Dairy Farmers: The Original Environmentalists
By Alyssa McCauley
Environmental Stewardship is a guiding, core value for Dairy farmers. With conservation of land, water, energy, and natural resources at the forefront of their efforts, farmers are continuously working to innovate and develop new sustainable practices to reduce, reuse, and restore resources while still producing the same high-quality and nutritious dairy products we know and love. Let’s take a look at some of the most exciting new methods that dairy farmers are using to make an impact in environmental sustainability:
Methane is a greenhouse gas that can contribute to climate change, but what many don’t know is that it can be captured and turned into renewable energy as well.
One way that dairy farmers contribute to this renewable energy process is through a procedure called anaerobic digestion. Organic material, such as cow manure and food waste, are transported to an oxygen-free environment in a digestor for about 30 days at 100°F. Bacteria in the digestor will then break down these waste materials and naturally produce methane. This is eventually captured by generators and converted into renewable energy that can be used to refuel the farm, or its local community!
This helps farmers become more energy independent, conserve their agricultural land, diversify their farm revenue, and contribute to sustainable food production.
It takes a lot of water to produce fruits, vegetables, grains, and even milk. Dairy farmers are adapting safe and innovative ways to offset their water waste, and one of the most unique methods they’re using to tackle this issue is through vermiculture.
This sustainable wastewater filtration technology uses earthworms to transform organically polluted water into eco-friendly water. The new water attained from this process is then recycled back into the farm – from cow care, cleaning, and even for replanting crops. What’s more, is that earthworms and their “castings” can be harvested from these pools and be repurposed in organic farming.
Red Seaweed Supplementation
Dairy cows are an example of ruminant mammals, meaning that they have special stomachs which allow them to acquire nutrients from plant-based foods through fermentation. Hence naturally, cows contribute to reducing food waste due to their ability to digest foods that humans can’t.
Methane gas production is a result of digestion, but new and emerging research has been showing promising effects to significantly reduce methane by supplementing feed with red seaweed (also known as Asparagopsis Taxiformis). During digestion, red seaweed contains special compounds that inhibit the production of methane significantly in cattle. This is a very promising new area of research that many farmers are considering implementing into their cows’ diets, and more studies are underway to determine best practices.
Full-Inversion Tillage of Manure
Countries such as Ireland and New Zealand have studied how incorporating organic waste, like manure, into soil tillage might have ground-breaking impacts on sustainability. Full-inversion tillage involves burying carbon-rich top soil, often with follow-up of cover crop planting to help absorb greenhouse gas emissions. This technique is beginning to be studied on US farms, with hopeful prospects that fruit, vegetable, and grassland agriculture that are part of dairy farming systems can be used to offset greenhouse gas emissions.
Alyssa McCauley is a Masters Student in the Human Nutrition Program at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and is a Dietetic Intern for ODNC.
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“Dairy Innovations for a Sustainable Future.” YouTube, National Dairy Council, 6 May 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edekoEwhXdQ. Accessed 9 Dec. 2022.