“Most importantly, sustainability means being able to stay in business and pass the farm to the next generation."
"If that doesn’t happen, the most environmentally progressive practices are worthless” says John Fiscalini, head of Fiscalini Farms and Cheese Factory.
The family traces its roots back to 1705 in Switzerland, and in the 1890s Mateo Fiscalini migrated to the US from his home country and started producing and selling milk in California. The family relocated to Modesto, California in the 1920s, and in 2000 they built a cheese plant. Their cheeses have won several international awards.
John says that they did not really make a conscious decision to work sustainably, but simply evolved their practices as their ancestors have taught each generation to farm and manage cows.
The Fiscalini Farms’ mission statement illustrates their focus on productivity and profitability, but also on the importance of taking good care of the animals and managing the land with responsibility. Empowering the employees and ensuring safe and healthy working conditions also plays an important role.
Responsible stewardship of the land
More than three million dollars have been invested in a methane digester system that will help to reduce the 530 acre farm’s carbon footprint by recycling manure, whey and feed waste into electricity. The system will produce sufficient electricity to power the dairy barn, where they milk 54 cows at a time, plus the 88,000 sq ft cheese plant. In addition to taking care of the electricity bill of $150 000/year there also will be enough electricity produced to sell back to the grid.
The digester consists of two 14-inch thick concrete tanks, each 86 feet in diameter and 24 feet tall, with plastic tops. Each of the tanks can take 860 000 gallons of manure and green waste. The tanks are heated to 100 degrees (F), same as the cow’s stomach, and during 40 days bacteria breaks down the manure, producing methane which is then burnt to produce electricity.
The heat from the system is used to pre-warm the water for the plant's heat exchangers, and what is left after the 40 day long process will be dried and used as bedding for the cows and sold as a nutrient-rich substitute for peat moss.
They also have grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy, which will let university researchers install equipment to monitor the methane operation, to gather data to make better judgments about the efficiency and economic feasibility of methane digesters.
Water is conserved in any way possible. The fields are laser leveled, to get maximum efficiency of the irrigations; they also have a tail water return systems to re-distribute water that gathers at the ends of the fields.
No fertilizer is purchased; only cow manure is used to grow the crops. They triple crop the land, and continue to get higher yields per year, which proves that they are returning organic material and adequate manure as fertilizer back to the soil.
The amount of N, P, K (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) that they apply from manure is monitored, and they take soil samples and analyze each crop harvested for N, P, K removal. They strive to keep the manure applications in balance with the soil for the crops they grow and harvest. There are nitrate monitoring wells on the property to determine if the manure applications or the dairy farm itself has the potential to contaminate the groundwater.
They are also starting to use no-till farming practices, which mean less fuel consumption.
Award-winning cheeses starts with safe and healthy conditions – and not only for the cows
The cows are kept healthy through strict cleaning procedures and a number of mechanisms to minimize infections. Weekly visits by the veterinary ensure regular animal testing, and the alleys are cleaned seven times a day. No new cows are introduced to the herd and they follow a strict bio-security plan. In summer the cows are kept cool through powerful fans and soaker hoses that wet them down. The employees are trained in cow handling and selected for how they behave around the cows. Fiscalini Farms has received the status as a Certified Responsible Producer for its farming practices and procedures in animal welfare, working with Validus Services, an independent third-party certification entity.
But not only is the well-being of the cows important. The mission is to provide safe and healthy working and living conditions for the farms’ employees as well. At Fiscalini Farms and Cheese Factory the employees are empowered by having decision-making responsibilities, and this motivates them to reach the farm’s goals.
Profitability through good management and technology
John and his family aim to be among the leaders of the agriculture industry in both productivity/unit and profitability/unit. They are in the top 10% of dairy farms in the nation for milk production per cow. This is achieved by best management practices and use of proven technology. They do not have access to enough information to know if they are among the most profitable dairies, but with the limited information available, John believes that they are in the top 25%.
Challenges for the new sustainable technologies
One of the main challenges that John has encountered in his methane digester project (which has been delayed more than 13 months) has been the shifting priorities of the regulators, not being in synch with each other.
“Each agency looks at a specific item that is their "panic button" and ignores the overall positive impacts” he says. “And the air board has now added $250,000 to the project, for something that may have no impact at all on air quality.”
In the dairy industry the costs involved in the methane-converting systems are being widely discussed. This might be a set-back in rolling out the technology. John Fiscalini agrees that cost is likely to be a major deterrent for farmers and processors, in the US and globally. He thinks consumer and government support will be the key to adopting the technology.
“It’s the right thing to do” – but how?
According to John there are many ways you can start working more sustainably. Most are practical changes in management, with better recordkeeping about fertilizer applications, better irrigation practices, and restrictive use of herbicides and pesticides, use of no-till practices.
“Most of us do these things already”, he says, “but we can improve. There is no right or wrong, each dairyman has chosen how involved he wants to be as a dairy farmer, and/or a crop farmer. We are all specialized, so the key is to balance all that we do as farmers.”
John’s plan for the future is to continue adopting new methods as they become available, and stay in front of the pack. And as an advice for the dairy producers that are considering making changes to more sustainable dairy farming solutions he says:
“It’s the right thing to do – the consumer will eventually prevail.”
Milk production facts:
Number of dairy cows and breed: 1500 producing cows and 1500 replacements.
How many people work on the farm? 25
Total milk produced per year? 46,000,000 pounds
Average yield per cow? 85-90 lbs milk/cow per day
% of fat and protein? 3.6% F 3.1% P
Somatic cell count, SCC? <200,000, usually closer to 150,000
Total bacteria count? <1000 /ml
What do you grow? Corn for silage, wheat for silage or hay, sudan grass for silage of hay
Number of acres? 530