View the Gallery

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.

“How can I prepare my farm? How can I stay in business given what’s likely to be unfolding in the climate?” By now, the wise dairy producer may be asking these questions—and not finding clear answers.

“Dairy production systems in 10 years, and certainly in 20 years, are going to look different than they do now because the climate is going to be different,” says Douglas Reinemann, a CALS/UW-Extension professor and chair of biological systems engineering.

This operational challenge is also an intellectual puzzle. Dairy CAP is tackling it through a detailed life cycle analysis—an accounting method that tries to account for the environmental impact of every input, process and emission, from producing the fertilizer to growing the crops to milking the cows and converting it to cheese.

The cow itself is part of the model, after cropping and before manure management. Each piece is connected—how we feed a cow influences the nutrients in the manure, and manure application affects the next generation of crops. “And of course, milk production is central to the whole thing,” Reinemann says.

Model building is a back-and-forth process: field scientists provide initial measurements and modelers build equations to explain the data. Equations that attempt to model reality are rarely perfect, but as the field scientists and the modelers pass information and questions back and forth, the models get better.

That’s where Dairy CAP picks up the torch. Agricultural scientists have been working with local models for decades. Problems develop when you calibrate a model for Wisconsin and then take it to Nebraska. Dairy CAP involves a massive validation effort that will refine and adapt it to different parts of the country.

Farmers need to know how they can adapt, what changes they may need to make to their infrastructure and how, ultimately, climate change might affect crop and milk production. “What are the choices we have to create our future?” asks Reinemann. “We’ll be able to give them much better advice than we can now.”