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Dairy’s surprising tie to renewable energy

Will cow power help the dairy industry hit its carbon neutral goal?

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Guess what? The U.S. dairy industry is committing to carbon neutrality by 2050.

If you think that’s a big goal, that’s because it is: Every time a cow belches or poops, it comes with a release of methane, a greenhouse gas. So, in order to help hit that 2050 carbon neutral goal, the U.S. dairy industry uses “cow power”—among other sustainable practices like manure management—as a way toward a greener planet. Cow power is the conversion of methane into usable energy called biogas that can supplement electric power for entire communities. Here’s how it works.

Dairy farmers start by feeding their dairy cows a diet that reduces methane, consisting of ingredients like oil seed, almond hulls, and spent grain. By using these byproducts that come from plant-based agriculture, dairy farmers are minimizing food waste from landfills and reducing overall methane emissions. After that, some farmers use a biodigester to break down cow waste and capture energy from the manure. That biogas can be used for electricity, heat, compressed natural gas, and even vehicle fuel!

In addition, dairy farmers often use cow manure to fertilize their own crops while also providing it across the agricultural industry as a natural soil enhancer to reduce the need for commercial fertilizer.

Cow power is one important step, but it’s not the only thing the dairy industry is committing to for a more sustainable future. According to The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, the industry’s sustainability goals are on target to advance dairy’s role in building a sustainable future by:

1. Becoming carbon neutral or better by 2050 using today’s science and sustainable innovations.
2. Optimizing water use to account for regional differences in sourcing as well as maximizing water recycling.
3. Improving water quality to increase soil health by using nutrient-rich manure that dairy cows produce via their methane-reduced diet and four-chambered stomach.

The U.S. dairy industry’s environmental and sustainability practices have already made a major impact: In 2017, the dairy industry used 30 percent less water, 21 percent less land, resulting in a 19 percent smaller carbon footprint, and 20 percent less manure than it did 10 years prior. And in 2018, the creation of power via digesters on livestock farms led to greenhouse gas reductions that were equivalent to taking nearly a million cars off the road for a year.

With dairy being in 98% of American homes (according to an IRI National Consumer Panel), it’s no wonder that the U.S. dairy industry is committed to nourishing people, communities, and the planet for a more sustainable future.

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