Checkoff program takes aim at cow emissions

Carol Ryan Dumas
One project at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy is focusing on reducing methane emissions from dairy cows as part of the industry's commitment to sustainability and reducing greenhouse gasses.

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, established by dairymen through the dairy checkoff program, is taking aim at methane gas from cows. The initiative is part of dairymen’s voluntary commitment to sustainability and reducing greenhouse gases across the supply chain by 25 percent by the year 2020.

To support that commitment, the Innovation Center has identified 10 projects to reduce methane, five of which are on the farm. One of those farm projects — Cow of the Future — is aimed at reducing methane emissions from cows in ways that also deliver economic benefit to dairy operations, said Juan Tricarico, director of the program.

The program is one result of the center’s 2009 commissioned study on the carbon footprint of the U.S. dairy industry, which found 72 percent of U.S. dairy GHG emissions — from grass to glass — occur on the farm. Of that, 25 percent is from methane gas produced by cows’ digestive system.

“Cow of the Future deals with that 25 percent that comes from the cow’s digestive system,” Tricarico said.

The program addresses three areas — nutrition, health and breeding — to reduce emission relative to units of milk.

All emissions are expressed as methane produced per gallon of milk, so the goal is to reduce emissions while meeting the demand for dairy products, he said.

Nutrition is obvious when it comes to methane emissions. What and how cows are fed has an immediate impact on enteric emissions, he said.

Health is a matter of reducing the incidence of disease and milk losses. Heifers and cows are eating feed and producing methane whether they are producing milk or are producing efficiently or poorly, he said.

Selection criteria used for breeding is important because it shapes what the herd is going to look like in the future, with the potential to reduce methane gas in relation to milk output, he said.

The Cow of the Future project seeks scientifically sound, economically viable and socially responsible ways of reducing enteric methane emissions and focuses on elements on which farmers are making decisions on a daily basis, he said.

Management is essential to everything on the dairy, and Cow of the Future tries to empower the dairy farmer and everyone — such as his nutritionist and agronomist — who sits down with him at the table in making those decisions, he said.

Farmers need to be profitable and use natural resources wisely for today’s needs and future needs. It is also important on a social level to be environmentally proactive so customers and consumers know farmers are making decisions based on science and for justifiable reasons, he said.

Reducing greenhouse gases is an environmental benefit, but improvement will also help with public perception of dairy farmers and the dairy industry, he said.

The study of dairy’s carbon footprint, in conjunction with additional research, also found the fluid milk sector accounts for just 2 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions attributed to human activity.



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