Sustainability and the Dairy Industry

The future of dairy is happening today. The United States dairy industry is dedicated to addressing climate change and water quality while providing nutritious and affordable foods for a growing population. It’s more than a vision. It’s a pledge. As part of this pledge, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, founded by America’s dairy farmers, has set aggressive new environmental sustainability goals to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality, optimize water usage and improve water quality by 2050. These goals position U.S. dairy as an environmental solution.

The Dairy Industry’s Smaller Environmental Footprint

dairy production and dairy industry

The U.S. dairy community has a strong track record of taking care of animals, air, land and water, and is a leader in environmental stewardship efforts. In fact, the U.S. dairy industry conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) in 2008–the first in food agriculture on a national scale. The LCA focused on fluid milk and showed the industry accounts for:

  • less than 2% of total GHG emissions in the U.S.
  • 5.1% of water use
  • 3.7% of U.S. farmland

With a growing population, farmers must 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. The environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 shrunk significantly from 2007, requiring:

  • 30% less water
  • 21% less land
  • 19% smaller carbon footprint

Each day, the U.S. dairy community strives to earn a place on tables around the world while fulfilling commitments that will sustainably nourish generations to come. According to a recent FAO report, in the decade since 2005, North America (where the U.S. is the primary dairy producer) was the only region in the world to increase milk production while also reducing absolute emissions, making its GHG intensity for dairy products the lowest in the world. Since 1950, U.S. 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. 

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.

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. As long as herds do not increase, there are no additional emissions in our atmosphere due to cows. Remember, herd numbers have decreased by 16 million since 1950.

Learn how dairy farmers are reducing methane and greenhouse gas emissions.

Better Genetics & Milk Production in the Dairy Industry

By focusing on sustainable farming practices, dairy farmers have learned how to improve genetics to produce more milk with fewer cows. This reduces 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. This also ensures safe and healthy dairy products.

Dairy Cows Reduce Food Waste and Help Crop Production

Food Waste in the Dairy Industry

Dairy cows are sustainable in 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 and environmentally friendly diet, dairy farmers utilize the 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, Brewer’s grain and more, that reduces a dairy farm’s food waste going into landfills. These byproducts are also beneficial to the cows, providing needed energy to more efficiently produce milk.

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.

Dairy Industry Innovations

Dairy farmers have taken advantage of modern technology to create a more sustainable system. Farmers may install solar panels or build anaerobic digesters to create energy for the farm. Naturally found resources are used like the sun, wind and especially manure on a dairy farm. Here, 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 the sand. Then, the sand is used for bedding, providing reusable clean bedding for the cows while removing manure for other purposes, like fertilization or anaerobic digesters.

The Dairy Truth

U.S. dairy innovates for the future in the form of new products, technologies and on-farm practices that will contribute to healthier people, planet and animals. The Graft Family in Georgia, and many other dairy farm families across the U.S., have invested in new technologies to turn manure into biogas that powers local communities while helping to eliminate food waste from local businesses.

The Dairy Industry Becoming Greenhouse Gas Neutral

The goal supports a vision that dairy is an environmental solution, addressing the areas where U.S. dairy collectively can have the greatest impact. This will happen by working toward greenhouse gas 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. 

For more information or any questions, contact The Dairy Alliance. We are a part of a better, cleaner, greener tomorrow.

Additional Reading