Wind turbines in Wisconsin.
November 29, 2018

Changing Climate Puts Focus on Animal Agriculture

 |  By: Jim Dickrell

There is little doubt that the world’s climate is changing.


Mega-hurricanes and super storms such as Hurricane Harvey dump not inches but feet of rain on to cities in the Southeast.


Wildfires in California consume whole communities, killing dozens of people and making thousands homeless.


Even in the Midwest, late spring blizzards delay planting and far wetter than normal falls disrupt harvest, with mold forming on ears of corn still hanging from stalks and soybeans sprouting in their pods.


No one weather event can be tied to global climate change. But Houston has had 500-year weather events in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The statistical probability of that occurring is 0.008%. Even All-State Insurance is advertising that it has covered 26 500-year weather events in the last decade.


In October, a United Nation’s (UN) scientific panel reported that if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue at current rates, the atmosphere will warm by as much as 2.7°F by 2040, which could be a tipping point of no return. To prevent it, the panel says, GHGs will have to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and by 100% by 2050.


In November, the White House released a report compiled by 13 Federal agencies that shows temperatures in the continental United States climbed 1.8°in the last century, with temperatures poised to climb another 2.3°F by 2050. It also concludes that 90% of current warming is caused by humans. Agriculture will be hard hit: “Expect increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad,” the 1,656 page assessment says.


Caught up in this maelstrom are animal agriculture, dairy farmers and beef producers. Anti-ag environmentalists and vegan groups allege animal agriculture is the main culprit for greenhouse gas emissions. They point to another UN study that says animal agriculture worldwide contributes 14.5% of GHGs, more than the transportation sector. Note: U.S. agriculture, because of its efficiency, contributes 9% to U.S. emissions. U.S. animal agriculture contributes about 4%, U.S. dairy about half of that. See Table 1.


“Even if Americans eliminated all animal protein from their diets, they would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only 2.6%,” says Frank Mitloehner, an air quality Extension specialist with the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis.


Indicative of activist pressure, however, Proveg International was hoping to accumulate 100,000 signatures on a petition calling for the reduction of animal agriculture ahead of a UN Conference on climate change in December. Other vegan organizations point out that animal agriculture accounts for 25% of U.S. methane emissions, though they always fail to mention methane itself accounts for just 10% of GHGs in the United States. See Table 2. (Methane also dissipates after about 12 years, so it is non-cumulative. CO2, the main emission from coal burning power plants and transportation, remains in the atmosphere if it is not sequestered by plants or other means.)


For its part, the dairy industry has been promoting the fact that its remarkable increase in efficiency, particularly more milk per cow, has dramatically lowered its use of resources over the last 75 years. In a study conducted in 2009 at Washington State University, Jude Capper, (now a livestock sustainability consultant in the United Kingdom), found that to produce 1 billion kg of milk (2.2 billion lb) in 20076 required just 21% of the dairy cattle that were needed in 1944, 35% of the water, 10% of the land and 37% of the CO2 emissions.


In 2012, a University of Arkansas study estimated that the U.S. dairy industry’s total carbon footprint equated to 137 million metric tons, with 35 million tons from fluid milk production, 54 million tons from cheese and 48 million tons from other dairy products. While those sound like large numbers, they account for just 2% of total U.S. GHG emissions. Each gallon of milk produced was emitting 17.6 lb of CO2 equivalent; each pound of cheese, 8.3 lb. of CO2 eq. See Table 3. Click here for more on dairy’s environmental footprint. 


That study led dairy industry leaders to commit to reducing GHG emissions a further 25% from the 2007 baseline by 2020, just a year from now. While the industry knows it has improved milk per cow efficiency by some 13% from 2007 to 2017, and that it could jump to 17.5% by 2020 if current production per cow trends continue, it is unable to say how close to the 2020 goal it really is.


“[More] milk production per cow will definitely reduce enteric emission numbers in the right direction,” says Chad Frahm, a senior vice president with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. “We feel we are making progress, but it is hard to say what that percentage reduction actually is.”


He does note, however, that the United Nations recognizes the dairy industries in North America and the United States as leaders in milk production efficiency and low GHG emissions. “We’re leading the world, producing more milk with fewer resources,” he says.


Frahm also emphasizes that along with GHG emissions, diet nutrition density also needs to be considered. Milk and dairy products provide more than 50% of the calcium and Vitamin D, 25% of Vitamins A, B12 and riboflavin and 18% of the protein in the average American diet. Eliminating dairy from that diet would make it difficult to replace all of these nutrients with other food sources.


Jack Britt, a dairy scientist with a long career at Michigan State University, North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee, agrees. “Dairy provides certain essential nutrients (amino acids which are the building blocks of protein, vitamins and minerals) that cannot be provided as efficiently with other diets,” he says.


Dairy, he adds, provides the most sustainable use of land while feeding the most people per acre. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, land used to produce dairy is about 10% more efficient at producing human food nutrients than used to produce a vegan diet, and 5% more efficient than producing an egg-based diet. That’s because dairy cattle use forage that is typically not digestible by humans, by-product feeds and grains. “In this study, researchers also did not consider consuming cull dairy meat that would be a byproduct of producing milk, so that might make dairy even more efficient,” says Britt.


With world population projected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050 and available arable land declining, it’s paramount that land be used that is the most efficient and sustainable over the long term. Land used to produce milk and dairy products is both. Estimates show dairy farming uses about 35 million acres of cropland, or roughly 8.5% of all U.S. cropland.


Food waste is another area where GHG emissions could be greatly reduced. It’s estimated that nearly a third of dairy foods may be lost at the retail and consumer level, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service. Reducing that waste would conserve resources and reduce GHG emissions, says Frahm. But achieving that reduction is difficult; numerous campaigns have tried and have been less than successful.


Finally, Frahm notes that all food production will have an impact on GHG emissions and sustainability. “We need to be looking at this from a number of perspectives, not just one factor,” he says. Nutrition, land use, air emissions and water use all have a role to play in sustainably producing food in an environmental responsible way, he says.


In the following sidebars, we show how producers are attempting to do just that.


Table 1. Source of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions


Electricity Production                    28%

Transportation                                28%

Industry                                            22%

Commercial/residential                11%

All agriculture                                   9%*

          *Animal agriculture 3.9%


Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016


Table 2: Composition of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions


Carbon Dioxide: 82%

Methane:            10%

Nitrous oxide:       6%

Fluorinated gas:   3%


Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016



Table 3. Source of Dairy Industry GHG Emissions


Source                                                               Fluid Milk                           Cheese


Milk production                                              51.5%                                  46.5%

Feed production                                             20.3%                                  22.4%

Transportation/distribution                           7.7%                                    4.9%

Processing                                                          5.7%                                  10.7%

Packaging                                                           3.5%                                    1.3%

Retail                                                                   6.5%                                    8.3%

Consumer                                                            4.9%                                   6.9%

Total CO2 equivalent emissions, lb           17.6/gallon                            8.3/lb  


Source: University of Arkansas, 2012



Sidebar 1. Renewable Compressed Natural Gas


Methane digester


By 2030, California has mandated that dairy farms within its borders must reduce methane emissions from manure by 40%.  To help reach that goal, Land O’Lakes, Inc. (LOL) and California Bioenergy LLC (CalBio) launched a first of its kind collaboration this past summer to finance, build, operate and manage methane digesters on California dairy farms.


The project is designed to capture methane from cow manure using on-farm digesters and then compress it into a natural gas pipeline where it can readily be used by commercial forms of transportation like city buses or heavy trucks in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles. “The biggest thing our collaboration does is unlock new income for farmers,” says Matt Carstens, senior vice president of LOL’s SUSTAIN, a business unit of Land O’Lakes.


No single farm can do all of this alone because of infrastructure requirements, costs and the complexity of such a project. However, if a cluster of nearby dairy farms can capture its methane at digesters on each of the farms, a central processing site can scrub, pressurize and send the gas via pipeline to Los Angeles where it can be used. Such a joint venture becomes much more viable and creates a potential and significant revenue stream for each farm.


Proponents acknowledge the project isn’t viable without state and federal energy credits to help finance and cash flow the project. But California has an on-going commitment to the program. For more on the this story, go to:



Sidebar 2. Solar Power to the Max


Solar panels mounted on roof of freestall barn.


You could say Hunt Farm, in Orange, Mass., is all-in when it comes to solar energy. Solar panels power the farm’s milking parlor, milk cooling, lights and ventilation along with farm homes and employee housing.


And, for good measure, Hunt Farm solar panels provide power to a local restaurant and bar, and even nearby city infrastructure. Coming soon is a seven-acre, 1.4 megawatt system that will be used in a community solar project to power some 500 homes. And on the drawing board is another 2 megawatt system that could power another 800 homes.


The Hunts also have a 145 kW system that powers a 100-seat restaurant and 18-stool bar they own down the road from the dairy farm. And they have a small 15 kW system that powers a campground, George, Jr.s’ house and housing for their Hispanic workers.


But they’ve also become involved in two much larger projects. The first is a 12-acre, 3.3 megawatt system. This system provides power to nearby Lowell, Mass., for its schools and sewage treatment plant.

Another seven acre, 1.4 megawatt system will go on-line in an Orange, Mass. industrial park yet this fall as part of a community solar project to power homes and apartment buildings. Another 2 megawatt system is also on the drawing board.


Much of the financing for these projects is done through solar energy companies. “There are no dollars invested on our part in some of these projects, and it provides a positive cash flow. It’s been a real help,” says George, Jr.


Hunt recognizes he may be in a unique situation because Massachusetts, along with Hawaii, are the most solar friendly states in the nation. Without federal energy credits and state incentives for green power, the projects likely would not be viable, he says. Federal tax credits for solar power will also diminish over time. They remain at 30% for 2019, drop to 26% in 2020, to 22% in 2021, and then fall to 10% in 2022 onwards.


For more detail, go to:{%22issue_id%22:531582,%22page%22:10}


Sidebar 3. Re-engineering Manure



Son-Bow Dairy Farm



Four years ago, Jay Richardson knew he had to change some things on the 1,400-cow Son-Bow Farms dairy he co-owns or the operation would soon no longer be sustainable.


“We needed to take a big swing on cost control, and that meant something had to change with our manure system,” he says.


Richardson dairies near Maiden Rock, Wis. Fields are small, yet competition for farmland is intense. Richardson farms 2,400 acres spread out over 30 miles. “If we put manure on wheels, it’s costing us 2 1/2¢/gal,” he says.


Richardson’s settled on a two-pronged solution, that uses both mechanical sand separation and drum composting of solids, and then both ultrafiltration (UF) and reverse osmosis (RO) to concentrate nutrients down to about two-thirds of their original volume.


While the entire process is capital intense and will take about $3,000 of Phase 3 power per month, Richardson estimates it will eliminate some 1,500 loads of manure that won’t have to hauled annually. “At $200 per load, that adds up in a hurry,” he says.


He’ll also be purchasing about 90% less sand each year, and will have composted solids sales to help offset some of the operational expense of the manure system. The bottom line: Richardson believes he’ll save $1.80/cwt of milk sold even with the capital cost of the manure system included.


For more detail, click here.




I like promoting the efficiency of agriculture.
I dislike discussing food "waste." I think focusing on that is dangerous.
The car manufacturers used to do Just In Time inventorying during the 1990s. No warehousing of inventory.
That's a big money saver. But as soon as there's any disruption in movement of inventory, car factories close.

If we did the same thing with agriculture, people starve.
I think we should call it "slack" in the system, not waste, and frankly, we should expect it to be about 40% overall (because civilization's agriculture is a biological process, not a mechanical one).
Call it preventing famine.

Seriously. Think thru what zero waste in the food system would actually have to look like.