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April 2009

Michigan Dairying: The Sustainability Challenge Ahead

Dave Beede
Dept. of Animal Science

The trends and metrics on pages 8 and 9 are an impressive tribute to the collective efforts of many involved in Michigan’s dairy farming-food production system. From here, what’s ahead?

From where I stand one of the most pressing challenges for the industry in the next few years will be to very publicly articulate its mission and active engagement as an essential partner in the social (first), environmental (second), and economic sustainability of Michigan.

The dairy industry has had a remarkable impact by improving milk production efficiency and fostering sustainable food production. Now it (and the state of Michigan) can benefit greatly by championing its past and future roles and successes as a partner in practicing and fostering sustainable dairy farming. Until recently the sustainability ‘frame of reference’ just wasn’t given much importance by the majority of the dairy industry. But, now large commercial entities are really pushing ‘green’ sustainability. Commodity and niche dairy businesses should take advantage of this attribute. Dairy production always has been part of the sustainability solution. That must be highlighted more!
Take this simple example.

Currently there’s a lot of sensationalized media chatter about greenhouse gases from cows and global warming. Public perception is that dairy cows ‘belch’ methane, causing global warming. I personally believe that the science is quite strong supporting increased greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming. And, if not reduced significantly during the next 30-50 years, global warming will result in major irreversible climate changes. However, the insinuation that cows are somehow this major new contributor to greenhouse gases and global warming is flat-out wrong.

Last summer at our national dairy science meetings, Garcia and Linn (2008) reported work where they modeled methane emissions of the1924 U.S. dairy cow population compared with the 2007 population. There were 21 million dairy cows in 1924, each averaging 4,162 lb of milk versus 9.15 million in 2007 averaging 20,267 lb/cow. A single cow in 2007 produced about 60% more methane than a single cow in 1924. This is where the public-media spin usually stops --- these modern cows produce a lot of methane and cause global warming. For sure there is some methane contribution from cows, but here’s the rest of the story…..

First, methane production per pound of milk produced is about 68% less in 2007 (cows in modern production systems with advanced technologies and management practices) compared with 1924 cows. Today’s cows are incredibly more efficient. Even more importantly, because there are less than half as many cows today that are over 5-times more productive than their ancestors, total tons of methane emitted by dairy cows is 39% less now compared with 1924.

The National Research Council (2003) reported that about 18% of total methane emission is from all agricultural animals. In contrast, 54% of total emissions are from production and burning of fossil fuels and biofuels, and 24% is from landfills. For the vast majority of Americans fuels and landfills are much closer to their everyday lives than cows. That’s not so “comfortable” to think about. And, it’s not nearly as sensational for the media as portraying imagines of cows belching clouds of methane.

The Michigan dairy industry must earnestly share its missionand engage with the public as a major partner and contributor for sustainable food production. Actively engaging in social, environmental and economic sustainability will be part of a continuing vibrant Michigan dairy industry. If done well and communicated effectively by dairy farmers and other advocates for the industry, sustainability will be fantastic for business and make dairying a mainstay of Michigan’s future!





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