USDairy.com recently highlighted the dairy industry’s climate smart efforts in “How Dairy Farmers Are Reducing Methane And Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” This article is based on that reporting, with USDairy.com’s permission. Read the full USDairy.com article here.
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The dairy industry has long made its mark fueling humans with nutrient-dense milk and other dairy foods. Many of the nation’s nearly 29,000 dairy farm families have also evolved their dairies in a decades-long commitment to planetary health, and they, along with scientists and technology experts, continue to unlock a cow’s potential to combat global warming.
Across the United States and the rest of the world, there is a renewed emphasis on reducing methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to our current climate crisis. Nick Gardner, senior vice president of sustainability and multilateral affairs for the U.S. Dairy Export Council, said while much of the global focus over the years had been on carbon dioxide, cutting methane emissions gained significant attention last November following the announcement of the Global Methane Pledge at the United Nations global climate summit, commonly referred to as COP26.
The U.S. and European Union have been joined in the pledge by more than 100 countries that together are responsible for nearly 50% of global human-caused methane emissions. These countries have committed to collectively reduce methane emissions by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030, seeking to reduce global warming by 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2050. California is the only jurisdiction with a 40% target in statute.
Although fossil fuels and waste disposal comprise major sources of methane emissions, agriculture, and specifically livestock operations such as dairy, are in the crosshairs of this global methane-reduction effort. But technologies and resources have created possibilities that are causing people to see dairies not as an environmental threat but as an environmental solution.
One of those is the production of renewable natural gas (RNG), which is of growing interest to American consumers, including many who want every fill-up to come with a story of sustainability. Producing milk comes with the potential to produce methane-rich biogas, which occurs when cow manure decomposes. Recovering the methane creates a source of renewable energy for electricity, heating or clean, carbon-negative transportation fuel.
What Is Methane? How Do Cows Emit Methane?
Methane is emitted at dairy farms one of two ways. Enteric methane comes directly from the mouths of dairy animals. It is produced in the cow’s rumen through the digestion process. Think of it as a hearty burp after a good meal.
The second source is the manure that comes out of the back end of a cow. (No, it’s not cow farts.) Methane from manure can be generated under certain conditions, such as during storage before it can be further used for fertilizing crops. On many farms, the manure is stored in water and gas-tight vessels or lagoons that promote the production, capture and beneficial reuse of methane.
The world’s leading scientists tell us methane doesn’t have a very long lifespan compared to other greenhouse gases (GHG). It is a short-lived GHG that degrades in the atmosphere after about 10 years, a blink compared with carbon dioxide, which can linger for thousands of years.
But methane still is a potent cause of global warming, and dairy farmers want to continue to mitigate its impact while making use of a biogas with unlimited, energy-rich potential.
This is how anaerobic digesters for capturing methane come into play. These systems use bacteria to maximize manure breakdown in sealed vessels designed to keep out oxygen and capture the methane-rich biogas generated, and they are growing in use on dairy and other livestock operations.
Dairy-Sourced Renewable Natural Gas
The California dairy industry is ground zero for methane digesters and represents about half of the systems in place around the U.S., with 206 projects planned to capture methane on 217 farms.
Dairy farmers in California have found success joining “clusters,” which are groups of farms with digesters that share a centralized gas cleanup facility. There, the captured biogas is upgraded and then injected into the natural gas pipeline where it can be used as transportation fuel.
California is home to 16 clusters of digesters in various stages of development. Dairy farmer Joey Airoso is a partner of the original cluster launched in 2018 that is working with Calgren Dairy Fuels, Maas Energy Works, and 14 other dairy farm families.
Twenty-two-plus miles of underground pipeline link 12 dairies that pump biogas and two other farms that haul biomethane via tube trailers to the conditioning facility. This dairy-sourced renewable compressed natural gas (R-CNG) is used by heavy duty trucks, replacing 3 million gallons of fossil-fuel diesel with near-zero emissions.
“It’s been a really good relationship,” Airoso said. “There’s always plenty to do on a dairy farm and we don’t need things added that we’re not familiar with. I was really worried about the management of it, but Calgren manages everything on site, which is pretty minimal.
“It’s nice that you don’t have added traffic at the farm because we’re food-producing entities and we need to maintain on-farm security and you can’t have a lot of people in and out of here,” he added.
Shell plc is one of the major players involved with RNG and has turned to dairy as a solution. Shell, which has energy operations in more than 70 countries and all 50 states, announced its target to become a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050.
Dairy’s Dedication to Sustainability
The U.S. dairy industry showed how committed it is to sustainability with the announcement of the 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals, which address areas where dairy collectively can have the greatest impact, specifically:
Achieve GHG neutrality
Optimize water use while maximizing recycling
Improve water quality by optimizing utilization of manure and nutrients.
Following this announcement, the U.S. Dairy Net Zero Initiative (NZI) was launched in 2020 led by six national dairy organizations to break down barriers to help all farms of varying sizes, designs and geographies reduce their environmental impact. The practices and technologies needed to reach the stewardship goals largely exist, but require further development, significant operational changes and advanced technical assistance. NZI supports U.S. dairy farms to implement new technologies, adopt economically viable practices and create new markets and products, presenting new revenue opportunities for the environmental assets they generate.
Much of this research and action is made possible with support from major companies. One of the first NZI partners is Nestlé USA, which last year made a $10 million commitment to test technologies focused on feed production, enteric methane reduction, energy efficiency and manure management on one pilot farm.
The first farm identified to participate, California’s Trinkler Dairy Farm, has been supplying milk to Nestlé’s CARNATION® brand since 2014. The farm is seeking to reduce its GHG emissions 30% by 2023, thanks to the installation of a methane digester made possible by Nestlé.
Dan Peerless, global sustainable sourcing lead for dairy, meat, poultry and eggs at Nestlé, said working with farmers is critical to the company’s goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. He said most of Nestlé’s emissions result from its supply chain, with dairy accounting for about 16% of its overall U.S. carbon footprint. While Nestlé is a global business, U.S. dairy farms represent the most significant sourcing region of milk for the company.
To make partnerships with farms succeed, Peerless said it’s important to have conversations with farmers to identify what works best for them.
“We’re really agnostic as to what those projects could look like,” Peerless said. “We ask the suppliers and their farmers to make proposals to us. We do not want to pretend to know what is best at each farm or each region or that we know as much as the farmers know. We trust the industry to discover opportunities that don’t place undue burden on the farmers.
“Being able to be part of and support and hopefully accelerate U.S. dairy’s movement toward net zero is completely aligned with our own strategies.”
Karen Scanlon, executive vice president of environmental stewardship of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, says Nestlé is just one example of how major companies are coming to the table to discover solutions through science-based proof. Starbucks also announced a $10 million, multi-year commitment to support NZI, and Syngenta, The Nature Conservancy and FFAR, announced a collaboration with dairy farmers to reduce GHG emissions, improve water quality and strengthen farm resilience.
“I think that points to the potential that others see within dairy,” Scanlon said. “Attracting partners who are recognized as leaders and experts signals the potential that others see within dairy,” Scanlon said. “Basing our actions and measurement in science further adds to the rigor, integrity and credibility of our work and supports our ability to demonstrate to consumers that dairy is an environmental solution.”
This science-based approach is critical to representing U.S. dairy internationally as well.
“The reality is the global marketplace is going to demand a disciplined approach with the ability to demonstrate progress toward reduction of all environmental impacts,” USDEC’s Gardner said. “I think methane is the one they’re appropriately focused on now as it has the greatest potential to reduce heating of the planet in the short term and it will be the one that gains the most attention as we look to goals tied to a 2030 timeframe.”
Airoso is well aware of the discussions on methane that occur in California and beyond. He dreams of a day when there is a better understanding of just how beneficial he and other farmers are to the earth, starting with the star of the farm.
“My biggest gripe is the cow is not the world’s biggest problem,” Airoso said. “If the cow is the main problem on this planet, then you’re kidding yourself. You have a cow that consumes a lot of byproducts, which used to end up burned or in a landfill. She uses that feed to produce nutritious milk as well as manure, which we’re now using to produce energy. This doesn’t include the number of jobs that have been created on our farm because of our partnership and others across the country.
“You put this all together and this is a very big deal.”