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Dairy Cows Dairy operations exist across the U.S. and are an integral part of the global food system. © Preston Keres / USDA NRCS

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USDA Funds Scientific Collaboration to Reduce Methane Emissions in Dairy Operations

New project to conduct on-farm trials of innovative feed management strategies

The Nature Conservancy, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, and the Institute for Feed Education and Research are launching a three-year project to explore innovative feed management strategies that can reduce enteric methane emissions in dairy cattle. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced a $537,440 award for this project through its Conservation Innovation Grants On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trial program. With project partner resource contributions, the project will total more than $800,000.

Working with up to 10 dairy farms in Michigan and Wisconsin, this project will combine on-farm trials and demonstrations of emerging technologies with strategic engagement of critical stakeholders including farmers, farm advisors, industry, carbon market players, and regulators for scaling the adoption of feed management strategies. The project will provide direct financial support to participating farmers to cover their costs of participation and as a direct incentive to participate.

Each organization will have a key role in the project:

  • The Nature Conservancy will oversee project management and lead producer and stakeholder survey efforts to inform project deliverables and corresponding outreach, education, and engagement.
  • The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy will lead the on-farm trials and demonstrations and oversee outreach and communication of project findings.
  • The Institute for Feed Education and Research (IFEEDER) will develop and manage the industry and scientific expert panel to provide technical review and insights as well as manage a third party to undertake the on-farm trial economic assessment.

“The opportunity to work directly with farmers to test out feed management strategies, including the use of additives, and gain more insights, both scientific and anecdotal, will help the industry scale the adoption of climate-smart practices that are good for the planet and financially advantageous for operators,” said Alisha Staggs, dairy program manager for The Nature Conservancy in North America. “Our project will help inform greenhouse gas mitigation strategies for cattle, Natural Resources Conservation Service programs, and the development of protocols for measuring enteric emissions—all in service of mitigating one of U.S. dairy’s largest emission sources.”

Methane emissions—from a variety of sources including oil and gas, coal, agriculture and landfills—comprise one-fifth of all man-made greenhouse (GHG) emissions, with enteric methane emissions accounting for 25% of cradle-to-grave GHG emissions by the U.S. dairy sector. Given the ambitious goal of the recent agreement between the United States and the European Union to reduce overall methane emissions by 30% by 2030, this project could help U.S. dairy operations reduce emissions, which in turn, could have a significant impact across the industry.

“Feed rations and feed additives can significantly impact the carbon footprint associated with dairy, livestock and poultry production, and the feed industry is integral to developing and supporting these strategies for reduced GHG emissions on farms,” said Lara Moody, executive director of IFEEDER. “This project will support efforts to advance the use of these solutions through more informed on-farm and stakeholder decision making and is part of IFEEDER’s long-term approach to supporting sustainability efforts across the animal protein sector.”

Feed management, including additives, to reduce emissions is gaining interest as an approach to reduce the dairy industry’s carbon footprint. However, the strategies are not widely used within USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs, nor do project currently exist to generate credits within carbon markets, making it difficult to support an economic case for adoption. This project aims to better understand the barriers to adoption and overcome those barriers by sharing on-trial results, economic assessments and scientific insights to better inform NRCS programming and engage a wide spectrum of key stakeholders to scale adoption via private and public sector-supported pathways.

The partners are conducting this effort in support of the U.S. Dairy’s Net Zero Initiative (NZI), a five-year, collaborative effort launched in 2020, which includes research, on-farm pilots and partner-based strategies to develop a pathway on-farm to reaching the 2050 environmental stewardship goals set by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. NZI seeks to accelerate voluntary action to reduce environmental impacts by making sustainable practices and technologies more accessible and affordable to U.S. dairy farms of all sizes and geographies.

“Enteric methane mitigation is not a novel field of research but demonstrating that the most promising options are effective on-farm is critical to the widescale adoption necessary to meet the dairy industry’s environmental goals,” says Dr. Juan Tricarico, vice president for sustainability research at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

Dairy operations exist across the 50 U.S. states and are an integral part of the global food system. By exploring innovative feed management strategies and engaging key stakeholders, this collaborative project seeks to close scientific gaps and inform industrywide practices that will reduce dairy’s environmental footprint, while ensuring operations are sustainable.

“The livestock sector is a crucial part of the agriculture system,” said Staggs. “This project will advance innovative techniques that will deliver tangible outcomes for the good of the environment, farmers and, ultimately, consumers.” 

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.