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‘What’s next?’ Verwey Dairy seeks sustainable practices to reach net zero

Progressive Dairy Editorial Intern Madison Leak Published on 06 October 2021
Sustainable practices

“It’s almost become fun to us,” says Frank Cardoza, farm manager at Verwey Dairy in central California. “Being sustainable started out as an improvement, but it’s really become kind of like a game. What else can we do?

What’s next? What can we do to save water here? Stuff like that.”

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It’s this mentality that has made Verwey Dairy one of the most innovative and sustainable dairies in the country, making them one of the recipients of the Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability awards from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy in 2019.

Owned by Philip Verwey, Verwey Dairy milks 10,000 cows at the original Hanford facility and 2,800 cows at its new Madera facility. It also keeps animals at the Firebaugh feedlot.

Stationary feed-mixing stations

One afternoon driving along the highway, Verwey had an idea to reduce carbon emissions by converting his diesel-powered feed mixers to stationary electric systems. After implementing this idea in 2015, Verwey Dairy reduced 13 hours of manual labor in feed mixing time, 22 tons of nitrogen emission and saved around $19,000 in fuel per month. They have since grown from two feed mixers to six units on both locations. Their decrease in fuel burned is the equivalent of pulling 12,000 vehicles off the highway.

The stationary feed mixers were just the beginning of Verwey Dairy’s commitment to sustainable agriculture. Implementing the use of cleaner-burning feed delivery trucks, adding an anaerobic digester in 2016 that meets the dairy’s electrical needs and powers 3,000 nearby homes, solar panels, wetting agents in feed to reduce particulates in the air and using 80% byproducts in their ration are just a few of the changes made with the help of public funding to inch themselves closer to being carbon neutral and contributing to the Net Zero Initiative.

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Stationary electric feed mixers

Verwey Dairy views the initiative issued to dairy producers by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy as a challenge, one they are excited to continue chasing.

“We try to keep everything local when it comes to nutrition,” Cardoza says. “When we’re feeding pomegranates, that’s coming from a local source. If we’re feeding corn, that’s coming from back east somewhere. It’s put on a train and transported across the country. Obviously, we can’t keep it local with everything, but we try to do the best we can to keep products off the road.”

The farm’s solar panel field in Hanford produces 1 megawatt, or 1 million watts, of electricity and was built with an option to add a second field when needed that will also produce 1 megawatt. The Madera facility just earned approval for the construction of a solar field, which is anticipated to produce 1 megawatt as well. The electricity produced from the solar panels is used for the dairy and other farming needs.

“I’m really blessed to work with some of the most innovative dairy families in the world,” says Kevin Abernathy, general manager of the Milk Producers Council. Abernathy assists Verwey Dairy in finding systems that meet their standards of sustainability.

“It brings a positive outlook on the dairy industry – and hopefully through that, the public will consume more products,” Philip Verwey says. “It all comes down to our consumers having a positive outlook on our industry.”

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According to Cardoza, they have already achieved that.

“What Philip and Kevin have done is: They’ve changed the mindset of consumers and producers,” he says. “That cow that used to be viewed as a negative thing for the environment is now a good thing for the environment. That is a huge obstacle to overcome.”

Their efforts led to the creation of a new company with the goal of helping other dairies improve their sustainability efforts and utilize existing resources by installing anaerobic digesters. Verway’s son, Brent, started Aligned Digesters, which has assisted in the construction of 135 anaerobic digesters in the state of California.

Verwey Dairy is now focused on conserving water and has been exploring options to improve water conservation at both locations.

“We’re currently investigating a process that could be a complete game-changer when looking at water conservation,” Abernathy says. “We live in a semi-arid desert. We haven’t had water infrastructure upgrades in this state for years. The last reservoirs were built decades ago for a population that is a third of what it is today, resulting in an increasing demand on that resource.

“We’re investigating a technology that instead of using acre-feet of water to grow a crop, we could be using gallons of water to grow the same tonnage.

“That’s the kind of stuff that keeps us doing what we’re doing because there’s always the question of, ‘What’s next?’”  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

PHOTO 1: Verwey Dairy uses electric, stationary feed-mixing stations to reduce diesel fuel usage and emissions. The farm reduced 13 hours of manual labor in feed mixing time, 22 tons of nitrogen emission and saved around $19,000 in fuel per month.

PHOTO 2: Stationary electric feed mixers were just the beginning of Verwey Dairy’s commitment to sustainable agriculture. Photos courtesy of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

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