Hart Dairy US
“It’s not just mitigating and stopping deleterious effects, but about reversing practices that have had detrimental impacts on the environment over time.”
“Regenerative is clearly differentiated in the sense that you are trying to reverse damage. Sustainability, however, can mean maintenance of the status quo or not getting any worse”
DEFINING REGENERATIVE DAIRY
How do you define regenerative dairy?
What does regenerative dairy mean to you in the context of your system?
We consider dairy to be a complete ecosystem, especially in the case of grazing dairy. In contrast to farms with a heavy reliance on external inputs, Hart Dairy mirrors an ecosystem in respect of the growth of our own grass and feed and harvest of these biological products with animals to produce a final product of milk.
Hart Dairy is an integrated eco-system which integrates:
- Methods for developing and caring for pastured lands
- A system of on-pasture rotational grazing and care for our cows (they are always outside)
- Approach and practices for how we grow most of our own silage and other supplements to the cows’ daily fresh grass diet.
Each element is composed of multiple elements — and they work together to reduce emissions, enhance sequestration, and improve soil health.
We believe that regenerative agriculture is primarily environmental, but indirectly, it also includes social elements. Particularly in the US, the consumer is perhaps more disconnected with pasture-based farming than many other places. On Hart Dairy farms, we are trying to reverse some of the perceptions about food origins by reconnecting people with agriculture. These social aspects go hand in hand with doing better for the environment and providing food that’s both traceable and better for health.
It is important for regenerative farming to be viewed through a farmer’s own regional and geo-climatic factors. In particular, on the Hart Dairy farms in Georgia, we are looking at regenerative practices that can undo some of the damage that stemmed from the land’s prior use in a row crop, conventional tillage system. There is a lot of potential given the extensive land, temperate climate, mild winters, plentiful rain and water sources, combined with a milk deficit market in the East coast.
Why did you get into regenerative dairy?
We wanted to have a pasture-based farming system (which is rare in and around Georgia), build on the advantageous geo-climatic conditions, and supply into the milk deficit. The Waynesboro, Ga., location has ideal benefits for the soil and the environment.
The University of Georgia delivered a study funded collaboratively by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the joint USDA-NASA-DOE Carbon Cycle Science Program. The study tracked when Hart Dairy farms were bought as bare cropland to track soil carbon and organic matter as they progressed with the pasture-based farming system.
The study appeared in Nature Communications, a peer-reviewed journal, revealing the sequestration of 3.5 tonnes of carbon per acre per year. By approximately year six, the farm had soil carbon similar to virgin forest.
Hart Dairy’s commitment to regenerative farming practices led us to be invited as one of 50 pilot participants across the world in the Certified Regenerative by AGW program. The program will provide a whole-farm assurance of sustainability, measuring benefits for soil, water, air, biodiversity, infrastructure, animal welfare and social responsibility.
How is regenerative different to other ‘sustainable systems’?
Regenerative is clearly differentiated in the sense that you are trying to reverse damage. Sustainability, however, can mean maintenance of the status quo or not getting any worse, and this is only meaningful over a time frame.
Size of farm
- 3000 acres within a six-mile radius.
- Focus on fluid dairy
- Goal to expand the Hart Dairy brand
- Less than 10% of feed is from concentrate (1,000 – 1,200 kgs per cow/per year)
- 20 core staff (ranging between seasons).
Herd numbers & breed
- Total: 3,500
- Young stock: 1,000
- Milking: 2,500
- Jersey – Friesian (naturally productive)
- The breed and the environment produce a higher quality milk than conventional milk, including more Omega-3s and CLAs (Conjugated Linoleic Acids).
- Sexed semen (for cows < 6 years old) for replacements.
- At the end of their life, cows are sent to be humanely culled at facilities that are approved based on the veterinary standards set by A Greener World and Certified Humane.
- Hart Dairy cows can live up to 12+ years old.
- The cows are not pushed beyond their natural capabilities in the name of productivity.
- Average 6,500 litres of milk / cow/per year.
- Average US dairy cow produces 8,725 litres per year (meaning Hart Dairy cows produce roughly 25% less milk per year than conventional cows).
What are you currently measuring?
The aforementioned University of Georgia/NASA study measured soil carbon and organic matter. We’re currently engaged in a baseline Life Cycle Analysis. We will also measure other environmental endpoints, which show the benefits of regenerative agriculture, including biodiversity, soil restoration, methane capture, and carbon sequestration.
Our regenerative system also has benefits for the cows’ health. The cows’ health is tracked daily, including the somatic cell count, which is the true indicator of a cow’s well being and the quality of milk that is produced.
Do you report any measurements?
We strongly believe in 3rd party certifications. We provide yearly reports to each certifying body and must pass annual audits to keep our certifications. We show these certifications to our consumers to provide transparency. Currently we have certifications for: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World, Non-GMO Project, and Kosher for Dairy. We are in the process of expanding our 3rd party certifications, specifically around our pasturing system. We also will be reporting ongoing outputs to the executive team and board of directors.
How do you feel about reporting measurements?
Being transparent and data driven is paramount. We are happy to report measurements. In fact, we are a strong believer in third-party certifications in order to gain consumer trust and validate our practices.
What area of regen do you think you are particularly good at?
The soil is a strength on the Hart Dairy farms in terms of regenerative agriculture.
Rotational grazing targets, whereby pre and post herbal biomass is measured to ensure approximately 4-5 inches of grass is left, are implemented. Although no herbal leys are being added on the farm, additional species such as millet, lucerne and C4 perennials are added combined with no tillage and cover cropping practices. A comprehensive nutrient management plan is also in place for water management, which is essential.
What would you like to share with others/ could be easily adopted by others?
In a US context, there is opportunity even for conventional dairy farmers to employ more production of their own feed stocks. Economically, this could save them from exposure to high fuel, shipping and external production costs, but also benefit the land itself and give them somewhere to recycle their own manure.
What area of regen have you found a real struggle?
Doing the right thing at scale is always challenging, especially when you’re building from scratch. As more farmers embrace the benefits of regenerative agriculture, there are more opportunities to share best practices and scale regenerative farms. We are working hard to have processes in place, which we are embedding in our practices as we scale.
What would you like to have done that you haven’t yet been able to achieve?
Water is a key area where the tendency to drive improvement is lacking due to its wide availability but sitting on top of the Floridan Aquifer System (one of the largest in the world) is a natural benefit for Hart Dairy, and also a responsibility. We take this seriously and we are diligent in using water in a prudent, sustainable manner. Reflecting on recent headlines regarding water management in some regions – and challenges presented by global warming – is something that we all need to continue to improve as a farming community.
How might others avoid these challenges?
You shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes, so long as before anything substantial is done, the risks are calculated, and you can afford for them to not work. Farmers shouldn’t be afraid to ask other farmers who may have already made those mistakes. As more farmers adapt regenerative practices, we look forward to actively sharing knowledge with each other.
What do you wish someone had told you at the start?
Learn from your mistakes. You can’t be a pioneer without doing this along the way.
For example, Georgia is NOT New Zealand, so our early attempts to push the nearly all grazed grass component of the diet always ended in a reduction in health and productivity of the cow. So, do what’s best for the cow and accept that sensible supplementation of the daily fresh grass is necessary. The cows’ diets are optimized for their health – and we maintain our commitment to regenerative agriculture in growing much of our own feed in a responsible manner. Optimizing our pasturing system and the cows’ diet has been a journey. We learned to experiment and adapt best practices based on real-world conditions. We learned it’s not a simple cut and paste exercise.
OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES WITH REGENERATIVE DAIRY
What do you think are the key opportunities for regen dairy?
What are the key challenges for regen dairy?
Doing things differently is difficult and some farmers may suffer some short-term economic impact. Short-term costs will eventually produce the longer-term environmental benefits and economic return. Both must be present for regen dairy to succeed.
A major challenge is that the world still needs and wants affordable food on the table, which isn’t going to change. Milk in the US is a loss leader (around $4/gallon), yet niche, specialty milks such as grass-fed or organic can cost more than twice as much. (Source: USDA, July 2022). This dynamic means it’ll take two main things: early investments (farm side) and education as to the benefits of regen dairy to justify the premiums (consumer side).
Farmers need to make the upfront investments in regenerative agriculture. It also involves operational change, which isn’t always easy. But when farmers understand the return they’ll get, then they will be more incentivized to do so.
This operational change won’t matter, though, if dairies and dairy companies don’t educate consumers. Consumers need to understand the benefits of regenerative agriculture, which alleviates tension and allows everyday people at the grocery store to pay just a little more than conventional milk to support their values of treating animals humanely, providing premium nutrition for their families, and fighting climate change.
Are there things outside of your control that are preventing you making further progress?
Control can only be implemented on the farm, meaning markets and consumer preferences are outside of direct control. We may not be able to influence commodity markets to a great deal, but as mentioned above, we can work to influence consumer behavior through education. That’s not for one farmer to do on their own – it’s a chance for us to work together.