BOARDMAN — With 33,000 milking cows and nearly 70,000 total cattle, Threemile Canyon Farms is by far the largest dairy in Oregon.

It is also one of the country’s most sustainable, industry leaders say.

Threemile Canyon was one of three dairies nationwide recognized for Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability at the 2020 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards. Winners were chosen in April, lauding management practices that “demonstrate outstanding economic, environmental and social benefits.”

“This was a great acknowledgment of what we do,” said Marty Myers, the farm’s general manager and part-owner. “It really demonstrates how combining a crop and dairy farm operation creates synergies that complement one another in a big way.”

Started in 1999, Threemile Canyon Farms covers 93,000 acres west of Boardman. The dairy was established in 2001, providing milk for the Tillamook County Creamery Association, which operates a cheese-making plant 20 miles away at the Port of Morrow.

The farm runs four dairies, along with growing 39,500 acres of conventional and organic crops, including potatoes, onions, blueberries and carrots. Another 23,000 acres is set aside as a conservation area.

Manure from the cows is recycled as a source of nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the farmland. Threemile Canyon then grows more than 20,000 acres of alfalfa, grain corn and corn silage to feed the animals, thus completing a self-sustaining “closed-loop” system.

“It all starts with the cow,” Myers said. “Once we got the dairies established, we started looking at ways we could accomplish the things we have today in the closed-loop system.”

In 2012, Threemile Canyon built an anaerobic digester to process additional dairy manure. The system captures methane emissions and burns the gas to generate up to 4.8 megawatts of electricity, which is enough power for a city the size of Boardman.

According to the farm’s estimates, the digester sequesters 136,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. That is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 28,875 cars.

Solid waste left over from the digestion process is also sterilized and reused as animal bedding for dairy cows in massive free-stall barns at the farm.

“We find what traditionally would be considered waste, and redeploy that waste to beneficial use,” Myers said.

Threemile Canyon finished a $30 million expansion of its digester last year and installed new equipment to convert the methane into renewable natural gas, or RNG, a cleaner-burning fuel that reduces harmful emissions from vehicles by 80% or more compared to diesel.

RNG produced by Threemile Canyon will be used in trucks and buses on the crowded freeways of Southern California, Myers said.

“It’s a continuous improvement process,” he said. “We get better and better in the closed loop system every year.”

Pete Kent, executive director of the Oregon Dairy and Nutrition Council, praised Threemile Canyon as a “highly successful working model of how modern dairy practices can be an environmental solution.”

“To feed not only our own local communities, but growing global populations, we must embrace such efforts as these to care for our natural resources so we can rely on them continuously to produce our food in the decades ahead,” Kent said.

The U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards are presented by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Since 2011, the center has honored more than 70 U.S. dairy farms, businesses and collaborative partnerships.

Past Oregon winners have included the Tillamook County Creamery Association in 2018 and Rickreall Dairy in 2017.

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