Minneapolis-based General Mills has announced a three-year regenerative dairy pilot in west Michigan, a key sourcing region for its fluid milk supply used for Yoplait, Liberté, and Mountain High yogurt products.
The company has partnered with consultants Understanding Ag and dairy cooperative Foremost Farms to pilot regenerative practices and provide support to participating dairy farmers.
Implementing such practices on dairy farms requires a holistic approach to managing land, cows, and manure. This is the third regenerative agriculture pilot the company has launched and the first for its dairy ingredient supply since its 2019 commitment to the advancement of regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.
“In order for regenerative agriculture to be successful, it must first be economically viable for farmers as a lever to help build operational and financial resilience,” says Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer at General Mills.
“With this pilot, General Mills is committed to ensuring that the transition to regenerative practices will be beneficial to our dairy partners and enhance the overall health of their farms. We’re excited to be working closely with our supplier Foremost Farms and consultants at Understanding Ag to help us get this work underway and measure the impact.”
The three dairy farms chosen for the pilot collectively manage more than 14,000 acres and were selected for their proximity to General Mills’ dairy manufacturing facility in Reed City, Mich. (north of Big Rapids), which produces Yoplait products. Understanding Ag consultants will meet with each dairy farmer to co-develop and implement custom regenerative management plans for a portion of their operation. Throughout the pilot, partners will monitor data and measure impacts to soil, biodiversity, water, animal well-being, and profitability.
“As an industry, dairy farms have been especially hard hit in recent months, and their resiliency is being tested,” says Doug Martin, president of the U.S. yogurt business for General Mills. “We believe regenerative agriculture builds and strengthens farmer resilience so they can better withstand pressures, be it societal, financial, or environmental.
“Consumers increasingly want to support brands and companies they trust are acting as environmental stewards. This pilot with Yoplait is a great example of the role our brands can play in unleashing the scale of our supply chain – supporting farmers, promoting animal welfare, and improving the health of the planet, all while delivering a great-tasting product.”
Regenerative agriculture is a holistic, principles-based approach to farming and ranching that seeks to strengthen ecosystem and community resilience. These practices pull carbon from the air and store it in the soil and can help the land be more resilient to extreme weather conditions. The approach also helps increase water infiltration, improve nutrient cycling, and reduce soil erosion, which has been shown to positively impact the quality of nearby lakes, rivers, and streams.
“In the midst of very challenging times for dairy farmers, the Michigan pilot is designed to substantially build soil health, mitigate harmful runoff and erosion, restore natural ecosystem function, and revitalize farm and rural economies,” says Allen Williams, sixth generation farmer and rancher and founding partner at Understanding Ag. “These practices will lead to a cleaner environment, healthy climate, and improved quality of life for the farmers themselves.”
When nutrients stay in the field to be absorbed by plants as opposed to being lost to wind or water erosion, farmers save money. Regenerative practices on dairy farms can look different than row crop farms, especially incorporating adaptive grazing on pastures and cropland.
“Our goal around sustainability is to measure stewardship and member-owner success so we continually explore partnerships with industry experts and customers,” says Greg Schlafer, president and CEO of Foremost Farms USA. “The Regenerative Dairy Pilot Program in Michigan gives our farmers the chance to reduce water and wind erosion all while providing top quality feed to their animals. A highly nutritious diet helps ensure healthy, productive cows, which in turn contributes to a stronger bottom line on the farm.”
General Mills also is supporting a team of researchers from Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to model holistic impacts from change in farm management practices. The team is developing data-driven tools designed to help dairies build resiliency in their businesses and the dairy ecosystem. Models will be adapted and used to inform actions in the three-year Michigan pilot.
In March 2019, General Mills launched a regenerative oat pilot with 45 farmers across North Dakota, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada, implementing practices on more than 50,000 acres of farmland. In January 2020, the company launched its second pilot consisting of 24 farmers growing wheat across a collective 17,000 acres in central Kansas. The pilots will measure the environmental and economic outcomes over the duration of their respective three-year programs.