To celebrate National Dairy Month, we are highlighting some of the world's most innovative, Non-GMO Project Verified dairy producers. These dairy operations offer regenerative and regionally-specific solutions to the most significant issues facing the dairy industry (e.g., animal welfare, soil health and climate change) — all without GMOs!
What the rest of the world calls "regenerative dairy," New Zealand dairy farmers call business as usual.
That's because New Zealand has the highest standards in the world for dairy production. For each kilogram of dairy produced, greenhouse gas emissions are half that of global averages — and dairy farmers continue to look for ways to improve.
Already a world leader, what would improvement look like? How do you improve on farmland that was in frankly excellent shape? For answers, we look to New Zealand's Lewis Road.
Lewis Road Creamery is committed to continuous improvement, to leaving the land better than they found it.
From regeneration to "fixation"
New Zealand's greenest farming might look slightly different than North America's. No GMO crops are commercially grown there, and the unique geography and established stewardship practices mean that their farmland is some of the richest on the planet. Agriculture focuses less on regeneration, which implies repairing degraded land, and more on carbon fixing, which means putting greenhouse gasses back into the soil where they belong.
Carbon fixation is a natural function of plant life through photosynthesis. New Zealand's geography favors native plants such as plantain grass for this purpose. However, the healthiest soil doesn't rely on plantain grass alone. Encouraging diverse plant life pulls down more carbon and makes the land more resilient to pests and climate changes.
Diversity in animal life pays off, too, and many farms practice beekeeping or monitor fish and bird populations. As part of the Southern Pastures group, Lewis Road Creamery looks to natural allies such as earthworms and dung beetles to the land to cycle nutrients and to keep nitrogen from leaching into waterways.
Lewis Road's Lynette Maan joined our recent seminar to describe how the interconnectedness of the natural world can support human health. "The more 'poop that stays in the loop,' the healthier the soil microbiome," she says, which leads to better health at both ends of the nutrient chain. A diverse microbiome keeps the soil healthier, just like a diverse gut flora (our microbiome) supports human health. When humans eat food from such a healthy, biodiverse system, says Maan, they benefit, too.
We've already seen that Lewis Road farms support a diverse range of small animal life, from beneficial insects to birds, but what about the stars of the show: dairy cows? Lewis Road's animal welfare practices start with the belief that cows are sentient beings and deserve humane treatment. There's also a strong business case for respecting animal rights: Happy cows produce more — and better —milk.
And Lewis Road cows are undoubtedly happy. Their lives are governed by the Five Freedoms, a dairy cow bill of rights that guides how they are managed on the farm.
The Five Freedoms include:
- The freedom to move around. Cows are not confined, and certainly not kept in concentrated animal lots as might be found in industrial-style dairy. Cows are free to wander on pastures every day. They have access to shelter for protection from the elements, but structures are not used as confinement.
- Freedom to engage in natural behaviors. Natural behavior is an essential part of animal welfare. Cows must do cow things, such as foraging and exploring, grooming themselves and each other, and playing.
- Freedom from hunger. Lewis Road cows have access to pasture for grazing 365 days a year. They are provided with supplemental non-GMO feed as needed (e.g. if the weather conditions make pastures inaccessible.) The feed meets the Non-GMO Project Standard's requirements, and, additionally, doesn't contain corn, soy or palm materials.
- Freedom from thirst. Of course, the cows always have access to clean drinking water.
- Freedom from pain and fear. The fifth freedom is a particular favorite of ours here at the Non-GMO Project because of how directly it speaks to the cows' quality of life.
Let's look at that fifth freedom more closely. After all, the life of a cow whose care is guided by preventing suffering is wildly different from one whose purpose is to produce the most milk. For example, industrial dairy operations in North America frequently house animals in dirty, crowded and stressful conditions — the kind of environment that promotes disease and injury. They treat entire herds with antibiotics as a matter of course.
The team at Lewis Road takes a holistic and humane view of their animals' health. For example, well-maintained fences, gates and equipment can minimize injuries to the cows. Prioritizing healthy feed and natural behaviors supports overall well-being. In the holistic view, prevention comes from a safer, healthier environment rather than over-administering antibiotics to treat the effects of poor conditions. Medications are used, but sparingly, and prescribed as needed for the individual animal.
Lewis Road Creamery starts with extraordinary care for the creatures and land it touches — and then looks for opportunities to improve. The result is not only superlative products but also ideal animal welfare and rich, healthy farmland that provides nourishing food for generations.
That's good business.