Title: 2009 Ag-Environmental: Dairy Production Systems
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
David Sumrall wasn’t raised in a dairy family. In fact, his career in the milk business began as a part-time job while he worked his way through college. He spent the first two decades of his dairy career working with some of the largest herds in America, moving his family across the country to manage various farms. Over time he began to realize that there was more to the dairy business than just producing milk.
David Sumrall: “I was raised in operations. I’ve been trained in operations. So I’m an operations-type guy and I worked as an operations manager all my career in managing farms for other people. The first 20 years in my career, I was focused on cows. Thirty-five years later, I can tell you that it’s really all about people. People are our most important asset.”
Following that simple philosophy, Sumrall established Dairy Production Systems. DPS is comprised of four farms, including two in Florida and one each in Georgia and Mississippi, and Sumrall is a co-owner of a fifth farm in Texas. Combined, these comprise a total herd of about 15,000 cows. DPS has repeatedly received awards for having the highest quality Grade A milk, and Sumrall credits much of that success to the company’s 250 workers.
David Sumrall: “I’ve learned that the best results come from people who are where they want to be, doing what they want to do, and who have been given the tools that are necessary to do that job in a way in which they can be happy.”
While they are located in four states across the southeast, all five DPS dairies are managed from the company headquarters in High Springs, Florida. Despite its size, DPS has the comfortable feel of a small family-run business. David oversees the whole operation from the main office. David’s wife, Jamie, works as an accountant here as does daughter, Kimberly. From their offices, purchasing and accounting are done for all five dairies. Daughter, Carrie, is the business’s media person maintaining its website, publishing the monthly “Moosletter” and handling public relations.
Carrie’s husband, Michael Pedriero, is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of DPS. All five farms were designed with the same operating protocols and management practices, allowing Michael to quickly assess issues on his frequent visits to the different farms. Michael is constantly on the phone with the managers of DPS’s dairies. Joining the extended family in its work is Michael’s brother, A.J., who moved from California to manage the farm in Bell, Florida. Many employees, like crops operations manager Jeff Reed, have been with DPS for so long, they are part of the family as well.
Not far from the office at High Springs sits DPS’s Branford Farm. Today the dairy is a model of sustainable agriculture. But in 1990s, this property told a much different story.
In 1995, prior to forming DPS, Sumrall was the chief operating officer and business partner in the Aurora Dairy Group. The company was seeking to purchase a particular farm in Georgia. That dairy, however, was part of a package that included a run-down farm in Branford, Florida, whose owner was being sued by his neighbors and the State for poor environmental practices and eventually went bankrupt. With the condition of assuming the penalties associated with the lawsuit, Sumrall and his Aurora partner bought the Branford property in 1995 and went about rebuilding it. Later, in 2004, Sumrall bought out his business partner and formed Dairy Production Systems.
From the outset Sumrall wanted this to be more than just a local business. Producing a high-quality product is the goal of every dairy, but to Sumrall it was only part of what could be done at the Branford farm; he wanted the farm to be a good steward and a good neighbor. To do this he met first with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and together they conceived a plan to create a sustainable solution for the environmentally troubled dairy. Drawing upon years of experience, Sumrall took the best concepts from all of the dairies he had seen and, with DEP, incorporated them into the Branford farm. The idea was to not only create a dairy that generated high quality milk for the Class 1 market, but would also have a positive impact on the environment and the surrounding community.
Being located so close to the Santa Fe River, and sitting in the middle of the largest concentration of freshwater springs on earth, it was critically important to Sumrall to ensure that no damage come to these amazing natural resources.
One of the first issues that had to be addressed was herd size. Traditionally, if farmers wanted to expand their herd, they would have to increase their acreage to offset the additional manure generated by their cows. DPS’s approach to expanding herd size was to deal with the waste rather than buy more land. The key to this approach was to change the way a dairy viewed its waste stream -- to see it as an opportunity rather than a liability.
DPS began to deal with its effluent not as a waste stream, but rather as a nutrient stream which could be broken down into two components: solids and liquids. With assistance from Farm Pilot Project Coordination, Inc., and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, DPS constructed a state-of-the-art waste management system at Branford Farm comprised of a separate facility for each of the two stream components. The first facility processed liquids and reintroduced them into the system through irrigation, and the second turned solids into a marketable by-product like compost, ensuring that there is no waste of the valuable nutrients created by the operation.
Here’s how the system works. The Branford herd of 2,000 cows is housed in six free-stall “loafing” barns, with sand beds for resting and overhead fans and misters for cooling. The cows are fed a mixture of fresh silage and nutrients to keep them healthy and content. It’s here that the nutrient stream begins. Twice a day the barns are flushed clean with recycled water. The stream runs through a concrete channel where sand is separated from the stream and is pumped to a solids separator, a screened device that removes the solid waste from the liquid component.
After passing through the separator, the liquid component of the nutrient stream goes into the first-stage lagoon. From there it is sent to the farm’s wastewater treatment plant. This plant works just like a scaled-down version of a municipal sewage treatment plant. At the facility the effluent is treated through a chemical process using polymers to bond with nitrogen and phosphorous particles. The particles then settle to the bottom where they concentrate to form a nutrient-rich sludge.
One of the undesirable by-products of a large dairy can be odor. With a goal of being a good neighbor to those in the surrounding community, DPS aerates the waste throughout the physical and chemical lagoons. This process kills the undesirable odor-causing bacteria, which, in turn reduces the smell of the wastewater.
With its ability to remove a high percentage of nitrogen and phosphorous, DPS virtually neutralizes the water used for irrigation. This process is so effective that the dairy can adjust the nutrient level in the recycled irrigation water to the nutritional requirement of the crops. Doing this, DPS does away with the need to buy artificial fertilizer.
Michael Pedreiro: “We want to be a positive impact on that environment. And we take that approach versus the begrudgingly ‘drag me to where I need to go’ kind of approach. We always want to be proactive versus reactive. And we take that approach for everything we do. I think life is much more enjoyable if you’re proactive than wait until somebody dictates what you need to do and how you need to do it.”
The process for the solid component also begins with the solids separator. When the solids have been pressed to achieve the right moisture content, the sludge from the settling lagoon is applied to them and the solids are moved to one of the two side-by-side drum composters.
For three days the solids are slowly rotated in the 50-foot-long horizontal cylinders. The slow rotation of the drum keeps the solids moving and aerated. Microorganisms ferment the contents and raise the temperature rapidly to 150 degrees. The heat kills weed seeds, nematodes and most bacteria. The result is a nutrient-rich, marketable product called Cowpeat. Very similar to peat in its characteristics and use, Cowpeat also contains nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients, a by-product from the chemical process, making it ideal for applications in the nursery and horticulture industry.
Michael Pedreiro: “We’ve incorporated quite a few environmental management changes since we’ve been on the farm. One is the composting operation where we take a product that, historically, is a waste product in the dairy industry and taken that and actually flipped it around and created a profit center for the dairy farm.”
While Cowpeat does generate revenue for the dairy, DPS has set aside Fridays as “Cowpeat Giveaway Day.” As a good neighbor, DPS invites local residents to the dairy to fill their trucks with free compost for their gardens.
Through its distribution of Cowpeat, DPS essentially exports nutrients from the farm on a controlled and regulated basis within DEP laws and guidelines. Coupled with the efforts of its waste water treatment plant, DPS has greatly reduced the total amount of nitrogen and phosphorous going onto the property, keeping it out of the aquifer, and keeping the dairy within its permitted requirements.
Jeff Reed: “We have to keep track of every pound of nitrogen and every gallon of water every day that leaves those lagoons, what field it goes on, the acres it went on, the times it went on, and the analysis of the water that went on that day. We have to keep track of everything that hits that property from the waste stream. We also have to account for all the nitrogen removed from the ground in crop form. So whenever I grow a crop, I have to keep a sample of it, do an analysis of it. Then they’ll figure out how many pounds of nitrogen I’ve removed from the soil.”
To get the most out of the property, every square inch of the Branford farm is used. DPS grows three crops a year: corn, sorghum and rye. After each harvest the fields left are empty for no more than two weeks between plantings. Each new crop assures the uptake of nutrients, utilizing the dairy’s recycled water. After harvesting the crop, the silage is collected, aged, mixed with other nutritious ingredients, supplemented with molasses, and fed to the cows, completing the cycle. The closely monitored, nutrient-balanced water has improved the quality of the water, increasing the quality of the forage translating to better nutrition for the cows, which in the end improves the quality of the milk.
David Sumrall: “It’s a continuous loop that is a sustainable cycle. You can do it in a way that allows you to minimize your use of natural resources, minimize your footprint on the environment and to be a good neighbor and a good steward all at the same time. Our system is living proof that you can do that.”
The closely monitored, nutrient-balanced water has improved the quality of the water, increasing the quality of the forage, translating to better nutrition for the cows, which in the end improves the quality of the milk.
Michael Pedreiro: We’re doing something greater than just feeding a cow or composting manure solids or pumping water to a plant. We’re producing milk for thousands of people that will eventually drink that product. And to know that you’re feeding all those people, uh, it instills a lot of pride in what you’re doing.”
DPS’s approach to waste management has reduced by half the amount of water once used to treat wastewater. It has also become more efficient in its use of energy, fuel, labor, and equipment. The dairy has saved resources and money by recycling more than just water.
Sand is the ideal bedding for the comfort and health of the cows. It conforms to their bodies and is non-absorbent so, unlike other bedding material, harmful bacteria cannot collect in it. Sand is also easily washed, clean and reused. In fact, through recycling, the farm has reduced its use of new sand by 75 percent.
When he established DPS, David Sumrall had several goals he wanted to achieve. With more people living closer to the farm, he wanted the dairy to be a good neighbor. Recognizing the importance of the environment, Sumrall wanted DPS to be a good steward. And understanding the importance of people to his business, he wanted the farm to be a place where people could work together to achieve their full potential.
David Sumrall: “The most rewarding thing for me as being a part of DPS is that we’ve created a living breathing organism that has roots that extend out into the communities where we operate. That we are providing opportunities for people and that we are giving people the opportunity to be what they want to be within our system and to make a difference in other people’s lives.”