Dairy farmers are mobilizing to face climate challenges

By John Talbot

John Talbot

The California Milk Advisory Board reports that dairy farmers in the state are adopting sustainable practices, reducing methane emissions, conserving water and protecting the health of their cows.

Each year, we use the month of June to recognize our dairy farm families and the delicious, nutritious foods they help bring to the table. On the heels of Earth Day, we’re leaning into the theme of dairy sustainability for this year’s Dairy Month celebration to showcase California dairy’s commitment to slowing climate impacts.

Our state remains one of only two major regions in the world to establish a statutory mandate to reduce methane from the dairy sector and is on track to meet its ambitious goal of reducing manure methane by 40% by 2030.

California dairy farm families have a long-standing commitment to providing products that take into account the state’s limited resources and environmental balance. For example, the amount of water used per gallon of milk produced has decreased by more than 88% over a 50-year period, due to improved forage crop production, water use efficiency water and the use of by-products as food ingredients.

Milk is California’s primary agricultural product, making it crucial to the well-being of the world’s fifth-largest economy. However, California’s dairy sector, which includes 1.7 million dairy cows, accounts for only 4% of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

This is due to the continued progress of California dairy farmers in reducing methane emissions through investment and innovation. According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Dairy Science, greenhouse gas emissions per gallon of milk produced in California have decreased by more than 45% over the past 50 years.

The use of anaerobic digesters, which convert methane from manure into renewable electricity, renewable natural gas or hydrogen, is driving much of this progress. California has approximately 206 digester projects capturing methane from 217 dairy farms, with 89 digesters currently in operation and the rest in various stages of development.

Over the next 25 years, collective dairy methane reduction projects across California, including digesters and alternative manure management projects, are expected to reduce more than 55 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. That’s an annual reduction in emissions equivalent to taking more than half a million cars off the road.

At Calgren Dairy Fuels in Pixley, biogas from cow manure collected from 16 dairies in Tulare County is converted into renewable compressed natural gas, or CNG, and fed directly into the Southern California Gas Co., which serves 21.7 million of customers.

The first phase of this group of dairy digester pipelines captures more than 150,000 tons of greenhouse gases equivalent to carbon dioxide and moves more than 3 million gallons of fossil fuel-based transportation fuel each year. CNG is being made available as a near-zero emissions fuel for heavy-duty vehicles, replacing existing fossil diesel.

Another step is to innovate to reduce methane emissions at the source. Researchers at the University of California, Davis are conducting studies to help dairy farmers adjust their cows’ diets. For example, diets that include alfalfa, flax, and other omega-3 rich plants, such as seaweed, have been shown to reduce enteric methane from livestock digestion.

Cattle have a unique digestive system that allows them to release plant nutrients in ways that we cannot. This means that dairy cows can recycle by-products from food and fiber production that are not human edible, minimizing waste and reducing landfill emissions. These by-products, including almond shells and citrus pulp, make up more than 40 percent of a California dairy cow’s diet in the state.

Dairy farms are also focusing on water-efficient management practices. Water recycling is commonplace in California dairies, with the same drop of water being used four to five times.

The clean water cools the milk tanks and is then used to water and wash the cows. The same water goes to a retention pond for storage, where it is used multiple times to flush manure from the barns, becoming rich in plant nutrients such as nitrogen. It is then mixed with irrigation water to “fertilize” crops in the fields.

Dairy farmers experimenting with drip irrigation to grow forage crops use 47% less water while increasing crop yields. Regenerative farming practices such as crop rotation and no-till farming are also essential.

Farmers depend on cows for their livelihood. To produce high-quality milk, dairy cows must be healthy and cared for, which is why breeders focus on nutritious feed, proper veterinary care and healthy living conditions. In turn, the cows produce one of the healthiest and most sustainable products on the market.

Since 99% of California’s dairy farms are family-owned, many of these sustainability practices have been passed down from generation to generation and improved over time.

The Golden State dairy industry’s proven and forward-looking approach is focused on the continued success of its journey to climate neutrality and ultimately net zero emissions.

(John Talbot is the CEO of the California Milk Advisory Board. He can be reached via [email protected])

Permission for use is granted, however, credit should be given to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this article.

Teresa H. Sadler