Farmers have a variety of opportunities to reduce their environmental footprint, although we first have to define exactly what that means! To most, the environmental footprint is predominantly negative, i.e. impacts on resource use (land, water, fuel, etc) and carbon footprints (greenhouse gas emissions), though it should be remembered that there are some positive environmental impacts of dairy production that need to be recognised, e.g. promotion of biodiversity and carbon sequestration in pastureland.

In terms of reducing resource use and the carbon footprint, there is no silver bullet, but we simply need to do everything better. Every farmer knows where their operation isn’t quite as good as their neighbor’s, whether it’s in terms of milk yield, milk components, age at first calving, calving interval, pregnancy rate, crop yields or other metrics. If we improve productivity, which doesn’t simply relate to milk yield, but to all aspects of calf, heifer, cow and crop productivity, we will see reductions in both resource use and the carbon footprint.

This is exemplified by a recent analysis that I published, comparing the environmental impacts of the U.S dairy industry in 2007 and 2017. Over that time period, energy-corrected milk yield per cow increased by 4,508 lb per cow, which, in combination with other productivity improvements, meant that each gallon of milk produced in 2017 required 17.3% less feed, 20.8% less land, 30.5% less water and 20.2% less fuel. The carbon footprint of producing one gallon of milk in 2017 was 19.2% lower than in 2007 and, even though total U.S. milk production increased by 24.9% over that time, the industry carbon footprint only increased by 1%. If we improve productivity and efficiency by doing everything on-farm just a little bit better, we can cut our environmental footprints, improve economic viability and have a more sustainable dairy industry, both now and in the future.

– Dr. Jude L. Capper, Livestock Sustainability Consultancy