A few days ago, I had an opportunity to chat with a dairy real estate professional who is a regular reader of the MPC Friday Report. I asked him what information would be useful for the California dairy industry with regards to the water situation. He said that there were two things that folks wanted to know. How much groundwater are they going to be able to pump in the future and, secondly for dairy farmers, how will they be able to handle their manure nutrients if access to groundwater is limited? These are two very good questions, and I will attempt to give you the best answers available right now.
While future allowable groundwater pumping is very location specific, in general, from Merced County south by the year 2040, and probably much sooner, you will be allowed to pump between 6 and 12 inches of groundwater per gross irrigated acre annually. The further South you are in the Valley the lower you are on that range. Most Groundwater Sustainability Agencies have, or will be implementing, groundwater allocations to landowners. As part of these regulations, there should be opportunities to bank groundwater in wet years and transfer at least some groundwater credits from neighbor to neighbor. Clearly these restrictions will lead to less ground being farmed, particularly in the dry years. It will be important for dairies to budget for the creation and maintenance of much larger forage inventories than we have historically thought was necessary. In above average water years there will likely be quite a bit of forage grown on former tree ground as the groundwater pumping limits will make permanent crops unviable on groundwater-only dependent land.
The second question is about what to do with manure nutrients under restricted groundwater pumping conditions. This is a question that is receiving a lot of attention from the dairy industry and our partners in academia, government and even the nongovernmental organizational community. California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross appointed the Manure Recycling and Innovative Products Task Force, which was co-chaired by J.P. Cativiela of Dairy Cares and Ryan Flaherty of Sustainable Conservation. The task force did great work ascertaining the challenges of surplus nitrogen and identified many opportunities to address this critical issue. You can read the final report here.
I emailed J.P. last week to get an update on what progress has been made on this issue since the final report came out a year ago. Here was his response:
I think the biggest thing that has happened out of it is the Dairy Plus Program administered by CDFA and the California Dairy Research Foundation. A number of projects were funded in November and December through that process. These include vermifiltration projects on dairies with and without digesters, as well as weeping walls and advanced solids-liquid separation with flocculants or by other methods. Below are some links to the details of those. Those projects should start to give us a better idea of how some of these options might work for us. All of these have the capacity to improve our ability to manage nutrients, but there are differences among them, and some will be a better fit than others depending on the dairy.
There is still a lot of work to do. We not only need to study these recently funded projects closely as they roll out to understand the pros and cons in the real world, but we need to keep pushing policies that support wider funding for these. Also, we need to develop additional options, such as making composting easier to permit and building markets and demand for dairy-produced compost. We also need to push basic research to see what other options might be worth developing to the point where they can be practical and useful. The FYTO system for growing duckweed as a cattle feed while also taking up lots of nutrients and not lots of water looks promising. We need to track a number of these and give them a push as much as we can so we can sort out good ideas from bad ones. We've seen some promising research on new ways to denitrify manure using less energy and expect more work to be done in this area in the future.
The Manure Recycling and Innovative Products Task Force (MRIP) will meet again, hopefully in the first quarter of 2024, to keep the momentum and conversation going. We have recently been connecting with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and there appears to be growing interest at USDA in upping the research investment in manure nutrient management. We are working on the agenda for the next MRIP meeting and I will keep you posted.
Happy to discuss further if you like. Hope that answers your question.
CDFA awarded 12 projects associated with the AMMP for the 2023 Dairy Plus Program, totaling $14.23 million in grant funding. The list of awarded projects is available.
CDFA awarded 3 projects associated with the DDRDP for the 2023 Dairy Plus Program, totaling $3.74 million in grant funding. The list of awarded projects is available.
I thank J.P. for his great work on this and also thank MPC Associate Member Marc Schuil of Schuil Ag Real Estate for the stimulating chat that prompted this article.
Geoff Vanden Heuvel
Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs