SALEM — The pastoral stereotype of a handful of cows living in a red barn isn’t doing the dairy industry any favors, according to animal science professor Frank Mitloehner.
Consumers can react with distrust when they encounter commercial dairies after being exposed to bucolic advertisements about “happy cows,” the University of California Extension specialist said during the recent Oregon Dairy Farmers Annual Convention in Salem.
“They say this and this here have nothing to do with each other and they feel betrayed,” said Mitloehner.
Farmers should instead promote the efficiency of the modern U.S. dairy industry, which has increased milk production 60 percent since the 1950s while reducing the number of dairy cows from 16 million to 9 million, he said.
Mitloehner also said there’s plenty of room in the market for organic and conventional producers without various dairy sectors trying to give each other a “black eye.”
“That must stop,” he said.
It has been a decade since the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization published a highly publicized report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” that blamed livestock for causing more greenhouse gas emissions than global transportation.
Mitloehner was a chief critic of the report, which pointed out that the “lifecycle” analysis of greenhouse gases from livestock production was much more extensive than for transportation, which considered only direct emissions.
Greenhouse gases caused by feed manufacturing and land use changes were included in the livestock analysis, but emissions from the manufacture of automobiles was not included in the transportation analysis.
While one of the UN report’s authors acknowledged this shortcoming, Mitloehner said the allegations of livestock’s disproportional impact on climate change have become ingrained in the global media.
Even though the UN has since shifted its position on livestock production, talk show hosts and advertisements continue to allude to the 2006 report, he said.
“It implies transportation choices are inconsequential,” he said. “The consumers now believe it’s true.”
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has since “come around full swing” on livestock production, though the change is not widely publicized, said Mitloehner, who’s involved in the organization’s environmental assessments of livestock production.
For example, a 2013 report, “Tackling Climate Change through Livestock,” found that improving livestock production efficiency through technology and breeding helps reduce emissions.
“You have to discuss this in public,” Mitloehner said.
While a cow in the U.S. can produce 20,000-25,000 pounds of milk a year, a cow in Mexico can produce about 4,000 pounds and a cow in India can produce about 1,000 pounds, he said.
That effectively means that U.S. dairy farmers can produce the same amount of milk with much smaller herds, shrinking their “carbon footprint” compared to more traditional systems, he said.
“Do you think the population knows that?” Mitloehner said. “They think the opposite is true.”
With growing populations, the world will have to adopt more intensive and efficient agricultural practices despite pressure from critics to abandon technology, he said.
China, for example, loses 40 percent of its hogs before weaning due to inferior nutrition, genetics and veterinary care, which isn’t affordable in the long-term, Mitloehner said. “They actually have to change the way they produce food.”