The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Greener Dairies

Greener Dairies

In the News

June 28, 2009

Dairy practices are more sustainable today than they were 60 years ago, according to a recent study comparing the environmental impact of modern U.S. dairy production with that of dairy systems in 1944. The study found that modern dairy practices require significantly fewer resources, with a carbon footprint just 37% the size of the one created by dairies in the forties.

One of the major contributors to the decrease in footprint is the size of the herds used at each time. In the forties, it took 25.6 million cows to produce a total of 53 billion kg of milk annually. By contrast, modern dairies produce 84.2 billion kg of milk with only 9.2 million cows.

While dairy production in the 1944 was characterized by pasture-based systems with home-grown forages, which resulted in lower milk production with higher waste outputs, typical modern systems take advantage of improvements in breeding and crop genetics and preventative health programs. Current cow comfort initiatives have also served to effectively minimize stress and maximize milk production.

Today, dairying requires 21% of the animals, 23% of the feedstuffs, 35% of the water and only 10% of the land needed to produce the same 1 billion kg of milk. Modern methods boast a reduction in waste as well, producing 24% of the manure, 43% of the methane and 56% of the nitrous oxide per billion kg of milk.

Without these advances, say the researchers, we’d need an extra 34 million dairy cows, 304 million acres of extra cropland, and an extra 156 billion gallons of water – which is simply not an option when we have even fewer resources to produce food.

Dr. Jude Capper, a professor of dairy sciences at Washington State University and a co-author of the study, says modern dairies are making the best use of available resources in an effort to minimize potential environmental impact. She says that improvements in efficiency are vital to ensure that we're able to produce enough food for the growing population.

“Improving yields and resource use through genetics, technologies, animal/crop management and nutrition allows us to produce the same amount of food using fewer resources. If we improve milk yield by 10 lb per cow per day, we can produce a set amount of milk with a nine percent reduction in fossil fuels, cropland and water,” says Capper.

Even with these quantifiable improvements, there is still a negative image associated with modern “factory farms,” as compared to the “rustic” dairies of yesteryear. Capper says that if retailers and consumers were able to visit U.S. farms and see how farmers take care of their animals and crops, they would leave with a more positive view of conventional production.
“U.S. farmers have done a magnificent job of producing safe, nutritious, affordable food to feed our population and the use of technologies and improved management has allowed them to do so with a far smaller environmental impact than historical systems,” she says. 

Interestingly, some of the older methods, the study points out, are similar to those used in the modern organic system. However, Capper says that much like the methods used in 1944, organic methods are not sustainable as a method to produce enough food for the growing population whilst reducing resource use and environmental impact, and are currently only sustainable as a niche market.

She adds, “The modern dairying industry has shifted from one that focuses on economic efficiency alone to one that focuses on all three pillars of sustainability – environmental impact, economic viability and social acceptability. We can feed the current and future populations while ensuring that future generations also have the resources for food production.”