With large corporations like Chipotle and Walmart using the term “sustainable” to get consumers’ attention and grow their market share, farmers and ranchers need to start defining sustainability for themselves experts told participants at the 2017 American Farm Bureau Federation’s Annual Convention & IDEAg Trade Show.
Row crop farmer Katie Heger encouraged farmers and ranchers not to shy away from addressing the financial aspect of sustainability.
“It’s not just about having that extra nickel in our pocket. We’re a business and we need to have a profit to support our families, to support our employees and to continue to invest in our communities and our businesses,” Heger said.
Panelists also shared the sustainability practices they use—from soil preparation to community involvement.
South Dakota rancher Josh Geigle said he uses a “take half, leave half” approach to graze beef cattle. “If your grass is a foot tall, you let the cows graze 6 inches of it and then move them to another pasture, allowing the pasture that was grazed to rest until next year,” he explained.
Community outreach is also a sustainability factor for Geigle.
“We’re active on our county Farm Bureau board and in our children’s sports. I helped coach my son’s youth baseball league and we’re involved in the rodeo club. We get to mingle with people from town who don’t get to be on a farm or ranch on a daily basis and we can share with them what we’re doing to be sustainable,” Geigle said.
As a veterinarian working in Idaho with a number of dairy farmers, Dr. Elizabeth Kohtz said she’s seen a shift in various approaches to sustainability. She said some farmers are now focusing more on a cow’s longevity than its productivity.
“Of course, we want to produce as much milk as we can with one cow, but at the same time, if we roll through a bunch of cows, that’s not sustainable either. It takes a certain amount of inputs to get cows to two-years old so you can milk them, so we’re trying to look at longevity and the overall health of the animal,” Kohtz said.
Kohtz also shared how dairy farmers are making the most of farm byproducts that would go to waste otherwise.
“Dairies are big users of feed byproducts. Cottonseed is one of the big ones. We import cottonseed from Arizona and Texas,” she explained. “They can digest it. We can’t.”
Katie Heger, a row crop farmer from North Dakota, said planning as far as four years ahead is one key to her family farm remaining sustainable.
“We are long-term planners, we are long-term purchasers and we are long-term marketers. We look at not only how we can profit, but how we can save. Part of that is knowing our inventory. What do we need to have on hand to make this work?” she said.
Relationships are also a critical element of sustainability for Heger.
“Farming is all about relationships. It’s about my husband and I knowing what’s going on. What can we afford? What’s coming up in the next year?” she said. “It’s about communicating with our neighbors, our employees, with our landlords.”