Prairieland combines cows, fluid processing and compost sales
By Shirley Chapman
In the 1990s, tough economic conditions made it difficult for small dairies to survive. It just wasn’t a sustainable business model.
"We knew we didn’t want to be another family farm statistic," says Dan Rice. In 1998, after 12 years of dairying on his own, he teamed up with Dave and Cliff Obbink of Firth, Neb. Joining forces created a broader equity base and allowed each to work in his area of expertise.
For two years, they worked side by side to check compatibility and to plan. Today, the four multi-generational families run three separate enterprises—a 1,600-cow dairy, a bottling plant and composting business.
Now, milking cows is just one job, explains Rice, who is general manager of Prairieland Dairy. Diversification has allowed everyone to focus on their passion and to develop their own area of expertise. More importantly, the business has become more family-friendly.
"You get to see your kids’ sporting events and have days off," he says. "It’s just like any other business, so the kids want to come back and people want to work here."
Sustainability on three fronts—economic, environmental and social—is what led to Prairieland’s selection for an Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
"Prairieland Dairy has set itself up for success for generations to come. Diversifying the operation has allowed the dairy to fully embrace its role as environmental and community stewards," says Barbara O’Brien, president, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
Prairieland illustrates that successful sustainability is not about size, region or age of the operation. It’s about applying best management practices that are sustainable on all fronts, O’Brien explains.
The planning started with the cows. Prairieland partners strived for energy-efficient, low-impact facilities that would allow comfortable cows to flourish. In addition, they wanted to conserve and renew natural resources while controlling variable and overhead cost.
These goals led to the use of groundwater in the first plate cooler for quickly cooling milk and providing geothermal heating and cooling for dairy offices. They also automated the cooling, waste management and pest-control systems and utilize gravity to minimize pump use for manure management. All together, these steps add up to more than $200,000 in savings each year.
Composting manure was an easy decision. Prairieland strives to protect the environment, neutralize odors and be good neighbors. Composting allows them to do all of that, and turn a profit. The composted products—soil amendments, potting soil, growing mix and straight compost—are sold to greenhouses, landscapers and through retail outlets.
In addition, the dairy started adding food waste from the local school district to the composting mix. It started as a pilot project and has grown from there, Rice explains. Prairieland Gold now accepts biodegradable products from several local sources.
"Landfills are filling at an alarming rate," Rice says. "Whatever we can compost here helps reduce what goes into the landfill." Last year 5,000 tons of food waste and 8,000 tons of yard waste from the community was diverted from the landfill and turned into useful products.
Accepting biodegradable waste from the community, for a small fee just like landfills do, supports Prairieland’s goal of supporting the community.
In 2009, Prairieland decided the time was right to start bottling and selling its own milk. They rebuilt the bottling plant in town, and Prairieland Foods was born. Today, the dairy bottles and sells 60% of the milk produced on farm. Their milk is distributed through 40 outlets and reaches 30,000 customers each week.
Dairy producers feed the world. "But when you have ties like this, when you know your customers, it’s a source of great pride. We deliver a product with unbeatable freshness and a low carbon footprint," Rice says. Milk goes from the farm and into consumers’ hands in less than 24 hours and travels less than 60 miles.
Several years ago, the partners decided to embrace the community as opposed to running from urban encroachment. That commitment has led Prairieland to be transparent and open to the public so that people can have a relationship with the source of their food.
Prairieland welcomes 20,000 visitors per year. Each June, they host Prairieland Dairy Days, where 5,000 people visit in a five-hour period. In addition, Prairieland encourages two-way dialogue with customers through its website and its Twitter, YouTube and Facebook accounts.
Outreach takes time, Rice says, but it is a vital part of sustaining this business. "It’s about connecting consumers to a real modern dairy farm experience and helping them see that our business is responsible, ethical and 100% family owned."
Last year, 13,00 tons of food and yard waste was diverted from the community landfill into Prairieland’s composting business, says Dan Rice.
Sustainability, Rice says, "for us, means sustaining the family farm into the next generation." Combining assets and expertise has allowed Prairieland to achieve that goal. During the last five years, five members of the next generation have joined the business. And each works in an area for which they have passion.
Celebrating Dairy Sustainability
Healthy products, healthy people and a healthy planet—that’s the commitment of the dairy industry each and every day.
The U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards were developed to celebrate that commitment. Given out by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, eight dairy operations—producers and processors—received the prestigious awards this year.
Selections were based on the operation’s ability to demonstrate economic, environmental and social sustainability. In addition, an independent panel of judges also looked for innovation and improvement, shared learning and the potential for other dairy operations to replicate results.
"The awards build on the dairy industry’s long-standing commitment to stewardship," says Barbara O’Brien, president of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy was established by dairy producers through Dairy Management Inc.
If you would like to learn more about the awards or the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, use the links under our bonus content for this story at www.dairytoday.com. Nominations for the 2014 awards are being accepted until Nov. 15, 2013. Winners will be announced in April 2014.