August 9, 2019

Your Dairy Can Get To Net Zero GHG Emissions

 |  By: Mike Opperman

While sustainability is a three-legged stool made up of environmental practices, social outreach and business longevity, many producers have established innovative practices to reduce the impact their dairy has on the environment. This includes solar panels, wind turbines, methane digesters, water reclamation and other areas designed to reduce their environmental footprint.

The question is, how low can it go? Can dairies get to a net zero greenhouse gas impact?

Getting to a net zero situation on a dairy farm means the dairy achieves an overall balance between carbon emissions lost ona dairy due to manure and soil management and anything done to reduce the impact of those emissions. This could include technologies to create renewable energy and manure-based products or rotation, no-till, cover crop farming practices to capture carbon and reduce GHG emissions and other opportunities. 

Producers can have a significant impact in several areas, including greenhouse gas emissions.  These emissions come from three main areas: the cow, the manure she produces and the feed grown to keep her fed, according to Matt Ruark, assistant professor and extension soil scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But there are a tremendous amount of variables within those three areas that affect a dairy’s environmental impact.

“What we decided to do was to follow the impact through the entire dairy system,” Ruark says. “We can create reductions at the cow level, and we are going to take that through manure processing to see if we can get some additional reductions, and then to the soil level to see the impact of soil emissions.” 

A study was designed to look at these reduction opportunities, looking at a model that would depict a 150 and 1,500-cow dairy. After applying best management practices to herd, manure and soil management scenarios, the model showed the reduction levels per kilogram of milk produced and the expected impact on profitability (see chart).


“All of these things are achievable at the farm level, and that’s good,” Ruark says. “There are efficiencies to be had, especially at the cow level. If you’re getting efficiencies per cow, then you’re getting efficiencies in greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of milk and reduction in nitrogen and phosphorous losses as well.”

A new initiative is taking this one step further and utilizing existing dairies to discover opportunities to reduce environmental impact. The Net Zero Initiative grew from a conversation between the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, National Milk Producers Federation, Newtrient, the U.S. Dairy Export Council and Dairy Management Inc. after looking at technology and economic models to determine the impact dairy producers could have on reducing environmental impacts.

“From our initial analysis, and in very reasonable assumptions, we know U.S. dairy farm milk production can get to net zero or better greenhouse gas emissions,” says Steve Rowe, president and CEO of Newtrient. “And while it’s hard to quantify, a dramatic reduction in nutrient loss. Those two big pieces rolled into one is the Net Zero Initiative.”
The Net Zero Initiative will use learning farms to identify the most economically and environmentally sustainable technologies and management practices to reduce emissions and improve water quality. The Initiative will use two to three commercial operations as living laboratories to show it’s possible. 

“The role of the learning farms is to quickly identify and showcase technologies and management practices that will help farms achieve net-zero emissions and minimize their water quality impact,” Tom Vilsack, president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, said in Congressional testimony earlier this year. “The goal is not to find a single, transformational technology. The goal is to highlight entire suites of practices and technologies, which are available to and economically viable for farms of varying sizes and geographies.”

Newtrient is in the process of identifying the dairies, Rowe says, starting with submissions from cooperatives that are on the Newtrient board of managers. 

“Producers know what they want to achieve and if we can match their desires with what we’ve learned over the last 10 years trying to figure this out, it’s going to be pretty powerful for both the environment and rural economy,” Rowe says.