A lesson about sustainable dairy farming in Louisiana
Ted and Melissa Miller with their four children own and operate Delta Dairy LLC on the Mississippi River Delta in Baskin, Louisiana. The operation consists of approximately 450 milk cows and 600 head of replacements and bulls, rotationally grazed on 1,200 acres of pasture. This 14-minute documentary is a story about how the family produces milk in an environmentally and economically sustainable fashion.
The family comes from Pennsylvania where they have been running a dairy operation for about ten years. As they wanted to expand their business and found it hard to get more land, they decided to move and form a new partnership in Louisiana. They had the opportunity to buy the full operation in 2019. Delta Dairy LLC is a grass-based dairy operation.
For Ted, “the dairy business is nothing more than a material handling business. Cattle produce milk, they eat forage and other by-products … and those are all pounds of dry matter of material that need to move into the cow. Then, the cow carries the waste product back to the soil where we need it and we want to intervene as little as possible in that process.“
Of course, Ted admits that confinement-style dairy operations get a higher milk production rate, but in Louisiana, this type of operation would struggle to thrive economically. In addition, they had to restart pretty much from scratch, so they didn’t have a lot of money to invest at the time. Today, the Miller family has achieved input efficiency and low capital infrastructures, such as buildings and equipment have paid off.
Maximizing the utilization of free inputs
Grass-based operations are all about utilizing available, free resources and making the most of it.
“We’re selling milk by the hundredweight, we’re getting paid by the hundredweight, we want to keep as much of that per hundredweight payment as we can. And the grazing model allows us to be very efficient in regards to that,” Ted says.
Ted lists 4 inputs that are free, which must be maximized to achieve sustainability in a tough economical climate.
In Louisiana, Ted and Melissa are lucky enough to get abundant precipitation throughout the year. Annual precipitation ranges from around 50 inches in the north to around 70 inches at some locations in the southeast. The soil at Delta Dairy LLC is weathered with limited holding capacity, one of the reasons why Ted and Melissa have chosen to use rotational grazing methods and spent a lot of effort finding the correct grass for different types of soil. For instance, they managed to stop erosion with seeding perennial grass.
With an average of 101 clear days per year in Louisiana, Ted and Melissa decided to use solar powered energy as much as they can. But sunlight is also important for grass growth, and Ted and Melissa are pretty lucky with an average of 300 days of grass growth per year. In order to improve the soil and the grass quality, they have chosen to adopt a rotational grazing method, by mimicking buffalo herds found in the wild. Indeed, the buffalo grazing pattern in a wide-open range is based on the constant movement of the herd. Wild buffaloes pick the nutritious tops of every good plant, while the weeds and reject plants are trampled into the ground. Once the herd is gone, the pasture has time to rest.
If you want to learn more about the benefits of rotational grazing, read our article here.
- Carbon sequestration
The sequestration of carbon dioxide transforming itself into organic matter is an asset for soil health. Ted and Melissa have chosen to unroll hay straight onto the ground with a Hustler trailed chainless bale processor “because we want the cattle spread out as much as they possibly can be, to minimize the impact on the soil and also to disperse nutrients as far and wide as possible,” Ted explains.
- Regenerative seed
Ted uses a variety of plants and seeds, such as clover that self-seeds. In addition, unrolling forage onto the ground can be greatly beneficial for sustainable pastures. Because grain/seeds are not destroyed, any leftover seeds that are not consumed by the cattle germinate, renewing the pasture. “We have seen the soil health really explode” with this feeding method. “Even in a decade, we have seen tremendous strides made to improve soil health and soil quality, which we’re really excited about,” Ted declares.
You can find more tips about how to improve your pasture for free in one of our previous article here.
Achieving sustainability for the next generation
Ted thinks that the mission of a sustainable dairy operation is all about “what we can do as producers to enhance soil health, enhance the quality of forage and have healthy cattle. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to make a profit doing that, because if we can’t be economically sustainable on our land, whatever positive environmental impact we made, is going to be gone very quickly when we’ll be gone“.
That’s why Ted and Melissa decided to raise their children in a way that makes them fully aware of the potential economical struggles, by discussing the economical climate and teaching responsibilities.
Their oldest son, Jared, is employed full-time on the farm at the moment, taking welding courses in the evening. “I think at this stage of the game, it’s more about if this environment can allow him to maximize and grow his abilities. Once he decides what he wants to do with that we will revisit, but really that’s up to him,” Ted explains. Jared would like to continue the family project when his parents decide to retire.
For Ted and Melissa, there is no guarantee of a tomorrow in this business, as it’s a tough industry and the margins are thin and the prices can flip in an instant. This is the reason why Ted and Melissa strive to be sustainable and efficient, with producing costs as low as possible so they can clear their margin and be able to care for their land, long term.