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Climate Change: Are Cows the Cause of the Cure?

Ben Bartlett
MSU Extension Educator, Upper Peninsula

With today’s milk prices, most dairy farmers are not worried about climate change or carbon emissions from dairy cows. However, the general economy will turn around, milk prices will improve, and environmental issues like climate change will again become more important. One way this issue has been addressed is to talk about how cows are more efficient today and therefore we need fewer cows. But, I think this is the wrong way to confront these environmental concerns.

If we say that keeping fewer cows makes for lesser negative environmental impact, we are admitting that cows are bad for the environment. I don’t think cows or their gas emissions are bad for the environment. Let’s try to sort out why it’s not the cows but sometimes the way we manage cows that can be less than environmentally friendly.

Let’s clarify two important issues: 1) we know the world is currently adding more carbon to the atmosphere than we are taking out; and, 2) many people believe the extra atmospheric carbon will increase average ambient temperatures. We can measure and calculate where the carbon of the world is located but the effects of relocating carbon from storage to the atmosphere can only be estimated.

It is currently fashionable to point the finger at cows because they release carbon (the term I will use for greenhouse gases) when they belch and do what cows do when they eat over 50 lb of feed dry matter every day. However, taking cows to task for releasing carbon into theatmosphere is only looking at part of the equation. Allow me to use an analogy.

There is nothing wrong with spending money if you make enough money to replenish the bank account. It’s okay to spend $2 if we work and put $2 back in the bank, or we could spend $2,000, as long as we put at least $2,000 back in the account. The very important point is that spending money or actually releasing carbon into the air is not bad if the rest of the system keeps the account in balance.

We have a cycle, we store, we spend, we store, we spend, and the really important point is that we keep the account or cycle in balance. For a cow to belch carbon into the air is no more harmful to the atmospheric levels of carbon than it is for you to spend money for dinner as long as you can afford it. Likewise, the whole cattle production system (the farming system) re-captures that carbon.

If we look back when bison, estimated to be over 50 million, ran wild in massive numbers across the prairie, they released tremendous amounts of carbon into the air.

But at the same time, the bison were eating the prairie grasses, which had collected huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air. Then through their manure and uneaten grasses they replenished the soil with fertilizer nutrients and organic matter.

Not only was the carbon cycle probably in balance, the carbon bank account was increased and the fertile prairie soils with their high organic matter levels (high carbon levels) made up for other carbon releases such as prairie grass fire caused by nature.

This was short term storage of carbon. We also need to recognize that carbon has a long term storage system, coal and oil as two examples of legacy carbon.

In a way, it’s sort of like your checking account and your savings account. If you can spend more than you have in your checking account you tap into your savings, but over time, you must pay back your savings account or you will run out of money. In cattle production, if cows were just raised on prairie grass, there would be no argument that cows are NOT adding carbon to the atmosphere. But cattle today are not just raised on prairie grass and that is the rest of this story.

Cows today are fed forages and grains and how those feedstuffs are raised and how the cow manure gets back to the land is the important part of the cycle that is being ignored, or not given adequate attention in some cases. On many of our farms, the crops are raised with minimum or no tillage and that’s a plus because it increases and preserves the organic matter.

We use crop rotations and perennial forage crops as part of the feed production plan. And of course, Michigan farmers today with the high cost of fertilizers are especially careful about re-cycling the nutrients from manure back to their cropping systems.

Farms that use perennial pastures with managed grazing systems are especially carbon-friendly because they use a minimum of fossil fuels, legacy carbon, to produce the feed and the “pasture crop” is a perennial crop. The bottom line is that we want our cropping system to capture or sequester carbon and increase the organic matter levels in our soil.

Don’t get caught up in trying to defend our dairy cows by saying they are more efficient today or that we use fewer cows per hundred weight of milk produced because that is admitting cows are the problem.

Dairy cows are not the cause of climate change. If we manage the cows and their feed production properly, cows actually can help us take carbon out of the air and store it in the soil. There are some production systems that will release more carbon than is captured; burning the rain forest for cow pasture, poor management of nutrients in cow manure, and feeding cows grain from systems that are depleting the soil’s organic matter, are examples.

If there is a problem it is not the cow, but the way we manage the farm system and its carbon cycle. Dairy farmers have the responsibility to be good stewards of the land and livestock for the benefit of the land, the livestock, the public, and themselves.

Environmental issues will become more important and we need to make sure people understand that cows and dairy farming are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Quit defending cows when they don’t need defending. Tell people how cows are helping our farming systems to be more environmentally friendly and more sustainable.








July 09 Issue

Animal Welfare
Keeping up-to-date with welfare of dairy cattle.

KBS Studies Pasture-based Milking
KBS transitions from conventional system to pasture-based milking.

Rumensin Toxicity in Heifers
A case report about acute monensin toxicity in a Michigan dairy farm.

Climate Change and Cows
An opinion on the climate change debate.

Management "Tips"
A series of "tips" aimed at assisting dairy producers especially in the current harsh economic climate.

New Faculty Members
Welcoming two new faculty members into Animal Science.

North American Dairy Challenge
MSU participation at the New York event.

Things Your Dad Never
Told You

Some manure application lessons.

Don't Run Off..
Reducing run-off from pastures.

Maximizing Intake
of Corn Silage

How corn silage affect energy intake and animal performance.

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