5 Things We Heard at Our Dairy Sustainability Workshop

More than 70 farmers, industry experts, research scientists, and policy makers joined us on April 10 for “Dairy Sustainability: Climate, Soil, & Water,” a day-long workshop we co-hosted with University of Vermont Extension and Cornell PRO-DAIRY in Middlebury. 

Workshop highlights included climate and environmental leadership, whole farm environmental assessments, managing enteric emissions, climate-smart manure management, building sustainability and resiliency in dairy cropping systems, and Vermont resources and policy. 

It was a very robust agenda, to say the least, and we’re very grateful to all of the scientists who shared their latest research with us. We recognize the risk climate change poses for agriculture and the role we need to play to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. 

We learned a tremendous amount during our time together, and we’re going to share just five things that stand out to us.

  1. If you were to look at a pie chart of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by sector, you would see agriculture is responsible for 10%. You’d see transportation at 28%, electric power at 25%, industry at 23%, and residential and commercial at 13%. If agriculture is the smallest slice of pie, then why does it always feel like everyone is picking on farmers? Of the three greenhouse gases–carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide–methane and nitrous oxide are the ones most prevalent in agriculture. To boot, methane has a global warming potential (GWP) 27-30 times greater than carbon dioxide, while nitrous oxide has a GWP 273 times greater. In turn, agriculture’s 10% packs a big punch. The good news? This means farmers have the greatest opportunity to contribute to global cooling by focusing on reducing their methane emissions. It’s been suggested that if we can make significant progress on methane in the short-term, we can have more time to get a handle on carbon emissions in the long-term.
  2. In order for agriculture to reduce its GHGs and have an influence on mitigating global climate change, farmers will need a lot of tools in their box. Improving soil health practices, manure management, and enteric emissions are the main areas of focus. Among the options for reducing enteric emissions–which account for ~70% of agriculture’s methane emissions–is using feed additives, such as 3-nitrooxypropanoal (also known as 3NOP). Research suggests 3NOP is effective at suppressing the enzyme in a cow’s rumen that produces methane. A cow would need to consume ¼ teaspoon of 3NOP per day to reduce her methane emissions by up to 30%. The feed additive is authorized for use in 45 countries around the world, and while it is not yet authorized in the United States, trials are underway. 
  3. Cornell University works directly with farmers across New York to determine sustainability Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that allow farms to compare themselves to others and to monitor their performance over time with respect to nutrient mass balances (NMBs), GHGs, and above-ground biodiversity. These whole-farm environmental assessments give farmers a tool to guide improvements, increase farm efficiency, and demonstrate good practices to consumers and the general public. Dairy farms who have participated in NMBs in recent years have been shown to produce more than 50% more milk per acre with 36% improvement in phosphorus-use efficiency.
  4. Farmers not only have an influence on climate change, we are also influenced by climate change. Likewise, we cannot manage the weather, but we can manage for the weather. Improving our soil health practices, for example, means we’re creating soils more resilient to extreme weather events, like flooding and drought, which are becoming more common. In fact, farmers who experienced both Hurricane Irene in 2011 and catastrophic flooding in 2023 and had implemented climate smart soil health practices in the interim, reported greater resiliency in their fields. Similarly, Addison County farmers who adopted tile drainage as part of their overall soil health practices experienced greater crop yield from their heavy clay soils. 
  5. We might get a phone call from Dr. Heather Darby if we don’t share this one! Meadow fescue, orchardgrass, timothy, and smooth bromegrass and the soils they grow in all do better if we don’t cut them too short. Why? The amount of leaf volume removed is inversely proportional to root growth and health. This impacts soil health, compaction, microbial activity, taking up nutrients, climate resilience, and more. Raising the cutter bar is one the simplest things we can do to promote sustainability and efficiency. 

If you were able to join us on April 10, we’d love to know what your key takeaways from our dairy sustainability workshop were! We invite you to comment below and share your thoughts.