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Dairy Talk Efficiency is sustainable

00:00AM Sep 20, 2008


Jim Dickrell

"No dairy farmer on the planet will be immune to climate change issues.” That compelling statement was made at the Dairy Farming Summit in Scotland this summer by Jim Begg, president of the International Dairy Federation. (Follow this link to read "Carbon Hoof Prints.".)

Fortunately, there is mounting evidence that conventional dairy production practices are earth-friendly. Research at South Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota shows that U.S. dairy herds are emitting nearly 30% less methane today than in 1924. (Follow this link to read "History Lessons.”)

And the kicker is that you are producing more than twice the amount of milk with less than half the number of cows. "Efficiency is key,” says one researcher. "Anything we can do to increase the utilization of feed to produce more milk will reduce greenhouse gases.”

Things like using BST. A study conducted by Cornell University shows that with BST you need 33% fewer cows and 35% less cropland to produce the same amount of milk than if you do it organically. Oh, and by the way, those cows will release less methane, phosphorus and nitrogen. (Follow this link to read "BST More Eco-friendly.”)

"Anything that gives us an increase in milk yield—long-day lighting, cow comfort, Rumensin, reducing mastitis—will reduce dairy's carbon footprint, says Jude Capper, lead author of the Cornell study.

Is there room for improvement? Of course. Although our national herd average now tops 20,000 lb./cow, dairy technology has yet to be fully applied. Herds that use these technologies are pumping out 30,000 lb./cow.

Future refinements to diets, cow comfort and infectious disease control will improve efficiency. Then there's the potential of genomic selection and crossbreeding, not only to improve production but functional and survival traits.

And research to capture carbon and methane from cattle manure to create biogas and diesel has barely scratched the surface.

The question is whether society will allow dairy producers to tap into this potential. Refusal to accept milk from BST-treated cows is the first dark cloud. Others, led by sometimes misguided, often malevolent activists, are on the horizon.

The good news is that companies like Eli Lilly, which has announced it will purchase the Posilac brand from Monsanto, are standing up. They know that a sustainable planet requires innovation and rational use of technology.

Other companies, particularly those that market directly to consumers, need to take responsibility for more than their quarterly income statements. That can't come too soon. The world is getting hungrier and the rainforests are being destroyed.

Jim Dickrell is the editor of Dairy Today. You can reach him at



Bonus content:

  • You are reading an extended version of this column that appeared in the September issue.