Dairy farmer near Patterson making most of scarce water

Tre Moore lays out drip irrigation tape on land that is used to grow corn for dairy cows at John Azevedo’s dairy in Patterson, Calif., on Wednesday, June 8, 2016.
Tre Moore lays out drip irrigation tape on land that is used to grow corn for dairy cows at John Azevedo’s dairy in Patterson, Calif., on Wednesday, June 8, 2016.

John Azevedo stretches the water that helps produce the milk on his dairy farm west of Patterson.

He is experimenting with drip irrigation lines for feed corn that used to be flood-irrigated. The water that chills his milk tanks is reused in nozzles that cool the cows on summer days.

Azevedo is one of 16 farmers featured in a new report from Dairy Cares, a statewide industry program that encourages water and energy conservation and other practices.

“Dairymen are pretty proactive,” the fourth-generation farmer said at his Magnolia Avenue spread Wednesday. “They’ll go after that technology to save water.”

The print and online report, “Our Sustainability Story,” mostly deals with farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. The region makes up most of a California industry that leads the nation in milk production.

Farmers describe how they have turned manure into methane that is burned to produce electricity. This breaks down one of the most potent of the gases believed to be changing the global climate.

Dairymen are pretty proactive. They’ll go after that technology to save water.

John Azevedo, farmer

Some farmers have installed solar panels or energy-efficient pumps, fans and lighting. Some sow feed crops through the stubble left from the previous harvest, which reduces soil erosion and the number of fuel-consuming tractor passes.

Dairy farms have long disposed of manure-laden water from barn floors by mixing it with fresh water to irrigate and fertilize their feed crops. The report notes a recent effort to educate farmers on regulations aimed at keeping this practice from polluting groundwater that people drink.

Azevedo has 720 milking cows on a farm that has been in his family since 1914 and employs eight people. He is a member of the California Dairies Inc. processing cooperative, with locations including Turlock and Los Banos.

The farm has about 600 acres of owned and leased land to grow corn, wheat, alfalfa and other feed. Azevedo gets water from the Patterson Irrigation District, where he is a board member, and from the ground. The district supply – from the San Joaquin River and the federal Delta-Mendota Canal – has been reduced in recent years by drought and fish protections.

Drip lines have become common in tree and vegetable crops, but they have been considered inefficient for the tightly-spaced crops on a dairy farm. They are getting another look because of the tight water supplies.

“I think you’re going to see more and more of this because water prices are going to rise,” Azevedo said as employee Tre Moore unspooled the black tape amid foot-high cornstalks.

The lines have tiny openings that direct the water to the plant roots. They have to be replaced when the field is tilled for the next crop, but Azevedo said they still hold promise. He might expand drip to all 300 acres of corn and wheat. Alfalfa is still not a practical use, he said.

James Garner, who compiled the report for Dairy Cares, was on hand at the Azevedo farm. He works for Cogent Consulting and Communications Inc. in Sacramento, whose clients include the California Milk Advisory Board.

The report takes on claims from environmental activists that dairy cows and other farm animals consume too much water and are major contributors to climate change.

“The water footprint per gallon of milk is 65 percent smaller compared to 1944,” Garner said.

John Holland: 209-578-2385

Featured in the report

Along with John Azevedo, the report on sustainable dairy farming features these farmers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley:

  • Dante Migliazzo of the Atwater area describes how he boosts the milk output per cow through breeding, high-quality feed and comfortable housing. This cuts down on the contribution to climate change.
  • Antonio Brasil, near Dos Palos, installed a system in which bacteria digest manure into a gas burned to generate electricity. It also produces fertilizers suited to home gardens and his feed crops.
  • Frank Dinis, near Hilmar, trains workers on humane handling of cattle at six farms owned by Chuck Ahlem and his son Mark.
  • Dave Ribeiro, near Los Banos, talks about proper housing, nutrition and veterinary care.

The report is at