Catching Rain for the Cows
Bodega Dairy Looks to the Sky for a Community Solution
By Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, et al.
This article originally appeared in Farming for the Future: Stories of Agriculture, Environment and Community, published in the Press Democrat on April 24, 2016 and the North Bay Business Journal on April 18, 2016.
This winter, when rain started falling at the Hughes’ dairy, the barn did more than keep 200 Jersey cows dry – it funneled about a million and a half gallons of rainwater into a man-made storage pond.
A network of pipes carried the water from the barn’s roof to the new pond, providing the dairy with a new source of water to replace its 7,000-gallon-a-day diversion from a nearby creek where migrating salmon and steelhead can be found.
“Forty years ago here, there was no question about what I could do,” Richard Hughes said about his legal right to pull water from Salmon Creek. “This new pond is a hedge for the future, not just for my own sake but also for helping the fish and the environment.”
Farmers across northern California like Hughes have been looking for solutions to water security and resiliency. Initially, Hughes was skeptical when the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District approached him and his wife, Marilyn, with the idea of building a 1.4 million rainwater catchment pond at their dairy to conserve water for wildlife and the Bodega community.
Despite four years of planning, paperwork and construction, Hughes describes his experience as one where government agencies listened to his knowledge of the land and concerns to create positive change.
At its capacity, the pond will give the Hughes 180 days of water in the dry months to give to their cows, wash out the milking barn and other barns where their cows spend the winter.
The hope is the extra water left in Salmon Creek will help support the steelhead and salmon, whose numbers have plummeted in the region’srivers, streams and creeks over the last few decades. More water in the stream should provide salmon and other creek life more spots to keep cool in, to hide in and to breed in.
For anyone who knows Richard and Marilyn, the project was a natural fit for the dairy nestled in the hills overlooking coastal Bodega.
Over the years, the couple have transitioned from raising a conventional Holstein herd, to a conventional Jersey herd and then to the organic Jersey herd they have today. The last switch to organic made sense to the Hughes, who were approached by Straus Family Creamery, which was looking to buy higher fat content milk. Hughes’ dairy is now one of eight local, family farms that provide high-fat, organic milk to Straus Family Creamery for its array of organic milk products.
“I felt we were going the wrong way in my operation,” Hughes said of their decision to raise cows that produce organic milk. “I got tremendous milk production from the Holsteins, but it was based on high concentrated feedings, and required some hormone and antibiotic use.” This has been an industry standard, however Hughes and many others have since developed better methods for caring for their cattle. “Some hormones I never used, like rBST, and never will.”
The transition to an organic dairy involved increasing the cows’ access to pasture and stopping the use of all hormones and antibiotics. Under the organic regime, the Hughes carefully breed the cows for strength, excellent milk production and overall good health. Their resilience prevents the herd from serious illness and helps to ensure organic treatments on minor ailments will be effective. Being at Hughes’ dairy you feel in your bones that these are happy cows.
Allowing the cows to graze on pastures also involved work to protect Salmon Creek. Hughes installed smooth wire fences to keep cattle away from the stream, forgoing barbed wire fences that can snag litter, accumulate debris, and form a dam-like structure when the banks overflow. And he partnered with government agencies to plant native trees near the creek banks to combat erosion and create habitat for wildlife.
Even the silage fields, which provide food for the cows, have undergone a transformation. A plow once used to turn the soil, pulling up grass roots and disturbing valuable soil structure, has been retired for the last fifteen years in order to prevent erosion, increase the soil’s water holding capacity and protect the soil ecology.
Today, Hughes walks out in his field with a spiker tool that creates 9-inch holes in the ground to aerate the soil, and he uses a no-till drill to cut small slots in the ground to plant grass seeds. His latest endeavor is learning more about adding micronutrients and organic matter to his soil and reducing erosion across the ranch.
“If I can develop balance with the plants, the land, and nutrients in the soil, then I get good grass that goes to the cows, and I get good quality milk,” Hughes said.
It is that practical reasoning that drives Hughes to look at his dairy with a holistic view.
Whether building a new water supply that benefits their business and wildlife or researching best soil practices, each project aligns with Hughes’ sense of community values, innovative spirit, and responsibility to do things right.
Given the high demand for organic products, small dairy size, high costs of imported feed, and good climate for growing grass, many Sonoma and Marin county dairy owners have transitioned to organic in the past decade. Organic certification standards require minimum days that cows spend in an open field grazing so that the cattle receive the bulk of their nutrition from the pasture. For some dairies, this raised concerns about how to grow enough grass to feed the herd without contributing to overgrazed pastures, which can lead to poor soil health, erosion and weeds. In the face of these challenges, dairymen in the two counties created the Pasture Club.
Mike Griffin from Organic Valley and Garry Mahrt, an organic dairyman and certified range manager out of Two Rock, brought their fellow pasture grazers together to brainstorm as a group. The Pasture Club, run by farmers for farmers, helped members experiment with new practices, held educational meetings, shared information, and developed best management practices that are now common among organic dairies.
A primary goal of the group was to determine how to improve soil health and soil water holding capacity to improve forage – work that is now being used to inform “Carbon Farming.” The Pasture Club – its members and its impact – is a tremendous example of the type of collaborative stewardship and leadership that can be found in Sonoma County.
“Environmental stewardship refers to an acceptance of personal responsibility for actions to improve environmental quality and to achieve sustainable outcomes. Stewardship involves lifestyles and business practices, initiatives and actions that enhancethe state of the environment. If I can develop balance with the plants, the land, and nutrients in the soil, then I get good grass that goes to the cows, and I get good quality milk.”–Richard Hughes