Climate neutrality on state dairy farms ‘within reach’

As California dairy farmers face increasing pressure to reduce the impact their cows have on the warming planet, scientists and people in the business say tools are available to do just that. But getting more farms to use them will require investment and other incentives to achieve specific targets.

“Climate neutrality is definitely within reach. It’s technically possible,” said Sara Place, chief sustainability officer for the animal-health company Elanco.

Place shared her views last week during the California Dairy Sustainability Summit. The three-day virtual conference provided an overview of how California dairy farms are advancing sustainable food systems by working to achieve so-called climate neutrality, which refers to having net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. This means getting to a point when dairies no longer contribute to global warming, Place said.

California dairy and livestock producers are required by state law to cut methane emissions by 40% below 2013 levels by 2030. A recent analysis by the California Air Resources Board shows that at their current pace, they are projected to hit just 22% of the required target by 2030.

Dairy methane emissions come from two main sources: manure and enteric fermentation, or cow belches. Methane represents the main greenhouse gas produced by animal agriculture, with dairy cows and other livestock accounting for 55% of all methane in the state.

Even though carbon dioxide, or CO2, is the most abundant greenhouse gas and has the greatest contribution to warming, addressing methane delivers “a quicker bang for your buck,” Place said, because the gas has a short lifespan, and reducing it can instantaneously impact warming.

Reducing methane can also offset other greenhouse gases, said Frank Mitloehner, a University of California, Davis, professor and air quality specialist. He said he views methane not so much as a liability as it is an asset and an opportunity to achieve climate neutrality. If methane can be managed well, he said, it can offset current and past emissions by animal agriculture.

“To me, this is what really counts—that we get to a point where we don’t cause additional warming, in fact, maybe undo some of the historical warming,” he said.

Mitloehner said he believes dairy farmers can achieve the state goal—and reach climate neutrality—within the next 10 years if they “continue on a path like we have started.” But it will take more than “business as usual.” Achieving climate neutrality, he stressed, will require more aggressive adoption of methane mitigation strategies that some California dairy farms have already implemented.

“This is not some kind of creative accounting, greenwashing or any of that,” Mitloehner said. “This is using hard science and the knowledge of physics around these gases and the chemical properties, and then projecting what strong reductions will do.”

Dairy farmers so far have relied largely on construction of methane digesters to capture manure and turn it into renewable energy. Because of the capital-intensive nature of these projects, a central message of the summit was that public investment and financial incentives for farmers will be key to get more widespread adoption.

During the past six years, the state invested $289 million from cap-and-trade revenue to help fund emissions-reduction projects, with most of it going to digester systems.

In total, more than $2 billion is being invested by the state, farmers and other partners on digester and other dairy methane reduction projects. Together, these projects now number around 300 in the state, according to Michael Boccadoro, executive director of Dairy Cares. At least 420 more projects may be needed to achieve the 2030 target the state has set, CARB reported.

Herd-size reductions, another way to curb emissions, are expected to make a bigger dent in the coming years, CARB projected. The summit highlighted how dairy farmers have been reducing their environmental impact by becoming more efficient on the farm.

Merced County dairy farmer Simon Vander Woude, for example, uses genetic testing and selection to optimize his herd. This allows him to produce more milk with fewer cows.

But dairy farmers have yet to tackle how to mitigate their second source of methane: cow burps. Some solutions are on the way, largely through changes in cow diet and the use of feed additives.

Red seaweed, for example, has been shown in trials to reduce enteric methane emissions by 53% to 92%, according to Joan Salwen, chief executive officer of Blue Ocean Barns, which is now trying to scale up production of the feed additive. She said research from Straus Dairy Farm in Marin County shows the additive is safe for cows, does not change the taste of the milk or meat and maintains the cows’ milk production.

A supplement made from garlic and citrus extracts by the Swiss-British company Mootral has been field tested at UC Davis, with feedlot cattle, which emitted 23% less methane. Chief Executive Thomas Hafner said other studies on dairies in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands show a 30% average reduction of methane emissions with no negative impacts on animal health and milk quality.

The Swiss company Agolin makes a feed additive made from essential oil extracts from plants. Analysis shows supplementing the product in lactating cows reduces their methane emissions by 10% and improves their milk yield by 4%, according to Peter Williams, chief executive of Advantec Associates and Feedworks, which markets the product in the U.S.

The Dutch company DSM already has market authorizations for its feed additive Bovaer from the European Union, Brazil and Chile, but it has yet to receive approval in the U.S. from the Food and Drug Administration. Company Program Director Mark van Nieuwland says feeding a cow a quarter teaspoon of the product each day has been shown to reduce enteric methane emission by about 30% in dairy cows and up to 90% in beef cattle.

With consumer engagement in sustainability continuing to rise, some food companies are setting their own environmental goals, particularly with how they source their ingredients.

Starbucks, for example, aims to cut its carbon, water and waste footprints by half by 2030, said Kelly Bengston, its chief procurement officer. Milk goes into more than 60% of its beverage offerings, with dairy and coffee accounting for more than 30% of its total carbon emissions. As such, Bengston said the company is partnering with its supply chain, including the cooperative California Dairies Inc., to meet its sustainability goals.

Having committed in 2019 to net zero emissions, Nestlé plans to cut its emissions 20% by 2025 and 50% by 2030, said Kimberly Fisk, its head of procurement. Sourcing ingredients represents 71% of the company’s total greenhouse gas emissions, with half of it coming from dairy and livestock.

One of Nestlé’s main commitments, she said, has been in regenerative agriculture, in which the company is investing $1.2 billion by working directly with farmers.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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