EPHRATA, Pa. (Lancaster Farming) - The USDA and the nation's dairy industry formally agreed Tuesday to help reduce carbon emissions in dairy by 25 percent by 2020, with increased use of methane digesters being the centerpiece of the agreement.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the CEO of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and Dairy Management Inc., Thomas P. Gallagher, signed the agreement in Copenhagen, Denmark, site of this week's United Nation's Climate Change Conference.

The "memorandum of understanding" will direct funding from existing USDA programs to help pay for more methane digesters on farms as well as promote other technologies and programs to help reduce carbon emissions throughout the dairy industry.

"This historic agreement, the first of its kind, will help us achieve the ambitious goal of drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions while benefiting dairy farmers," said Vilsack, who participated Tuesday in a media teleconference about the agreement. "Use of manure-to-electricity technology is a win for everyone because it provides an untapped source of income for farmers, provides a source of renewable electricity, reduces our dependence on foreign fossil fuels, and provides a wealth of additional environmental benefits."

The department, according to Vilsack, has helped to finance less than 150 projects involving methane digesters to date.

Erin Fitzgerald of Dairy Management Inc., who also joined the press conference, said less than 2 percent of farms that are eligible to get a digester actually have one on site.

The initial plan, she said, will focus on getting methane digesters on farms with more than 1,000 head of cattle.

"With this program, with added interest and dollars, it will accelerate," Fitzgerald said.

Dairy greenhouse gas emissions, she said, make up about 2 percent of the nation's total carbon emissions, while overall ag emissions account for 7 percent.

According to a carbon reduction "roadmap" released by the innovation center in January, the 25-percent reduction will decrease total carbon emissions in the dairy industry from 28 million metric tons to 21 million metric tons.

Along with the methane digesters, the innovation center has proposed reaching its goal by other means, including improved dairy feeding systems and more farm energy audits.

Vilsack also touched on remarks he made at a meeting Monday on clean energy investments, where the USDA released a paper touching on the effects climate change will have on ecosystems, natural resources and agriculture in the U.S.

In the paper, the department stated that worsening climate change would result in more rapidly maturing grain and oilseed crops, but could also result in an increased risk of crop failures.

Livestock mortality rates, the paper states, would decrease over the warmer winter months, but would be more than offset by increased mortality rates in the summer as it gets hotter.

A climate change bill is currently being considered in Congress. While it exempts agriculture from mandatory carbon emissions, the proposed bill would include a cap-and-trade carbon credit program where industry could purchase excess carbon credits from farms in order to meet their reduction requirement.

Many ag groups around the country, including the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), have opposed the bill, stating it would be too costly for farmers.

Vilsack defended the bill, stating that it would offer significant economic benefits in the long run.

"Climate change can be a net economic winner for agriculture. Legislation passed by the House of Representatives and under consideration in the Senate will create a market for carbon offsets that can be sold by America's farmers, ranchers and landowners to businesses that are large carbon emitters," he said. "USDA's analysis of the legislation shows that it will be a net gain for America's producers. A USDA study found that the House climate bill would increase farm expenses by $700 million, or 0.3 percent, from 2012-18, which would be offset by revenue from a carbon offset market, estimated by USDA at $1 billion a year in the near term and $15 billion in 2040."

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