted in a total annual savings of over $1 million dollars across the 61 audits and projects.

Through adoption of technology and innovations, Michigan’s farmers are improving their sustainability by becoming more efficient with non-renewable resources and developing renewable resources.

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