Sustainability and the Dairy Industry

According to The Dairy Alliance, the United States dairy industry and dairy farmers are committed to lowering 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, U.S. dairy will help feed a projected 9 billion people while minimizing its climate impact to net zero. Let’s take a look at the mission.

The Dairy Industry’s Smaller Environmental Footprint

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Today, farmers produce fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than they did even 20 years ago. In a 2020 EPA report, all agriculture produced 11% of GHG emissions in the U.S. Animal agriculture, which includes dairy, produces 3.9% of emissions. The dairy industry accounts for only 1.5% of total emissions in the United States.


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. Today, the carbon footprint of a glass of milk is two-thirds less than a glass of milk 70 years ago! 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. The more efficient a dairy cow is, the better a cow’s emissions.

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.

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 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 wind turbines and 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 Industry Becoming Net Zero

The goal will bring a net-zero or net-positive carbon footprint to U.S. dairy production in 2050. This will happen 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. 

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

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