A growing list of environmental regulations can be frustrating, but this California dairyman has used this as motivation to improve his farm, surrounding communities, and the greater agricultural industry.

June 19 2024 08:54 AM

The Gioletti family milks about 3,800 cows and raises young stock at their Robert Gioletti and Sons Dairy near Turlock, Calif.

Simple, yet effective. That is how Justin Gioletti describes the current manure handling system on his family’s farm.

Cows are housed in freestall barns at Robert Gioletti and Sons Dairy near Turlock, Calif. The alleys are cleaned using a flush system, which is typical for many dairies in California. The flush water gravity flows to and from the two flush lagoons.

The water and manure are pumped to the earthen settling ponds, where the solids are separated. Some of these solids are dried, stacked, and tarped during the summer months for use as bedding in the freestalls year-round. The rest of the solids are applied as a nutrient source on their 2,200 acres of corn, alfalfa, and oats. The Giolettis also grow a few hundred acres of almonds. The remaining liquid from the settling ponds is applied to the fields using flood irrigation.

Gioletti, who owns the dairy with his brother, Devin, and father, Robert, said this manure system has worked well for them over the years. Still, the fourth-generation farmer said they are not afraid to make changes that improve the dairy in the long run. This is why they were one of the first participants in the state’s Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP), which provides financial assistance for the implementation of manure management practices in California that will result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The vacuum truck empties manure into windrows on a concrete pad where will be dried and then stacked.

Seize the opportunity

With that AMMP funding, the Giolettis invested in a manure vacuum truck and a 4-acre concrete pad in 2017. Since then, manure has been vacuumed from the freestall barn alleys twice a week. The collected manure is spread out on the concrete pad to dry, which takes about a week when weather conditions are right. These dried solids make a fertilizer source that is easier to haul and is applied to fields that can’t be irrigated with the flush water. This saves the farm some money on commercial fertilizer purchases, he noted.

Gioletti said they saw this addition to their manure system as a way to reduce methane emissions, but it also diverts some solids — and nitrogen — out of the flush lagoon.

“It’s a hybrid approach that takes some pressure off our current system, but it is still very simple,” he said. “It really is an efficient way to dry that manure, keep it out of the lagoons, and get it to sites further away that can benefit from that nitrogen.”

Since implementing the vacuum truck, they have also noticed improved animal hygiene. The vacuum truck does a better job cleaning the alleys than the flush system can. “The flush system doesn’t get 100% of the manure, so we would scrape once or twice a week anyway,” Gioletti explained. “This complements the flushing system well.” The vacuum also picks up small rocks, helping minimize lameness caused by injury.

“It does a really nice job of keeping things clean,” he reiterated. They would vacuum manure more often, he said, but space on the drying pad is a limiting factor.

Manure is produced by the farm’s herd of 3,800 milking Holsteins. Most of the herd is milked three times a day in a rotary parlor on the main farm; late lactation cows are milked 2x on a second neighboring dairy that was purchased in 2019. By seizing the opportunity to buy this farm site that was adjacent to their land, the Giolettis were able to pursue their herd growth goals. All calves are housed at the main farm, while heifers are kept on open lots just up the road.

Gioletti said they manage their crops “from seed to feed,” doing their own planting, chopping, and baling. They apply their own liquid manure but do hire out the application of the manure solids.

The progression of dairy

The relatively simple manure handling system is about to become more robust, though, as big changes are on the way for the farm. That’s because the Giolettis recently signed papers with a company to put in a methane digester.

Gioletti said this project is “exciting and terrifying.” There are some financial incentives that will come from the generation of energy, but he also feels the switch to mechanical separation because of the anerobic digester will make a fluffier bedding material than they currently have, which will benefit the cows.

While he’s not implying that all dairies will need to install a digester in the future, he feels that is the direction the industry is going, and when they had the opportunity to partner with a company to make this happen, they decided to take the leap.

“It’s part of the progression of the industry,” he said. “We need to keep going forward.”

Where they farm may play a part in this forward-thinking philosophy. Farmers in California are some of the most regulated in the country, which Gioletti admits is a challenge. At this same time, he also sees that as an opportunity.

“The opportunity that comes from being the most regulated is that we are going to be the innovators,” he shared. By adapting new technologies and potentially developing new products, Gioletti said, “Hopefully, we can generate some different revenue to offset costs to adapt to some regulations.”

Twice a week, a vacuum truck is used to pick up manure from the freestall barns. This addition to the Giolettis’ manure system helps keep cows and alleyways cleaner.

Broader benefits

Beyond his commitment to their family farm and its future, Gioletti also believes in being involved in programs that benefit the dairy community and beyond.

That’s a big reason he helped found and serves as chairman of the Central Valley Dairy Representative Monitoring Program (CVDRMP), a region-wide groundwater monitoring program that replaces individual groundwater monitoring on dairies. Established more than a decade ago, this program helps dairies across the area comply with the dairy general order requirements involving water testing, which saves them money but also provides the industry data needed to make improvements in sustainable farming practices.

The goals of the CVDRMP are to examine groundwater conditions and how they relate to historical operations, identify past practices that contribute to current groundwater quality conditions, generate results that are applicable beyond areas of monitored dairies, and ultimately identify practices that protect groundwater. There are 1,100 members of the farmer-led CVDRMP with data being collected at 42 dairies from 443 monitoring wells.

“The main goal of that [the CVDRMP] was to start something that provided a robust monitoring network at a fraction of the cost. Ultimately, we achieved that goal,” Gioletti noted during a panel discussion at the California Dairy Sustainability Summit this spring. He said that this network saves California dairy producers $6 million annually.

“The financial incentives are there to be involved with projects like this, but they also make a lot of common sense,” he explained. This alternative monitoring program replaced individual monitoring required by every dairyman in the state.

“We’re doing a more efficient job of monitoring ground water quality and what’s actually happening on the dairies through our robust program using sound science and our great resources,” he stated. The program also includes nitrate and salt compliance testing, making it a “one stop shop” for the dairy and livestock farmers who pay dues to participate in the program.

Gioletti also currently serves as the chairman of the Valley Water Collaborative. This nonprofit organization formed in 2020 is one of five associations created to address nitrate contamination concerns in private wells used for drinking water. The Valley Water Collaborative offers testing and provides water treatment systems or bottled water delivered monthly for households with wells that exceed the nitrate standard for drinking water.

The Valley Water Cooperative is supported by water quality permit holders in the Modesto and Turlock groundwater basins, including dairy farms, other livestock and crop operations, food processors, wineries, publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities, and more. Gioletti feels compelled to represent dairy in a group like this that has members from many industries.

“Dairy needs to be at the table,” he emphasized. “We need to have dairymen there with all the other dischargers to help set fees and policies. It is very important to do that kind of stuff.”

He noted that the agriculture industry in California has been active in improving the environmental impact of farming, but that doesn’t happen overnight. “Time is important; we need time to prove these technologies,” he said. Through data collection and grant programs that allow farms to try new solutions, he gave another nod to the opportunity California dairy farmers have to be leaders in reducing dairy’s environmental impact.

Gioletti has been a true leader in water quality efforts in California. His actions benefit the general public, agriculture as a whole, and his fellow dairy farmers who are working in a profession that can be challenging, but it is also one he is very passionate about.

“It’s a struggle, and it’s tough, but it has been good to our family,” he said.

Gioletti follows in the footsteps of both sets of his great-grandparents, who immigrated to the United States to farm. With dairy on both sides of his pedigree, and his wife’s as well, Gioletti said, “We are dairy through and through.” Since he was a young boy, it was his goal to be involved with the family farm, and now the chance to pass the business on to his children and his brothers’ children is motivation for continuous improvement on their dairy and for the industry as a whole.

This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of Journal of Nutrient Management on pages 12-14. Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.