UW dairy project finds ways to lower emissions, boost profits

Published: Sep. 20, 2019 at 1:09 PM CDT
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A six-year-long, nationwide research project found solutions to help the dairy industry reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing profits.

The Dairy Coordinated Agricultural Project (Dairy CAP) set out to help farmers meet the dairy industry's goal to cut emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

Researchers found that a combination of ideal cow genetics, improved feeding strategies and better manure management could allow dairy farms to cut emissions by a third to almost half, while producing more milk with less feed.

UW–Madison professors Matt Ruark and Molly Jahn led the Dairy CAP in collaboration with seven other universities; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funded the project; and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an industry research group.

“I think there’s three big takeaways,” said Ruark. “One, efficiency in milk production leads to reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Two, reductions in greenhouse gases can be achieved along with reductions in nutrient loss and increases in economic returns. And three, that dairy-based cropping systems can be adaptive to climate change.”

According to dairy experts, milk production leads to greenhouse gas emissions through the methane produced in cows' rumens, during manure storage and spreading, and in association with growing crops for feed.

Methane is 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide from manure and fertilizer is 10 times more potent than methane.

Experiments were conducted at the UW-Madison Dairy Cattle Center, the Arlington Research Station, the USDA Dairy Forage Research Center in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, and at partner institutions. It looked at 150- and 1,500-cow dairy farms.

"If we implement these best management practices, we're going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 36 percent" for a 1,500-cow dairy," said Ruark. "At the same time, we're going to reduce nitrogen losses to groundwater by 41 percent. We're going to reduce phosphorus losses to surface water by 52 percent. And we're going to increase profit 20 percent."

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