California Dairy Farmers Lead the Way with a Multi-Pronged Approach
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the climate crisis and the challenges that we face in agriculture,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to fellow world leaders at COP26. California dairy farmers are demonstrating this to be true in their efforts to tackle climate change and other environmental challenges. The state’s 1,100 family dairy farms are showing how several technologies and strategies are effective in reducing climate emissions, cleaning the air, conserving and protecting water resources, creating renewable energy, and improving the overall health of our planet.
By reducing methane emissions, dairy farmers are greatly helping the state meet its short- and long-term climate goals. More than 300 of California’s dairy farms are installing or have already completed methane reduction projects. This includes 185 dairy digester projects located throughout the state—capturing methane from 194 dairies and creating renewable energy. Additionally, 114 dairies have implemented various alternative manure management projects, which avoid the creation of methane through alternative handling and storage of manure nutrients. Through a voluntary, incentive-based approach, the state has been helping dairy farmers invest in technologies and strategies that make sense for their operations, reducing methane while creating other environmental benefits.
A look at California’s dairy digester development shows how farmers are working in partnership with the state and private companies to develop creative and practical climate solutions. Digesters are capturing methane and creating renewable natural gas or electricity to be used as carbon-negative transportation fuel in heavy-duty trucks, or to power electric vehicles and homes. Additionally, a new pilot program will soon begin testing the use of hydrogen derived from dairy biomethane to fuel trucks and cranes at the Port of Los Angeles.
One key strategy in accomplishing economically viable digester development on dairies of various sizes has been sharing a centralized gas clean-up facility. Dairies located near one another (or “clusters”) send biogas from their on-site digesters to the facility via underground gathering lines, where the gas is upgraded and injected into the natural gas pipeline. California is home to 15 clusters of dairy digesters in various stages of development. Some dairies in very close proximity to one another are also able to share a centralized digester that collects manure and captures methane from both farms. Other dairies in more remote locations (where joining a cluster isn’t feasible) are using creative strategies, too, such as Bar 20 Dairy, which is fueling Bloom Energy Servers to generate renewable electricity without combustion that is used to power BMW electric cars.
The benefits of California’s methane reduction efforts are astounding—not only reducing the need for fossil fuels, but helping clean the air by powering cleaner cars, trucks, and equipment. And the reduction of millions of tons of methane from the atmosphere (a combined estimate of more than 23 million or more tons over 10 years) is providing a critical, immediate contribution to the fight against climate change. The United States and more than 120 other countries recently signed a global methane pledge, aiming to slow global warming by reducing methane emissions. California remains one of the only two major jurisdictions to establish a statutory mandate—or law—to reduce methane from the dairy sector. California is on track to meet its ambitious target of a 40% reduction in manure methane by 2030. Notably, that goal is four times higher than the only country requiring methane reductions from agriculture—New Zealand—which is requiring a 10% reduction in methane by 2030.
California’s dairy farm families are also funding research at the University of California to develop feed additives and other solutions with the hope of reducing the amount of methane belched by animals. Many similar efforts are currently being undertaken by scientists at leading academic institutions around the world. The hope is that these efforts to adjust cows’ diets will be one of the fastest ways of reaching methane reduction targets set by California and the rest of the world.
As California dairy farm families continue to reduce emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases, they are also using less water, land, energy and fossil fuels, and improving the protection of water and soil. This is being accomplished through implementation of additional, innovative technologies and strategies, continued efficiency gains, and through participation in ongoing research and product development efforts.
The California dairy sector looks forward to showcasing its environmental progress at the third California Dairy Sustainability Summit, to take place as a virtual event on April 12-14, 2022. Consistent with past events, the Summit will bring together dairy farmers and industry leaders, local, state, national, and international government officials, researchers, technology providers, and others, to promote the continued advancement of planet-smart, sustainable farming practices that help to increase food and nutrition security. The program will promote education and will highlight cutting-edge technologies, partnerships, and projects on California’s family dairy farms, as well as global efforts that are driving progress.
While sustainable solutions may vary across farms, California’s dairy families are united in their approach to improving practices, and ensuring the continued availability of affordable, low-carbon, nutrient-rich foods—now and for future generations.
(Editor's Note: This article has been edited since original publication to reflect additional digester development.)