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Approaches to climate change

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2016
Approaches to climate change

From breeding and nutrition to manure management and education, efforts are underway to keep agriculture on the forefront of climate change solutions.

Researchers, both within and outside government agencies, have focused their attention on assisting the animal agriculture industry in sustainability endeavors to lessen climate change and its impacts.

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The EPA’s AgSTAR program champions the use of anaerobic digesters to control livestock methane emissions, capture biogas and enhance overall farm sustainability. The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Cow of the Future project aims to reduce enteric methane emissions through improvements in dairy cow nutrition, genetics and health.

And the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center (LPELC), a network of extension professionals with expertise in animal agriculture and environmental stewardship, has undertaken the mission of making animal agriculture economically and environmentally resilient.

Allison Costa, manager of the AgSTAR program; Rick Stowell, University of Nebraska Extension engineer and LPELC leadership committee member; and Juan Tricarico, Ph.D., leader of the Cow of the Future project, presented workshops during the 2015 Dairy Environmental Systems and Climate Adaptation Conference, held at Cornell University, explaining each program’s approach to the issue.

Biogas roadmap

“What can we do about these agricultural emissions?” is the basic question behind the Biogas Opportunities Roadmap, a joint project of the EPA, Department of Energy and the USDA, Costa said. “Ag sector emissions are going up.”

Emissions from animal agriculture primarily come in the form of methane gas, which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. While the technology exists to decrease methane emissions, implementation is expensive.

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The biogas roadmap was developed to bring together industry, private-sector interests, government agencies and producers to develop feasible means of adapting the technology.

“Biogas has a lot of benefits, especially on dairy farms,” Costa said. “The goal is to stimulate the market.”

Although there is much opportunity to capture methane emissions and produce biogas as a renewable energy source via anaerobic digesters, the digesters are expensive and generally don’t make money.

Promoting biogas via existing funding programs, such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), as well as producing economic and technical evaluations, outreach and education services, and providing a database of vendors, are all a part of the AgSTAR program.

“It’s really a slow process,” Costa said. “It’s small, incremental change.”

There are about 2,000 biogas systems in operation in the U.S. today, Costa said. AgSTAR estimates that 11,000 biogas systems are a feasible target. Food waste is also a part of the equation. Utilizing food waste and manure can increase efficiency and cost-effectiveness. AgSTAR maintains a database of farm-based anaerobic digestion projects.

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Cow of the Future

Promoting stewardship and good business decisions in the dairy sector is what the Cow of the Future project is all about. Customers – individuals as well as organizations – that purchase dairy are requiring proof of responsibility and want to know the dairy industry is doing all it can to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“There is an increased demand for milk,” Tricarico said. “Because our goal is to meet the demand,” producers need to decrease the methane emissions per unit of milk produced.

Doing so requires feed and management practices. Individual cow productivity needs to increase and overall GHG emissions decrease. An increase in yield per cow and a decrease in overall cow numbers can decrease GHG emissions and “is an example of good business decisions,” he said.

Producers have opportunities for “indirectly mitigating methane emissions by making sure that most of the animals that we grow out are making milk,” Tricarico said, so calf and heifer management is important.

Managing transition cows well can prevent a variety of issues which tend to originate in this life stage. Lactation management requires a focus on quality and production, reproduction management and appropriate culling.

The Cow of the Future project offers producers in-depth resources to assist them in reducing their GHG emissions through management practices. The animal feeding resource covers ration formulation and feeding strategies, forage management and management of the cow through life stages, exploring opportunities to decrease GHG emissions.

Spreading the word

County agricultural agents are the primary intended target for much of the LPELC’s efforts. Empowering the professionals who have direct contact and interaction on a daily basis with producers is one way to ensure that the information is being dispersed and utilized.

“Getting the conversation started is really important,” Stowell said. “We want to get some dialogue going.”

Extension agents can feel that climate change topics are controversial and hesitate to become involved. They also might not have all the information they need to assist producers in making decisions that can positively impact GHG emissions.

An online self-directed course is one tool for reaching both educators and producers. The course (Livestock and Poultry Environmental Stewardship Curriculum Lessons) covers climate science, feeding management, manure storage, nutrient management, air quality and more.

Agricultural interests need to be “at the table” when climate change policies are being implemented, Stowell emphasized.

Animal agriculture’s impact on climate change, as well as the real management concerns caused by climate change, has forced the industry to examine pathways to alleviating GHG emissions while simultaneously implementing measures to enhance climate change resiliency on the farm.

Educated, pro-active producers and educators can effectively address concerns, ensuring that policies or regulations reflect the needs of the animal agriculture industry.  PD

Editor’s note: Allison Costa was the manager of the AgSTAR program at the time of this conference in July. She has since accepted a new role within the EPA.

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

ILLUSTRATION: By Kristen Phillips.

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