For Joe Tomandl, Wisconsin dairy farmer and executive director of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA), the future of the dairy industry in the United States comes down to two key elements: environmental sustainability and people.
“The real challenge [for dairy farmers] is how to stay relevant for the next decade, generation, or seven generations,” explains Tomandl. “The apprenticeship program was originally put together to train the next generation of regenerative managed dairy farmers.”
DGA was the first registered agricultural apprenticeship in the nation when it was founded in 2010 to help young farmers and those new to farming break into an industry that has several barriers to entry, including the high cost of land and equipment. The program now has more than 200 training farms in 15 states. By providing 4,000 hours of paid training over the course of a two-year apprenticeship, DGA creates opportunities for aspiring dairy farmers to break into the industry and learn the skills necessary to manage, operate, and even own their own farms.
Yet, despite more than a decade of successful apprenticeships, Tomandl and his colleagues have observed that the landscape of the dairy industry in the U.S. is rapidly changing—and that new challenges are emerging.
“When we started 13 years ago, you could still transition into dairy,” Tomandl explains. “Even the last three to five years, the cost of doing business keeps accelerating. We see it everywhere. The cost of equipment, repairs, maintenance, labor, insurance. Every one of them has gone up, and our markets have decreased.”
Today, DGA estimates that approximately 5–10% of total U.S. dairy farms are lost each year to factors like financial hardship, inflation, and retirement. Tomandl outlines barriers to entry like cost, education, and an industry appetite for constant growth and scalability as factors that have made the industry an increasingly inhospitable space for small farmers over the course of the last generation.
To help secure the future of DGA—and the U.S. dairy industry as a whole—the nonprofit’s board is considering options that would be necessary to create change on a larger scale, Tomandl says. These observations led DGA to begin developing an initiative called the New Dairy Concept, a business incubator where clusters of 15–20 small, independently owned farms in a 20-mile radius share important resources for training, labor, equipment, processing, transportation, and distribution. The hope is that this model will pave the way for both experienced and aspiring dairy farmers to succeed in the industry, while also providing livable wages and more humane conditions for animals.
An integral part of the New Dairy Concept is a method of raising livestock called regenerative managed grazing, in which cows graze on grassy pastures in rotating paddocks rather than from troughs. Managed grazing naturally limits the size of dairy farms to the number of animals that the land can support and boasts an impressive roster of environmental benefits, including phosphorous and carbon sequestration, water filtration, and the improvement of wildlife and pollinator habitats.
“What managed grazing does is it focuses on perennial ground cover, so we’re keeping that ground covered with vegetation 365 days of the year,” Tomandl explains. “It armors our soil and retains that soil from erosion…Along with that, it keeps phosphorus where it needs to stay and allows soil to build more water filtration capacity so it can handle larger rain events.”
From a pure water standpoint, Tomandl says regenerative managed grazing could help the U.S. meet important conservation goals by increasing water filtration and infiltration capacity in vulnerable watersheds, like those of the Great Lakes region.
He refers to conventional agriculture as “an incredibly successful machine,” but acknowledges that many of the practices that allow for the production and processing of high volumes of food aren’t kind to the environment. Because agriculture uses an estimated 52% of the U.S. land base, according to studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Tomandl says that evaluating how this acreage is used is—and whether those practices are sustainable for farmers and the planet—is becoming increasingly important.
For example, the USDA reports that traditional tilling practices, which prepare the land for planting, can release greenhouse gases, create soil erosion, and increase nutrient and chemical runoff into waterways. Although conventional agriculture has made some advancements, like promoting cover crops that don’t require aggressive tilling, Tomandl says this isn’t enough.
“We still won’t hit the benchmarks that we need to clean the water we need to clean,” he says. “It will still fall short. We need to be fearless. We need to be thinking about these other types of systems.”
To evaluate whether regenerative managed grazing is a viable solution to these concerns, DGA conducted a multi-year farm study, beginning with a 114-acre plot of land. Compared to tilled crop farming, this regenerative managed grazing farm prevented 478,800 pounds of soil erosion per acre, reduced phosphorous runoff by 570 pounds, retained 256,044 pounds of nitrate, and sequestered 4.2 tons of carbon—all in just one year.
While crop farming and dairy are vastly different industries, Tomandl sees the New Dairy Concept as a way to encourage more agricultural professionals to enter the dairy profession and use existing farmland for more economical and environmentally friendly purposes.
“I’m not saying we need to convert everything to this model,” says Tomandl. “But why can’t we have 10% like this? Ten percent of this in the right areas, and that might clean up Lake Erie.”
From an economic standpoint, the New Dairy Concept is expected to have significant impact on rural communities. According to DGA, a single 200-cow dairy farm generates $6.8 million of economic activity in the local community each year, with grazing farms contributing an estimated 20% more per cow than large confinement operations, which often bring needed services in house rather than outsourcing them to the community.
Moving forward, Tomandl and his colleagues are looking for opportunities to spread the word about the New Dairy Concept. For example, Tomandl sees the potential for an industry influencer—someone already successful in “Big Milk”—to help develop the marketing language necessary to grow interest in the New Dairy Concept. Where the egg industry has terminology like “free range” to designate more environmentally friendly and humane options, Tomandl believes dairy can establish something similar.
Within the next year, Tomandl hopes to bring key players in the dairy industry together with financial backers, policy makers, environmental advocates, and other stakeholders to determine marketing strategies, monetary support, and more ways for people to get involved.
“When we created the apprenticeship program, we focused the future of managed grazing on people,” he says. “It’s going to take plenty of upfront support—maybe even mission-related support—to keep this thing moving. It’s going to take a village.”