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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.

Just taking stock led to some easy reductions. For example, if you design milk truck routes so that they are always turning right, you’ll avoid having those vehicles idling while they wait for traffic to clear. That kind of common sense can be easily implemented.

Methane and nitrous oxide are more intractable. Because this pollution is invisible, poorly understood and hard to measure, the first step is determining how much—and exactly where—it is being produced. Fortunately, the challenge ties deeply into husbandry. Ever since our ancestors milked the first cow, we’ve been tirelessly working to improve the yield. In part, that’s what helped establish Wisconsin as a dairy state: Our climatic sweet spot gave farmers an edge.

Modern dairying has taken productivity much further, drawing upon everything from nutritional advances and facility design to genetics. Most recently, dairies are shifting to thrice-daily milking to maximize production. Add up all of this tweaking, and you’ll find the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk has dropped 64 percent since 1946.

“That’s how we got to this 25 percent goal” for reducing greenhouse gas, says Erin Fitzgerald, the senior vice president for sustainability at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy in Chicago. “Sometimes where you’ve been is also an indicator of where you can go.”

From a business angle, there are about 20 major variables that dairy producers follow—everything from energy consumption and manure management to forage formulas and managing herds. These shape the bottom line, but many of them, particularly energy use, also drive greenhouse gas production.

But with so many variables, the problem was too big. “Sustainability is super complicated. If every single producer had to do its own carbon footprint, nobody would have done it,” Fitzgerald explains. Dairy CAP will distill that information for producers. “You’re working in an industry where there is an incredible ethos to do the right thing. If you can put that information in the right hands, what would they do?”