Roadmap Supports Collaborative Approach to Dairy Sustainability By: Steve Richter, Director of Agriculture Strategies, The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin


A gallon of milk is not something most of us give much thought to. We buy it at the grocery store or pick it up at a convenience store on the way home from work. In general, we have little idea what it takes to produce this dietary mainstay.

It might surprise some to know that milk has a significant footprint on the American landscape, from the land it takes to raise dairy cows and grow their feed to the impacts on water quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

With impact, comes opportunity. Increasingly, the agriculture and food industries recognize the inherent connection between a secure food supply chain, clean water and a stable climate. The U.S. dairy industry is leading by example with a commitment to environmental sustainability, working toward a set of goals that include cleaner water with maximized recycling and carbon neutrality by 2050.

Collaborating on Dairy Sustainability

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has a long history of working with the agriculture industry—from farmers and ranchers working on the land to agribusinesses and food companies—to advance conservation. We understand that the dairy industry is poised to play an important role in protecting and restoring lands, conserving water resources, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

TNC scientists have developed a Roadmap for a Sustainable Dairy System to help the players within the dairy supply chain meet sustainability and environmental goals. Based on scientific data about milk production practices, the guide can help producers, processors and retailers identify opportunities and make supply chain improvements, while tracking progress toward their environmental and other sustainability goals. Essentially, the Roadmap can help businesses create solutions that are both environmentally friendly and economically favorable, while delivering dairy products that consumers can feel good about.

Sustainability needs to be business-as-usual in the U.S. food and agriculture industries to ensure long-term food production, economic security for producers, and a healthy environment for us all.

Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Poised to Help

A small, but growing, group of dairy farmers in Wisconsin is ready to help drive sustainability in their industry. They are working together in groups focused around their local watersheds to implement conservation agriculture practices that build soil health and improve water quality. Some of the practices they are using, such as cover crops and reduced tillage, will also help capture and hold carbon in the soil.

With support from TNC, the Dairy Business Association and the state’s Producer-led Watershed Protection Grant Program, these farmers are setting goals and tracking conservation outcomes annually.

Farmers like Clint Hodorff, a dairy farmer in Eden, Wisconsin, and member of the Sheboygan River Progressive Farmers, are seeing the environmental and economic benefits of using cover crops and other soil health practices and sharing what they learn with other interested farmers through on-farm demos and field days.

When four inches of rain fell on Hodorff’s wheat field just prior to a field day last fall, he was able to show participants in real time how his use of cover crops kept runoff to a minimum thanks to the improved structure and water-holding capacity of his soil.

Hodorff and other members of the farmer-led groups will be the first to say that trying new things is challenging and that persistence is needed.

My 15 years of experience working with Wisconsin farmers gives me confidence they’ll achieve their goals. But it will take all of us, from retailers and consumers to farmers and milk processors, to make it happen.

The Roadmap will be a helpful tool as we collaborate across the dairy supply chain to support U.S. farmers in meeting the growing demand for food while protecting our environment.