Editor’s note: Tom Vilsack testified recently in Washington, D.C., at a hearing on climate change and the agricultural sector, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

The U.S. dairy industry has organized an effort to address climate change, water quality, food security and other issues.

For generations U.S. dairy farmers have been stewards of their land’s natural resources, the foundation of their livelihood. As farming practices and technologies have evolved throughout time, U.S. dairy producers have continuously produced safe and nutritious products. They have used progressively fewer resources to do so.

Today dairy farms across the country are increasingly adopting

  • conservation tillage, diverse crop rotations and cover crops to improve soil health,
  • precision feed management to achieve cow health and production efficiencies, and
  • innovative manure management technologies to produce energy, and reduce air- and water-quality impacts.

But those practices must be further researched and made more affordable so they can be implemented at scale. In addition to the demand for more transparency and better environmental performance, depressed milk prices are making it increasingly difficult to run a successful dairy operation. Our dairy farmers are looking for new sources of income. We believe that their environmental stewardship can provide just that.

Industry on cusp of radical change

With the exponential increase in scientific and technological discoveries, U.S. dairy is on the cusp of a radical change allowing it to meet this century’s needs. Those advancements offer an incredible opportunity to those who are willing and ready to adopt them, and challenges for those who are not.

The opportunity applies equally to the dairy industry as a whole. U.S. dairy must take advantage of our community’s collective knowledge and experience to form a system of proven production practices and technologies that bring beneficial economic and environmental results as well as provide a pathway for continuous improvement to all farms.

If we act quickly and decisively, we will demonstrate leadership in the global market and answer demands for greater transparency and documented improvements in environmental impact. If we manage the transition collectively and allow all farms access to the resources they need, the dairy industry will be able to ensure long-term opportunities for sustainability and resiliency of all dairy farms regardless of their size.

Initiative aims for “Net Zero” climate impact

Newtrient LLC is a collection of dairy cooperatives that represent about 50 percent of the U.S. milk supply along with the dairy check-off and dairy cooperative-policy organizations. It’s driving a new initiative, the Net Zero Project, to affect transformational change.

The collective efforts of Newtrient, the U.S. Dairy Export Council, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, the Global Dairy Platform and the National Milk Producers Federation will demonstrate that dairy farming is integral to any solution purporting to address climate change, water quality, and water and food security. It will show how U.S. dairy can help feed a projected 9 billion people by 2050 all while minimizing its climate impact to “net zero.”

During the past several years Newtrient and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy have worked to establish the scientific and on-the-ground technical knowledge required to voluntarily reduce dairy-farm environmental footprint. During the past 10 years the Innovation Center has brought together the collective action of the entire dairy sector in a voluntary manner to address environmental and sustainability challenges.

Scientific, economic models developed

Newtrient has developed scientific and economic models to quantify the economic and environmental benefits associated with selected dairy-farm technologies and practices. The organization has also developed a catalogue that has evaluated the effectiveness, resilience and business prospects of more than 200 manure-management and -handling technologies. The analysis, knowledge and experience gained through those efforts suggest the dairy industry could achieve net-zero emissions. The Net Zero Project is a significant step in translating the dairy community’s research into on-the-ground results and achieving that aspirational goal.

The Net Zero Project will use demonstration farms to explore the combined impact of several of the most promising state-of-the-art technologies and management practices.

The project’s objective is threefold.

  • Determine the feasibility of achieving a net-zero or net-positive U.S.-milk-production carbon footprint.
  • Analyze dairy potential to recycle and prevent the loss of nutrients.
  • Work toward carbon neutrality and minimized water-quality impacts while preserving dairy’s reputation, markets and profitability.

The Net Zero Project will address the obstacles – financial, technical or political – standing between the U.S. dairy sector and those goals by harnessing the collective energy of farmers, researchers and industry. In doing so it will establish itself as a large-scale solution to the world’s environmental and food-security challenges.

Demonstration farms to showcase technologies

The new demonstration-farm initiative is part of a broader portfolio of science-based practices and resources available to dairy farms to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions and improved water-quality outcomes. Those resources, which can be implemented individually or in concert with one another, are available to all farms regardless of size, geography or management style. The role of the demonstration farms is to quickly identify and showcase technologies and management practices that will help farms achieve net-zero emissions and minimize their water-quality impact.

Multiple solutions to fit various sizes

The goal is not to find a single transformational technology. The goal is to highlight entire suites of practices and technologies available to and economically viable for farms of varying sizes and geographies.

Some solutions will only be applicable to small farms. Others will only be achievable with the scale of larger operations. Many will be size-neutral, such as improved genetics or feed management. The Net Zero Project recognizes the diversity of America’s dairies and seeks to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of each in turn. Our aspirational goal for net-zero emissions will not be achieved by every farm individually, but rather by the collective efforts of all farms, cooperatives and processors.

We will initially establish four to five demonstration sites with existing commercial operations. Although the farms already exist, using them as laboratories for innovation won’t be cheap. Each farm will be used to evaluate the systems approach of progressive genetics, advanced feed production and management, and innovative manure management required to achieve net-zero emissions.

Federal government must help

We look forward to working with our friends at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to access the research expertise offered by the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. We look to leverage grants available through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and through Conservation Innovation Grants to build our prototype farms. We are also anticipating working with the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture, and through private philanthropists to help fund those initial four to five locations.

Through that project we will demonstrate the industry’s collective commitment to addressing public, consumer and regulator concerns about our environmental footprint. We will show dairy farmers, cooperatives and processors the potential pathways to increase their voluntary stewardship efforts – and ensure the long-term economic and environmental viability of their operations.

To be continued …

Tom Vilsack is the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Visit www.usdec.org for more information.


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