Reducing greenhouse gases from livestock by less belching from the cattle may be a human interest story, but it is not where the most reductions can be made. Not by a jugful, so to speak.
Greenhouse gas reductions from milk cows, for example, can be more effectively made by producing more milk from fewer cows; and that is what dairy farmers have been doing for years. In the process, they have also changed feeding practices that have lowered emissions from burping, a part of the rumen digestive process.
Studies done by researchers at Cornell University and others indicate improved efficiency of the U.S. dairy production has increased milk yield four-fold through improved genetics, nutrition and management. Fad diets of dairy cattle, promoted by some, are not practical answers to more milk from each cow. They may, in fact, result in less milk and lower efficiency, resulting in the need for more cows to produce the milk needed in our country and the world.
Dairy farmers have made dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from their livestock by greater efficiency. Back in the mid-1940s, we had about 25 million cows in the U.S. producing 117 billion pounds of milk. Looking at 2007, U.S dairy farmers produced 186 billion pounds of milk from just 9.2 million cows. Think about that. Forty percent more milk from 66 percent fewer cows. Combining 66 percent fewer cows with improved nutrition and the resulting reduction in greenhouse gases or carbon footprint is tremendous.
Looking at improvements another way, the carbon footprint, a measure of greenhouse gases, per gallon of milk produced has been reduced 66 percent since 1944. To further reduce the carbon footprint to get this milk to market, our cooperatives work with processors to transport milk to the nearest market where and when it is needed, resulting in less distance whenever possible. This is not easy because the way we use dairy products varies during the week and the seasons.
A 2006 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations critically reported that the livestock sector (all livestock in the world including sheep, goats and buffalo) caused 18 percent more greenhouse gasses than the entire transportation industry. This seemed hard to believe.
But we need to look at different societies around the world. In the U.S., we have about 97 million cattle, including dairy and beef, and another nine million sheep and goats. That is just three percent of all the rumen animals around the world. Some countries, such as India, which has more than 283 million cattle and buffalo and 182 million sheep and goats, are far greater contributors to our carbon footprint that the U.S.
Overall, according to an EPA report, livestock in the U.S. accounted for only 2.2 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2005. We need to look at other ways to reduce emissions, such as more efficient cars and trucks, smaller homes and changing our maintenance of lawns and golf courses.
Lets give credit to our dairy and other livestock farmers for the contributions they have been making to our environment and food supply for many years. Some dairy feeding programs, such as all using all grasses and no grain, result in 30 to 50 percent less milk from each cow. While some folks want dairy products from grass-fed cows, and that's O.K., it would take two to four times more animals to provide our milk supply if all farmers fed their cows that diet.
It is interesting to note that we do have a small group of mostly Amish dairy farmers in the Geauga and Ashtabula County area that follow all grass-fed practices. Their milk is processed and sold by the Middlefield Original Cheese Cooperative on Route 87 in Middlefield.
Parker is an independent writer for the Tribune.