Sustainability and Dairy

More to the Moo

More to the Moo: The Life of a Modern Dairy Farmer follows the Harrison family of Sweetwater Valley Farm as they produce milk on their dairy farm to share with the community through their cheese and cafe. Watch below to discover dairy farm sustainability practices, how robotic milking machines work and more that modern dairy farmers do.

This documentary was created by Image Quest Films.

A Smaller Environmental Footprint

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Today, farmers produce less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than they did even 20 years ago. All agriculture produces 9% of GHG emissions in the US. Animal agriculture, which includes dairy, produces 3.9% of emissions. The dairy industry accounts for only 2% of total emissions in the United States.

With a growing population, farmers must create increase food production with decreased resources. Considering the nutrients milk contains, dairy has a lower carbon footprint than many other foods, but that continues to improve. Today, the carbon footprint of a glass of milk is two-thirds less than a glass of milk 70 years ago! Since 1950, US dairy herds have decreased from 25 million to 9 million dairy cows, still producing 60% more milk. Through improved genetics, reproduction practices, health practices, and diet, cows are more efficient today than in 1950. The more efficient a dairy cow, the better a cow’s emissions.

Cows & Methane

Cows naturally release methane during rumination and digestion. Though methane traps 28 times more heat than carbon dioxide in its lifespan, methane is oxidized within 10 years of entering the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide remains for 1,000 years. Through hydroxyl oxidation, the amount of methane produced is equal to the amount being destroyed naturally. The methane cows produce is part of a natural cycle, so as long as herds do not increase, there is no additional emissions in our atmosphere due to cows. And remember, herd numbers have decreased by 16 million since 1950.

Better Genetics & Milk Production

By focusing on sustainable farming practices, dairy farmers have learned how to improve genetics to produce more milk with fewer cows, reducing the amount of GHG emitted per pound of milk. Improved genetics have bred cows that are more efficient than their predecessors. Though they look similar to cows from 20 years ago, Artificial Insemination (A.I.) allows dairy farmers to breed bulls and cows with superior genes for milk production in a safe environment.

Cows Reduce Food Waste

Dairy cows are sustainable from every aspect, including what they put in their bodies. Dairy cows can eat up to 100 pounds of food per day and can drink as much as 50 gallons of water each day. To provide a healthy diet that is environmentally friendly, dairy farmers utilize byproducts of different industries or farms when working to create a nutritious feed mix. Cows are the ultimate upcyclers, eating byproducts that humans cannot eat, such as citrus pulp, almond hulls, Brewers grain and more, that reduces our food waste going into landfills. These byproducts are also beneficial to the cows, providing needed energy to more efficiently produce milk.

Cows Help Crop Production

Dairy farming can also contribute to crop production. When growing crops, many dairy farmers reuse the waste from other practices. After cooling milk, cleaning equipment and then cleaning barns, the used water is recycled as irrigation. A benefit of reused water is that it has been enriched by the manure it cleared from barns. Manure itself is also used as a natural fertilizer for crops. This nourishes the soil for future years and benefits all farmers.

Other Innovations on Dairy Farms

Dairy farmers have taken advantage of modern technology to create a more sustainable system. Farmers may install solar panels or build wind turbines and anaerobic digesters to create energy for the farm. Using naturally found resources like the sun, wind and–especially on a dairy farm–manure, farmers can help power lights, milkers, fans and more. Some of that power may even be used in farmers’ communities.

Manure-sand separator systems separate manure from sand used for bedding, providing reusable clean bedding for the cows while removing manure for other purposes, like fertilization or anaerobic digesters.

Becoming Net Zero

Dairy farmers made a commitment to lower their environmental footprint by 25% by 2020. Now, the dairy industry has a new goal towards sustainability: going net zero. In becoming net-zero or net-positive by 2050, US dairy will help feed a projected 9 billion people while minimizing its climate impact to net zero.

The goal will bring a net-zero or net-positive carbon footprint to US dairy in 2050 by working toward carbon neutrality and further reducing water quality impacts in farming practices. The goal is not to find a single solution but to implement multiple practices and technologies according to the needs of each dairy farm and its size. 

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