How California is redefining sustainable dairy farming

There’s a reason California is known as the “land of milk and honey.” With miles upon miles of fertile ground and plentiful resources, the Golden State is an agricultural dream

It’s where opportunity for farmers flows as abundantly as the 40 billion pounds of milk produced there annually, and where dairy farm families work hard every day to advance the state’s $20 billion dairy industry.

But as the fifth-largest economy in the world, California is also home to roughly 1% of all global greenhouse gases. And while California’s largest-in-the-nation dairy sector only accounts for 4% of the state’s total emissions, there’s no denying that their belching bovines still play a role in climate change and global warming. Sustainable agriculture is something they do not take lightly, and in 2016, the state became the first dairy region in the world to set a goal to reduce methane emissions from dairy manure by 40%.

Let’s take a look at how dairy farmers statewide are taking a stand to reduce their carbon hoofprint for the future of their land, their livestock and the world around us.

A moo-vement to fight climate change

It’s no secret that California is a state with very ambitious policies. And at the center of it all are the dairy farm families who are pioneering lasting changes through planet-friendly farming practices. Supporting their efforts is Dairy Cares, a statewide coalition that ensures the long-term sustainability of California’s farming families through environmental stewardship, responsible animal care and adherence to the core values of honesty, ethics, diligence and community.

“Our family farms continue to do more with less, producing more nutritious dairy foods while reducing their environmental footprint,” said Michael Boccadoro, executive director of Dairy Cares, during the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience.

So, how exactly are they doing it?

Leading the way in dairy methane reduction

First, they’ve made methane reduction a top priority. As one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, methane is roughly 25 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The bright side? Methane is a relatively short-lived pollutant in the atmosphere, which means reducing the amount of it can pack a powerful punch in mitigating climate change.

That’s just one reason California’s dairy farm families are working closely with state regulators to achieve the desired methane reduction of 40% by 2030 — and the livestock industry is taking note.

Collaborating for the future

Consistent with Senate Bill 1383, the industry is working to aggressively reduce dairy methane emissions through improved manure management practices, financial incentives and other agricultural research.

According to Boccadoro, the strategy is straightforward and comprises three main parts. Here’s a quick look at how to reduce methane emissions from cattle:

  1. Utilize climate-smart dairy methane digesters. By breaking down solid waste in the absence of oxygen and turning it into natural gas, dairy digesters are providing the largest greenhouse gas reduction of all investments in California’s climate action portfolio.​ Using digesters has allowed California to not only shrink dairy’s carbon footprint, but to help the state transition to clean energy. Through the development of these methane digesters alone, California dairy farms will soon be reducing a total of 1.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (CO2e) per year.
  2. Explore alternative manure management solutions. The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) provides financial assistance for California dairy farm families aiming to prevent the production of methane through drier handling and storage of manure nutrients. Dairy Cares notes that the AMMP is one of the most cost-effective programs, providing 1 ton of GHG reduction (CO2e) for every $43 invested by the state.
  3. Conduct ongoing research. Cutting-edge research is also underway to benchmark and understand how California can continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, measure reductions in dairy methane emissions, and identify the most effective technologies and strategies. This research is a vital component of California’s efforts, allowing farmers to better understand the relationship between weather, climate and dairy methane emissions.

The proof is in the progress

Through the state’s tremendous investment in methane reduction projects and the voluntary efforts of dairy farm families, great progress is being made.

“None of what we are achieving is happening by accident. The state has stepped up and provided over $500 million to date in grant funding alone,” said Boccadoro. “That is being matched by an equal amount of equity funding by many of our dairy families, along with substantial outside private financing.”

The methane reduction benefits of these projects made possible by funding are very real. For example:

  • 50% reduction in greenhouse gases per liter of milk produced.
  • Projects resulting in some 22 million metric tons of reduction in the first 10 years alone.
  • Significant reductions in nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, as well efforts to protect water and air quality.
  • The CDFA expects that when all of the currently funded projects are operational —sometime around 2024 — manure methane emissions will have been reduced by 25%, achieving roughly 60% of the state’s goal of 40% by 2030.

Methane reduction is only the beginning

California’s commitment to reduce methane production is only one part of the bigger sustainability picture. Together, dairy farm families are also using less energy through energy efficiency upgrades, producing solar renewable energy for use on their farms, recycling and reusing water, and exploring conservation tillage practices like cover crops to improve soil health and carbon sequestration.

As California’s farm families look to the future of sustainable dairy farming solutions, they’re continuing to find new ways to preserve their land, care for their dairy cows and protect their legacy for generations to come. Not just because it’s their pride and their heritage, but because they know the critical role they play in addressing sustainable nutrition, food security and providing dairy foods that are responsibly made.

This progress is only possible through collaboration and a shared commitment to driving lasting change throughout California’s vibrant agricultural communities. With ongoing support from the industry, regulatory agencies, researchers and community stakeholders, California’s family dairy farms will continue to set a new standard in environmentally friendly food production. But it can’t stop in California. As we all work together for a Planet of Plenty, we must make protecting our environment a top priority at all levels, from industrial agriculture to local family farms.

by Lauren Harris | Aug 5, 2020