ALBANY, N.Y. — New York’s dairy industry has made great strides in reducing its carbon footprint and related environmental impacts, with an added bonus of cutting operational costs.
“Our science is getting better, our ability to formulate diets is getting better,” said Mike Van Amburgh, Cornell University professor of animal science. “The ability to measure nutrient flux on the whole farm system has improved. As we advance our understanding of nutrient use — nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium — we have really large reductions of those things entering the environment.”
“In every category we’re down 15-31%,” he said. “That’s amazing progress. There’s no state in the union that’s made that kind of progress.”
But the most significant positive outcome won’t be realized until an increasingly health- and environmentally conscious public learns what the industry is doing in such areas.
Van Amburgh and Chris Noble, vice president of Noblehurst Farms, discussed such issues in their presentation, “Animal Agriculture’s Carbon Footprint: Managing Our Future,” at the recent Northeast Agribusiness & Feed Alliance annual meeting.
“The question is, how do we get the consumer to understand what we’re doing?” Van Amburgh said. “The only way I know to do that is for us to learn how to be completely transparent and share. Let people come see what you’re doing. I think that’s the key. We’re going to have to become comfortable with the idea that our neighbors can stop by and we can have person-to-person conversations with them.”
This is the most effective way, by appealing to people’s emotions, to win back consumers who might have shunned dairy for other products such as almond drink, whose production has considerable environmental impacts, too, he said.
Noblehurst Farms is a seventh-generation dairy with a milking herd of 1,750 cows in Linwood, southwest of Rochester. Several years ago it joined with seven other local dairies, in partnership with Dairy Farmers of America, to form Craigs Station Creamery, a model for sound environmental practices.
“All the milk comes from these eight farms,” Noble said. “We have 13,000 cows that produce 120,000 pounds per day that’s sold to local processors.”
The complex has a creamery, cheese plant and water recovery facility. Wastewater is converted to potable water for cattle, is used for irrigation, or to operate an on-site, 1.3 million gallon digester. The digester not only takes in manure, but large amounts of food waste and unused packaged goods collected from institutions and Hannaford Brothers supermarkets as far away as Maryland and Virginia.
“We collect meat and produce that would otherwise go to landfills,” Noble said. “Food waste is a problem across the U.S.”
Methane gas created by the digester generates electricity that’s used to power the farm and creamery complex.
Similar progressive efforts are taking place at a dairy in Warsaw to create renewable natural gas.
“I see this happening at another dozen to 20 digesters in New York,” Noble said. “We’re doing great things all the time. The challenge is getting people out on the farm to show them what you’re doing.”
Some people view dairy negatively because cows have a high carbon output.
“But the cow isn’t the right metric,” Van Amburgh said.
Milk is high in protein, calcium and other nutrients, with an overall nutrient density of 53.8% compared to soy drink’s 7.6%. Nutrient density must be included when assessing the environmental impact of milk versus other goods such as soy and almond drink, whose electricity use and transportation requirements are much higher.
Taking all this into consideration makes milk much more desirable, he said.
“We have to start thinking this way, we have to change the dialogue,” Van Amburgh said.
Briefly, he described and showed photos of a massive, 22,000-cow dairy in China, which has eight rotary milking parlors. Visitors are encouraged to see how the immaculate, state-of-the-art facility works.
“Everything is transparent,” Van Amburgh said. “We are going to have to learn how to be the same way if we want to maintain our customers here because they don’t understand a thing.”