Dairy News 7x7 logo

Safe Milk Labs

Cows are not the problem, but they are part of the solution in GHG emissions.

cow is a solution to climate dairynews7x7

Amidst the heightening concern with greenhouse gas emissions, the dairy industry has an important message they need to share: “Cows are not the problem, but they are part of the solution.”

Dr. Sara Kvidera made this statement during her presentation Feb. 27 at the 2024 Nebraska Dairy Convention in West Point. Her topic focused on how the dairy industry fits into the carbon market, as well as how dairy producers can reduce emissions while attributing value to their farms.

Kvidera is a dairy technical consultant for Elanco Animal Health, a pharmaceutical company for pets and livestock that has “committed to becoming a leading partner in animal protein sustainability and helping our customers achieve climate neutrality.”

Climate neutrality is the same goal shared by the dairy industry, which announced its commitment to achieve greenhouse gas (GHG) neutrality by 2050. The U.S. Dairy Net Zero Initiative is one of three industry-wide goals set by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

The Nature Conservancy organization praised the dairy industry for its “aggressive environmental stewardship goals” and expressed its commitment to working with the dairy industry and farmers to “find and implement climate solutions while improving the resilience of the farms, the livelihoods of producers, the lands and waters we all share.”

Carbon markets dairy 1.JPG
Achieving greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050 is one of three industry-wide goals set for the dairy industry.

Kvidera clarified during her presentation that climate neutrality does not mean zero emissions.

“Absolute emissions by the dairy industry have increased over time with growing demand for food, but emissions from cows are a part of a natural biogenic cycle,” she said. “We can potentially make enough reductions to keep us from having any climate impact at all.”

That means no additional contribution to global warming.

Subtle on-farm changes can help the dairy industry achieve its sustainability goal, she said.

Under the assumption that cow numbers do not change, Kvidera the dairy industry can achieve climate neutrality by reducing energy use 52%, reducing enteric methane 18% and reducing manure emissions 30%.

Simply making changes on the farm is not enough to change public perception, though. Dairy producers must also vocalize their side of the story about sustainability, she said.

Consumers are being told that cattle are responsible for increased greenhouse gas emissions because cows burp methane. Methane is a natural byproduct of the digestion process for all ruminants. While measures can be taken to reduce methane emissions, care must be taken to avoid interfering with the natural processes within the cow, Kvidera said.

Furthermore, cows are not the only contributor of greenhouse gas. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report shows that agriculture accounted for 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, with livestock being 4% of that total. The largest emitters by economic sector were transportation at 28%, electricity at 25% and industry at 23%.

Carbon markets dairy 2.JPG
Livestock account for 4% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the USDA.

Emissions intensity of milk production, which is calculated in million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per kilo of milk produced, has been decreasing thanks to changes in milk production practices. On the other hand, absolute emissions—what is emitted into the atmosphere—have risen 41% in the dairy sector since the mid-1990s. Increased dry matter intake by cows has influenced this increase. Another contributing factor is storing manure in aerobic lagoons instead of spreading manure daily onto fields.

“It’s a trade-off between nitrogen runoff and methane,” Kvidera said.

Equally important to note is that milk production has boosted 53% since 1990, despite the number of cows falling by 5%.

“The dairy industry is doing more with less,” Kvidera said.

In 1990, there were 9.9 million dairy cows producing 67 billion kg of milk in the U.S., according to the USDA. In 2021, 9.45 million cows produced 103 billion kg of milk.

Sustainability has always been part of the dairy industry’s narrative. Ruminants are involved in the biogenic carbon cycle, and dairy cows are net contributors to the human protein supply.

“The beauty of ruminants is that they basically make their own protein out of low-quality feed. They take protein we can’t eat and convert it into protein we can,” Kvidera said.

Moreover, milk has the highest ratio of nutrient density to GHG emissions of all beverages, double that of soy drinks and more than seven times that of oat drinks, Kvidera shared during her presentation.

The dairy industry can capitalize on these positive attributes, and through the carbon market, dairy producers may find partners in sharing their story of sustainability.

Carbon markets dairy 3.JPG
Milk is a nutrient-dense source of nutrition and has the highest ratio of nutrient density to greenhouse gas emission of beverages.


Advertisement · Scroll to continue

Similar to the dairy industry, manufacturing companies are pledging to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. In addition, companies are being incentivized for reducing emissions in all areas of production.

A company’s “inventory of emissions” are classified by scopes, with Scope 1 and 2 directly under control of the organization and Scope 3 referring to those “emissions that an organization is indirectly responsible for in its value chain,” according to a 2023 publication from The Climate Source.

For food companies, Scope 3 includes the farm where products originate. Numerous companies have set Scope 3 reduction targets to meet by 2030.

A proposed Climate Disclosure Rule by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) would have required public companies to disclose Scope 3 emissions. The SEC voted on March 6 to remove Scope 3 emissions reporting.

The original proposal would have “likely forced many farms and ranches into onerous data-gathering and reporting requirements,” Nebraska Farm Bureau President Mark McHargue said in a press release

“The SEC made the correction decision today, but we remain dedicated to ensuring Nebraska’s farm and ranch families aren’t hit with the regulatory burdens and legal liability for similar rules in the future,” McHargue said. “Nebraska farmers and ranchers know that ‘sustainability’ is more than just a trendy catchphrase, it is what they have been doing for decades in producing more food, fiber and fuel for the world using less land, water, fertilizer and other inputs.”

The SEC decision is key to agriculture’s resilience in the sustainability narrative. Likewise, the carbon market is at a pivotal moment, moving from an offset to an inset approach.

Kvidera explained how in the past, a company such as Delta Air Lines could buy a dairy farm’s carbon credits from the offset market. Once these rights were sold, the farm could no longer claim that reduction.

Under the new inset market strategy, a company that is already involved in the supply chain, such as Hershey or Nestlé when referring to the dairy industry, would invest in inset carbon credits from a dairy farm. Since the end consumer is mutual, these companies have a vested interest in supporting the dairy industry to reduce its emissions.

“They can share in telling the story of their emission reductions,” said Kvidera.

Following the inset approach could also solve the issue many producers are facing in the carbon market: being penalized for sustainable practices they are already doing. The offset market does not allow a producer to be paid for past practices.

“It’s called additionality. They don’t want to incentivize something that wouldn’t have already happened or historically did,” Kvidera said, adding that this can be challenged in an inset livestock carbon market because the investor is supporting its own supply chain.

Further research to reduce enteric methane production is being supported by both the dairy and beef industries. A research team from Nebraska recently received a $5 million grant from USDA for a multi-year study of ruminant nutrition, the microbiome and genetics. Their goal is to develop management practices to lower methane emissions from livestock.

While research to reduce emission is underway, Kvidera suggests producers prepare for the changes ahead by taking action now.

First, producers need to educate themselves and learn the terminology—net zero, carbon neutral, climate neutral, scope, absolute emissions, emissions intensity, etc.

Next, determine the carbon footprint of the farm. Cornell University and Elanco both have models to input data to understand the carbon intensity of milk production.

Producers should also calculate the value of the carbon credits they have to offer.

“You should be quantifying what you’re doing to reduce emissions and evaluate what you can do with these assets,” Kvidera said.

Furthermore, read contracts closely. Kvidera warned of “sneaky clauses” slid undetected into methane digester contracts that gave a company ownership of enteric reductions from the farm.

Finally, critically evaluate feed additives if they are part of the farm’s sustainability plan. Kvidera provided a checklist for producers to determine:

  1.  Safety for people and animals
  2.  Efficacy for reducing enteric methane backed by peer-reviewed scientific studies
  3.  Return on Investment (ROI) for the farm

“Improvements must create value at the farm. We can’t ask farmers to do things to reduce emissions that hurt profitability,” Kvidera said.

The carbon market is in a transitional phase. The future holds many opportunities, and unknowns, in the quest for sustainability. As the dairy industry works toward its goal for climate neutrality by 2050, they Kvidera encourages farmers to share the good work they are doing:

“Sustainability has always been a part of our culture, and we need to keep telling our story.”

Share :

Read Next

Sorry, your ID is maybe not correct (If you did not place any ID that means auto-detect does not work.). And please make sure that your selected element is developed with Swiper.