Is Milk Bad for the Environment?

cow eating grass in field

Is milk bad for the environment? Since the majority of Americans are far removed from the origin of their food, this is a good question. But when it comes to the environment, dairy farmers care about the land they work. Their environmental practices go beyond what is regulated by federal and state agencies to continually better an important agricultural industry. 

While the average greenhouse gas emissions for dairy across the globe are 2.5%, an already small number for such an important product, North America’s greenhouse gas emissions for dairy are 1.29%, or almost 50% less than the global average. How has our dairy industry managed its sustainability? From 1944 to 2006, US dairy farmers reduced their carbon footprint by 63 percent. To produce one gallon of milk, dairies now use 75% less manure waste, 65% less water, and 90% less land.   

Let’s look closer at these three resources:  

Manure is abundant on a farm, so dairy farmers are constantly creating new ways to reuse it. Manure is collected and used as a natural fertilizer for crops. Farmers don’t want resources to go to waste, so systems are in place to prevent manure runoff into any water supply. Additionally, silo-shaped buildings are beginning to appear that have another use. Anaerobic digesters break down organic waste to be used as fuel for electricity. These systems can contribute power to the farm or other parties. These practices prove manure is more than just a pile of cow poop.  

Dairies conserve water. Water is not just provided to cows as a drink. Water is also used in other ways. For example, because milk is 101 degrees once milked, water is used in a cooling system to drop the temperature to about 38 degrees to keep the milk fresh. The remnants of water from these purposes and perhaps collected rainwater are needed elsewhere. In order to maintain clean facilities, dairy farmers reuse water to rinse cow manure from the barns. After water washes the barns’ concrete paths, it flows into a manmade holding lagoon, which is lined to stop it from absorbing into the ground. By cleaning the barns, this water is now enriched as a natural fertilizer and can be recycled and used on crops that are grown as feed for the cows. Essential water use is made efficient for every part of a cow’s needs. 

Southeast Dairy Association - Holstein calf

The third big resource is land. Using less land partially reduces the use of water and pesticides. A good companion to less land is a GMO crop. Farmers can grow more hardy crops when they are GMOs. These plants require less water to grow than traditional crops and are more resistant to pests, meaning less pesticides are used on the farm. There are other reasons farmers don’t need all the space they once did. Less land is needed because there are also less dairy cows in use. The US cow population has dropped from 25 million to 9 million cows in the past 70 years. Through diet and genetics, today’s cows produce more milk than their ancestors could ever dream of producing while needing less land to graze.   

What do these changes show? Dairy farmers know that the human population is growing and these new additions will need milk. As demand for their product rises, farmers innovate for more efficient systems. Thanks to hardworking dairy farm families across the US, dairy farms continue to improve their environmental practices to produce a healthy drink for a healthy world. On your next trip to the grocery store, you can buy your milk and know that it benefits not only you, but the Earth, too.   

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