ACAM cow eating
April 16, 2020

How Dairy Will Reach Net Zero

 |  By: Jim Dickrell

Dairy farms have reduced their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by roughly 20% in the last decade or so, driven primarily by continued efficiency gains in both feed and milk production.

While those gains are likely to improve and continue, they won’t be enough to drive the industry to net zero—the industry’s pledge by the year 2050. For that, new technology in terms of feed additives, greater crop carbon sequestration and new government programs will all have to be harnessed, says Mike McCloskey, co-owner of Fair Oak Farms in Indiana and co-founder of Select Milk Producers.

McCloskey also serves on the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Environmental Stewardship Committee. He spoke at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s virtual Dairy Business Conference this spring.

McCloskey believes reaching net zero emissions on an industry-wide basis is achievable—and well before 2050. That’s good because consumers, competitors—and even lenders—are demanding it.

Consumers are making buying choices on food environmental footprints. Competing beverages and foods are already touting their environmental advantages. U.S. dairy products also compete on an international basis, and competitors there are marketing their products on being environmentally friendly. Already, investors and lenders are beginning to ask about farms’ long-term commitment to sustainability and the environment. “Lenders will only want to work with companies that are serious about the environment,” McCloskey says.

There are four ways the industry will achieve net zero:

• Cow care and efficiency.

• Feed production.

• Manure handling and nutrient use.

• Renewable energy production.

Over the next five years, the industry will develop proof of concept and also demonstrate the need to create markets for new manure/nutrient-based products and energy to make all this feasible, he says. “Not one size fits all,” says McCloskey. “It the collective effort of everyone that will get us there.”

Already, there are feed additives that reduce cow belches by 30% and increase nutritional efficiency by 10%. These additives also increase productivity so the amount of GHGs per pound of milk decreases. As these products are further developed, refined and approved for use, they could reduce GHGs/gallon of milk by 50 to 60%.

On the crop front, gene editing and CRISPR technologies are being used to engineer corn and soybean plants to absorb carbon. Combined with no-till practices, the technology could vastly improve carbon sequestration into the soil, further reducing GHG emissions in feed production.

Work also continues on manure fractionization, where the nutrients in manure are separated into aqueous ammonia, phosphorus and potassium solids and potable water. In 7 to 8 years, this fractionization technology might be so developed that manure lagoons will no longer be needed, McCloskey says.

On farms where manure fractionization isn’t viable, manure digester efficiency could be greatly enhanced to the point where GHGs actually become negative with the addition of food waste from local school and other institutions. The dairy manure and food waste would be combined to generate green energy rather than land filling the food waste.

The potential reductions in GHG pounds/gallon of milk are shown in the table below.

Category                                                                              2008 baseline                   Potential Emissions

Cow Care/Efficiency                                                        4.42                                        2.21

Manure Handling/Nutrient Efficiency                      4.02                                        (0.39)

Renewable Energy Use/Efficiency                             2.55                                        0.00

Feed Production/Practice Changes                           1.38                                        0.30

Community Food Waste Substrates                         N.A.                                       (2.7)

Total                                                                                      12.37                                     (0.58)

For all of this to happen, development work needs to continue, says McCloskey. Not every farm will be able to employ every technology. But collectively, he believes the industry can achieve net zero emissions well before 2050.

In fact, with the development of new markets for energy and refined soil nutrients and government incentives such as green credits, carbon credits and investment tax credits, environmental stewardship could become a profit center for dairy farms. McCloskey’s back-of-the-envelope budgets suggest farms as small as 500 cows could net $1/cwt in stewardship benefits.

“Not everyone will be able to get to net zero,” he says. But overtime, more and more dairy farms will want to because the economic incentives will be there, he says. 

For more on achieving Net Zero GHG emissions, click here.