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How Dairy Farmers Are Reducing Their Environmental Footprint

The dairy industry has received a lot of negativity over the years for its environmental impact. As a result, farmers have taken steps to reduce their effect on the environment. They care about the planet and do what they can to protect their surroundings. Dairy farming has become more sustainable recently with the help of innovative technologies.

Cows, Image credit:

There has been a dramatic change in this sector over the past few decades. Less cows are being used to produce more milk and other dairy products. Farmers are motivated to continue to improve their practices to be sustainable and eco-friendly.

Here’s how dairy farmers are reducing their environmental footprint.

Creating Specialized Diets

Farmers have had increasing opportunities to change the diet of their cattle to a safe and nutritious one. Cows typically eat various grains, alfalfa hay, proteins, corn, vitamins and minerals.

Dairy farmers work with cow nutritionists to expand their offerings. Often, cows will be fed food and beverage waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill. This meets the needs of the cow and keeps all that trash out of dumps.

Every year, tons of food waste ends up at landfills and produces large amounts of methane. Additionally, every time food is thrown out, that’s wasted water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy.

The creation of specialized diets for cows reduces the amount of methane produced and prevents further waste of products used to create that food.

Using Manure as Fertilizer

Throughout history, farmers have used manure as a fertilizer for plants. At one time, it may have been the only fertilizer available before technological advancements created chemical versions. Additional uses of cow waste include soil amendments, energy and construction materials.

Manure is composed of many valuable elements like fiber, nutrients, organic matter, energy potential and solids. With the technology available today, it’s used in more ways than before.

Farmers either apply the manure as is or process it to extract the nutrients. When used correctly, the nutrients safely recycle within the soil. They increase the earth’s health and boost the amount of organic matter. Better soil means less runoff, which decreases the number of pollutants entering the water system.

Besides using manure as fertilizer, dairy farmers use it to produce energy. A massive amount is transported to go through a process called anaerobic digestion, which creates biogas and fuels. Both of these products generate power and electricity. This limits the amount of nonrenewable fossil fuels needed to run the farm, reducing the environmental footprint.

Conserving and Reusing Water

Water is an essential resource on dairy farms. Nearly 90% of the milk produced by cows is made up of water, which means they drink many gallons daily.

Dairy farmers are cautious with their water because they know that every single drop counts. It used can be reused up to four times, depending on what it’s being used for.

One of the primary ways dairy farmers reuse water is through cooling the milk. It’s quite warm when it first comes out of the cow, so it needs to be cooled before it can be processed into other items like cheese or yogurt. Farmers cycle the milk through a water cooling system.

Once the water from the cooling system is used, it’s implemented in other ways through the farm, like cleaning the barns. The water and manure mixture from cleaning is captured for an irrigation resource.

Another way water is conserved on dairy farms is through subsurface drip irrigation. This system ensures the water goes directly to the roots. Dairy farmers implement this system to produce crops to feed their cows.

Abiding by Environmental Standards

There are multiple environmental standards that dairy farmers must abide by to keep their farms in operation. They follow ecological standards and regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), state agriculture departments and even local governments.

Dairy farmers must go through various checklists in the production of dairy products. For example, routine monthly sampling, inspections of equipment, training and other responsibilities are required of dairy producers. 

By following these regulations, dairy farmers reduce their environmental footprint. They must hold to ecological standards to operate.

Filtering the Air

As previously stated, cows receive special diets, which limits the amount of food and beverage waste. They also help keep the air clean, as the odor produced from cattle is less rancid. Additionally, the amount of methane — which is a greenhouse gas that harms the environment — is lessened.

Filtration systems are installed in dairy farms to help keep the air clean. These ventilation systems provide a strong breeze in the summer and a gentle one in the winter to keep cows cool. Without clean air, cows will experience heat exhaustion and a decrease in respiratory health.

Heat stress causes a decline in milk production and the conception rate, as well as an increase in lameness. As cattle give off heat, they’re contributing to climate change. Keeping them cool and ventilated year-round decreases the temperature rise of the environment.

Installing Renewable Energy

Running a dairy farm consumes a lot of energy, primarily through milking. Cows are milked frequently, and the milk must be cooled. Plus, containers need frequent cleaning, which utilizes a substantial amount of energy, too.

Many dairy farmers choose to use 100% renewable energy resources to keep their farms going. However, others rely on fossil fuels and nonrenewable energy to power their farms.

Two common green energy sources include windmills and solar panels. Windmills harvest energy from the wind, which in turn provides power for daily farm functioning. Solar panels harvest energy from the sun and also provide shade for grazing animals.

By using renewable energy, the number of emissions released into the atmosphere declines, as well as some air pollutants, which combats the effects of climate change. Besides, cows’ manure can be used as renewable energy because the waste is processed into gases and fuels.

Lowering the Number of Cows

Through technological advancements, farmers have reduced the number of cows needed to yield the same amount of dairy products in demand. By honing in on breeding practices and diets, cows can produce more milk than ever before.

A cow in Waldo, Wisconsin, produced more than three times the national average of milk, which in 2017 was around 23,000 pounds. This was due to better breeding practices. Many dairy farmers choose to select cows for more efficient breeding and produce more milk than average.

If breeding and feeding practices continue to improve, fewer cows will be needed to meet consumer demands. This will lead to less methane produced, a reduced need for water and fewer fertilizers for feed, which all reduce dairy farmers’ environmental footprints.

Although a reduction in the number of dairy cows can be offset by beef production, farmers’ strategies to increase milk production aids the environment. Cattle can also be bred for lower methane production. Breeding and nutritional strategies have proved enough to lower the number of cows needed per dairy farm.

Researching Innovative Ways to Help the Environment

Dairy farmers contribute financially to research into innovative ways to reduce their environmental footprints.

They receive a lot of negative comments about contributing to global warming. However, they do their best to help the environment because it must be healthy to reap the benefits of their work.

Some research topics include nutrition, reproduction, ways to conserve water, using renewable energy and more. One main area of research is improving air quality. Many farmers volunteer their time and effort to find new and innovative ways to enhance ventilation for their cows.

Why Does It Matter?

Your daily life impacts the planet. In everything you do, you’re making some sort of impact on the planet, whether it be good or bad. The same goes for dairy farmers.

The entire milk production process has changed over the years to lead to a more sustainable industry. The fact that the business is doing their best to reduce its environmental footprint means that they’re trying to impact the planet for the better. They recognize that improper care of cows, fertilizers and their waste could result in the loss of ecological areas and an accelerated climate change.

Milk production occurs almost everywhere in the world and the scale of the environmental footprint farmers leave depends upon how sustainable they are in their practices. Producing one gallon of milk these days requires much less land, water and manure than ever before.

This means that natural resources are being used less and fewer greenhouse emissions are being released into the atmosphere.

A reduction in the environmental footprint of dairy farmers matters because it helps the earth and its inhabitants live a better overall life.

Dairy Farmers Are Part of the Change

Although many people may believe dairy production harms the environment rather than helps it, this extensive list proves otherwise. Farmers care about their environmental footprint just as much as anyone else and are making efforts to reduce it.

This is their livelihood. Without a demand for dairy products, the thousands of farms throughout the country would leave people jobless. They continue to do everything they can to leave a sustainable business for generations to come.

Dairy farming will continue as human populations rise. Milk production is inevitable, but farmers have demonstrated that reducing their environmental footprint is a vital part of the process.


Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter, @emilysfolk.

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