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Commentary: Dairy farmers are working to address climate issues

Issue Date: June 1, 2022
By John Talbot
John Talbot
The California Milk Advisory Board reports that state dairy farmers are embracing sustainable practices, reducing methane gas emissions, conserving water and protecting the health of their cows.

Each year we use the month of June to recognize our dairy farm families and the delicious, nutritious foods they help bring to the table. On the heels of Earth Day, we are leaning into the topic of dairy sustainability for this year's Dairy Month celebration to showcase California dairy's commitment to slowing climate impacts.

Our state remains one of only two major global regions to establish a statutory mandate to reduce methane from the dairy sector and is on track to meet its ambitious target of a 40% reduction in manure methane by 2030.

California dairy farm families have a long commitment to providing products that keep the state's finite resources and environmental balance in mind. For example, the amount of water used per gallon of milk produced has decreased by more than 88% over a 50-year period, due to improved feed crop production, water use efficiency and the use of byproducts as feed ingredients.

Dairy is the leading agricultural product in California, making it crucial to the well-being of the fifth-largest economy in the world. However, California's dairy sector, which includes 1.7 million dairy cows, accounts for only 4% of the state's total greenhouse gas emissions.

That's due to California dairy farmers' continued strides in reducing methane emissions through investment and innovation. According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Dairy Science, greenhouse gas emissions per gallon of milk produced in California have decreased by more than 45% over the past 50 years.

The use of anaerobic digesters, which turn manure methane into renewable electricity, renewable natural gas or hydrogen fuel, are driving much of this progress. California has roughly 206 digester projects capturing methane from 217 dairy farms, with 89 digesters currently in operation and the rest in various stages of development.

Over the next 25 years, collective dairy methane reduction projects across California, including digesters and alternative manure management projects, are estimated to reduce more than 55 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. That's an annual emissions reduction equal to taking more than half a million cars off the road.

At Calgren Dairy Fuels in Pixley, biogas from cow manure collected at 16 Tulare County dairies is converted to renewable compressed natural gas, or CNG, and introduced directly into the Southern California Gas Co., which serves 21.7 million customers.

Phase one of this dairy digester pipeline cluster is capturing 150,000-plus tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases and displacing more than 3 million gallons of fossil fuel-based transportation fuel annually. The CNG is made available as a near-zero emissions fuel for heavy-duty trucks, replacing existing fossil-fuel diesel.

Another step is innovation to reduce methane emissions from the source. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, are conducting studies to help dairy farmers adjust their cows' diets. For example, diets that include alfalfa, flax and other plants high in omega-3s such as seaweed have shown to reduce enteric methane from cattle digestion.

Cattle have a unique digestive system that enables them to unlock nutrients from plants in a way we cannot. This means dairy cows can upcycle byproducts of food and fiber production that are inedible for humans, minimizing waste and reducing emissions from landfills. These byproducts, including almond hulls and citrus pulp, account for upward of 40% of a California dairy cow's diet in the state.

Dairy farms are also focused on water-smart management practices. Water recycling is commonplace on California dairies, with the same drop of water used four to five times.

Clean water cools milk tanks and is then used to water and wash the cows. The same water heads to a holding pond for storage, where it is used multiple times to flush manure out of barns, becoming rich with plant nutrients such as nitrogen. It is then blended with irrigation water to "fertigate" crops in the fields.

Dairy farmers experimenting with drip irrigation to grow feed crops are using 47% less water while increasing crop yields. Regenerative agriculture practices such as crop rotation and no-till farming are also critical.

Farmers depend on cows for their livelihood. To produce high-quality milk, dairy cows must be healthy and cared for, which is why farmers focus on a nutritious diet, appropriate veterinary care and healthy living conditions. In turn, cows produce one of the healthiest and most sustainable products on the market.

Because 99% of the dairy farms in California are family-owned, many of these sustainability practices have been passed down from generation to generation and improved upon over time.

The time-tested, future-forward approach of the Golden State's dairy industry is focused on continued success on its journey toward climate neutrality and—ultimately—net zero emissions.

(John Talbot is the CEO of the California Milk Advisory Board. He may be contacted through

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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