WCMA Notes: Dairy Sustainability is Continuously Improving

Posted By: John Umhoefer Advocacy, WCMA News,

As dairy farms continuously improve to release the genetic potential of their dairy cows, all aspects of sustainability improve. It’s that simple.

And it’s that difficult to get quality dairy research data in front of media and influencers that may be leaning against animal agriculture.

Take Melissa Clark, food columnist with The New York Times. On December 31, her column “The Meat-Lover’s Guide to Eating Less Meat” stated: “Meat and dairy, particularly from cows, have an outsize impact, with livestock accounting for around 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases each year. That’s roughly the same amount as the emissions from all the cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined in the world today.”

Clark cites the World Resource Institute, an environmental research group, which “recommends that wealthy nations cut their beef, lamb and dairy consumption by 40 percent to meet global emissions goals for 2050.”

But no, they didn’t. The report from the World Resource Institute doesn’t mention dairy products in the recommendation quoted by Melissa Clark. It speaks only of meat. The report, “Creating a Sustainable Food Future,” released in Dec. 2018, states exactly this: “Ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) use two-thirds of global agricultural land and contribute roughly half of agriculture’s production-related emissions. Ruminant meat demand is projected to grow by 88 percent between 2010 and 2050. Yet, even in the United States, ruminant meats (mostly beef) provide only 3 percent of calories. Closing the land and GHG mitigation gaps requires that, by 2050, the 20 percent of the world’s population who would otherwise be high ruminant-meat consumers reduce their average consumption by 40 percent relative to their consumption in 2010.”

So, to be clear, U.S. dairy industry’s carbon footprint is this: the entire dairy industry, from farm to manufacturer, contributes about 2 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

A new research study in the October 2019 Journal of Animal Science finds dairy improving its sustainability even in a time frame as recent as 2007 to 2017.

In earlier work, these researchers, Judith Capper and Roger Cady, looked at dairy improvements from a historical perspective. Comparing 1944 to 2007, the U.S. dairy industry achieved a 63 percent decrease in the GHG emissions per kilogram of milk produced.

Their October paper finds that recent improvements in milk yield per cow continue to improve dairy sustainability. From 2007 to 2017, milk yield per cow increased 13.6 percent and milkfat rose 12.1 percent; protein, 10.3 percent.  Also, reduced somatic cell count, reduced intervals between calving, and slightly reduced dry period lifted milk yield and the efficiency of feed use.

The study finds several aspects of sustainability improving for dairy:

Land Use: Fewer cattle were needed in 2017 to produce an equivalent amount of milk, milkfat and protein compared to 2007. Growth in dairy herd productivity means fewer feedstuffs are needed to reach a given level of milk production: an associated reduction in land use for milk production of 20.8 percent. The researchers add an analogy: the total land freed by dairy for other food production purposes is equivalent to the land required to produce 127,000 loaves of (wheat) bread.

Energy Use:  With milk yields up, researchers reported reduced fertilizer use and reduced fossil fuel use to reach a similar target of milk production in 2017 vs. 2007.  For comparison they state: “The former resource savings is equivalent to the energy consumption of 3,380 residential U.S. households.”

Water Use: Water use in the dairy industry is heavily weighted toward irrigated crop production vs. the water farms use for their cows and clean up. In 2017, researchers noted that only 3.26 percent of water use in their dairy modeling was used for watering cows.  Water use reduction created by increased milk yields in the ten-year period was equivalent to annual water use by 34,800 U.S. households, the researchers stated.

Greenhouse Gas/Carbon Footprint:  “From a food industry stakeholder, media, and governmental perspective,” the researchers noted , “GHG emissions appear to be the most important environmental impact metric under current discussion.” The considerable gains in cattle productivity in combination with improved cropping yields between 2007 and 2017 mean an equivalent amount of milk could be produced with total GHG emissions falling by 19.2%.

Researchers then weighed this improved efficiency against the higher volume of milk the U.S. is making: Their metric of milk, milkfat and protein production increased by 24.9 percent in the decade from 2007 to 2017, and the total GHG emissions arising from this production increased by 1.0 percent. “This remarkable result,” the researchers state, “especially in light of the milking cow population increasing by 2.1 percent, is primarily due to increased productive efficiency in both feed and milk production.”

Dairy’s efficient use of land, water, energy and carbon is continuously improving.  Learn more good news at CheeseExpo in April as the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy hosts “Messaging Dairy Sustainability to the Millennial Market.”