Following the Animal Agriculture Sustainability Summit at the International Production and Processing Expo (IPPE) in Atlanta, Georgia, we caught up with Frank Mitloehner, professor and cooperative extension air quality specialist at the University of California – Davis to hear more about the work he is doing with livestock ecology and greenhouse gas reduction in California.
During the summit, he spoke about the need to focus industry communication efforts beyond the relatively small group of “distractors” to share information about the improvements that the feed and production industry is making.
“Let’s focus on the people who actually like what we’re doing and instill in those people that what we do is the best we know of – that we are doing our best to be the best stewards of the land, [and] the best stewards of the animals we’re in control of,” he said. “Stewardship is an old concept, every farmer I’ve ever spoken to knows what it is to be a steward of the land – a modern word for that is sustainability.”
There are, however, areas where improvements are needed including in reducing food waste and continuing to reduce emissions and the production of greenhouse gases like methane, he said.
Ongoing efforts in California to reduce the emissions of gases like methane demonstrate one way to progress, he said.
“The state decided to partner with livestock and feed sector and incentivized the use of techniques and technologies financially,” he told us. “So, the state took in their hands [$500,000m] and matched investments that the livestock dairy feed system or sector invested and by doing so significantly helped to reduce that particular gas – methane.”
Dairy production and reducing methane
Mitloehner’s work in California includes efforts to address and improve the interaction between animal production and the environment. “My interest had always been in an area called livestock ecology – and livestock ecology describes the interaction between livestock and its environment,” he added.
“It’s really a two-way street – on the one hand, we have the impacts that livestock has upon the environment, for example, greenhouse gases or livestock produced ammonia gas or hydrogen sulfide or other pollutants, so that’s one side of livestock ecology,” he said. “But then livestock is also affected by the environment – heat stress, cold stress, exposure to heat and cold conditions and so on, the way animals are housed, the way they are managed, all this is also their environment.”
California has about 20% of the national dairy herd or about 1,400 dairies and about 1.8m cows, said Mitloehner. Through his work with California's air quality, he has focused on addressing agricultural air quality.
“Atmospheric impacts can be anything from greenhouse gases, such as methane and others, to other gases that could be nuisances, such as ammonia, or odors, like hydrogen sulfide, or [it] could be particles,” he said. “Anything that is related to the air environment of animal ag is what I research – I quantify those impacts and I find ways to mitigate those impacts through new technologies, or the feeding of animals to modify what happens in the rumen and so forth.”
One ongoing project looks to help dairy producers meet a state-wide goal of reducing methane production by 40% by 2030, he said.
In-state research on the topic includes exploring the use of feed additives, like seaweeds and essential oils with dairy and beef cows to reduce enteric methane or gaseous emissions, and a project exploring the use of a new additive developed by DSM called 3-nitrooxypropanol (3NOP) is about to start, said Mitloehner.
“There are numerous technologies that are likely to reduce enteric emissions within the foreseeable future by 10 to 30% – so that’s excellent news,” he said.
The research has also explored new manure management practices like building anaerobic digestors, he said. The project is funded by the state and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
“I’m conducting large studies right now where I go to commercial dairies with a mobile air quality lab and measure air quality emissions of lagoons without any technology used versus lagoons that do use technology to reduce emissions,” he said. “They need to know what are the emissions from these livestock and poultry operations pre-installation of these technologies, and then how effective are these technologies in reducing this gas, so you also measure post-installation.
“My job is to quantify those emissions and find out what the mitigation really does, with respect to quantitative reduction,” he added.
Partnering with industry
Although the projects in California have been encouraging, animal agriculture continues to have a role to play in addressing greenhouse gas production and climate change, said Mitloehner. “I don’t want to deflect off animal ag – I know it has a role to play.”
“We need to incentivize people in agriculture to do more of what they do well – which is being best stewards of the land,” he said.
Currently, the prices producers receive for the animals they produce are too low to spur certain changes, he said.
“We’re sending them all these signals of, ‘You need to change what you do because what you’re doing is not acceptable,’ and that doesn’t go together,” Mitloehner said. “If you want changes, somebody has to pay for changes, you can’t have it both ways.”
However, the agricultural industry is not the only area that needs to address climate change, he said.
“The public discourse is placing off the blame to a sector that does have a contribution and that has quantified those contributions, but that is also very active in reducing those,” said Mitloehner. “I see those accusations made by players that often times have a very large environmental footprint and often times are trying to deflect from their own footprint.
“We all know that 80% of the greenhouse gases produced in this country are associated with fossil fuel use that’s transportation, power production, and use and industry … that’s a classical smokescreen,” he added.