Meat and Dairy

Today was the final day of the summer field school! We began by meeting with Dr. Robert Hagevoort, the NMSU Dairy Extension Specialist based out of the Agricultural Science Center at Clovis, and Beverly Idsinga, Executive Director of the Dairy Producers of New Mexico. At the Alltech biotechnology facility in Clovis, Dr. Hagevoort spoke to us about sustainability in the New Mexico dairy industry.

New Mexico and Texas together form the third largest milkshed in the US, after California and Wisconsin. Herd sizes in New Mexico are relatively large: about 2,100 head on average, compared to 170 head average throughout the US. There are 150 dairies in New Mexico – the majority located in the eastern part of the state – and each cow is producing around 24,300 gallons of milk per year. According to Dr. Hagevoort, today fewer cows produce more milk, due to better management, feed and living conditions. This means that the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk has been reduced by about two-thirds since the 1940s. For comparison, the US produced 117 billion pounds of milk from 25.6 billion cattle in 1944, whereas today 186 billion pounds of milk are produced from 9.2 billion cattle. Ultimately, the process is more efficient…but is it more sustainable? Economically speaking, the dairy industry does great things for New Mexico, bringing in almost $3 billion annually in sales of milk and other indirect and value-added business associated with the industry.

Dr. Hagevoort is especially interested in building New Mexico’s capacity for renewable energy and creating novel economic opportunities for the dairy industry. He is currently working toward establishing biomass cooperatives that would aggregate manure from local dairies, and building facilities that would then refine that material into biogas using methane digesters. According to Dr. Hagevoort’s calculations, 5 kWh of electricity can be produced from the daily waste of one cow. With about 350,000 dairy cattle in the state, over 21 billion MWh of electricity could be produced annually, enough to satisfy 3% of New Mexico’s total energy usage.

After the presentation we drove out to the Do-Rene Dairy, where we got a tour by owners Doug and Irene Handley. Recently the Do-Rene Dairy received the New Mexico Environmental Department’s Green Zia award for its commitment to environmental protection and effective management of waste. The Handleys manage two dairy sites, one with 2,100 head and the other with 3,100 head of cattle. Together, the two locations produce between three and five tankers of milk per day (for reference, a tanker holds about 9,000 gallons of milk). The Handleys sell most of their milk to the Clovis-based Southwest Cheese Company, one of the largest cheese producers in North America. Southwest Cheese can process 200 tankers of milk into cheese every day! According to Dr. Hagevoort, about 60% of New Mexican milk goes toward making cheese.

At the Do-Rene Dairy, cows are milked twice a day by an automatic milking system. The animals file into a raised chute where they are separated from one another by small metal gates. An attendant attaches a milking apparatus to the udder of each cow after cleaning the udder with an iodine solution. The apparatus detaches itself after a prescribed amount of time, the iodine cleaning process is repeated, and then the cattle are released. The milk is pumped in plastic lines to a number of chilled tanks, where it is held before being transferred to the tanker truck. To milk the Handley’s two herds of cattle using their current automated setup requires two 8-hour shifts of continuous milking beginning at 5am. After touring the milking barn, we drove through the covered dirt areas where the cattle are kept outside and fed. We ended at the calf hutches, where the female calves are kept in individual plastic shelters and fed buckets of milk until six months of age. After that the calves are transferred to a larger group pen until they are old enough to be bred and become milk producers.

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Our final stop on the trip was at the Mennonite-run Fort Sumner Processing Facility in Fort Sumner. It was akin to taking a step back in time: As we entered the store area, a Mennonite woman wearing a simple cloth bonnet, long-sleeved white blouse and long dark skirt stepped in and asked for a dozen eggs. After a moment she realized she had no cash with her and asked to have the cost of the eggs put on her account. That sense of individual care and personal interaction echoes through much of the work that is done at the Fort Sumner Processing Facility.

We met with Darren Burns, owner of the facility, and he showed us around the cut and wrap room, the aging room and the kill floor. In the aging room, mirror-image sides of beef hung from the ceiling; the fat on the grassfed carcasses was yellow (due to high levels of omega three fatty acids), whereas the fat on the cornfed carcasses was a pale white.  Darren had slaughtered a cow (with a single shot to the forehead) just before our arrival and we watched as he skinned the animal, drained its blood and disemboweled it. For many, it was the first time to witness such an event, and we felt humbled that this animal had died to feed a local family. We learned that offal and blood from the facility are composted with woodchips at the nearby landfill. Hides are packed in salt and picked up periodically by a buyer who uses them in his upholstery business.

The Fort Sumner Processing Facility is set up mainly to serve the surrounding community. Darren can process up to four animals per day, and due to excessive customer demand no longer carries the USDA Inspection seal. Darren found that when his meats were certified USDA Inspected, he was overwhelmed with customers from all across the state demanding specialty retail meat orders, and was no longer able to serve all of his smaller local customers. Even though the USDA Inspection seal brought in business from a larger part of the state, it became an impediment for Darren because of the restricted work hours and lost profit. USDA Inspectors are paid by the federal government to work Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm; any overtime must be paid by the facility. Because Darren normally starts work well before 8am, and also works on Saturdays, he would either have to pay the Inspector overtime wages or reduce his own work hours just to secure the inspection seal – so, he decided to give it up. This means that meats processed at his facility cannot be sold through a grocery store or co-op, but can be sold to private parties, like families or individuals.

On the drive home, about 45 minutes east of Albuquerque, the skies turned dark and we got the first substantial rain of the summer. We rolled the van windows down and stuck our arms and faces outside, savoring the cool drops on our skin. Rejuvenation. Growth. The rain led me to reflect on our experiences over the past month. Our understanding of the breadth and diversity of the current foodshed (and opportunities for future growth) has grown immensely. However, this was possible only because our numerous hosts were gracious enough to share their most precious resources with us – passion, knowledge and time.

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