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Carbon footprint study tells dairy stewardship’s story

Michael McCloskey Published on 23 September 2010

Dairy producers have a long history of being sustainable. We care about the environment and our cows, and we are constantly working to become more productive and efficient.

In short, we know that sustainability is good business. It is all about making the most efficient use of natural resources – such as energy, water and waste byproducts.

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Today, we are presented with new challenges. Increasingly, consumers want products and services that they know are made responsibly. Research conducted by Dairy Management Inc., which manages the national dairy checkoff program, shows that “frequent milk users” – those who drink milk at least once per day – may increase their consumption if they believe dairy products are not only nutritious and good-tasting but also environmentally friendly.

Measuring our efforts in acting sustainably helps address questions from regulators and retailers, as well as consumers. That’s why I am pleased to report that this past July 2010, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy completed the first national greenhouse gas life cycle assessment (LCA), or carbon footprint, study of fluid milk.

This is just a first step. Carbon footprint reduction is just one measure of total environmental impact. Additional studies on nutritional value, economic impact and other environmental measures, such as water quality and conservation, are also underway so that we can continue to measure and communicate about our responsible ways.

Although this research is only a first step, it is a significant one. It positions dairy as a leader in efforts to better use, preserve and protect natural resources.

Calculating a carbon footprint
The carbon footprint study, conducted by the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas, one of the nation’s leading LCA researchers, measured the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the production of one U.S. gallon of fluid milk from farm to table.

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The study divided the dairy value chain into eight stages: feed production, milk production, delivery to processor, processing, packaging, distribution, retail, consumption and disposal. It then analyzed each stage, and combined findings to provide the life cycle footprint.

Data was collected from many sources, including the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service and Economic Research Service, a confidential survey of dairy farming practices from more than 500 farms and 50 processing plants across the U.S., and an analysis of more than 210,000 round trips in transporting milk from farm to processor.

According to the University of Arkansas, the Fluid Milk Carbon Footprint Study is one of the most comprehensive agricultural life cycle assessments ever undertaken. The study establishes a scientifically sound and defensible baseline for the GHG emissions of fluid milk. The LCA study was presented at a scientific conference in September 2010 and will be published in a scientific journal in early 2011.

Good news for dairy
Together with data from other studies, the carbon footprint study validates that total U.S. dairy GHG emissions are approximately 2 percent of total U.S. emissions. This is far less than other figures reported about the global livestock industry that were incorrectly attributed to U.S. dairy.

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This new study ( See Figure 1. ) indicates not only that our industry is very productive with its use of natural resources, but also that we have many opportunities for further efficiency and innovation.

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What are those opportunities? On the farm, feed efficiency and manure management represent the greatest opportunities to further reduce GHG emissions. Everyone in the dairy production chain has opportunities to cut costs and emissions from fossil fuels and electricity. In the retail sector, refrigerants are a key source of emissions, and therefore, an opportunity for improvement.

Boiled down, reducing our U.S. dairy’s carbon footprint is all about management practices, regardless of size of the operation or location. This also holds true on every farm, where efficient use of resources, cow diets and manure management makes the difference.

Benefits for all
Over the past 50 years, innovative practices and efficiencies in equipment, structures, milking processes, transportation and manure management have helped us do more with less and become more competitive as we continue to provide nutrient-rich dairy products.

On our dairy, Fair Oaks Farms, we operate on a “closed loop system.” We grow our own corn silage and alfalfa for cow feed. Cow manure is put into a methane digester and is transferred as a gas to generators that power our farm buildings.

The digester’s biosolids are applied to the fields to renew the top soil; the liquid is used for irrigation. Solid or liquid, the nutrients in the byproducts feed the land and start the cycle all over again. We are about to start a new venture where we clean and compress the methane to create fuel for our milk trucks.

No doubt you are doing many things on your own farm to conserve, renew and reuse resources, such as covering your lagoon, injecting your manure, recycling your flush water, installing frequency drives on your vacuum pump, etc. But no matter what these efforts are, in order to be truly sustainable, they must have a business value.

Dairy farmers have been practicing this philosophy for a long time, as is reflected in our industry’s ability to reduce our carbon footprint by 63 percent since 1944. So, if this is what we’ve been doing for more than 60 years, you may ask what is different today about sustainability?

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The answer is that the U.S. dairy industry has come together under the Innovation Center in recognizing that sustainability is a consumer-driven issue of extreme competitiveness amongst all beverage and food categories. On a quality caloric value, dairy’s carbon footprint is very competitive with that of other industries. ( See Table 1 .) By emphasizing this fact and by promoting the consolidation of our industry’s heritage of innovation, ingenuity and invention, we have a story that consumers will come to love.

In the past, individual farmers have made changes in farm practices that made economic sense and have reduced our carbon footprint.

Now, through the work of the Innovation Center, we will be able to better identify innovative practices that will bring an economic value while helping to protect the environment. The LCA allows our industry to use science to clearly identify the areas of greatest opportunity to create business value while reducing our carbon footprint.

Individually, none of us could have created this scientific roadmap. Working together as a united industry, dairy can accelerate the process of staying ahead of our competition by acting as a catalyst for innovation, and retaining our position in the eyes of consumers as a wholesome and desirable food choice.

Producers, processors, retailers and industry leaders have invested thousands of volunteer hours to collect and analyze the data from this LCA. Also, this year alone, sources outside of the dairy checkoff have contributed more than $3.5 million in direct funding and in-kind volunteer time to implement projects designed to provide additional efficiencies and “best management” opportunities. With this roadmap, we can continue working together to find ways to further reduce our footprint and create an economic return.

Sharing the stewardship story
All that said, any group effort is only as good as the individuals within that group. Therefore, I would like to challenge each of us to join this effort by visiting the Innovation Center’s website and sharing your stories of environmental stewardship. It doesn’t matter how big or small your sustainable practices may seem. Even the smallest efforts can have a positive impact – especially when they are broadly adopted. PD

Michael McCloskey is a veterinarian with a specialty in dairy production medicine. He is co-founder and CEO of both Select Milk Producers and Continental Dairy Products cooperatives. He is general manager and partner of Fair Oaks Dairy Farms in Fair Oaks, Indiana. He also serves as chair of the Sustainability Operating Committee of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

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According to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s life cycle assessment (LCA) study, the total carbon footprint per gallon of milk was determined to be 17.6 pounds of CO-2 equivalent.

This study, together with data from additional studies measuring GHG emissions, indicates that total U.S. dairy GHG emissions are approximately 2 percent of total U.S. emissions, a level is far less than other figures reported about the global livestock industry that were incorrectly attributed to U.S. dairy.

The LCA study identified the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions for a gallon of milk across the entire U.S. dairy supply chain. On-farm, enteric methane and manure management (red bars) represent the greatest opportunity to further reduce emissions.

Feed production is another major source of emissions, due mainly to the use of commercial nitrogen fertilizer, as well as manure applied to fields. Other emissions occur due to the use of fossil fuels and electricity all along the supply chain. Refrigerants are a key source of emissions in retail.

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