Consider all of the steps in getting milk to the consumer: crop production, milk production, processing, transportation, retail, consumption and disposal.

So, it may come as a surprise to learn that a majority of milk’s “carbon footprint” occurs in one particular area — the milk-production stage.

“The farm print is significantly higher than other sources,” Marty Matlock, director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability at the University of Arkansas, told those attending the American Association of Bovine Practitioners annual meeting last weekend in St. Louis. “Farm-gate is where the action is” as far as reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, he said.

Based on a survey of more than 500 farms, and their own scientific calculations, Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability researchers determined that the carbon footprint for milk is:

17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per gallon of milk consumed

And, approximately 52 percent of that comes from milk production, according to their calculations.

There are many things that farm owners and managers can do at the farm level to reduce the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions. For instance, the quality of feed makes a big difference.

“High forage quality reduces methane production compared to low-quality forage,” Mike Hutjens, dairy nutritionist and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois pointed out. Quality in this case is correlated with dry matter digestibility which, in turn, is correlated with feed efficiency.

Anything that gets more milk out of cows will help improve efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases, Hutjens said.

Here are some of Hutjens’ other suggestions for improving dairy’s carbon footprint:

  • Milk all cows three times a day (since that will produce more milk than 2X).
  • All cows injected with bovine somatotropin or rbST.
  • All dairy animals fed an ionophore.
  • Heifers calve at 22 months of age.
  • Only milk lower than 400,000 somatic cell count marketed (because low-SCC cows are more efficient).
  • All cows bred artificially to superior bulls.
  • All cows enrolled in a milk records program.