8 Frequently Asked Questions About Dairy Sustainability

  • May 17, 2024

Dairy farmers are responsible for some of our favorite nutritious and delicious foods. But did you know they’re also charged with producing those foods in a cow-friendly and environmentally sustainable way? Not everyone is familiar with the U.S. dairy’s commitment to communities and the planet. Many people have questions about the sustainability of dairy farming practices, including manure management and wastewater treatment. If that’s you, keep reading to learn the farming practices used to achieve dairy sustainability across the U.S.

A dairy farmer in a milking parlor operating a milking machine.A dairy farmer milks cows in a milking parlor.

Does Milking Cows Hurt Them?

Nope! Research indicates cows are not hurt when they are milked. It’s part of their daily routine. But the way cows are milked matters.

Contrary to popular belief, milking cows by hand isn’t the safest form of milking. Or the most comfortable for the cow. That’s why most dairy farmers have milking parlors where they use milking machines. It’s part of an overall cow care and milk sustainability practice that is safe for the cows’ udder health and more relaxing for them. It’s more efficient too. Some farms have robotic milking machines that allow cows to go in and get milked whenever they feel ready.

A herd of cows grazing in a green pasture.Holstein cows in a field.

How Do Cows Help the Environment?

Farmers aren’t the only ones furthering dairy sustainability. Dairy cows are too—they’re natural upcyclers.

Cows’ diets usually consist of grass, grain and various food byproducts (e.g., almond hulls, citrus pulp) — mostly things that humans cannot digest. This makes cows a major factor in waste prevention, as they can unlock energy and nutrients from items that would otherwise be thrown out.

In addition, reusing cow manure is a common cow farming practice. There are ways to convert cow manure into renewable energy. And it can also improve soil health through composting, which is why cow poop is already used to help communities.

A woman dairy farmer crouching in front of a line of cows feeding in a barn.A dairy farmer holds feed next to cows who are eating it.

How Does Cow Feed Affect Sustainability?

Cows are the ultimate upcyclers, and their feed is a big reason why. It often comes from land unsuitable for crops, leaving more crop-friendly land available for other uses. And 40% of a cow’s diet comes from byproducts humans can’t eat, which helps keep byproducts out of landfills and reduces the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would come from their transportation and decomposition.

But that’s just what’s happening now. Scientists continue to evaluate the effectiveness of feed additives such as red seaweed, plant extracts and essential oils from common plants. In the future, these additives may lower methane emissions by 20%-50%, helping solve some of the sustainability questions people have about the GHGs emitted on dairy farms.

How Does Cow Feed Affect Sustainability?

It can! And it is. Cow poop doesn’t get flushed down the toilet. It’s repurposed through different sustainable farming practices.

Some farmers use anaerobic digesters to break down cow manure, as well as human food waste, and transform it into renewable energy, including renewable electricity and renewable natural gas. In California, dairy farmers have already used cow manure to replace millions of gallons of fossil-fuel diesel with near-zero GHG emissions.

Farmers also recycle manure without digesters. Using cow manure for composting, for instance, doesn’t require a machine. Plus, cow manure is used for products such as CowPots, a popular biodegradable pot for plants.

A dairy farmer and his children running together through a grassy field on a dairy farm.A dairy farmer and his children on their farm.

Can the Dairy Industry Achieve Carbon Neutrality?

That’s the goal! In fact, it’s one of three environmental goals the U.S. dairy industry has committed to achieving by 2050

●       Achieve GHG neutrality

●       Optimize water use while maximizing recycling

●       Improve water quality

Of course, this won’t be easy. Getting to carbon neutral dairy will require a full collective effort from dairy stakeholders across the nation. But the collective commitment to carbon neutral dairy and all-around dairy sustainability is easily evidenced by the cow manure recycling and other sustainable farming practices already in broad use.

How Do Dairy Farms Affect Local Communities?

Dairy drives local businesses and economies. In the U.S., 94% of dairy farms are family-owned and -operated, contributing to rural economies and supporting over 3 million jobs. Globally, the dairy sector supports about 1 billion livelihoods, all while delivering essential nutrients through a range of tasty foods.

Dairy farms can also help lower local communities’ carbon footprints. The digesters some farmers use to recycle manure, for instance, can also recycle their community’s food waste, keeping it out of landfills.

How Do Dairy Farmers Treat Wastewater?

Reusing water is a common sustainable farming practice. Water that is used to cool milk, for instance, may later be used to clean barns before being pre captured and used to irrigate crops. Dairy farmers may even reclaim and reuse community wastewater — they just ensure it’s treated properly first. In fact, they’ll go to creative (but scientific) lengths to make the most of wastewater, including using worms as part of a filtration system.

Conventional dairy wastewater treatment entails a variety of methods and processes used to reduce solids from effluents. Once treated and free of pathogens, dairy farmers can take this water and reduce their need for potable water.

Altogether, dairy farmers can reduce dairy water use in multiple ways, promoting dairy sustainability by maximizing every ounce. 

A sunlit field with perfectly manicured grass on a dairy farm.A sunlit field on a dairy farm

How Do Dairy Farmers Care for the Land?

Dairy farmers are innovative stewards of the environment, not just their cows. They continually seek ways to provide more with less. And they’ve been doing it for generations. That’s why total U.S. farmer output has nearly tripled since the 1940s even though land and labor usage has decreased. It’s also why producing one gallon of milk required 30% less water, 21% less land and 19% less GHG emissions in 2017 than it did in 2007 — better protecting the natural biodiversity of dairy farmlands.

Dairy farmers also help care for land beyond their farms. At present, about 2% of U.S. GHG emissions come from the dairy sector. But as dairy keeps using current sustainable farming practices and adopting new ones, emissions are bound to decrease, which will help improve the global environment by protecting and healing its natural ecosystems.

Dairy sustainability remains a key aspect of fostering sustainable food systems. Dairy foods, after all, provide important nutrients that are difficult to replace. Nutrients that support healthy pregnancies, child growth and development, healthy aging, chronic disease management and prevention and more. So, the more the dairy community promotes the responsible production of dairy foods, the more the world — including the people in it — will benefit.