Capper offers views on U.S. dairy sustainability

By November 18, 2014April 2nd, 2017News Posts

Moving the dairy industry forward to 2050 sustainably will involve paying attention to efficiencies.

That’s according to Jude Capper, PhD, a member of the Animal Sciences Department at Washington State University and a passionate defender of the beef industry.

Capper started to look at sustainability issues — including carbon footprint — a number of years ago when she was in a post-doctoral position at Cornell University studying ruminant metabolism.

At that time sustainability was viewed in “touchy-feely and green terms.”

It was at that time when everybody began to think about carbon footprint and sustainability she said last week in Madison.

Capper was invited to speak to dairy scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Forage Research Center. In recent years, there has been a great deal of research to back up various ideas on dairy sustainability.

When it comes to a definition of sustainability Capper says the dictionary defines it as “able to continue for a long time.” Words like long lasting, adaptable, strong, resilient and continuous come to her mind.

She often has Twitter arguments with people who maintain that dairy and beef production systems are not sustainable. Capper believes they are — or that they can be.

“Sustainable dairy is not necessarily local, organic, pasture-based or artisan,” she added.

One of the things that is often overlooked in a general discussion of farmers’ sustainability is the financial question — something can’t be long-lasting if there is no financial payback for the farm.

“We have to care for the land and water and the animals every day but there are also financial questions.

“Society can’t just say farmers should just be happy to do this.”

There’s also social acceptability. “People have always been concerned about how their food is produced but now we have Twitter and Facebook and all the other social networks.

“We have a fabulous message in dairy. Dairy cattle can turn by-product feeds and forages — things we can’t eat — into nutritious, safe and affordable food.”

That fact will be more important as the population of the world grows from 7 billion now to anywhere from 9.5-10.5 billion by 2050, she added. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the world will need 60 percent more food by that time and there will be less water, less fuel and less land available per person to produce it.

(Capper agrees with some analyses that find we waste a lot of food, but says the fact is that it’s easier to produce more food than to try to find ways to reduce the waste.)

One of the arguments brought by anti-meat advocates against meat production that Capper often faces is that it takes 2,463 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat.

“First of all it’s about six times too high,” she said, “but these groups publicize it out there as fact.”
The day of her visit to Madison, Capper said Michael Pollan had Facebooked that it takes 55 calories of inputs to produce one calorie of beef.

The anti-animal agriculture groups find flashy ways to get their message out — like putting Pamela Anderson in a bikini and outlining her muscles as if she were a cut of beef, and by using social media.

“Social media has enormous power to put positive messages out there. Sixty-six percent of us trust our friends and family.”

She encouraged farmers to tell their stories.

Good story

Capper notes that actual facts show that the carbon footprint of dairy production has declined steadily over recent decades. As the efficiency of milk production has improved, it decreases the carbon footprint — something that isn’t widely acknowledged.

In a study comparing the carbon footprint of a pound of milk produced in 1944 and 2007, it was found that the carbon footprint had been reduced by two-thirds.

“No one was thinking about carbon footprint, just improving efficiency every day.”

Cows in 1944 produced, on average, 5,000 pounds per year. By 2007 they were producing 20,000 pounds per cow, on average.

The United States produced 59 percent more milk using 64 percent fewer cows from 1944 to 2007, she said. Farmers also used 65 percent less water and 90 percent less land in getting that improvement.

Research she cited shows that in general when milk yield goes down, the carbon footprint increases. So in countries where milk production per cow is fairly low, carbon footprint is larger.

North American and western European dairy farmers have the highest producing cows and thus the lowest carbon footprint.

Maintenance costs

Research into the carbon footprint of dairy is also looking at the kinds of cows that are used in dairy production. High-producers have the ability to reduce the carbon footprint, but so do smaller, more efficient cows.

Capper explains that effectively feed is equivalent to carbon in the production of milk. Feed is also the most expensive part of dairy production so there’s a correlation between efficiency, profitability and a reduced carbon footprint.

A 2012 study compared milk yields of Holsteins to Jerseys and found production of 64.2 pounds in the bigger cows and 46 pounds per day in the smaller Jerseys, although their milk had a greater cheese yield per cow.

On average the Holsteins weighed 1,500 pounds and the Jerseys weighed 1,000 pounds, which means that the maintenance requirement of the smaller cow was less.

Adjusting for the amount of cheese yield on a milk equivalent basis, the study showed a carbon footprint reduction of 20 percent with the smaller cows.

“This is not me here in Madison to say Holsteins bad, Jerseys good. Yay! But the smaller cows are more efficient and reduce the carbon footprint of milk production.”

Capper said it’s also important to figure in the “supporting population” of heifers when calculating carbon footprints.

It’s also important to recognize that things like reproductive efficiency have an impact on carbon footprint and thereby “sustainability.”

Anything that impacts efficiency on the dairy farm — poor nutrition, infertility, lameness, mastitis, metabolic disease, dry period — will affect the amount of methane produced on the farm and the carbon footprint calculation.

Four A solutions

Capper said animal science research on this topic, in her opinion, has to be applicable on farms and adoptable by farmers. It must also be something that could be of value on a 10,000-cow dairy as well as a 10-cow herd. And these solutions must be acceptable to the industry and to society.

She said some states have mandated no caged hens in the poultry industry.

Public perceptions are important. “Who’s to say they couldn’t have a proposition vote for no de-horning or castration?

“We’ve got to be better understood by the consumer. Our industry depends on having a market for milk and cheese and ice cream.”

In a study of U.S. consumers done by Kansas State University, 53 percent believed that the majority of U.S. farms are large corporate-owned farms. In fact, 98 percent of the nation’s farms are family-owned and operated, she adds. The study also showed that 19 percent of consumers and 22 percent of moms felt better about food production after they visited a farm.

She said she’s had conversations with many friends who say they don’t buy conventional dairy or beef because “they’re full” of hormones. “Conventional agriculture is often demonized.”

But her friends will buy organic products because they believe they are lower in hormones and more nutritious.

Capper emphasized that she is not anti-organic and that there is a place for every kind of dairy production system — but quoted a study showing that organic milk had slightly higher levels of several hormones.

The study compared conventionally produced rbST-free milk in the grocery store to organic milk and found there were slightly higher levels of progesterone and estrogen in the organic product.

Capper also noted that if we were to attempt to feed all U.S. citizens utilizing organic production methods — 240 million people by 2040 — we would need 30 percent more land and there would be a 13 percent increase in agriculture’s carbon footprint.

Feeding the world

Statistics show that one out of every eight children in the world is hungry.

“An extra 10 pounds of milk per day from a single dairy cow supplies 31 children with milk at school lunch for a whole year,” she said.

She also takes issue with products that are called “milk” when they are the juice of a seed or a fruit. “Soybeans don’t have mammary glands,” she said with humor.

Consumers who think they are using a product that is easier on the environment may not stop to think about the fact that these milk-like substances also have an environmental impact.

When thinking about beverages like this – or even soda, wine and beer – it’s important to balance the nutrient value against the carbon footprint. Milk can win that comparison, she says.

Source: Wisconsin State Farmer

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