Melting icecaps, changing weather patterns and poor air quality have all been attributed to greenhouse gases. Whether you believe in global warming or not, it is evident consumers are looking for food that has been raised in a conscientious manner.
Joe Harrison, animal scientist and extension specialist at Washington State University, agrees with that sentiment saying, “Increasingly, it seems like consumers are interested in buying products that are produced in an environmentally friendly way and they describe that in many different ways.”
Product labels for organic, natural, grass-fed, free-range, humanely handled and a myriad of other marketing strategies have popped up in supermarkets across the country. Some of these branded programs deal directly with certain environmental issues, but they don’t do much to address greenhouses gases.
Harrison thinks there is a potential for dairy products to be marketed in this manner.
“Being able to say that your product has this kind of carbon footprint seems to be an opportunity on the marketing side and to let the general public, which is about 98 percent of us, know that the dairy industry tries to follow environmentally friendly practices which are going to keep their carbon footprint as small as possible,” Harrison adds.
Dairy farmer Doug Young believes the prospects are bright for producers who manage their environmental impact, too.
“This is a great opportunity for farmers to build a brand, so more of the value from retail comes back to the farms,” says Young, a managing member of Spruce Haven Farms in Union Springs, N.Y.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) greenhouse gas emissions data, agriculture is responsible for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and in the United States agriculture accounts for 8 percent.
Managing greenhouse gases may seem a bit unnerving for producers; however, there are programs available at no cost on the Internet that can help.
At Spruce Haven Farms, Young is looking at utilizing computer-based greenhouse modeling technology. He is interested in using Farm Smart, a program offered by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
He says it is a process-based model similar to what the EPA has recommended the industry adopt.
“The model allows producers to simulate farms in any location, with any characteristics,” explains Young. “It accurately assesses the carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur and water footprint per unit of production.”
Utilizing these types of technologies will help producers deal with feed efficiency issues in their herds.
Young says some of those questions that can be addressed include, “What comes in, what goes out, what is being lost, and how can we better recapture the lost resources to help improve profit and reduce environmental footprint.”
The USDA’s Agriculture Research Service also has multiple computer models available to download from its web site. Two of the free programs are the Integrated Farm Systems Model (IFSM) and Dairy Gas Emissions Model (DairyGEM).
Harrison has used DairyGEM to help teach undergraduate students about the type of management changes that can be done to reduce emissions on dairy farms.
IFSM is the more comprehensive of the two models, and is a whole-farm simulation that analyzes dairy, beef and crop production.
Al Rotz, an engineer with USDA-ARS at Pennsylvania State University, created the two computer programs that help producers in determining their environmental impact.
“In terms of IFSM, it is pretty detailed information on the crops grown and some of the parameters for those crops,” says Rotz.
The model looks at the impacts of harvesting, crop storage, feed utilization and fertilizer application in fields, such as nitrogen.
“Once you set those parameters up, you go through the simulation and then it would kick out lots of data,” says Rotz. “Primarily, you’re getting the maximum daily, average daily and total annual emissions of the various gases.”
Gases evaluated in the program include greenhouse gas like methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide levels are also considered. Those gases can then be calculated to look at the environmental footprint of the production cycle.
“You would get the carbon footprint or the total greenhouse gas emissions per unit of milk produced per dairy operation. The energy footprint is the total fossil fuel based energy that goes into producing the milk, expressed as per unit of milk. We give a reactive nitrogen footprint which is a total reactive nitrogen lost to the environment per unit of milk produced. And we give a water footprint which is total water use in producing each unit of milk,” says Rotz.
IFSM also offers producers an economic analysis of their farms, allowing them to measure cost and income from the operation while calculating the overall profitability.
He adds that major performance statistics can be calculated with IFSM, like how much feed is produced, used and sold, along with how much milk is produced.
DairyGEM is similar to IFSM, but it is a more simplified version specific to dairy production.
“In DairyGEM, there are a few more emission factors that we’re not simulating all the processes in as much detail as with IFSM. DairyGEM really is just the animal- and the manure-handling components of IFSM," says Rotz.
Those components were pulled out of IFSM and into their own user interface through DairyGEM.
He says it has made DairyGEM a more user-oriented tool that is easier to operate compared to IFSM.
The emissions calculations have also been simplified, and it offers more graphical output.
“We pretty much designed it so that it would be more usable to a broader audience, including producers,” he relates.
Emissions on the front burner
Rotz thinks it would be beneficial for producers to utilize IFSM because of all the information that can be obtained, but the amount of time spent inputting data is a setback.
“From that standpoint, there are not that many producers who are using it. If producers took the time to really program their operation and run it, they’d learn a lot about what is impacting their farm performances as well as the economics of the farm and the environmental impact,” says Rotz.
Right now, both IFSM and DairyGEM are not being widely used. In fact, they are primarily being used at the university level for research studies related to environmental issues.
While IFSM requires a large time investment, DairyGEM provides the more concise version to help reduce that investment.
“I think it’s pretty understandable. Producers are very busy people. Unless something has a direct benefit to them, it’s just one of those things that go on the back burner. It might be nice, but who has the time to do it? I think that’s kind of where it is on the environmental issue. I think there are a lot of producers who are environmentally conscious; they want to do the right thing, and they’re really trying to do their best. But they’re so busy with everything that it’s not something that is necessarily on the front burner,” says Rotz.
Yet, with continued pressure from an environmentally concerned consumer base, the time for looking at these types of models is approaching.
“Farmers have the tools to make really good long-term decisions for how to structure their farm for the future,” relates Young.