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Accelerating climate-smart practices on U.S. dairy farms

Sponsored: Navigating the challenges dairy farms face when it comes to adopting climate-smart technologies and practices.

Farmer kneeling and petting cow through a fence

Image courtesy of DMI.

This article is sponsored by DMI.

For generations, we’ve seen the power of dairy to do the body good, but many are surprised to hear the good of dairy isn’t just limited to the foods we eat. America’s nearly 30,000 dairy farms and thousands of dairy businesses are advancing the role dairy plays in a sustainable food system by reducing environmental impact, providing climate solutions and restoring biodiversity and natural resources in its journey to become an environmental solution.

At the same time, agriculture has seen its fair share of recent headwinds. Increased demand for food, climate impacts, sky-high input costs and supply chain disruption are all shining a light on the way we grow, process and distribute food. And while it would be easy to get discouraged, significant developments are happening across the U.S. dairy community — ones which create optimism for a climate-smart future.

Building on decades of dairy farmers’ sustainability advancements, the U.S. dairy industry set aggressive environmental goals to reach greenhouse gas (GHG) neutrality while improving water use efficiency and quality by 2050. With roughly 80 percent of the U.S. dairy value chain’s carbon footprint traced back to the farm, dairies are well positioned to deliver impactful results.

In addition, the solutions to dramatically reduce U.S. dairy’s GHG footprint, including methane, are emerging and largely exist. These practices include a host of interventions such as digesters, which convert methane from manure into renewable natural gas; feed additives to help minimize the effect of enteric ("cow burp") emissions; energy efficiencies across dairy operations; and regenerative farming techniques that can improve soil health and potentially capture carbon in the soils.   

Scaling impact

Some farms are already successfully leveraging these technologies. For example, in Washington, at Royal Dairy, Austin Allred uses hungry worms to break down bacteria in his farm’s wastewater, which is then used to irrigate corn and hay crops. The worms also produce a casting that serves as a high-quality compost for locally grown apples, hops and various other commodities.

That said, although the technology is largely ready to scale, many don’t quite realize just how unique each dairy operation really is, and that there’s no one-size-fits all solution. The approach to removing barriers, creating economic viability and scaling opportunities needs to be individually tailored to meet the differing geographies, climates, regulatory and operational needs of all dairy farms across the country.

As a first step, dairy farmers can quantify their carbon reduction potential through a comprehensive, cost-effective and farm-specific assessment plan. This assessment is supported by Newtrient LLC, formed by leading dairy cooperatives and organizations to reduce the environmental impact of dairy and make it economically viable to do so. The assessments can expand options for farms of any size or region to access climate-smart practices, technologies and incentives.

The farm-specific assessments include a qualified GHG baseline assessment of the farm’s current state, including practices and technologies already used on the farm. Assessments address the total farm GHG footprint including enteric methane, manure and energy, in addition to practices associated with feed production.

From there, technical assistance and expert counsel helps form a farm-specific plan with recommendations on climate-smart practices that are economically viable to reduce the GHG footprint.

From commitments to actions

Once farms better understand their current state and individualized climate-smart recommendations, farmers can consider number of promising solutions to further reduce their environmental footprint and even diversify revenue streams, beyond milk. While many solutions already exist, operationalizing these pathways is still a work in progress, but could eventually help create greater value and environmental progress for dairy farm families, communities and consumers. Key opportunity areas include:

Energy efficiency interventions can create fast impact on a dairy farm with improvements such as enhanced insulation, fuel-efficient farm equipment, smart refrigerators, irrigation pumps and more.

Anerobic digestion is the process by which organic materials such as cow manure or food waste are broken down, converted to biogas and eventually used for electricity, heat, compressed natural gas and even vehicle fuel. Over 350 dairies are building or running digester systems in the U.S., 90 percent of which are for renewable natural gas.

Industry partnerships are helping to build a more sustainable supply chain. More and more, companies are setting aggressive carbon reduction goals to green their portfolios. With much of the U.S. dairy supply chain’s carbon footprint traced back to the farm, dairy farms are well positioned to deliver impactful results against Scope 3 emissions given investment and support from dairy companies.

Ecosystem services markets monetize ecosystem benefits such as reduced carbon emissions. The exponential growth that carbons markets have experienced has resulted in a complex market that is extraordinarily difficult for the average farmer to navigate. Ensuring that dairy farmers have access to these markets and are treated fairly when they choose to participate is critical.

California’s low-carbon fuel standard (CA-LCFS) is the largest carbon credit market and among the most effective programs for reducing methane emissions in the state. It created a market for the transportation industry to replace conventional fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel with renewable natural gas, saving carbon emissions from the tailpipe and methane emissions at the dairy. If other states across the country created similar incentives, we could see dramatic GHG reductions from the transportation and dairy industries.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is activating an electrical pathway within the Renewable Fuel Standard program that could be a game-changer for dairy farms. It would enable renewable electricity from dairies to fuel electric vehicles, thus creating an additional program to incentivize dairy farms to build digesters that reduce methane emissions from the dairy farm while also reducing the GHG footprint for transportation.

Work is underway to help the industry realize its enormous potential in reducing emissions, safeguarding natural resources and becoming an environmental solution. The challenge now is finding a scalable, economically viable way to execute on the immense promise these new technologies and practices bring.

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