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Sustainability and the bottom line

Any discussion of sustainability and its promise for farming needs to begin with a question: What exactly is sustainability?

For many years, its definition has been influenced by verification and certification. But, as 2020 unfolds, we’re seeing a shift. Sustainability is now judged by outcomes: What is the impact of your efforts?

Animal health, well-being and performance are connected with sustainability because healthy animals require fewer resources to live healthful, productive lives. Pursuing these parallel goals supports using products and practices that have concurrent economic, social and environmental benefits. And it allows us to discuss sustainability in a practical and inclusive way.

Let’s illustrate sustainability in the context of a dairy farm.

Build sustainability from the ground up

Sustainability on a dairy farm begins with the soil. Embracing soil health best practices unlocks the trifecta of benefits mentioned above.

The basic principles of soil health call for keeping the soil covered, reducing or eliminating tillage, increasing crop diversity, maintaining living roots in the soil and integrating livestock where relevant.

Where better to apply these strategies than dairy? Planting triticale or cereal rye, for example, after the corn silage harvest not only maximizes land use by providing a cover crop that can be harvested for forage; it can reduce soil erosion, provide a natural means of suppressing soil diseases and create habitat for wildlife, including beneficial insects, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Reducing or eliminating tillage also benefits the soil by:

  • boosting soil health due to higher biological activity and more organic matter.
  • increasing water holding capacity in fields.
  • reducing input costs, including labor, fuel and equipment maintenance.

Feeding sustainability

The more efficient a herd is at turning pounds of feed into pounds of milk components, the more sustainable — both economically and environmentally — the herd is.

Cargill analyzes feed by nutrients, not ingredients — cows rely on nutrients to fuel their milk production. If cows aren’t getting the right nutrients, such as starch, fiber and protein during one stage of lactation, they may not produce as much milk, or not produce milk in the right components. This can hurt the financial sustainability of the herd and contribute to environmental waste.

Want to know how a herd is performing? Calculate its component efficiency; i.e., how a cow on a given diet performs in the herd environment. Elite dairy farms have a component efficiency of around 12%.

To calculate component efficiency, divide the herd’s pounds of milk fat and protein production by the herd’s average dry matter intake — and multiply by 100. It’s a simple metric, but one that can be tremendously powerful given three key facts:

  1. A dairy is limited by the number of cows it can feed and house.
  2. Milk gets its value not from quantity, but by quality — measured by milk fat and protein.
  3. Diet costs constitute about 60% of a dairy’s operational costs.

A farm’s profitability, therefore, hinges on maintaining a herd that is efficient at producing components, with feed playing a major role. Moving a herd’s component efficiency up one percentage point can result in a measurable increase in profit per cow per day.

Benefits of additives add up

Additives can help dairy producers get even more out of their feed. By increasing the availability of amino acids and other nutrients, additives can enable more productive, healthier, environmentally sustainable herds.

Cargill Health Technology products, for example, work with an animal’s natural biology to improve overall health and well-being. This can make the animal more productive as it focuses energy on growth rather than fighting illness. It can also promote antibiotic efficacy.

By increasing feed efficiency and lowering global feed use, additives helped Cargill farmers reduce greenhouse gas production by more than 1.6 million tons last year alone. 

Looking ahead

Cargill continues to conduct research, develop cutting-edge feed products and improve formulations to help farmers raise feed conversion rates and reduce nitrogen effluent.

Technology will also continue to positively impact farm sustainability. Already, the Dairy Enteligen® platform integrates data on milk productivity, feed formulation and animal well-being, making it easier for farmers to monitor herd health. Agriness will provide nutrition and farm management digital tools to farmers of other species. Cainthus helps farmers monitor each animal for factors that could impact health, well-being and efficiency.

Cargill Animal Nutrition & Health continues to deliver sustainable solutions for animal health, well-being and performance. Focusing on these three areas of farms benefits the environment and can boost a farm’s bottom line.

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