Methane Loss is Profit Loss
When the subject of methane emissions comes up, many U.S. dairy producers become afflicted with the “MEGO factor” – “my eyes glaze over.”
Concern for methane may be viewed as an idea imposed on them by parties with interests outside of agriculture. But Bill Wavrin, DVM, prefers to view methane through a more business-focused lens.
“If I have carbon leaking from my production system as methane, that means it is not being converted to volatile fatty acids that make milk,” Wavrin shared on the “Have You Herd” podcast hosted by the American Association of Bovine Practitioners.
Wavrin started his career as a veterinarian, but became both dairy doctor and dairy producer more than 30 years ago. Today he owns and operates two dairies in Washington state totaling more than 5,000 cows, plus makes and sells farmstead artisan cheese from one of the farms.
“If I can reduce my carbon footprint, it goes right into my checkbook,” Wavrin declared. He said because rumen fermentation is microbial-driven, altering the processes to convert the carbon that already is paid for in the diet into milk, instead of methane, is the goal.
“If we can do that, I win. The climate wins. The consumer wins,” he stated. Approved feed additives that can drive that shift already are available in Europe, Wavrin said, and he is anxious for that technology to reach the U.S. dairy industry as well.
He also pointed out that dairy foods provide about 16% of the protein consumed in the American diet. This comes at a “cost” of about 1.3% of the total effective greenhouse gas inventory, according to the most recent inventory of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In other words, dairy delivers high-quality human nutrients for a theoretic “return” on carbon emissions of more than 10-to-1.
Comparably, transportation and utilities contribute about 60% of the current greenhouse gas inventory in the same EPA assessment. “So, if we moderated the consumption of transportation and utilities by 10%, we would make more progress in that realm than eliminating the dairy industry 6 times,” he noted.
Still, Wavrin believes dairy production has some room to improve its carbon footprint from its already low levels – perhaps by as much as half.
In addition to managing methane from the rumen, he thinks progress can be made through advances in methane digester technology and improvements in crop-production practices, to further reduce carbon waste.
He pointed out that – unlike carbon-emitters like the energy sector – cows are the ultimate carbon recyclers because they complete a closed loop. They utilize plants, which remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then turn it into useful carbohydrates and energy in the form of high-quality human foodstuffs. Plus, they eat the whole plant, as opposed to humans, who only utilize roughly one-third of plant matter.
They then emit a relatively small amount of waste back into the atmosphere, which, Wavrin noted, has the potential to get even smaller.
“Methane can be a depressing topic if you let it be, but it’s an exciting topic to me,” he said. “We have great opportunities to be helpful. It’s a collective issue for our industry, so let’s get on with it.”
By MAUREEN HANSON
December 14, 2022