Dairy cow eating grassI’ve never met a dairy farmer that lacked passion and commitment about their cows and the quality of the milk produced. From my early days around my grandfather and father on our dairy farm, to today’s producers, the commitment remains the same even as technologies change. Over the years, research and the continued investment in sustainable farming practices have positioned the U.S. as the leader in producing more milk with the lowest environmental impact. In fact, today’s dairies are producing almost three times more milk with about half the number of cows as in 1960. Let’s salute the U.S. dairy farmers for making the commitment to sustainability and … reducing the “hoofprints” of dairy.

Stepping Forward on Sustainability

Since 2008, the dairy industry has been at the forefront of sustainability as it was the first in the food agricultural sector at a national scale to evaluate the environment impacts — inputs and outputs from farm to table — through the creation of Lifecycle assessment (LCA). The original LCA, based on fluid milk, showed that U.S. dairy contributed only 2% to the total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, 5.1% of U.S. water use and 3.7% of U.S. farmland.1

Since the initial assessment, the environmental footprint of U.S. “farm to fork” milk production has continued to diminish over the past decade. A recent Journal of Animal Science found that an average of 30% less water and 21% less land being used, contributing to a 19% smaller carbon footprint, and producing 20% less manure.1 Even though the dairy and all animal agriculture are often cited as major contributors to our Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), perception is not reality.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, it’s a different story. Nearly 80% of all GHGE produced in the U.S come from transportation, power production and industries. All species of livestock, including the feed sector, produce only 4% of all greenhouse gases.2 Over the past 14 years, the dairy industry continues to evaluate processes and take measures to reduce the carbon footprint. In fact, dairy cows play a major role in reducing their own “hoofprints.” They are the original recyclers.

The Original Recyclers

Dairy cows basically eat what we cannot due to their digestive systems. In fact, 80% of what they eat we could never digest! Researchers describe a cow’s rumen or stomach as an ecosystem of “thousands of microbial species and is equivalent in its complexity to the tropical rain forest.” Byproducts of other food processing that would be food waste and contribute to GHEs provide nutritious feed for cows. This includes brewer’s yeast from microbreweries, almond hulls, cottonseeds, citrus pulp and peel, and corn grain from ethanol production. Collaboration across the food and agricultural sectors can improve the diets of dairy cows and improve the environment. Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese in Marin County, California, is an excellent example of such collaboration. (Read more about their operation in a past AgriNutrition Edge blog.)

What About the “Burp”?

While cows contribute to reducing GHGEs through the consumption of food byproducts, they are also cited as a main contributor. During a cow’s consumption and digestion process, methane is primarily released from the mouth as “burps” due to the fermentation process while “chewing.”

While methane seems to get all the media attention, its lifespan is not equal to the carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide in the air. According to Frank Mitloehner, PhD, UC-Davis professor and air quality specialist, methane has 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.2

So, from an animal agriculture perspective, the amount of methane being produced every year3 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.4 Sustainability is at the forefront of every company and organization along the food value chain, recognizing the importance of preserving the environment and addressing consumers food purchasing decisions.

Commitment to Quality

Reflecting on my own father’s passion 51 years to operate a dairy as well as those in the business today, the quote “nothing worth doing comes easy” comes to mind. From juggling the challenges of the pandemic over the past two years to rising prices, dairy farmers remain committed to continuous improvement. While reducing the environmental “hoof print” and animal care remain at the forefront — the commitment to producing high quality milk and dairy products is always top of mind.

Thanks to the perseverance, passion and commitment of our dairy farmers, we can enjoy the benefits of their labor — from milk to ice cream! Let’s celebrate National Dairy Month and thank our farmers by enjoying “everything dairy”!

1. U.S. Dairy — A Global Leader in Sustainability, The U.S. Sustainability Alliance.
2. “Can Dairy Be Sustainable? Yes, and Here’s Why,” Undeniably Dairy, U.S. Dairy, June 11, 2021.
3. “Rethinking Methane,” UC Davis Clear Center, video posted on YouTube.
4. National Statistics Service, United States Department of Agriculture.