New Study Reveals Dairy’s Shrinking Footprint

cows with ear tags in field

This isn’t your grandfather’s dairy farm—or his dairy cows. 

Like every industry, dairy has changed over the years, especially as the population increases. This isn’t only seen in breakfast innovations, delicious milk flavors, or easy weeknight dinners. Dairy has changed on the farm, too. 

Practices are constantly improving to make the dairy industry more sustainable. Sustainability is important to the environment, but it also helps ensure food for the community. 

This sustainability was seen in 2009, when researchers Jude Capper, Roger Cady, and Dale Bauman looked at the changing environmental footprint of the U.S. dairy industry between 1944 and 2007. They found that it took 90% less land, 65% less water, and a 63% smaller carbon footprint to produce a gallon of milk over that 63-year period. Manure waste decreased 76% with 79% fewer cows and 77% less feed needed despite milk production increasing over 58% in that period. 

After this amazing discovery, Capper and Cady performed a follow-up assessment looking from 2007 through 2017. The study, found in full here, looks only at the effects from the farm, not the effects from the entire chain (beginning at the farm and ending with the consumer). 

The new study found that in 2017, producing a unit of milk required 25.2% fewer cows, 17.3% less feed with 20.8% less land, and 30.5% less water than 10 years prior. There was also a reduction in the amount of waste produced, with cows producing 20.6% less manure. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per unit of milk in 2017 were 19.2% less than in 2007 and, although total milk production in the U.S. increased by 24.9% between 2007 and 2017, the total GHG emissions from milk increased by only 1%.  

This rise in milk production was achieved naturally, not with the use of steroids or added hormones. Increasing milk production with a decreasing environmental footprint exemplifies how dairy farmers produce enough milk for the growing population while remaining environmentally sustainable. Using improved genetics and farming practices with a focus on animal nutrition and herd management instead of hormones or steroids, milk production can rise without requiring more resources than before. The numbers don’t lie. 

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