Dairy Producers Leading the Way in Sustainable Practices by: Ty Rohloff

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I help to feed the world. I genuinely care about my animals, my employees and the soil. The message aligns with my previous article and reflects what I find and hear during my travels across the dairy industry. The concept of prioritizing the well-being of these three elements not new. Moreover, most actions taken by dairy producers are voluntary, driven by passion and care, as they are rooted in the business of producing milk and delivering high-quality value-added products to processors worldwide.

A History of Care

There are numerous stories about small family dairy farms going out of business, and it’s undeniable that the demographics of milk production have changed. Farms have grown larger, and some dairies have chosen to exit the business. However, my argument stands on the fact that both ends of the spectrum now excel at producing a world-class product in a more efficient and sustainable manner than ever before. Additionally, there is greater attention given to the three aspects I mentioned earlier. Like any successful industry, the dairy sector aims to achieve more with less, accepting similar or even lower profit margins compared to 30-40 years ago. You might wonder why someone would willingly do that. The answer is simple: the dairy industry places great importance on responsible production practices and strives to leave a positive impact. For example, as of 2021, the U.S. milk yield per animal unit surpassed the next leading producer, Denmark, by approximately 10%. It also exceeds France by about 40% and Vietnam by around 66%. In 2008, the U.S. dairy industry conducted a life cycle assessment, which was the first of its kind in food agriculture on a national stage. This shows that the industry has been aware of its impact and has worked toward its current state. From 2007 to 2017, producing a gallon of milk required 30% less water, 21% less land and resulted in a 19% smaller carbon footprint. To expand further, based on a Cornell University study from 1944 to 2007, modern dairies required 79% fewer animals, 77% less feed, 65% less water and only 10% of the land compared to the original study to produce the same gallon of milk. So yes, dairy farmers are constantly improving their practices, demonstrating their commitment to conserving resources and striving for better outcomes tomorrow.

Embracing Sustainability

We often hear about regenerative agriculture, conservation, animal care and nutrient management. These terms seem like buzzwords in certain conversations, but the dairy industry has embraced them for years. Cow comfort, cover crops and efficiency in production are areas the dairy industry has been a leading force for quite some time. While certain practices may have been driven by available resources and geographic factors, dairy farmers want to do the best job they possibly can. They recognize that the land and their animals are their livelihoods. Most farms are family-owned, and farmers aspire to bring the next generation into the business. Consequently, they prioritize the well-being of the land and animals for the sake of future generations. Farmers are exceptional at adopting new practices. Take cover crops, for example. While they have been used since the 1800s and possibly even earlier, they have gained prominence as part of the regenerative ag narrative. However, progressive farmers, including those in the dairy industry, have been using cover crops for the past 10 to 20 years. With erosion protection, increased organic matter, weed suppression, a no-till planting system and additional feed crops, cover crops have been embraced and implemented on an increasing number of acres each year.

Revolutionizing Nutrient Management

Nutrient handling and emissions continue to be in focus, but they are now viewed as areas of opportunity. Today, there are technologies available to capture methane emissions, concentrate nutrients, reuse and reapply clean water, recycle bedding, generate on-farm utilities, implement closed-loop irrigation and even robotically manage milking and certain feeding operations. In one sentence, these advancements collectively contribute to a more sustainable operation compared to the past. The concept of nutrient concentration and anaerobic digesters isn’t new. The industry began adopting them in the 2000s. In the U.S., there was an opportunity to capture methane from dairy manure and convert it into fuel to power generators and produce electricity. In recent years, the next frontier has been renewable natural gas (RNG) for the transportation industry. Studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy and the California Air Resources Board show that RNG vehicles emit up to 95% lower emissions than those fueled with gas or diesel. Replacing traditional vehicle fuels with RNG from dairy manure leads to a 400% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. As of May 2022, there were approximately 330 anaerobic digester systems on livestock operations. Due to public and private partnerships, incentives and emerging opportunities, many new systems have been commissioned over the past year, with many more expected to come online. This aspect of sustainability and environmental stewardship provides an additional revenue source, addresses climate concerns, opens up further possibilities for nutrient concentration and even facilitates water recycling. It’s also important to note that the opportunity for anaerobic digesters is not limited to large dairies. Although the economics currently favor larger operations, there are commercially available technologies for herds as small as 100 cows. I liken the adoption of digesters to color televisions – increasing adoption, decreasing costs and continuous improvement over time.

What’s on the Horizon

The next frontier remains uncertain. Given labor shortages, robotics may play a bigger role in dairy farming. Will dairy farmers be compelled to adopt more sustainable practices? In my opinion, the changes will result from a combination of factors: a desire to be better environmental stewards, supply chain mandates and economic opportunities. Given the dairy industry’s leadership and its commitment to continuous improvement, I’m excited to witness how much more efficient it can become. I am particularly intrigued by the research on feed additives that can potentially reduce enteric methane emissions by up to 90%. Additionally, the exploration of transforming methane into valuable products like sustainable aviation fuel and renewable hydrogen holds promise for future opportunities. Moreover, the enhanced capture and targeted application of nutrients have significant potential. In closing, the dairy producers you work with today are doing the best job they’ve ever done. You should take pride in the fact that you work with some of the finest dairy producers who prioritize responsible practices while supplying milk for nourishing products that feed the world. There is much more to this humble industry, and its story deserves to be shared.