White Wave Looks to the Farm to Improve Environmental Footprint

White Wave Looks to the Farm to Improve Environmental Footprint

Image courtesy of White Wave.

Of all the various sources of greenhouse gas emissions, one of the most little-known to the average consumer may be those from the wide-eyed dairy cow and its environs.

Some estimate that dairy industry emissions, including those from cow burps and manure, are responsible for about 2 percent of total emissions in the U.S. For some firms like the White Wave Food Company, those dairy emissions account for a significant slice of their carbon footprints.

White Wave, the Broomfield, Colo.-based maker of Silk, Horizon Organic, International Delight and Land O Lakes, has been targeting its dairy carbon footprint for years. Between 2006 and 2010, the company cut its emissions 16 percent per gallon of product, exceeding its 10 percent goal for the time period.

I had a chance to speak to the company recently to hear about how it was reducing its environmental impacts by changing up the way it handles its pastures and dairy herds. White Wave's two company-owned farms in Maryland and Idaho supply less than 10 percent of the milk supply for Horizon Organic, with the rest coming from about 550 family farmers.

For its own operations, White Wave's actions can largely be grouped into three buckets, according to Deanna Bratter, White Wave's manager of responsible livelihood: methane reduction, carbon sequestration and utilities.

Almighty Methane

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Dairy cows are a big source of methane emissions, and when it comes to cutting methane, managing and composting manure effectively is key.

"The composting practices that we put in place at the farm are to make sure we get the most benefits for end-use as a soil amendment," Bratter said, "but also throughout the composting practice to make sure the emissions are as minimal as possible."

Composting as much manure as possible is the goal, so when White Wave opened its Idaho milking parlor in 2008, the facility was designed to maximize manure recovery and prevent it from entering settling lagoons, where it would turn anaerobic and produce methane. Pasture time is also important because manure deposited in the field doesn't decompose in an anaerobic way because of air exposure. Instead, it makes the ground more productive because it is naturally absorbed by plants and the soil.

"We compost or apply as nutrients 100 percent of animal manure to feed our crops and build soil organic matter," Bratter said.

Deep Roots, Big Carbon Sink

To sequester carbon in the pastures, White Wave focuses on healthy, deep-seated root systems. The mostly perennial grasses that make up the pasture are mowed only every few years.

"Another practice we have employed is growing poplar trees to sequester carbon, as they use excess nitrates, phosphorus and potassium," Bratter said in a follow-up email. "Hybrid Poplar plantings have shown significant ability to sequester carbon and uptake excess nutrients which could harm ground water if not managed properly."

White Wave implemented a robust soil sampling protocol to check progress on its carbon sequestration, with GPS systems to ensure it is taking samples consistently from the same locations throughout the farms.

"What we're looking for there is the content of soil organic matter, as well as output of nitrogen and some other components that help us assess how much carbon the soil is taking in," Bratter said.

Doing More with Less

The company also examines the utility side of its operations to reduce energy, water and energy, including liquid propane gas, electricity, diesel and gasoline. Its new facility at its Idaho dairy, which hosts 2,400 milking cows, has boosted energy efficiency and reduced water use through a range of features, including variable speed drives for most electric motors, equipment that allows more cows to be milked in a shorter amount of time and an automated hoof bath which times water injection and clean out.

Its Maryland dairy, with its 500 milking cows, uses a berm and dam structure along a nearby creek to capture up to 6 million gallons of rainwater, as well as solar-heated water and radiant floor heating.

But it's White Wave's commitment to organic and its practices, such as pasture time, growing feed on site and closing the loop between animal and feed, that Bratter believes set the company apart from conventional dairies.

"We look at things as a holistic symbiotic circle," Bratter said. "Every item on the farm is connected and the key is finding the connections and growing each one." 

Image courtesy of White Wave.