Retiring Cows: What Would Happen to GHG Emissions?

The dairy industry in the US contributes approximately 1.58% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, yet there are opponents of the industry that argue that the elimination of animals in food production, relying instead on plant-based options, would benefit the environment. So how would the retirement of the approximately 9 million dairy cows in the US affect the climate? 

Well, it must help over all, some may say.

A team of researchers at Virginia Tech sought to find these very answers. The team found that the removal of dairy cows from the US agriculture industry would only reduce greenhouse emissions by about 0.7 percent (while significantly lowering the available supply of essential nutrients for humans, a topic we will cover later in this series). 

The team created different scenarios to discover what, if any, retirement plan provided benefits to the US population. Remember our question of what would happen if all cows retired and were rehomed? If US dairy cows were given pasture to live out their lives, this scenario would create a 12% decrease in agricultural emissions. However, the study reaffirmed the issue of rehoming in this series, finding that less than half of the current population (44%) could occupy these pastures. If the US dairy cow population was culled, there would be only a 7% drop in agricultural emissions.  

A keyword in the numbers above is that these numbers represent US agriculture emissions, not all emissions for the country or the world.  

The dairy industry does not need to do anything as drastic as eliminating its herds when those in the already low-impact industry are working to further reduce their environmental impact. A big reason why the impact of dairy cows on the environment is minimal is due to advancements made by those in the dairy industry over the last 70-plus years. Efficiency improves over time. To produce the same amount of milk in 2007 as in 1944, it required just 21% of the animals, 35% of the water, and only 10% of the land, and it has continued to improve in the years since. 

Next week, the series will look at what would happen to available nutrition without dairy products.