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Of Cows and Climate

CALS researchers are leading a far-reaching effort to gather information about greenhouse gases related to dairy—and to give farmers and other industry professionals the tools they need to reduce them.

And in a nearby room, sensors sample the air leaving each stall, recording the release of moisture, carbon dioxide, ammonia, nitrous oxide and methane. This data is at the heart of a $10 million, five-year USDA grant to examine climate change and dairying in the Great Lakes region.

In 2009, the dairy industry became the first major segment in the U.S. economy to volunteer a significant cut in its greenhouse gas production, vowing to eliminate 25 percent by 2020. Now in its second year, the project brings together industry, four USDA labs, dozens of researchers from eight universities, and even Milwaukee’s Vincent High School. Funded through the USDA’s Coordinated Agricultural Projects program, the working nickname is Dairy CAP—pronounced as if it were one word.

To hit that target requires a deliberate look ahead. “What is the climate going to look like in the future?” asks Matt Ruark, a CALS/UW-Extension professor of soil science and leader of the Dairy CAP endeavor. “What is the dairy industry going to look like 10, 20, 50 years from now? And are those two in conflict with each other?”

Sustainable dairying is the ultimate goal, and Molly Jahn, a CALS professor of genetics and agronomy, gives the dairy industry high marks for targeting greenhouse gases. “One thing we know, if you look back over the last 50 years, is that the conditions under which we are dairying are becoming more extreme,” explains Jahn, a co-leader on the grant. “Dairying has many benefits to landscapes. As the industry continues to grow, we want to continue to innovate with respect to productivity and quality—and in harmony with our natural resource base.”

Dairy CAP will provide not only academic results, but also tools and management practices. “We intend to provide dairy farmers with the resources to make sure they are managing their operations for maximum short-term benefit and for long-term success and resilience,” Jahn says.