Since we announced last year that we’re scaling our manure-drip-irrigation project thanks to a competitive USDA grant, Sustainable Conservation and our industry partners have been working hard to launch three additional sites to help dairy farmers manage their manure and water use in ways that protect the groundwater they and their communities depend on.
Working Together to Protect Groundwater
California’s San Joaquin Valley struggles with poor groundwater quality – a vital resource many local communities and farmers rely on heavily, especially in times of drought. One of the main sources of this pollution comes from cow manure, which can leach harmful nitrates into underground aquifers, and dairy farmers across the Valley are signing on to be a big part of the solution.
Back in 2015, Sustainable Conservation partnered with De Jager Farms and Netafim USA in Madera County to pilot a first-of-its-kind commercial irrigation system that helps dairy producers use the manure their cows produce in carefully-monitored combination with fresh water to precisely fertilize the crops they grow to feed their herds. Dairies are already switching to drip irrigation to help conserve their water resources, and need ways to use their manure on their farms that make economic sense while helping them protect the environment.
We recently visited West Star Dairy in Kern County and McRee Dairy in Madera County to talk to two of the farmers who’ve volunteered to help us test this exciting technology, and to learn a little bit more about how the system fits into their operations.
West Star Dairy
Located in Buttonwillow, CA, West Star Dairy has been in business for 40 years raises and currently milks 5,000 dairy cows on 1,500 acres. Guntar Vecpuisis, West Star’s co-farm manager, is excited about the potential of the manure drip system to conserve the dairy’s precious water resources due to the West Star pumps their dairy manure into different settling lagoons, allowing the manure solids more time to separate from the liquid that’s left. This means less of a filtration lift for the manure drip system, which could lead to smoother operation.
“Kern County’s groundwater is critically low, so finding new, precision technologies that help us save water and keep nitrates out of our aquifer while using our manure resources on-farm has the potential to make a big difference.” – Guntar Vecpuisis, West Star Dairy
West Star Dairy’s not just investing in irrigation technology, though. Thanks to investment from the Climate Trust Fund, West Star will also be the site of a new methane digester, which collects cow manure in a covered lagoon to capture methane that can then be converted into biogas and used as energy. We’re excited to investigate how these two technologies can complement each other and move the needle on reducing emissions while protecting critical groundwater resources.
A Sustainable Conservation partner since 2012, Mike McRee has extensive experience as a dairy producer and farmer. With 1,800 cows and 1,575 acres in Chowchilla, CA, McRee Dairy is a perfect example of an average-sized, family-run dairy that’s the backbone of the industry in California. Mike oversees all daily operations on the farm, which means he knows firsthand what it takes to manage nutrients to grow the best crops to feed his cows.
Mike McRee has a long history of innovation on his dairy, and was just honored by Sustainable Conservation partner, Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center, with their 2017 Farmer Innovation Award. Over the years, he’s instituted practices like conservation tillage and regular drip irrigation on his winter forage crops that most dairy producers don’t typically practice.