Holy Cow!

Holy Cow!

Illinois dairy farms becoming more sustainable and improving the way we eat

Sustainable food systems are a big environmental initiative nationwide. And Illinois dairy farms, with their rolling acres of farmland, hundreds of cows and large carbon footprint, are no exception in finding new ways to lower their environmental impact and meet consumers’ health demands.

With 703 licensed dairy herds, Illinois ranks as the 22nd largest milk-producing state in the nation, according to recent statistics by the Midwest Dairy Association. So what are dairy farmers in northern Illinois doing to embrace sustainable practices?

“We appreciate consumers’ concerns and are opening our doors to show people where their food is coming from,” says Doug Block, farmer and co-owner with his brother, Tom Block, of Hunter Haven Farms in Pearl City, Illinois.

Dairy farmers have a solid commitment to foster strong regional food systems with continual innovations to better care for their cows and the land, says Jean Ragalie-Carr, RDN, LDN, president of the Rosemont, Illinois-based National Dairy Council, who spoke at the annual conference of food and nutrition experts, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE), held in Atlanta this past fall.

“A sustainable food system is about more than just a carbon footprint—it’s about positive contributions to alleviate hunger, community vitality and conservation of natural resources as well as educating people about where their food comes from,” Ragalie-Carr says. “A gallon of milk produced in 2007 required 90 percent less land, 65 percent less water and emitted 63 percent less carbon than a gallon of milk in 1944.”

On their 1,800-acre farm, the Block brothers raise crops to feed dairy cows to produce milk, cheese and yogurt. “Dairy cows recycle naturally as they eat food humans don’t eat, such as alfalfa hay, wheat straw, cottonseed left over after cotton fiber is used and wet corn gluten—the by-product of corn oil production,” Block explains.

Dairy farmers are partnering with restaurants, food companies and retailers to use some portions of wasted food to feed the land as natural fertilizers and to use edible portions, like orange peels and almond hulls, to feed to cows, thus reducing use of landfills and incinerators.

And while being a locavore sounds trendy, local has long been a dairy mantra. “All dairy is local,” Block explains. “Fluid milk gets from the farm to the store in 48 hours.”

Plus, milk production continues to become more efficient and better for the planet. “In the past few decades, dairy farmers have made major improvements in resource management as well as cow comfort, nutrition and health,” Ragalie-Carr says.

For dairy farmers, sustainability is about long-term, affordable programs in which technology is designed to meet the health demands of consumers while keeping the environmental impact in mind. Local dairy farms are putting old conceptions out to pasture and moo-ving to become more sustainable.