Project to quantify US dairy farming's GHG footprint for feed, help farmers get paid for conservation practices

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/PixelCatchers
© GettyImages/PixelCatchers

Related tags carbon market water quality Dairy GHG environmental footprint

A new project is looking to provide scientific support for accurate measurement of US dairy’s GHG footprint in relation to feed production and also set the stage for new market opportunities related to carbon, water quality and soil health.

US dairy farmers, as elsewhere, are facing increasing pressure from private and public sectors to reduce emissions.

While sustainability focused initiatives can help offset the dairy industry’s carbon footprint, additional research is needed to determine their effectiveness, say the experts coordinating this initiative.

The project, Dairy Soil & Water Regeneration​, is set to run for six years. It is backed by the US based Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) to the tune of a US$10 million grant, given to the Dairy Research Institute (DRI). Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Newtrient and other Net Zero Initiative (NZI) partners, including Nestlé, are also providing funding and in-kind support for a total project value of US$23.2m.

The goals are to:

  • Provide measurement-based assessments of dairy’s greenhouse gas footprint for feed production
  • Support farmers in accessing new market opportunities related to carbon, water quality and soil health

On-farm focus 

“What we are really looking at is how can US dairy farming become an environmental solution,”​ said Jamie Vander Molen, vice president, sustainability initiatives, Newtrient, an organization tasked with reducing the environmental footprint of dairy in an economically viable way.

The US dairy industry set overarching goals last year for 2050, looking to be carbon neutral or better, to optimize water use while maximizing recycling and to improve water quality by optimizing the utilization of manure and nutrients.

“Those objectives were set through the Innovation Center for US Dairy, which is an aggregate of dairy companies across the entire supply chain, and following that, as we looked at how we can help dairy farms to reach these goals, the NZI was launched. It is a collaboration of dairy organizations that want to identify and remove the barriers, whether they are financial or otherwise, that prevent farms from taking steps forward in terms of sustainability, and then create the incentives that will lead dairy farms towards economic viability and positive environmental impact,”​ the Newtrient representative told us.

NZI is very much an on-farm effort, comprising six US dairy organizations: Along with Newtrient, DMI, and the Innovation Center for US Dairy, the International Dairy Foods Association, the National Milk Producers Federation and the US Dairy Export Council are the other agencies involved.

There are specifically four areas of focus that NZI is looking at in relation to reducing environmental impact, said Vander Molen, and one of them is feed production. The US dairy supply chain begins with growing crops such as corn, alfalfa hay and soybeans to feed the cows; the initiative is examining what adjustments can be made in that space, with feed production said to represent 26% of a US dairy farm’s environmental footprint. Other key areas of dairy farming being targeted under NZI is cow care and efficiency, renewable energy, and manure handling and nutrient management.

NZI goals

Measuring environmental footprint  

Jim Wallace, senior vice president of environmental research for DMI, said that data referencing feed production’s contribution to a US dairy farm’s environmental footprint as 26% originated from the first ever livestock life cycle assessment (LCA) on at national scale in the US, conducted back in 2008. It was undertaken by independent researchers on behalf of the Innovation Center for US Dairy and was a survey based approach, using LCA tools, to estimate the environmental footprint of the sector; it was published​ in 2013.

“That is the best data we have up to this period of time. But one of the key reasons for the Dairy Soil & Water Regeneration​ project is the recognition that the weakest link in our original dairy LCA work was feed production. It was very generalized and, of course, in 2008, when that data was captured, we just weren’t thinking about the potential impact of adopting soil health management practices like minimal disturbance tillage, like cover cropping or like innovative crop rotation or new manure based products. And we certainly weren’t thinking about some of the new market opportunities that are developing in the carbon space and in the water quality space. So we recognize the need to update, to improve and to think through where opportunities lie, and feed production is one of those.”

The data gained from that, run over over five growing seasons, will be shared broadly among the dairy community. “As part of our environmental stewardship commitment we will begin reporting on our progress towards our 2050 goals.”

The coordinators will disseminate key learnings every five years, beginning in 2025.

Regional approach 

The project will be executed across four dairy regions responsible for about 80% of US milk production: Northeast, Lakes, Mountain and Pacific. It involves collaboration with the Soil Health Institute and leading dairy research institutions including UW–Madison, Cornell University, University of California at Davis, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, University of Vermont, and US Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) Northwest Irrigation and Soils Research in Kimberly, Idaho.

Dozens of dairies representing climates and soils of these major production regions will participate in a baseline survey of soil health and carbon storage. Additionally, eight farms, including five operating dairies, two university research dairies and one USDA ARS research farm, will participate.

“What we have done is divided the country into the four primary regions and within each of those regions, we have a combination of both large plot and field scale work, with water quality and/or water quality elements within each of the regions.

“We will look to measure the environmental outcomes of a systems-based approach compared to ‘business as usual’ on a regional basis.

“The work that we are executing is focused on assessing the impact of minimal disturbance tillage, cover cropping, innovative crop rotation and new manure based products; we are evaluating the impact on three primary categories: understanding soil carbon sequestration, understanding the agronomic and the environmental outcomes associated with those management practices, and enumerating the soil health benefits.

“And while soil carbon sequestration fits under the broad soil health category, we have opted to treat it separately because it represents a significant opportunity to impact the farm’s GHG footprint,”​ explained Wallace.

Carbon, water quality credits

There are renewed efforts underway in the US to build a market that would pay farmers for their conservation and environmental practices. Carbon markets have really developed over the last couple years, targeting US farmers who are new to adopting soil health practices, especially in the areas of tillage reduction and cover crops.

“These programs seek to compensate dairy farmers based on the measured quantity of carbon sequestered as a result of those practices. What we want to do on the dairy side is to develop out the necessary background data needed to support the quantification of carbon sequestration resulting from [those innovative soil health management techniques],”​ said Wallace.

On the water quality side, Wisconsin has advanced legislation to boost water quality trading programs and put the state at the forefront of market-driven, clean water solutions. “The state is now looking to establish a central clearinghouse to transact water quality pollution credits. Hopefully, many other states will follow," ​said Vander Molen.

“And what we are trying to do through this project is to try to better understand what dairy farming’s potential is to participate in both carbon and water quality markets, what improvements can farmers make so that such programs are more approachable and more accessible to them,”​ she added.

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