Environmental Impact of Dairy Farming

All food production comes with an environmental footprint. That's why dairy farmers are working every day to reduce that footprint in a number of different ways, including recycling, finding new renewable energy sources, reducing and repurposing waste, and upcycling nutritious ingredients for the cows' diets. This kind of sustainable modernization is the perfect example of why a dairy farmer is much more than a farmer – they're engineers, nutritionists, environmentalists and everything in between. 

Dairy Production and the Environment

Given how important dairy is to the American diet, producing dairy has a surprisingly small impact on the environment. In 2008, the U.S. dairy industry was the first in the food agricultural sector to conduct a full life cycle assessment at a national scale. From that LCA, which focused on fluid milk, it was estimated that U.S. dairy accounts for approximately 2% of total GHG emissions, 5.1% of water use and 3.7% of U.S. farmland. Thanks to increasingly modern and innovative dairy farming practices, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 shrunk significantly, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007. That’s the same as the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by half a million acres of U.S. forest.

Dairy Farmers Mitigating Methane Emissions 

Dairy farmers have long been lessening the environmental impact of dairy farming, tending to their animals and managing their land, air, and water resources. They’re our planet’s natural innovators. Sure, we’ve made progress, but we’re not stopping there. For instance, methane presents a greater risk in the near term for atmospheric warming when compared to other GHGs, but it has a much shorter lifespan. That’s why we’re seizing the moment to address methane from cow burps and manure to gain significant climate benefits. Some of the most promising solutions are linked to a cow’s diet. Digesters and renewable natural gas offer one of the more established ways to address GHG emissions related to manure management. And feed production research examines strategies and practices in field that will help to reduce the release of, and help sequester, GHGs.

Dairy cows are doing their part to keep waste out of landfills, another way to help mitigate methane emissions. Every day cows eat an estimated 26.5 pounds of things like cottonseed and distillers’ grains, and one third of a cow’s diet – representing anywhere from 32 million to 41 million metric tons nationally – consists of a byproduct from crop or food company production (think almond hulls or citrus peels). That’s another reason why cows are an important part of the conversation when it comes to climate change.

Dairy Industry's 2050 Environmental Goals

The dairy community is committed to making further progress. Our 2050 goals support a vision that dairy is an environmental solution, addressing the areas where U.S. dairy collectively can have the greatest impact.

Specifically, the goals are:

  • Achieve GHG neutrality
  • Optimize water use while maximizing recycling
  • Improve water quality by optimizing utilization of manure and nutrients.

U.S. dairy is working collectively to balance GHG emissions with reductions and removals to reach net zero, as guided by the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The U.S. Dairy Net Zero Initiative (NZI) is an industry-wide, on-farm effort that will play a key role in helping U.S. dairy continue to make progress toward these goals. Through foundational research, on-farm pilots and development of new product markets, NZI is breaking down barriers to make technology and best practices more accessible and affordable to farms of all sizes and geographies – recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all solution. NZI has four key areas of focus, including feed production, manure handling and nutrient management, enteric emission reduction and efficiency, and on-farm energy efficiency and renewable energy use.

U.S. dairy is on a journey and remains committed to ongoing progress, to leaving a positive environmental footprint and to doing its part to nourish the planet for future generations.

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