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by Barb Baylor Anderson, Contributing Editor

Dairy producers know cream always rises to the top, which may be why many in California have gotten involved with the California Dairy Quality Assurance (CDQA) Program. The voluntary effort is designed to help producers promote quality through improved on-farm practices.

"CDQA is a unique partnership that allows us to join together for a common cause, to do on our farms what is best for the environment," says Mary Ann Bansen of Bancrest Dairy Inc., Ferndale, Calif. "I am impressed that so many different agencies and orgakizations can and are willing to work together with dairy producers to improve environmental stewardship."

The CDQA Program started out about three years ago as an effort to address food safety issues. Dairy producers, state and federal regulators, U.S. Department of Agriculture and California Department of Food and Agriculture officials and university educators joined together to develop the program to take a proactive approach to tough issues.

"The goal was to create an education and certification program that would be voluntary, allow producers to use certification as a marketing tool, and to mitigate state and federal rulemaking," says Michael Payne, program manager and University of California-Davis veterinary pharmacologist.

The food safety initiative was rerouted in 1998, however, when severe dairy farm flooding forced discharges from dairies, and producers faced fines of $50,000 to $100,000 and even jail time. Program coordinators shifted the focus to environmental stewardühip. Today, the CDQA Environmental Stewardship Partnership Agreement involves 15 parties, including several dairy groups, government agencies and academic organizations. Work on the food safety component will come next, followed by animal health and welfare.

"Our industry has always been proactive in its environmental protection program, and we now have a formal system to recognize these efforts and generate further assurances," says Chuck Ahlem, CDQA chairman and producer from Hilmar, Calif. "Consumers can feel confident that we are continuing our goal to produce wholesome and nutritious dairy products in concert with a healthy environment."

Under the environmental stewardship umbrella, dairy producers voluntarily obtain six hours of education on environmental issues and law through a curriculum from the California Extension Service. Producers can then elect to devise an environmental stewardship farm management plan and have it evaluated by a California Department of Food and Agriculture specialist to obtain certification. Any CDQA records remain property of the producer.

To date, 972 producers have completed the six hours of education. An additional 520 have completed at least some of the courses - good statistics given California’s 2,300 dairies. Eighteen dairies are certified, including Bancrest.

"We had our farm evaluated and became certified so that we can encourage other dairy producers to do the same," Bansen says. The third-generation producers milk 370 Jersey cows in a pasture operation. "We built a two-stage lagoon that allows us to be better stewards in our manure application to pastures. We apply the manure only in the dry seasons now at a safe rate. We have better quality grass, no groundwater contamination and less cost."

Payne says such efforts prepare dairy producers for the Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with inspecting all California dairies by 2005.

"We created a checklist for producers to determine if they are in compliance," Payne says. "This is the first such tool to bring all of the various regulations together in a simple way."

He adds that producers who become certified want to do the right thing and have peace of mind they are in compliance when regulators come knocking. "It also gives dairy organizations a positive story to tell that dairy producers work to protect the environment."

The program has been so successful that it is considered a pilot program for dairies throughout the United States. "We receive many calls from other state departments of agriculture that want to know about the program," Payne says. "We ultimately hope we foster dialogue between producers and regulators to handle issues that come up." AM

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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