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Sustainable Farming Key to Dairy's Growth

In Jalisco, where central Mexico’s dairy industry is booming, Michel Wattiaux sees an opportunity to get it right the first time.

“Why repeat the mistakes that everyone else around the world has made?” asks Wattiaux, a professor of dairy science. “We are hoping to find a way to make it more sustainable.”

Throughout the region, subsistence dairy, beef and poultry farms are giving way to larger, more-industrialized operations. Capacity is expanding quickly, and increased production is the main priority. Unfortunately, Wattiaux says, few farmers have the time or training to be concerned about reducing the impact of their operations on the environment.

But as the industry develops, Wattiaux believes it can incorporate more sustainable practices from the ground up. He is currently leading a project to encourage farmers to integrate decisions about feed and fertilizer, which he says can boost farm profitability while preventing environmental problems caused by runoff.

“There are some basic questions that need to be answered,” he says, “like, how do the farmers handle the manure? Do they handle it like something rich that’s highly valued, or do they ignore it?”

Wattiaux notes, for example, that some of Jalisco’s dairy farmers, such as those with no cultivated cropland, have more manure than they can handle, while others don’t have enough. Establishing a manure market could redistribute nutrients and reduce the need for commercial fertilizers, he says. To help increase awareness of such win-win propositions, Wattiaux is teaming with Jesus Olmos PhD’04, a dairy science lecturer and researcher at the University of Guadalajara-Los Altos who works with the region’s farmers to promote sustainable practices.

Wattiaux has spent years helping Wisconsin farmers curtail ammonia emissions and nitrogen runoff by managing the amount of nutrients in animal feed. But in Mexico, the geography and climate make transferring strategies difficult. Around Guadalajara, farmers battle heavy rains in the summer, making the application of manure to pasture surfaces nearly impossible. Jalisco’s dairy industry, ranging from subsistence-level systems to technologically advanced operations, is also more diverse than Wisconsin’s.

But some lessons of integrated management are universal, Wattiaux says. “Whether we talk of subsistence farmers in Mexico or industrialized producers on either side of the border, often times, what is good for the producer’s wallet is also good for the environment,” he says. “We, the scientists, extension agents and producers, cannot overlook those opportunities anymore.”