It’s your job to feed a hungry world. And, with the world population expected to grow another 2.5 billion by the year 2050, it will be a daunting task. 

Farmers will need to produce more with less. In other words, they will have to be even more efficient, getting the most out of limited natural resources. Certainly, no one wants to cut down more of the world’s rain forests for crops — the idea is to make the most efficient use of existing cropland. 

It’s all intertwined. Forests in many parts of the world are endangered; water could become more scarce, governments are increasingly concerned about global-warming, and livestock farms are blamed for adding greenhouse gases, like methane, to the air. Yet, the world population — and demand for food — continues to grow.

Don’t be surprised if you get caught in the middle.

One saving grace could be the development of tools to measure a farm’s “carbon footprint.” They shouldn’t looked at as invasive or evil, but rather as efficiency measures that can help you do a better job — similar to rolling herd average or feed efficiency.  

Tools already exist

Your own carbon footprint? Those kinds of tools must still be years away, you say.

Well, they already exist.

Scientists at the USDA Pasture Systems Watershed Management Research Unit in University Park, Pa., have developed a Dairy Greenhouse Gas model to show the effects of different management practices across different production systems. For example, a higher proportion of corn silage in the forage base — relative to alfalfa — helps reduce a farm’s carbon footprint because corn silage requires less machinery and fuel then alfalfa.

The pork industry, in cooperation with the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas, has developed a computerized “model farm” to help pork producers identify areas where they can cut their carbon footprint. 

In June 2010, at a media summit hosted by the chemical company BASF,  researchers discussed tools for modeling the “sustainability” of corn production, taking into account not just the environmental aspects, but also the economic and societal aspects. Certainly, feeding a hungry world meets a societal need.

In one of the simulations, BASF researchers showed that a fungicide can improve sustainability by increasing crop productivity on the existing land base.  

That echoes a common theme: Sustainability and productivity go hand in hand.

Recently, a University of California extension dairy advisor sent a newsletter to his constituents telling them, essentially, that they could have their cake and eat it, too. By managing their herds to make more milk per cow, they can reduce their carbon footprint. 

A positive correlation

Researchers are more and more confident that there’s a positive relationship between productivity and sustainability.

Jude Capper, assistant professor of dairy science at Washington State University and an acknowledged leader in carbon footprint research, says, “If you improve productivity, it has a huge effect on the carbon footprint every single time.” For instance, if you can get an extra 10 pounds of milk per cow per day from bovine somatotropin, that alone will cut the cow carbon footprint by about 8 percent, she says. 

You are using your inputs more efficiently to get those extra pounds of milk. And, potentially, you won’t need as many cows to get the same amount of milk. That can cut down on the amount of methane produced by a herd, as well as the amount of land and water needed. 

There is a positive correlation between the environmental impact and the economic impact, Capper says. “If we cut our environmental impact, that generally improves economics,” she adds.   

So, it is good to know what your farm’s carbon footprint is. 

Dairy’s carbon footprint

Currently, the models project carbon footprints are for typical farms, but there is every reason to believe that those models can be refined down to an individual-farm basis.

Capper and others at Washington State University and Cornell University have determined that a typical dairy farm produces 1.35 pounds of carbon equivalent for every pound of milk produced. In other words, if the farm produces 100,000 pounds of milk per week, it will produce 135,000 pounds of carbon equivalent, including methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. That is on a whole-farm basis, accounting for both crop production and milk production. It includes all inputs and outputs for all animals within the herd — not just the lactating animals. And, it assumes the farm is growing its own forage base, along with corn and soybeans.   

The only other number that Capper is familiar with is from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and that estimate, she says, is one pound of carbon equivalent per pound of milk produced.

And, then there’s the research taking place at the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas. Researchers undertook a study commissioned by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to perform a carbon footprint analysis for the dairy industry. They plan to release their report in August.

Greg Thoma, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Arkansas and principal investigator for the dairy sustainability project, says the thumbnail estimates in the report will be similar to the ones reported by Capper and the FAO. “They won’t be significantly different from what you have heard already,” he says. “We’re in the (same) ballpark for sure.”

Acknowledging, again, that these are thumbnail estimates, Thoma says the day will come when each dairy will be able to determine its own carbon footprint, using more specific measurements.

“There are efforts afoot to create farm-level tools to help individual farmers identify their carbon footprint,” he says.

Thoma said the dairy industry has been very up-front in asking for models that are science-based, peer-reviewed, transparent and open to further scrutiny. And, that raises a good point: The models must be science-based in order to be meaningful. The University of Arkansas and Arizona State University have founded a sustainability consortium that, among other things, seeks to establish industry standards for figuring the life-cycle assessments of food and other consumer products.

With the right assessments in place, farmers can use these tools to improve the environment and help their own bottom-line in the process.