Organic practices enhance climate mitigation | Dairy

LA FARGE, Wis. – How dairy farmers farm and manage their herds has profound effects on climate-change mitigation. Erin Silva said that’s one of the main takeaways from a new study she co-authored with researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Organic Valley.

Silva is an endowed chair in organic agriculture and outreach at UW. In the study led by Horacio Aguirre-Villegas, scientist III at UW, Silva and the research team conducted a farm-scale life-cycle assessment to estimate environmental indicators of organic-dairy systems. They evaluated alternative-management practices. Their assessment also took into account the carbon sequestration results of grazing cattle.

Nicole Rakobitsch, director of sustainability for Organic Valley, said, “We wanted a baseline carbon footprint of our milk supply – all of the greenhouse-gas emissions minus carbon sequestration on our member-farms. We’ll use that information to help reach our goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.”

Aguirre-Villegas said, “The study proposes a method to include carbon sequestration in all dairy-farm-related life-cycle assessment studies. The method is based on the amount of carbon staying in the soil from above-ground residue, below-ground residue and manure.”

The researchers considered the effects of management practices affecting carbon storage. They took into account tillage, land-use regime, management and input of organic matter into the soil based on farm and region-specific variables such as level of activity and temperature, Aguirre-Villegas said.

Farming practices were evaluated on 60 percent of Organic Valley’s 1,500 member dairy farms in the United States. One of the farmers participating in the project is Jon Bansen, an organic-dairy farmer from Monmouth, Oregon. Organic Valley informs its farmer-members about research and research results, he said.

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“It’s great to have scientific proof, although we’ve seen it all along,” he said of the recent life-cycle assessment.

Grazing dairy cattle has helped improve cow health as well as soil health and resiliency. And grazing helps soil better tolerate drought conditions, he said.

“The keys to our (organic) system are sun, soil and water,” he said. “Dairy is a biological activity. We have fewer inputs because we almost have a closed-loop system. We’re covering bases environmentally and biologically.”

The UW study recently was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. The researchers found that carbon sequestration can mitigate as much as 20 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions on organic-dairy farms. They also found that enteric methane can be reduced by improving feeding efficiency.

The study is ongoing; the remaining 40 percent of Organic Valley’s member dairy farms are expected to be assessed by the end of 2023. The cooperative is launching a carbon-insetting program that will purchase carbon credits from its farmers. It will help producers implement projects such as agroforestry, enhanced manure management and on-farm renewable energy.

This is an original article written for Agri-View, a Lee Enterprises agricultural publication based in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.

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