Speaking from experience, it’s not easy to be a dairy farmer regardless of the size of the farm or the era in which it operates. Even though it’s been 30 years since cows grazed the pastures of my family farm, the passion and commitment of my late father can still be seen in today’s dairy farmers. Today, more than ever, dairy farmers are committed to providing quality care for their animals to ensure the best product is produced in the most sustainable way … even if critics think otherwise. Perhaps, as we celebrate June as National Dairy Month, we should reflect on the advances the dairy industry has made over the years to ensure environmental and animal welfare concerns are addressed while providing a quality product. Today, dairies are producing almost three times more milk with about half the number of cows as in 1960. Dairy is not the enemy.
Stepping Forward on Sustainability
Growing up, my family was committed to adopting good practices in animal care, manure management, and land and water use, but understanding the nuances of “cow farts and burps” was not on the radar. In today’s sustainability conversation, dairy and other animal agriculture are often cited as major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE). This belief has led some to question why we need to keep animal production in our farming practices and diet. But is this perception reality? The simple answer is “no.” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data indicates there are three sectors that produce nearly 80% of all GHGE in the United States: transportation, power production and industry. By comparison, all species of livestock, including the feed sector, produce only 4%.1
Since 2008, the dairy industry has been at the forefront of sustainability efforts. It was the first entity in food agriculture on a national scale to evaluate environment impacts — inputs and outputs from farm to table — through the creation of Life Cycle Assessments (LCA). This has allowed the dairy community over the past 12 years to evaluate processes and take corresponding measures to reduce the carbon footprint.
In addition, dairy cows play a major role in consuming what cannot be used by the human digestive system. Some have even called them the original recyclers! Research shows that dairy cows can eat 80% of what cannot be consumed by humans thanks to their amazing digestive system. The cow’s rumen or stomach is an ecosystem of “thousands of microbial species and is equivalent in its complexity to the tropical rain forest,” according to Juan Tricarico, Ph.D., vice president of sustainability research at Dairy Management Inc. These commodities include byproducts from microbreweries, almond hulls, cottonseeds, citrus pulp and peel, and corn grain remaining from the production of ethanol. So dairy cows are eating what otherwise would contribute to greenhouse emissions in the form of food waste. Dairies and creameries across the United States also are turning worthless waste into valuable feedstock. Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese in Marin County, California, is a perfect example of creating value of byproducts. Read more about their operation in my January 2019 blog.
While cows are great recyclers of food byproducts, their fermentation process is often the focal point of climate change blame. Even though “cow farts” are frequently mentioned, it’s really the burps that release methane from the mouth. What is interesting about methane, though, is its lifespan in the air compared to carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. According to Frank Mitloehner, PhD, UC-Davis professor and air quality specialist, methane has only a 12 year lifespan while carbon dioxide stays in the air for 1,000 years. This is because methane is destroyed at a very high rate through a process called oxidation. So, from an animal agriculture perspective, the amount of methane being produced every year2 almost equals the amount of methane that is being destroyed every year globally and nationally. By contrast, driving a car every day adds new CO2 to the atmosphere, which will linger well beyond our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren.
Better technology and animal science practices make the difference. For example, producing a pound of milk takes three times less methane than it did in 1924 because of the many efficiencies practiced by dairy farmers.3 Sustainability is at the forefront of every company and organization along the food value chain and it has continued to rise in importance for consumers when making food purchasing decisions.
Animal Welfare Is at the Core
Dairy farmers care about their animals. I always said the “four-legged” females came first on our farm and that hasn’t changed with larger herds — they just need a few more hands to ensure the philosophy is upheld. Over the years, at the dairy farms that I have visited, the commitment of the staff to cow care has always been evident. This can be seen in the living conditions of the animals and the care procedures in place for the herd throughout their pregnancy and milking cycles. Today, it is a team effort of nutritionists, dairy scientists and trained workers that ensure the core commitment to animal welfare is met.
It’s Still About Quality
Regardless of whether milk is organic or conventional, it’s still the same nutritionally sound and safe product. Milk and milk products are a real bargain for the ultimate nutrition boost they provide. With the explosion of plant-based milks, the options are endless. But the nutrient packed “best buy” still resides with the cow. When it comes to safety, no milk is ever shipped from a dairy farm for processing with pesticides or antibiotics. Strict testing for both occurs on the farm when the milk is picked up and again upon delivery to the processing plant. This is a practice that has always been in place for commercial milk production to ensure safe milk for the public. So, the “no antibiotics” you see on a milk label is true for all milk regardless of the brand, store or type of production.
When I think about my father’s passion to keep a dairy operation going for 51 years or today’s farmers juggling the challenges of a worldwide pandemic, I am reminded that “nothing worth doing comes easy.” The milk and dairy products we have available to us today are due mostly to the perseverance of our farmers and the care they have for their cows.. So let’s celebrate National Dairy Month by thanking a dairy farmer and buying some milk!
1. “Can Dairy Be Sustainable? Yes, and Here’s Why,” Undeniably Dairy, U.S. Dairy, June 11, 2021.
2. “Rethinking Methane,” UC Davis Clear Center, video posted on YouTube.
3. USDA National Statics Service
1. “Lessons Learned Extend Beyond the Cow: Thoughts for National Dairy Month,” Meet Me at the Table Blog, Marianne Smith Edge, June 21, 2020.
2. “This I Know to Be True: Five Facts About Dairy,” Meet Me at the Table Blog, Marianne Smith Edge, June 21, 2019.