Every three months at the VanOeffelen Dairy Farm in Conklin, everyone involved with the business — from breeders and nutritionists to their co-op and their veterinarians — gathers for a candid and all-encompassing roundtable discussion.
“We sit back and look at the good, bad and ugly every quarter and brainstorm how to reduce costs, improve efficiencies and increase profitability, while striking a better balance personally and professionally with animal health, soil quality and water quality,” says Cortney VanOeffelen, one of four sisters who took over the 1,150 milking cow operation after their dad died in 2016.
This holistic approach was one of the reasons the dairy was chosen for a General Mills three-year pilot program to help growers try out regenerative agriculture practices. The goal is to implement farming and grazing practices customized to each farm that, among other benefits, seek to rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity, resulting in both carbon drawdown and improved water quality.
Some of those practices include minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing plant diversity, keeping the soil covered and integrating grazing livestock on crop land.
The pilot program provides free one-on-one technical support and coaching for the VanOeffelen Dairy Farm and two other dairies in western Michigan to integrate regenerative practices without financial risk.
“Nobody likes change,” VanOeffelen says. “But General Mills, with its supporters, is willing to provide financial support for changes or practices because they believe in it. This is not something that will happen overnight, but it’s a beginning with both short- and long-term goals.”
The program is funded by investments from General Mills’ charitable giving arm and working with 501(c)(3) partners and other businesses and philanthropic entities.
So why does General Mills — the maker of Wheaties, Yoplait, Cheerios, Häagen-Dazs and so much more — care about farming practices?
“General Mills is a farm-to-fork food company that depends completely on the health and well-being of the planet to produce key ingredients like oats, wheat and dairy,” says Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer at General Mills. “We need a steady supply of those ingredients to make our products to feed and nourish the world.”
However, for regenerative agriculture to be successful, it must first be economically viable for farmers as a lever to help build operational and financial resilience, Melendez says.
“With this pilot, General Mills is committed to ensuring that the transition to regenerative practices will be beneficial to our dairy partners and enhance the overall health of their farms," she says.
Understanding Ag partnership
To assist the three dairy farms, all located within a 100-mile radius and collectively managing almost 14,000 acres, General Mills has partnered with consultants Understanding Ag and dairy cooperative Foremost Farms to pilot regenerative practices for about 1,500 of those total acres.
Throughout the pilot, partners will monitor data and measure effects to soil, biodiversity, water, animal well-being and farm profitability.
According to Dr. Allen Williams, sixth-generation farmer and rancher and founding partner at UA, “Regenerative agriculture is farming and ranching in a manner that repairs, restores and regenerates fully functioning ecosystems, while also restoring farm net profitability, restoring quality of life and restoring functioning community dynamics, including restoration of rural economies.”
Participants learn about the six principles of soil health, including context, which means, “understanding current production practices and a historical context with prior practices and socioeconomic and community dynamics,” Williams says.
Other principles include:
- minimizing disturbance through less use of synthetic products and tillage
- keeping living roots in the soil
- keeping cover on the soil
- implementing diversity through crop rotation and crop mixes to increase water infiltration capacity, which promotes microbial activity in the soil and more pollinators and birds
- integrating grazing livestock to crop land
“Integrating grazing livestock is very difficult for large dairies due to their infrastructure and the way they operate,” Williams says. “Getting lactating cows out grazing is not practical if you are not set up in a pasturing system. But heifers and dry cows could be grazed.
"We know from research and many years of experience that if you can develop heifers on pasture or on annual cover crops versus a TMR [total mixed ration], it produces very positive lifetime effects — their breeding percentage is better, milk component production for a lifetime is better, and their longevity is far greater, as well their overall health. A grazed heifer is known to last 1.5 to 2 times longer before being culled, and heifer development costs are reduced anywhere from 30% to 50% with grazing versus TMR.”
Using adaptive grazing also benefits the land, he adds, by helping to build organic matter in carbon, provide direct fertility to the soil and stimulate soil microbial population.
Positive ecosystem effects become positive economic effects, he adds, some more immediate and some long term.
To measure gains in soil health, UA consultants use four different tests. “A combination of the four tests gives a complete picture of the soil chemical, physical and biological characteristics,” Williams says. “A standard soil test only gives you about 10% of what you need to know, and it’s chemical only.”
With greater biology in the soil, cash crops and cover crops are far more resilient, and they yield better with fewer inputs — and are more nutrient dense, he says. “Every ton you harvest with greater nutrient density, cows will eat less for the same amount of nutrients, and they are healthier — milk components go up.”
Consultants are monitoring water infiltration, which will allow greater plant uptake throughout the year and far less run off, which is huge concern of large dairies, Williams says. “Better infiltration means less issues with drought or excessively wet weather patterns, which will widen the window for spring planting, fall harvest and field applications in between. It will also hold up large equipment better.”
The VanOeffelen Dairy
About 2,000 acres of corn, wheat, soy, triticale and alfalfa are planted at the VanOeffelen Dairy Farm, which transitioned out of also raising steers four years ago to concentrate on and build the dairy.
The four sisters, Cortney VanOeffelen, Nicole Berish, Katie VanOeffelen and Jeannie Kutzli put their faith and trust into a management team where Cortney and her brother-in-law, Jeff Kutzli, farm manager; Greg Meda, feed manager; and Gonzola Ricon, herdsman, oversee 25 full-time employees.
“We are now looking at getting into new forage blends and different types of pasturing,” Cortney VanOeffelen says. “We’re looking at planting different things to do more with no-till and possibly interseeding with corn, but we haven’t gotten to that point yet. What works for one farm might not work for another with different soil types. It’s trial and error, but the field trials will allow us to capture the data to find out what works. What’s exciting is having a voice in all this and what we want to pursue.”
General Mills is eager to learn the outcomes from these learning laboratories on farms. “We want to know what things worked, what things didn’t work, what we will continue in the future and what things we need to change,” Melendez says. “We will continue to share our findings openly with others, and definitely hope to get more acres under management as we look to advance regenerative practices on 1 million acres of land by 2030.”
The two other dairies in the pilot program include Mibelloon Dairy in St. Louis, Mich., owned by the Van Loon family, milking 8,200 cows and farming 7,000 acres of alfalfa, corn silage, triticale, and sorghum-sudangrass; and Masselink Dairy in Middleton, Mich., owned by the Masselink family, milking 2,000 cows and farming 4,200 acres of corn silage, haylage (primarily alfalfa) and rye (ryelage).
While General Mills is looking to strengthen its supply chain, create greater economic resilience for farmers and build planetary resilience, it’s also keenly aware of a growing consumer interest and demand in knowing how food is produced.
“From the consumer perspective, we are seeing a fast-growing desire and demand for regeneratively produced food products and the desire for farmers and ranchers to implement these practices with many major global businesses recognizing that,” Williams says. “Since March and the arrival of COVID-19, we’ve seen an incredibly rapid rise in consumer awareness and direct purchase decisions — it’s something we track. Since March, sales for regeneratively produced foods have risen from 400% to 2,000%, and in the last few months, we’re taken a 10-year leap forward.”
Doug Martin, president of the General Mills U.S. yogurt business agrees. “Consumers increasingly want to support brands and companies they trust are acting as environmental stewards," he says.
Cortney VanOeffelen adds, “It will only become more consumer driven, and in five to 10 years, regenerative practices will become more of standard practices.”