At a time when budget sequestration has led to everything from government employee pay cuts to temporary road closures at national parks, USDA just doubled down on its commitment to encouraging dairy sustainability. By signing an extension of a 2009 Memorandum of Understanding which funds sustainability research, USDA officials have signaled their strong support of the dairy industry’s efforts to accelerate the adoption of innovative waste-to-energy projects and energy efficiency improvements on U.S. dairy farms. And that means a more diverse revenue stream and lower utility bills for dairy farmers.

The dairy industry, in turn, has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25 percent no later than 2020. One major objective of this plan calls for increased construction of anaerobic digesters and additional exploration of innovative ways to use products previously considered waste streams from dairy production, processing and handling.

Of course, to reduce the industry’s GHG emissions by 25 percent, we first needed to measure the current level of emissions. And as anyone who has spent more than one afternoon’s conference session on sustainability thinking about this issue can tell you, that’s no easy task. The industry itself must first agree what is to be measured and how. Even climate scientists have trouble with this. But that’s exactly what the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy has done with dairy farmers’ checkoff dollars (see story, this page).

Whereas at one time, there was almost no way for the dairy industry to wrap its arms around the challenge of defining the term “sustainability,” much less quantifying what a cow’s environmental footprint looked like, we now have a model each farmer can use to track improvements on his farm. Whereas at one time, you could talk in general terms about GHG emissions on your farm, now you can track and graph your efforts. That’s a great investment of taxpayer and producer funds.

Mark your calendars: Earth Day, April 22, is on a Tuesday next year. That sounds like a great day to issue your farm’s sustainability report to your local community, be it through an Earth Day celebration at your dairy or a simple press release to your town’s weekly newspaper. I look forward to reading all about it.