In the fight against climate change, the dairy industry is coming under increasing scrutiny for its environmental impact, and consumers are beginning to care more about the carbon footprint of their food.
According to the Center for Sustainable systems , Dairy has the second largest carbon footprint in U.S. agriculture after meat. The Environmental Protection Agency says agriculture as a whole is responsible for 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
Nearly three-quarters of emissions from the dairy cycle comes from the production of milk itself and the cows’ feed requirements (Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy ). This includes things like energy, water, and methane release – otherwise known as cow farts.
A study released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization shows dairy’s greenhouse gas emissions around the world have increased by 18 percent between 2005 and 2015. That's because milk production has grown substantially in response to increased demand.
However, they would be even higher, if it weren’t for increasing efficiency in dairy production.
There is a growing number of dairy farms working to reduce their environmental impacts while continuing to meet society’s needs.
One is Quail Ridge Dairy in Colorado.
“I want my babies to have a really wonderful environment to work in. I want them to have all of the resources we’ve come to love and hold dear. And I think as a steward of those things, that’s my job,” said Quail Ridge Dairy CEFO Mary Kraft .
The dairy profession has been passed down through Kraft’s family for generations. It’s those years of wisdom, mixed with current science and technology that has enabled the Kraft family to adopt sustainable practices.
First off, before their cows are even born, artificial insemination is used to produce the most productive cow possible.
"You can choose the best quality bulls to put with your cows so you have better quality offspring. They’re gonna last longer, they’re gonna make more milk, and everybody sort of wins in that situation," Kraft said.
Kraft says it’s allowed them to lower their herd population to one third of what it used to be, and the cows are producing more milk. However, a healthy cow needs more than great genes. It also needs good nutrition through a diverse diet.
Kraft says they feed the cows recycled and unusual ingredients, that most humans couldn’t eat anyway, like whole cotton seed, or leftovers from high-fructose corn syrup.
“So we’re able to take all of those products that were recycled or used to be thrown away, and now we’re able to turn them into a really great source. And we have a PhD nutritionist who combines all of those together so that we’re able to put that into the cow’s diet," Kraft said.
They’ve also found creative ways to reuse water.
“We use water that we were already going to pump for the cows to drink. We just bring it through our facility and we’re using it to cool the milk. So the milk comes out of the cow at 101 degrees, and in five minutes because we’re using water going one way and milk going the other way, we’re able to pass the heat from one to the other, so now the milk is cold, and the water is warm. Then we store the warm water, and we’re going to use that when we’re ready to wash the barn down," Kraft said.
The warm water kills the bacteria, then the rest of the water goes out to feed the cows. And as we all know, what goes in... must come out, which is where the next step – involving cow poop -- comes into play.
"So the cows do their business – they poop – we scrape that up, we separate out the solids, we compost it, and the composted bedding comes back for the cows to sleep on. And we’re able to take the liquid out and we crow a crop with it. Or we might take some of the solids out and we’ll grow a crop with it," Kraft said.
It’s a dirty job, but an important one, considering the government regulations imposed on dairy farms from the U.S. Department of Health.
“Specifically they’re looking at run-off water, they’re looking at manure and how are you managing those," Kraft said.
The Food and Agriculture Organization says farm efficiency and management is improving in well-developed parts of the world. However, the dairy industry relies on natural resources and live animals, so it will never be fully emissions-free. The next step will be finding ways to offset these unavoidable emissions like installing solar panels or capturing carbon from the atmosphere.
“My hope is that we do a really good job. We’re a good community provider, a good community contributor. And that we make a great environment for other families to live and thrive in. We have 85 farm families here and I’m very interested in all of those children growing up and being able to have all the resources we have,” Kraft said.
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