Written by: Lacie Dotterweich | January 11, 2022
On our last grocery trip, my fiancé and I brought home two half gallons of ice cream, seven bags of shredded cheese, one gallon of milk, three packages of cream cheese, a quart of heavy cream and an extra-large package of string cheese. I think it’s safe to say that we love milk and dairy products and celebrate milk all the time!
Most people don’t need a reason to celebrate #NationalMilkDay today beyond the obvious – ice cream and cheese are delicious. But if rocky road, gouda and 2% just aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other reasons cows, milk and dairy products are awesome.
Dairy cows are ruminants, meaning they have a complex four-chambered stomach and are capable of digesting highly fibrous leftovers from major and specialty agricultural crops (e.g., grass, almond hulls, distillers’ grains, etc.) that humans can’t digest for nutrition. Its possible dairy cows have been recycling distiller’s grains for as long as humans have been fermenting grains and distilling ethanol from them.
Dairy cows today require 40% less feed to produce 100 lbs. of milk than 40 years ago. When cows require less feed, then fewer crops for feed must be grown, produced and hauled, which helps reduce dairy’s carbon footprint per gallon of milk. In addition, with improved forages and optimized feed rations to reduce emissions, incorporating feed additives and using animal genetics to breed for higher efficiency , we could see a 70% methane emission reduction from dairy cows in the future.
A recent study from animal scientists looked at what effects removing dairy cows from the U.S. food supply would be. Researchers modeled three different scenarios – depopulation (i.e., remove all U.S. dairy cows immediately), current management (i.e., keep the number of cows in the U.S., but export 100% of the milk) and retirement (i.e., the cows would be “retired” to a pasture-based system, but the country would reduce the numbers that could be supported by available pastureland). The researchers found that greenhouse gas emissions were largely unchanged in a current management scenario of exporting dairy, but resulted in decreased nutrient availability for U.S. consumers. In the retirement scenario, GHG emissions declined 11.97% and all 39 nutrients considered in human diets decreased. In the depopulation scenario, GHG emissions declined 7.2%, although 30 of the 39 nutrients increased, several of the essential nutrients declined.
A recent survey to dairy nutrition consultants and feed industry representatives regarding their usage of 63 different coproduct feeds captured data from roughly 33.5% of U.S. lactating cows and 35.7% of U.S. milk production in 2019, making dairy cows the most comprehensive users of coproduct feeds.
We know from reason #1 that dairy cows are natural born recyclers -- ruminal digestion offers dairy cows a wider menu of coproducts than what simple-stomached animals such as poultry and swine can digest. Dairy cows consume a substantial number of coproducts and are an effective way to recycle valuable nutrients that are either indigestible by humans or simply undesirable. They then effectively turn this into milk and dairy foods, following current recommendations for the sustainable management of unavoidable wasted food.
U.S. Dairy’s recently launched its Net Zero Initiative (NZI), a five-year, collaborative effort that includes research, on-farm pilots and partner-based strategies to reach the 2050 environmental stewardship goals set by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, including achieving carbon neutrality. The Institute for Feed Education and Research, the American Feed Industry Association’s charitable arm, is actively supporting this effort by exploring innovative feed management strategies that can reduce enteric methane emissions in dairy cattle, which will include the feed rations and additives in reason #2.
While I don’t really need a reason to celebrate dairy today, or any day, I will eat some extra ice cream tonight because dairy is incredibly sustainable and is a major climate solution.