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Dairy Sustainability FAQ

Dairy farms can adopt a variety of conservation practices that impact their entire farm.

  • Farmers plant cover crops and reduce soil tillage in their fields, improving carbon retention, better water absorption, and improving erosion.
  • Dairy farmers also replace incandescent lightbulbs with CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) bulbs and lamps, producing the same amount of light in their barns with 75% less energy.
  • Dairy farmers reuse their manure in a number of ways, from using liquid manure as fertilizer in their fields to reusing dried manure as bedding for dairy cows. Some also invest in methane digesters to capture the methane produced by manure and turn it into renewable fuels.
  • Dairy farms also recycle their water several times. The clean water is used in the refrigeration process to cool milk, then recycled and used to wash and cool cows. The water that is used to wash cows is then captured, stored, and used multiple times to clean the barn floors, then it’s reused to irrigate the fields.
  • Lastly, dairy cows are the ultimate upcyclers and can recycle foods that humans can’t eat, like cotton seeds, spent brewers grain, fruit pulps, and more. This is food that would otherwise end up in landfills!

Dairy farmers across the United States are also researching new technologies and techniques to further their conservation and sustainability practices even further and are committed to providing the best care for their cows and land possible.

Dairy farmers have always been good stewards of their dairy cows and land and are consistently looking for ways to improve the conservation techniques they apply throughout their farms. Dairy farmers improve their emissions by focusing on cow genetics, improved feeding strategies, and new and improved ways to manage the manure produced by their dairy cows. Dairy farms also practice carbon sequestration by reducing the tillage of their fields, rotating crops, improving techniques of injecting manure as fertilizer in their fields, and more.

The global dairy industry accounts for about 4% of greenhouse gas emissions. While that is small compared to other industries, the dairy industry is committed to becoming an environmental solution by 2050. Specific goals include achieving greenhouse gas neutrality, optimizing water use while maximizing recycling, and improving water quality by optimizing the utilization of manure and nutrients. This includes dairy farmers implementing lasting conservation and sustainability practices throughout their farms and dairy processors implementing environmentally and financially viable practices into their entire supply chain lifecycle.

To dairy farmers, the care of their cows comes first. 98% of U.S. milk is produced by dairy farms participating in the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Animal Care. It’s the first recognized livestock animal care program in the world and ensures cows are well-cared for through a nutritious diet, plenty of water, and well-ventilated, well-lighted barns.

Some dairy farms utilize free-stall housing, which allows the cows to eat, drink, and rest whenever and wherever they choose. Other farms have open lots that allow for easy access to and from housing to open land. Some farms use tie-stall barns, which provide individual stalls for cows that are clean, dry, and comfortable for the cow to rest and stand in.

Many barns incorporate fans and water misters to keep cows cool during the hot summer months, and a cow’s bedding is made softer through clean sand, soft woodchips, mattresses, and even waterbeds!

Lastly, dairy farmers work closely with nutritionists and veterinarians to ensure their dairy cows receive the proper nutrition and medical care to keep them happy and healthy.

Cow comfort is of the utmost importance to dairy farmers because a happy, healthy, and comfortable cow is one who can produce the most milk! A healthy cow does not feel pain when milked on a routine basis. However, there are certain illnesses that can cause cow pain during the milking process. These cows are immediately seen and treated by a veterinarian, and their milk does not enter the bulk tank until it tests free of antibiotics. It is important to know that it is against the law to sell milk with antibiotics, and dairy farmers and processors follow federal guidelines and their own strict protocols to ensure this milk does not enter into production.

Dairy production has become more energy efficient throughout the years. In fact, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 required 30% less water, 21% less land, and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007. That’s the same amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by half a million acres of forest in the United States!

94% of dairy farms in the United States are local and family-owned. All types of dairy farms are committed to meaningful conservation and sustainability practices that care for their cows and land.

Manure from dairy cattle can be reused in several ways. Some dairy farms utilize a manure solid-liquid separation system. This process squeezes the liquid manure from the solids, separating the two. The liquid manure contains the nutrients from the manure and is repurposed as fertilizer on the dairy farmer’s crop fields. The leftover solid manure contains little nutrients and is reused as bedding for dairy cows.

Dairy cows are the ultimate upcyclers thanks to their four-chambered stomachs because they can eat things that would normally end up in landfills. In fact, U.S. dairy cows upcycle up to 306 million pounds of food waste every day. This may include dried distiller’s grain leftover from the ethanol industry, sweet corn cannery waste, and even unsellable chocolate! Dairy farmers work hand-in-hand with nutritionists to determine the ideal mix of byproducts, grains, vitamins, and minerals for their dairy cows to ensure they are being fed the best they can. By consuming inedible byproduct feedstuffs, dairy cows reduce the amount of food going to landfills, therefore reducing the greenhouse gases produced by landfills.