Feb. 15 2024 08:02 AM

With criticism about agriculture’s impact on the environment mounting, the national dairy checkoff program took steps to expand and document the industry’s sustainability efforts.

The author is a dairy and agricultural writer based in Columbus, Ohio.

Surely, our grandparents could not have envisioned a day when cow burps are regarded as culprits in global warming and nut-based beverages are viewed as sustainable alternatives to milk. Like it or not, this is the social landscape in which farmers now operate their businesses.

To protect our social license to operation, Steve Maddox, a former National Dairy Board member, paraphrased a statement made by Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We need to come together or hang separately.”

To ensure dairy farming is a viable option for future generations, we need to adopt a campaign that is national in scope, flexible, profitable for producers, and based on science, summed the California dairy farmer who has been involved with dairy’s response from the beginning.

Maddox and Stephanie Masiello Schuette, vice president of environmental research affairs for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), discussed why the sustainability movement became a priority for dairy farmers and how the national dairy checkoff is helping them document and improve sustainability in an episode of the “Your Dairy Checkoff” podcast.

For farmers, the world’s ultimate recyclers, the silver linings in this cloud are discoveries that lead to new ways to care for the land and cattle and innovative options to monetize farming practices. As an industry, dairy has committed to being a part of the environmental impact solution and producing the same safe nutriment it has provided for centuries.

The drive to document

While the push to minimize human activity on the environment has been building for decades, it did not hit home for the dairy industry until about 15 years ago. The issue was not sustainability itself, but rather, the fact that activists were exaggerating the impact of animal agriculture and generating pushback from milk buyers, concluded Maddox. At that point, international perception held that livestock was causing anywhere from 10% to 40% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The dairy community knew its numbers were different from those being published in mainstream media but didn’t have new, confirming science to back it up, noted Maddox. Dairy was fighting claims made in closed rooms, stated a few times, and then declared as facts.

Dairy producers needed to do something to protect their market and their social license to operate. So, in 2007, the DMI board launched the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to work on behalf of the dairy community and ensure a healthy and sustainable future. The Innovation Center and industry leaders developed a sustainability initiative that included three steps:

  1. Convening a Sustainability Council to provide strategic direction and navigate challenges and opportunities.
  2. Adopting a science-based approach to measure and improve the dairy industry’s environmental footprint.
  3. Establishing the first voluntary goal to reduce GHG emissions.

This was the dairy industry’s initial thrust to bring true science — not political opinion — to the sustainability argument, Maddox remarked. Scientific, peer-reviewed evidence, which has been the backbone of industry promotion through the national checkoff for decades, was again the basis of the sustainability cause.

In 2008, dairy industry stakeholders gathered in Bentonville, Ark., for the inaugural Dairy Sustainability Summit. Together, they developed a sustainability roadmap with action plans for every step of the dairy value chain.

The following year, the Innovation Center and USDA signed a memorandum of understanding to provide access to research and financial resources. Among the goals were to accelerate the adoption of innovative manure management and energy-saving technologies through USDA programs and develop computer-based tools to help producers assess measures, find resources, and implement practices for sustainable improvements.

An initial priority funded by the Innovation Center, a GHG life cycle assessment for fluid milk, was completed in 2010. The findings helped dispel the false claims about dairy’s environmental impact. Based on data from 2007 and 2008, the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk from farm to table was 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents or approximately 2% of the country’s total GHG emissions.

Added to this scientific documentation was a pair of studies conducted by Jude Capper and Roger Cady. The first study completed in 2008 documented a 41% reduction in the dairy industry’s carbon footprint from 1944 to 2007 thanks to advanced farming methods. A follow-up study in 2020 showed an additional 19% drop in carbon footprint in the years since, with the production of a gallon of milk in 2017 requiring 17% less feed, 21% less land, and 31% less water than it did a decade earlier.

The scientific approach must be working because anti-animal agriculture groups are now attacking researchers and their funding, Maddox observed.

History is a great teacher

Sustainability is not the first customer-driven movement to impact dairy industry practices, and it won’t be the last. However, adverse experiences can teach us how to better respond in the future, so history need not repeat itself.

Dairy producers’ experience with the new biotechnology push in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), taught us two valuable lessons, remarked Maddox.

First, dairy producers need to have one voice and one approach when communicating with consumers and customers. Beyond the actual science of rBST, it was the diversity in opinions about its use that left the door wide open for an attack from anti-agriculture extremists. This allowed them to condemn some of the positive benefits of a biotechnology that could have enhanced the dairy sustainability drive.

Second, the push for biotechnology also taught dairy producers to be wary of unfunded mandates. In the past, some milk buyers expected producers to adopt protocol without compensation, Maddox told listeners. Solutions need to be profitable for the dairy farmer, not just done for the sake of improving sustainability. When technology and new practices are shown to positively impact the bottom line, they are more quickly adopted.

And because dairies in this country range from small organic operations to large conventional enterprises, sustainability practices need to be customized to the farm. The widespread adoption that is necessary to advance sustainability as an industry hinges on a menu approach for technology and follow-up, one that allows producers to decide what best suits their operation.

The value of science

Science allows the dairy industry to be transparent across the entire value chain, said Masiello Schuette. By working with researchers and going through the peer review process, the dairy community is sharing what is being done, how it is being done, and being quite open with the results.

In the short term, data from research allows dairy to document progress, like the carbon footprint reductions that have occurred over the past seven decades. In the long term, it enables dairy to make decisions about future technologies and ensure adequate funding, so producers can take advantage of the opportunities that arise in this space.

The checkoff program can be a link between dairy producers and researchers. It enables dialogue so researchers can understand what producers are facing and what they need. This ensures research will be safe, efficacious, and feasible for farmers, according to Masiello Schuette.

One such collaboration was a tool to help producers evaluate feed additives as options to reduce enteric methane emissions. Industry experts, academia, and farmers were brought together and asked what should be considered in a discussion about feed additives, Masiello Schuette explained.

From these discussions, a decision support tool was developed to help producers or anyone else in the dairy value chain ask the right questions and determine a level of confidence in the safety, efficacy, and trade-offs of feed additives, and if they ultimately meet requirements for usage.

DMI’s goal is to provide producers with science-based options but not tell them what to do, said Masiello Schuette. This guide should be useful for assessing future technology as more of these products come on the market.

The Greener Cattle Initiative

Another collaboration to leverage research dollars is the Greener Cattle Initiative (GCI), a giant global partnership that came into being through DMI and partners at the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), noted Masiello Schuette.

GCI funds research that focuses specifically on the reduction of enteric methane emissions, the single largest source of direct GHG emissions in the dairy and beef sectors. They occur on the farm through manure degradation and enteric fermentation (the digestive process of cattle). Research focuses on ways to make improvements through feed additives; selective breeding; technologies like sensors, robots, and artificial intelligence; and a better understanding of the rumen microbiome.

The consortium was founded by the Innovation Center, FFAR, and seven other industry partners: ADM, the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding, Elanco, Genus PLC, the National Dairy Herd Information Association, Nestlé, and the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre. The Global Methane Hub and JBS USA have joined as steering committee members.

GCI was established because there is a lot of interest in reducing enteric methane emissions but little current funding, remarked Masiello Schuette. GCI originally planned to award close to $5 million in grants. But interest from partners has been so strong that this amount will be nearly doubled.

More than 110 letters of intent were received from researchers across the globe. Since the webinar aired, three grants have been awarded totaling nearly $7.3 million. Roderick Mackie and his team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will study how diets and additives affect hydrogen production and utilization in the rumen and how changes in hydrogen dynamics affect enteric methane emissions. Francisco Peñagaricano of the University of Wisconsin-Madison will evaluate the cattle genome for methane traits so tools can be developed to reduce emissions through selective breeding. Alexander Hristov and his colleagues at Penn State will develop novel enteric methane inhibitors to reduce enteric methane emissions and study methods that will deliver them to cattle efficiently.

DMI is excited that significant sources of funding for research will lead to tangible outcomes for producers, said Masiello Schuette.

Progress has been made

The dairy industry’s original challenge was to establish a measure, a baseline, that gave producers credit for what they were already doing, noted Maddox. Today, we have accurate measurements of carbon sequestration and farmers can now monetize their practices and claim carbon credits as another way of paying the bills on the farm.

The sustainability work the dairy industry has done over the past 15 years has also paved the way for others to join the cause. Companies like Nestlé, McDonald’s, and Starbucks are now funding their own research projects on the farm and contributing to the database of science. Without a solid base of progress in place, they would not have been willing to invest.

Some of these companies, like Dominos, are also promoting the work of dairy farmers through their own marketing efforts. A third-party endorsement of dairy farmers on a pizza box goes a long way in helping the dairy community combat the efforts of those who are trying to rewrite animal agriculture, noted Maddox.

The resolve to be part of the sustainability solution and tell the true dairy story is not a quick effort, remarked Maddox. Dairy producers are in it for the long haul and finding new ways to monetize what they are doing, whether that is sequestrating carbon, saving water, improving air quality, or securing a chair at the table where discussions are held about the global food supply chain.

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