A SUSTAINABILITY JOURNEY
As caretakers of animals and the land, dairy farmers take to heart the responsibility of preserving our planet’s most valuable resources. While all dairy farmers take steps to ensure sustainable farm practices, particularly protecting water and soil, some dairies, like Hunter Ridge Dairy in Ault, Colo., take it further and actively experiment with new technology and fresh ideas to continue their sustainability journey. Because there’s always more to be done.
Born into a California dairy farm family, AJ De Jager knew at a young age he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and uncles, who all have made the dairy business their lives’ work. Inspired by his grandfather, Ed, to be a forward-thinking, innovative farm-owner, AJ graduated from college, married, started a family and replanted his roots in Colorado, where he established his own farm, Hunter Ridge Dairy.
Settled between the Rocky Mountains and the grassland frontier of northeastern Colorado, Hunter Ridge Dairy cares for its 4,000 Holsteins in a freestall barn, guided by three farm rules (inspired by AJ’s college football coach): Be on time, do your best and treat people and animals how you want to be treated.
“We’ve been blessed with an amazing opportunity to dairy,” AJ says. “Doing our best and doing it the right way is how we can honor that.”
Part of being sustainable means looking at things differently, and Hunter Ridge Dairy places a priority on its company culture of innovation. Everyone is encouraged to share new ideas and maximize day-to-day practices for more intentional stewardship.
“We have embraced modern technology and robotics, and strongly believe in their purpose,” AJ says. “But the most untold story of our industry is what we are doing as recyclers.”
“I love what I do and who I get to do it with,”
Wet distillers grain, brewers grain, cottonseed, cull carrots and cull sugar beets (carrots and sugar beets that are too ugly or broken to sell to supermarkets), millet screenings and beet pulp are all recycled “garbage” from local farmers and processing plants that go into the feed rations mixed for the cows at Hunter Ridge Dairy. Although this is not a new practice, recycling food materials that would otherwise be discarded makes a big impact — and the cows love it.
In addition to recycling locally sourced food scraps, every ounce of water and pound of manure on the farm are used in new ways. Water used on the farm is recycled for irrigation and used in misters to keep the cows cool during warm months. And, every pound of manure fertilizes crops. When AJ sees an opportunity for recycling, he takes it.
Along with recycling food scraps, water and manure, Hunter Ridge Dairy partners with the state of Colorado to keep wasted tires out of the landfill.
“We bale old tires and recycle them as wind breaks for our feed lot,” AJ says. “They absorb sunlight and create a higher thermal output and insulation factor than conventional wind breaks do.”
Keeping a cutting edge and inventive mindset is part of the legacy AJ continues from his grandfather, Ed. Recently, AJ and the Hunter Ridge Dairy crew have begun exploring renewable energy and robotics. In the next few years, AJ expects the farm to become even more efficient and sustainable. He’s currently looking into ways to mitigate methane emissions and use a more sustainable energy source. While in the development stages, Hunter Ridge Dairy is about to fully transition to generator power supplied by natural gas rather than conventional direct line electricity. Additionally, AJ has plans to work with new technology to feed cows a high-density nutrient with only a fraction of the water it would take to farm the product conventionally.
“Part of sustainability is streamlining practices with modern technology, and there will be growing pains with it, because if you’re on the forefront of that technology, you are getting the ‘beta’ version,” AJ explains. “There is an educational process for staff members and service teams alike. We have had to do a lot of on-farm research and development with newer technology that we would not have had to do if we jumped into that practice after years of service.”
Sustainability is more than an initiative. It’s about taking care of the planet, people and communities now to ensure a safe and healthy future for the next generation. For AJ, his part in that isn’t just making healthy, nutritious milk for people everywhere — but producing it responsibly and ethically.
“I love what I do and who I get to do it with,” AJ says. “I would do this job for free!”