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  • PRO-DAIRY
  • Animal Science
  • Climate Change
  • Dairy
  • Crops
  • Environment
13% of New York state milk (1 in 7 gallons) was assessed for greenhouse gas emissions in 2022.

The Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP) has been working hard to evaluate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on New York dairy farms. The dairy sustainability team, led by Research Associate Olivia Godber, helps farmers identify opportunities for improvement and discover which management practices have already successfully reduced their GHG emissions. Read on to find out more about the project and its importance, and to learn how to join.

What does it take to figure out the GHG emissions of dairy farms?

The NMSP team focuses on annual emissions of three primary greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide). They collect data directly from farmers and analyze it with Cool Farm Tool– an online tool adopted by companies in many countries around the world– to estimate the farm’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, potential soil carbon sequestration, above ground biodiversity and water use for crop production. NMSP uses this tool to assess the emissions from different sources on dairy farms, including cows, cow manure, crops grown or purchased for feed, and the energy and fuel used.

"Completing the NMSP survey requires you to take a closer look at all aspects of your operation,” said Beth White, of Elkendale Farm. “Like a financial benchmark project, the final report allows you to assess your environmental footprint, find areas to improve and track your progress." 

Cool Farm Tool has an active international development team which is continuously improving its software based on feedback from farmers, corporations and other users,” said Godber. “They try not to ask for too much data or effort from farmers, but they still ask for enough to provide meaningful results.” 

What has the NMSP team discovered? 

"We have Cool Farm Tool results from 48 New York dairy farms accounting for just under 15% of the annual milk production in the state – around 2 billion pounds of milk,” Godber reported. 

Currently, the NMSP team is working with dairies in New York. Findings so far show that most of the dairies in the program are producing milk with emissions under 1.0 kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram of fat- and protein-corrected milk, though there is quite a range. 

As more researchers in different regions work on similar GHG projects, there will be more opportunities for national and international comparisons of progress in dairy GHG emissions. 

Why is it important to track on-farm GHG emissions? 

“It is important for individual dairy farms to be able to know their farm footprint,” said Karl Czymmek, dairy climate leadership specialist for PRO-DAIRY. “With this information, they can more easily identify practices best suited to their farm’s resources which could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“In many ways, things farmers have always been trying to do – such as increase crop yield and milk production with fewer inputs – will continue to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions per gallon of milk,” said Czymmek.

“Tracking results over time through a greenhouse gas footprint tool helps farmers meet stewardship goals set by the dairy industry, food company targets and public policy objectives,” Czymmek continued. 

We asked Beth White of Elkendale Farm – one of many farms in upstate New York that has participated in this program – for her perspective. "Completing the NMSP survey requires you to take a closer look at all aspects of your operation,” she said. “Like a financial benchmark project, the final report allows you to assess your environmental footprint, find areas to improve, and track your progress."

Where do we go from here?

“This project is key to helping us understand how New York dairy farms are performing in terms of their greenhouse gas emissions,” said Godber. “As the program continues to grow and farms with different characteristics and management practices contribute to the project, we can start to identify strengths and opportunities for reducing greenhouse gasses at the individual farm level and within the New York dairy industry as a whole.”

“In many ways, things farmers have always been trying to do – such as increase crop yield and milk production with fewer inputs – will continue to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions per gallon of milk,” said Czymmek.

There are a few options that can be easier to integrate into annual practices than others. For example, by adding and retaining organic matter, cover cropping and reduced tillage can increase carbon sequestration and organic matter in the soil, lowering some GHG emissions.

“Manure treatment and storage is a significant source of GHG emissions on dairy farms that store manure to protect water quality,” Czymmek noted. He explained that there are a number of practices that can reduce manure emissions, including anaerobic digestion– a process that enhances the production of methane and captures it for use as renewable energy while conserving nutrients to grow crops that are used to feed the cows. 

“Our goal is to grow the percentage of milk that completes a greenhouse gas footprint assessment each year to 50% or more,” said Quirine Ketterings, professor of nutrient management in agricultural ecosystems in the Department of Animal Science and lead for NMSP. “By doing that, we can learn from farms what is feasible and identify key performance indicators for improvements in future years.”    

If you’re interested in learning more about the GHG emissions project, or other projects related to dairy sustainability or on-farm research, take a look at the NMSP website. If you are a farmer interested in estimating your greenhouse gas footprint, contact Olivia Godber with questions or a request to join the project. 

Madeline Hanscom is a writer for the Nutrient Management Spear Program.

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