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You learn a lot leading a dairy farm that your family has owned for 50 years.
Looking at everything from energy efficiency to water conservation to what we feed our cows, our farm continuously evolves as we find new ways to take better care of our cows and the land.
Our own experiences certainly have informed our approach over the years, but it’s also a result of what we’ve learned from other farmers – both those down the road from us and those around the world.
This isn’t unique to just our farm either, it’s been happening in the United States and globally for decades. Knowledge sharing is an integral part of farming culture. It’s important to our collective success, and how we meet environmental constraints while also improving our practices along the way.
For instance, in the United States we’ve reduced the environmental impact of a gallon of milk through innovations in barn design, energy-efficient equipment and cow care. Compared to 1944, we now use 90 percent less cropland and 65 percent less water while producing 63 percent less carbon.
For me, the willingness to teach, learn from and share with other farmers started at a young age. I learned it from my father, who originally went to college to be an agriculture teacher before becoming a dairy farmer in 1957. Now, I’m instilling these same values in my son as we continue our family’s legacy in the dairy and farming community.
There are so many different ways farmers learn from and share with each other, and my son and I approach it in several ways.
- Since the mid-1960s we’ve had an internship program to bring individuals from around the world to our farm to learn from us. We still host interns today, and over the years, we’ve had hundreds of farmers from France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and a variety of other countries. We welcome them onto our farm and into our community. We teach them first-hand everything from how we handle our cows to the design of our barn and equipment we use. We create a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship, too, where we teach and learn from each other. We’re always happy to hear about the progress our global friends have made after they leave our farm, and how they contribute to their community by providing nutritious dairy products.
- Our family also shares our knowledge at industry conferences and by inviting other farmers to our farm for tours. This allows us to talk with farmers from our local community, and with those who farm in places like China, Argentina and Russia. Every farm and farm family is different, but the “one cow” philosophy my father taught me can always be applied. This philosophy is simple: every single cow receives a consistent, high level of care. This is important because the success of a dairy farm – no matter where it is located – depends on how well you care for your cows. Once you know how to do it for one cow, it’s just a matter of scaling up to be able to do it for every cow in your herd.
- In addition to bringing people to our farm, I visit other farms and learn from the ingenuity of farmers around the world. Just as we do here, they embrace a heritage of taking the best care of their cows and the environment around them. While farming – and especially cows – are similar at their core, farmers face a wide variety of challenges, including weather, access and capital or labor. I’m always interested to see the resourcefulness of other farmers who take a careful look at what’s available in their area to be used as nutritious feed for their cows; it might be citrus pulp in one place, almond hulls in another, and distiller’s grain in a third.
- With the challenges of farming always changing, we are also piloting new technology and practices regularly and share relevant findings and insights that can help others. Our farm pioneered a practice called “total mixed rations,” which ensures that every cow is provided with the nutrients it needs in each bite of feed, leading to better cow health. This practice, commonly known as TMR, is now embraced on farms around the world.
Our work is not done. Just as it has been for years, knowledge sharing will continue to be important for the future of farming. We need to continue to work together to be better farmers, and by helping each other we can continue to solidify a roadmap of best practices and help farmers here and around the world.
Steve Maddox is a dairy farmer and owner of Maddox Dairy in Riverdale, Calif.—a 3,400-cow family farm. He is a 1978 graduate of Cal Poly’s Dairy Science program and has been recognized by dairy companies and his peers for his outstanding work in sustainability.