‘Learning Farms’ Support Dairy’s Carbon Reduction Efforts

11:39AM Nov 12, 2019
Manure lagoon construction
A black tarp over the lagoon helps capture methane.
( California Bioenergy LLC )

As 2019 is winding down, U.S. Dairy, through organizations including Newtrient and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, is building up what it calls a network of “learning farms” on existing dairies across the U.S.

The goal for the learning farms is to demonstrate best management practices the dairy industry can use to reach its goal of being carbon neutral or even better, according to Katie Brown, senior vice president sustainable nutrition for the National Dairy Council.

She says dairy’s decision to reduce its carbon footprint started in 2008, when the industry did a life cycle assessment (LCA). Such an assessment is a comprehensive way to measure the environmental footprint of a food product. For dairy, that meant looking at its footprint from grass to glass.

“Our comprehensive LCA showed that dairy was contributing 2% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.,” Brown says. “You know, 2% of total greenhouse gas is relatively small compared to the whole, but we knew we could do better.”

Ultimately, Brown says U.S. Dairy’s goal is to reduce its carbon footprint by 25% in 2020.

In the past decade, the dairy industry has implemented a variety of practices—from better dairy cow nutrition, genetics and health to the use of anaerobic methane digester systems and other technology—to work toward that goal. Brown says the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy expects the learning farms to accelerate the industry’s progress.

“The long-term goal is to have a whole suite of validated solutions—technologies and practices that can be implemented together or individually—by dairy farms of different geographies and different sizes across the country for collective impact,” she says.

Brown, a registered dietician, spoke about the learning farms during a panel discussion at the 2019 Future of Farming Dialogue hosted by Bayer at the company’s headquarters near Monheim, Germany. The total number of learning farms that the Innovation Center will implement has not yet been determined.

“The good news for dairy farmers and those of us in the healthcare profession is that consumers are more interested than ever about where their food comes from, and that gives us an entry point for dialogue,” she notes. “We’re hard at work and very transparent in how we talk about our commitments to stewardship and sustainability.”

One valuable way Brown says the National Dairy Council is addressing consumer education is by taking dietitians to visit farms to talk with dairy producers. In the past few months, Brown says she and colleagues have taken groups of dietitians to visit dairy farms in Arizona, California and Maryland.

“When healthcare professionals see the care that goes into producing milk and taking care of cows and being good stewards of the land, that helps them to continue recommending dairy as a ‘nonsubstitutable,’ essential part of the diet,” she says.

Brown expects the dairy industry will make an announcement in early 2020 about its progress in reaching its carbon reduction goal.

2025: How Dairy Farms Will Need to Adapt to Survive
Peterson: DMC Should Be Modified To Protect Large Dairies, Too
Kohl: Next Decade Will be a Wild Ride