General Mills moving to ‘regenerative dairy’ in Michigan for yogurt

MINNEAPOLIS—General Mills, the Minneapolis, Minn.-based maker of Yoplait, Liberté and Mountain High yogurt products, announced the start of a three-year regenerative dairy pilot in western Michigan, a key sourcing region for its milk supply.

General Mills has partnered with Fort Payne, Ala.-based sustainable agriculture consultants Understanding Ag, and the Greenville, Mich.-based location of the Baraboo, Wis.-based dairy cooperative Foremost Farms USA to pilot regenerative practices and provide support to participating dairy farmers.

Implementing regenerative practices on dairy farms requires a holistic approach to managing land, cows and manure. This is the third regenerative agriculture pilot that the company has launched, and the first for its dairy ingredient supply, since making a commitment in 2019 to advance 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,” said 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.”

The three dairy farms in the pilot, which collectively manage more than 14,000 acres, were chosen for their proximity to General Mills’ dairy manufacturing plant in Reed City, Mich., which produces a variety of Yoplait products. As the pilot begins, 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 farm profitability.

“As an industry, dairy farms have been especially hard hit in recent months and their resiliency is being tested,” said Doug Martin, president of General Mills U.S. yogurt business. “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.”

Benefits of regenerative agriculture are multi-faceted

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 events. Additionally, regenerative agriculture practices help to increase water infiltration, improve nutrient cycling, and reduce soil erosion which have been shown to positively impact the quality of nearby lakes, rivers and streams. These benefits can translate to farmers’ pocketbooks by ensuring that more nutrients stay in the field to be absorbed by plants rather than lost to wind or water erosion. Regenerative practices on dairy farms can look slightly different than row crop farms, specifically incorporating adaptive grazing on pastures and cropland.

“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,” said 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.”

Added Greg Schlafer, president and CEO of Foremost Farms USA: “Our goal around sustainability is to measure stewardship and member-owner success so we continually explore partnerships with industry experts and customers. 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.”

Research partners to develop modeling tools

Additionally, General Mills is supporting a team of leading researchers from Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to model holistic impacts from change in farm management practices. This team is developing data-driven tools that will empower dairies to build resiliency in their businesses and the dairy ecosystem. Models will be adapted and used to inform actions in the three-year Michigan pilot.

Today’s announcement builds upon the company’s bold commitment to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. In March 2019, General Mills launched a regenerative oat pilot with 45 farmers across North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba implementing practices on more than 50,000 acres of farmland. And in January 2020, the company launched its second pilot consisting of 24 farmers growing wheat across a collective 17,000 acres in central Kansas. These pilots will also measure the environmental and economic outcomes over the duration of their respective three-year programs.

General Mills is listed on the 2019 Dow Jones Sustainability Index, and the 2019 CDP A List Awards for Climate and Water. Learn more about General Mills regenerative agriculture commitment and progress.

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