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Drought inspires dairy farms in Marin, Sonoma counties to employ technology

Other North Bay ranches that are pursuing eco-friendly measures

Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery made a goal of being carbon neutral at the farm by 2023 and came out of the gate running.

The Petaluma farm is using a small-scale microbiology biodigester to process the manure. The methane digester, in operation since 2004, produces enough renewable energy to power the entire farm, including the equipment.

Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales was selected in 2013 as one in three test cases for a decade-long study with the Marin Carbon Project.

From that study, Stemple Creek conducts soil assessments from its organic compost spread over its pasturelands to help sequester the carbon in the ground. This practice serves as a natural fertilizer.

Also based in Tomales, Toluma Farms has carried out stewardship programs involving the restoration of wildlife habitats, creeks and drainages as well as methods of saving water.

In 2017, the goat and sheep dairy farm received a U.S. Department of Agriculture Healthy Soil grant for three years to plant 450 trees and bushes over a quarter-mile span and apply compost to its pastures.

With offices located in Larkspur, Farmland, a large ranch manager focusing on converting conventional farmland to organic, has made inroads with replacing land used to grow corn to blueberries.

It also has concentrated on installing more drip irrigation systems, which traditionally use less water.

Staring at a hillside already turning a lighter shade of green while barely out of winter, Bivalve Dairy farmers John and Karen Taylor are trying to steer out of a third year of drought this spring in Marin County with the help of technology.

“This concerns me because we’re seeing drought-like conditions in February,” John Taylor said, pointing across the 705-acre organic farm near Point Reyes where they tend to 400 head of dairy cows. Of those, they milk 125 on the farm off Highway 1. “We’re doing a lot less than we used to,” he added.

Karen Taylor, a sixth-generation dairywoman, recalled how her parents, Sharon and William Bianchini, used to milk 350 cows on the West Marin farm once called the Bianchini Ranch founded in 1973.

But today, many Marin farmers like the Taylors, who have sold off 200 head of cattle, have reduced their herds to scale down the feed. And the Taylors remember how stressful it was to run out of water for a month last summer at the height of drought — not the easiest of times to run a ranch.

The Taylors took over the Marin County farm on Jan. 1, 2006, from her parents. The duo is pulling out all the stops in making their water go far.

With John Taylor tapping into his engineering degree at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, he’s able to come up with innovative measures and practices. Some have already been implemented. Others are in the wings, or rather, in the box awaiting parts delayed by supply-chain issues.

When all is said and done, the Taylors expect to save about 10,000 gallons of water per day from the changes they’re making on the farm named after a former, nearby train station meant as a water stop for the Northwestern Pacific Railroad steam engine for almost six decades.

Managing manure

The California Department of Food and Agriculture announced March 10 it is accepting grant applications for its Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) and Dairy Digester Research and Development Program (DDRDP).

Applications for the programs administered by the agency’s Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation are due by May 9.

Once all the parts arrive by May, John Taylor plans to assemble an automated control system for his new Roomba-like barn floor scraper, which collects manure rather than flushes it away with water. In turn, water from the manure could be extracted and used as compost to fertilizer the pastures.

The Taylors also utilize the cows moving across the pasture to aerate the soil, a “no-till” method endorsed by the Natural Resources Conservation District and University of California Cooperative Extension.

John Taylor is also planning to build a hay dryer to turn the coastal grasses and other plants into feed that goes farther on the farm, thus reducing the need to spend the mega dollars expected to buy hay from outside sources when the pastures become nonedible for the cows. Bales of silage, which is wet hay produced from the pasturelands, are bound, wrapped and stored in a barn. This way, the feed is ready on demand.

They’ve also built a greenhouse to grow lemna, a form of silage that’s essentially a duckweed used as a feed supplement. The Taylors said their cows like the grain, hay and plant mix, and a nutritionist monitors their rations of the “recipe” that’s found to be more digestible for the cows.

The Taylors have also adopted a complex, efficient irrigation and water storage system with $10,000 in grant funding from the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) and assistance from scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Their system allows them to channel all the water that runs on the property through a series of PVC pipes, a solar pump and ponds, along with relying on a well.

All the effort to help the farm survive multiple years of drought is intended to pass on the homestead to future generations like the Taylors’ children, Eva and William, Jr., who also work on the farm.

“My grandfather always said: ‘You need to try something new,’” Karen Taylor said. “We just don’t want to waste anything.”

Waste not, want not the world over

Innovative farming practices have spanned the Marin landscape and beyond, county Agriculture Commissioner Stefan Parnay told the Business Journal.

“We’re now going into our third year of drought. This has spurred more innovation in the agricultural sector, and the farms now are taking it up a notch,” he said. “This year is going to be telling, especially with the lack of feed. The hills are already turning brown.”

MALT Associate Director Eric Rubenstahl insists the farms that can produce silege will do better because the farmers are not having hay trucked in from far-flung places. Not only has the price of hay gone up, but so has the fuel used to truck it in.

More money in Marin to help farmers with drought

The Marin Agricultural Land Trust announced April 14 it has approved more funding for its Drought Resilience and Water Security Initiative.

Under phase 3 for the program introduced last year, MALT will allot an additional $250,000 to help farmers address critical water shortages. “DRAWS“ has already allocated $500,000 for these efforts.

That’s why Rubenstahl is convinced grant funds from its Stewardship Assistance Program (SAP) goes a long way in helping farms turn the corner on best-kept water conservation and climate-friendly practices.

In Sonoma County, dairy farmer Doug Beretta received a $650,000 grant to upgrade his Beretta Dairy operation with improvements intended to reduce water use and methane.

He spent half that amount for a barn scraper similar to the Taylors’. After collecting and drying the manure, Beretta uses it as bedding for the cows to live and sleep in. He said his veterinarian claims the dried manure has turned out to be a healthier alternative than sand for the Holstein and Jersey cows to stand and lay in.

“We used to truck in sand from Rio Vista. Who knows what that costs with fuel now?” he said, while petting the head of Emily, one of his latest bovine arrivals. “And it’s really all about the comfort of the cows.”

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

Other North Bay ranches that are pursuing eco-friendly measures

Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery made a goal of being carbon neutral at the farm by 2023 and came out of the gate running.

The Petaluma farm is using a small-scale microbiology biodigester to process the manure. The methane digester, in operation since 2004, produces enough renewable energy to power the entire farm, including the equipment.

Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales was selected in 2013 as one in three test cases for a decade-long study with the Marin Carbon Project.

From that study, Stemple Creek conducts soil assessments from its organic compost spread over its pasturelands to help sequester the carbon in the ground. This practice serves as a natural fertilizer.

Also based in Tomales, Toluma Farms has carried out stewardship programs involving the restoration of wildlife habitats, creeks and drainages as well as methods of saving water.

In 2017, the goat and sheep dairy farm received a U.S. Department of Agriculture Healthy Soil grant for three years to plant 450 trees and bushes over a quarter-mile span and apply compost to its pastures.

With offices located in Larkspur, Farmland, a large ranch manager focusing on converting conventional farmland to organic, has made inroads with replacing land used to grow corn to blueberries.

It also has concentrated on installing more drip irrigation systems, which traditionally use less water.

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