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December 11, 2011
feature article

Making the 'little blue cow' a little greener

Canada's dairy farmers see environmental stewardship programs as making good business sense while boosting their brand in the eyes of the customer.

It is no secret agricultural producers today are asked to deal with a broader range of demands than ever before.

One of the greatest of these is to not only to produce high quality food products but to do this in a way that upholds high standards of environmental stewardship.

One the positive side of the equation, there is new opportunity to strengthen image and market demand. On the challenging side, there are higher expectations to meet - ones that take management, are a potential cost and run the risk of leading to "environmental fatigue" among producers.

Canadian dairy farmers have emerged as one of the leaders in not shying from the new demands but rather taking strong ownership of them as a way to strengthen their future.

Through organizations such as Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) nationally and complementary provincial organizations, they have identified environmental stewardship as a top priority.

For Mike Slomp, industry and member services manager with Alberta Milk, it's part of making the "little blue cow" – the logo signifying products made with high quality Canadian milk - appear a little bit greener in the eyes of consumers.

"Dairy farmers believe the progress they make today will not only pay dividends on-farm but ultimately convey into the brands of the products they produce," says Slomp.

Mindset of innovation

Dairy farmers have long been among the leaders in adopting a range of practice improvements, codes and standards that keep them up to date in addressing emerging expectations on a range of fronts, says Slomp. Environmental stewardship is an area that has long been a part of that equation but today the expectations are becoming higher profile and more sophisticated.

It takes a process of continual improvement to keep up, but the effort is one dairy farmers see as necessary for the industry to reach its greatest potential.

"There's no question the effort is an investment. It takes time before the progress reaches a point where the dairy industry can stick a peg in the ground and say 'this is what we stand for' and really push that on the marketing end. However they know this is where the world is going. Everything they do in supporting stewardship adds up over time to support a stronger future for their operations and their industry. That positive mindset has been a real asset."

Green means efficiency

Slomp says another key to the industry's success has been identifying and implementing practice changes that not only benefit the environment but also deliver strong benefits, such as greater production efficiency, that directly improve the bottom line.

One recent example Slomp has been involved with is the Dairy Greenhouse Gas Project. Like many environmental stewardship efforts by the industry, it is designed to clearly tie environmental improvements with benefits for the bottom line.

"Dairy farmers, like producers in other areas of agriculture, are fortunate that these dual benefits tend far more often than not to go hand in hand," says Slomp.

The program is based on the premise that efficient farms tend to be profitable farms, and GHG emissions are simply a product of inefficiencies in converting forages into high quality Canadian milk. Slomp believes the program will help the industry seek out new opportunities to reduce emissions, while growing farm profits.

Business case drives adoption

The Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) tool is another initiative a number of dairy producers are using or considering where the tie to bottom line questions really drives things, Slomp believes. He brings a unique perspective on the EFP, having served several years in the role of managing the program in Alberta prior to his tenure with Alberta Milk.

The EFP, he says, is a good tool that fits well amid today's backdrop of rising pressure on environmental stewardship. However, like any planning programs producers are asked to do today, it needs to continually strengthen its business case to see widespread adoption.

"It's no secret producers have a lot on their plate and are asked to do more all the time," says Slomp. "With something like EFP, it's hard to argue with the concept and the tool. The more that environmental stewardship progress can be tied to bottom line benefits, the stronger the motivation will be for producers to participate."

More information on the Alberta EFP initiative is available at www.albertaefp.com.

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