When it comes to finding innovative ways to be sustainable, dairy farmers are some of the original great minds. Sine 2011, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy has presented the Outstanding Dairy Sustainability Award, where “dairy’s brightest sustainability stars are on full display.”
Among this year’s six award recipients was Threemile Canyon Farms (TCF), in Boardman, Oregon, a 70,000 Jersey and Jersey-cross dairy committed to their “closed loop” system of sustainable farming, which encompasses both dairy and crop production. They find a way to “constructively use” everything they create, the farm says.
The operation is headed up by General Manager Marty Myers, a fifth-generation Oregonian.
“It all starts with the cow,” he says of the farm’s closed-loop system.
The way TCF views it, the cows produce not one but two primary products — milk for cheese production and manure to fuel the farm’s methane digester. Their particular digester converts methane into renewable natural gas which is then put into a pipeline and used as transportation fuel.
Residual solids from the digester are then used as clean bedding, soil amendments, and a liquid fertilizer for both organic row crops and feed for the animals, thus closing the loop back to the cows. Additionally, processing waste from crops like potatoes grown on the farm are returned and recycled as part of the cows’ diet. Triticale, a nutritious forage and feed ingredient, is also an effective cover crop which the farm grows using strip tillage.
Making a digester the right fit for any particular farm isn’t as easy a task as you might think. Myers admits challenges over the years during the evolution of TCF. It was a significant investment of time and finances to along the road “from manure to market” with the digester. For example, when it was first implemented in 2012 the digester was used for electricity for seven years, but with careful evaluation, the staff found it would be most beneficial to produce natural gas instead. This has enabled the digester to make the energy equivalent to power over 30 percent of the farm’s annual operations.
“TCF has routinely gone beyond regulatory environmental requirements and exceed established standards, because we know it is oftentimes a better expression of our values,” explains Myers. “While regulations may have changed, our commitment to sustainable farming has not.”
Besides the environment, TCF is also committed to animal welfare and the local community. Under the leadership of Dr. Jeff Wendler, DVM, the team has implemented several animal welfare programs and is the first dairy to receive a score of 100 percent from their third-party auditors, Validus.
An active part of the regional community, TCF donates 8,000 pounds of ground beef every month to the Oregon Food Bank, and also contributes to Farmers Ending Hunger, a program that collects donated food from farmers in Oregon.
In 2019, TCF partnered with Morrow County Extension to launch the Dairy Heifer Project. This program allows eight local 4-H members to care for, work with, and show a project heifer calf for nine months. Additionally, the farm has its own unique hands-on internship program for college students.
Since its inception 20 years ago, food safety, air quality, and water quality — coupled with animal care and community impact — have been at the forefront of Threemile Canyon Farms and their employees. Not only does this benefit the farm, animals and community, it is another great example of innovation and commitment happening within the dairy world.
Jaclyn Krymowski is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a major in animal industries and minor in agriculture communications. She is an enthusiastic agvocate, professional freelance writer, and blogs at the-herdbook.com.