Groundwork: Our Foundation Science to Open New Markets, Opportunities

  • 4 min read December 18, 2020
  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

This is the final of a three-part series on the Net Zero Initiative pillars that focuses on Groundwork. Read about Dairy Scale for Good and Collective Impact.

Duane and I installed stream bank fencing on our farm a couple decades ago. We did it because we knew it was good for the quality of our water that heads into the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s created a wonderful habitat for wildlife and lush vegetation.

I look at that fence now and see it in a different light. I see it as part of the Groundwork pillar of the Net Zero Initiative (NZI). Think of Groundwork as the foundational science that supports Dairy Scale for Good and Collective Impact.

Groundwork seeks to quantify the environmental benefit of practices and technology, setting the stage for revenue opportunities and where we can take action. It will be our measurement of impact over time and our baseline for where are today by encompassing practices we’ve had in place for years that are good for the environment. Every part of the country has their own unique contributions and it doesn’t matter what size operation you have. Some of these are common aspects of our farms.

These are measurements that are crucial on our journey to net zero. We’ll have the proof points that will set us up for future success, especially as we’re seeing consumers increasingly make purchase decisions based on how the food and products they purchase are produced. Purchase power is based on how a product aligns with a consumer’s values.

Brands, companies and, yes, our dairy industry have expectations we need to meet. Consumers are seeking proof on paper and Groundwork will achieve this, which will be a win for all farms.

Groundwork focuses on four aspects that constitute our farms’ environmental footprint: enteric, manure, feed production and the energy needed to run our dairies. In many cases, you’ll see these are practices we’re already doing. Groundwork is focused on quantifying and monetizing the environmental outcomes of these practices. More broadly, NZI seeks to recognize and reserve our right to generate on-farm revenue that hasn’t previously been perceived or viewed as a value/source of revenue.

Here’s a look at each:

Feed – This encompass practices such as minimal disturbance tillage, cover cropping, innovative crop rotations, new manure-based products and buffer strips, but we don’t always have data to point to the real value of practices such as these. We recently received a $10 million grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) to help us with research gaps that will help farmers measure their GHG from a feed perspective. We’ll be able to quantify the environmental outcomes that sets the stage for new market opportunities, such as non-traditional carbon and water markets.

Enteric – There are several strategies in various stages of development. Feed additives offer promise for significant reductions in enteric methane emissions and potential revenue opportunities via new and developing carbon markets. Other strategies include selective breeding to produce more desirable “traits,” such as cows that use feed more efficiently. Future research will likely focus on traits that select for other beneficial characteristics, including low-methane-emitting cows. These strategies are consistent with farms of all sizes and geographies.

Energy – These are things many of us already are doing, such as LED lighting, variable frequency drives and high-efficiency refrigeration. There are opportunities in certain regions for renewable energy from wind and solar. And, when we talk about conversion of biogas into electricity or renewable gas, we’re talking about anaerobic digestion. Some see this as a large-farm technology, but as NZI moves forward, there is no question more farms will benefit from this technology as it adapts to smaller scale.

Manure – This can be as simple as developing a comprehensive nutrient management plan to more active strategies, such as anaerobic digestion and nutrient recovery systems. Nutrient recovery systems range from basic coarse fiber separation to advanced systems that produce dry, storable and transportable products that allow placement of nutrients where and when they are needed on farm and sellable products for off-farm use.

I understand NZI as a whole may seem complex and overwhelming, but it’s important to remember that no farmer – regardless of their size or geography – should feel they are carrying the expectations of this alone. This is why we need to be unified as farmers and we have support from NRCS, university extension, watershed groups, industry businesses, conservation districts, co-operatives, retailers and processors. Nestle, for example, recently announced it will make an up to $10 million commitment and multi-year partnership to support NZI. The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy also announced Starbucks’ intent to support NZI.

As technologies improve and incentives come into play, there will be more opportunities for famers to want to do more. Some may choose to, some may not. But remember, this is about the collective effort of the U.S. dairy industry.

Ultimately, we want to reach a day when the consumer says, “Wow, dairy farmers are leaders in environmental stewardship and doing the right thing for the planet.”

That will be the true measurement of our success.