Dan is a Wisconsin dairyman, but he longs to downsize his herd and embrace agroforestry. He wants to stop growing animal feed on his 1200 acres and diversify into growing food for humans, namely: hazelnuts.
Why? Because he understands the environmental impact of dairy and would rather farm sustainably for current and future generations. Secondly, he thinks the dairy market is oversupplied, so it makes little sense to keep producing into it. Dan wrote the following passage in a letter to his Member of Congress:.
“As a dairy farmer, I would much rather get funding to transition to something better than get funding to keep producing milk for a market that already has a surplus. I would feel better knowing I’m producing something in high demand that’s also benefiting the environment.”Dan, Wisconsin Dairy Farmer
We first learned of Dan on Reddit in a thread about the environmental impact of dairy. He liked the idea of lobbying for a USDA program that will help farmers transition from high GHG to low GHG food production. Rather than throwing money at farmers to marginally improve operations, he favors the idea offering options to simply change what food they produce. He agreed that instead of vilifying farmers, our government should help farmers switch to sustainable farming endeavors. When we first met in 2018, he wrote this:
I’ve been dairy farming my entire life. Me and my family know how to make money doing it. We made it through the last downturn of low prices. I grew up understanding the economics of agriculture. It hasn’t been until recently where I really started to see how unsustainable not only our farm is but how unsustainable the vast majority of agriculture and the vast majority of Western society is. We very frankly can’t do this much longer.
I like how an AFA video explained it like “hey let’s stop giving out subsidies to an unsustainable industry and funnel money into programs to help farmers transition.” Usually, it’s “hey let’s stop these subsidies and f*** you farmers for following market pressures.”Dan
AFA is proposing a pilot program to help farmers like Dan transition his farm. So we wondered, what if Dan used such a grant and transformed his farm? What impact would that have?
Dan’s Motivation to Transition
There’s no reason Dan can’t transform his farm. Well – there’s one: money. That’s where our At-Risk Farmers program comes in. When passed, this pilot program will allocate millions of dollars every year to help farmers like Dan transition. Instead of bailing out farmers to farm unsustainably, we say let’s help them diversify into producing to sustainable foods.
Dan first got the idea for transitioning from dairy farming to growing tree nuts when he read the book Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard. He realized the environmental impact of dairy was unsustainable. He learned that dairying degraded the earth by many metrics, from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and water pollution to soil degradation and biodiversity loss. A desire took root: to stop being a part of the environmental destruction and start taking part in solutions.
“I don’t know how to convey how urgently and drastically we need to address climate change and biosphere collapse, but as far as insights from rural Wisconsin voters like me, agriculture land has enormous potential in combating climate change and biodiversity loss. Farmers would love to be a part of the solution if they’re met halfway rather than vilified. Wisconsin lost 600 dairy farms in 2018. Dairy subsidies won’t help these farmers that already sold out. They’re looking for alternatives.”Dan, Wisconsin Dairy Farmer
Dan owns this Wisconsin farm with his father and brother. He milks 600 cows daily and grows corn and alfalfa on their 1200 rolling acres.
Corn and alfalfa make up the majority of our 1200 acres, and the majority of our cow’s diets. We buy some soy to feed to the cows too.-Dan, Wisconsin Dairy Farmer
These 600 milking cows are ‘on concrete’. That means the manure situation is in the more polluting-end of the spectrum. The dairy cows aren’t plopping dung patties directly in the fields. Rather, manure ends up in lagoons, where it emits methane until it’s injected (yes injected) into his 1200 acres.
A soil expert told Dan that this fertilization technique is terrible for soil health, even as it disposes of the manure and fertilizes the plants. But the alternatives are even worse.
Yes, liquid manure is terrible for soil health and the environment. But, injecting it into the soil is by far the best way to deal with it. This is because it stays in the soil rather than running off into streams. Also, less nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere. The other option would be to truck it and spread it on top of the fields. Trucks use a lot more fuel. They spill on the roads. They create a lot more compaction driving on the fields. We have zero complaints from neighbors when we’re injecting vs when we used to use trucks. Neighbors would complain about the smell and the trucks would make a mess on the roads.”– Dan
Generating all this toxic manure, dairying isn’t exactly the wholesome endeavor the US government-sponsored marketing ads would have us believe. And manure isn’t just stinky. In addition to cow burps, manure emits enormous amounts of methane and nitrous oxide (N2O).
GHG Impact of Each Milking Cow
According to EPA and USDA data, each milking cow in America accounts for approximately 335kg (or 740lbs) of methane (CH4) emissions per year. †
Since Dan’s cows produce so much liquid manure, his operation is the kind that emits high amounts of methane (CH4). Each of his milking cows could account for more than 335kg annually. For the sake of this analysis, however, we’ll go with 335 kg.
Each milking cow accounts for
* 335 kg of methane (CH4) per year
* 2.26 kg of nitrous oxide (N2O) per year
According to the EPA, each milking cow accounts for 2.26kg of N2O emissions. N2O is 298 times more potent than CO2, and 2x to 10x more potent than CH4 depending on what timeframe you use for comparison. His N2O emissions are not negligible but they are small relative to CH4 emissions when looking at global warming impact.
GHG Emissions from Dan’s Farm
We now know the approximate methane and nitrous oxide emissions per milking cow. So, how about the total farm emissions?
Dan’s farm generates …
* 201,000 kg or 201 TONS of methane (CH4) per year
* 1,356 kg or 1.4 TONS of nitrous oxide (N20) per year
These numbers may seem high, or, they may seem low. Even if you’re a climate scientist it’s difficult to form an opinion around whether these GHG emissions are acceptable or not. That’s why most scientific publications transform CH4 and N2O values into “carbon dioxide equivalence” or ‘CO2 eq.’
While the ‘CO2 eq.’ of Dan’s N2O emissions is a straightforward calculation showing us his nitrous oxide emissions warm the earth as much as 404 tons of CO2.
Methane ‘CO2 eq’ can be calculated with factors based on 10-year, 20-year, or 100-year comparison periods. The answers range from 5,600 to 21,000 tons of CO2. (math in table below).
In both cases – for both N2O and CH4, ‘CO2 eq.’ is still just a number.
That’s why we take the conversion one step further and express Dan’s 600 cow dairy farm emissions into ‘equivalent cars.’ We show that Dan’s 600 cows warm the earth from GHG emissions as much as THOUSANDS of typical American cars driving typical American distances in a year. But first a note on that range of methane ‘CO2 eq’ values:
☞ CH4 to CO2 Conversions are Controversial
“The IPCC has consistently undercounted the impact of our annual methane emissions by averaging its impact over a 100 year period. Even as it warns humanity that catastrophic climate change is imminent within the next 11 years, not 100 years!” –Dr. Sailesh Rao, Climate Healers White Paper
To understand the nature of this controversy, read our post about how GHG impact comparisons vary with time-frames. Otherwise, just know that CO2 persists in the atmosphere more than ten times longer than CH4, making timescale comparisons difficult. This chart maps out the range. But if you want to skip it, just remember that no matter how you compare, 600 cows warm the earth like thousands of cars.
|Methane (CH4)||Nitrous Oxide (N2O)|
|kg/yr GHGs |
600 dairy cows
|600 cows x 335kg/cow |
= 201,000 kg CH4
|600 cows x 2.26kg/cow |
= 1,356 kg N2O
600 dairy cows
|201 tons CH4 /yr||1.356 tons N20 /yr|
600 dairy cows
|*math in this table|
5,628 tons CO2eq
20,904 tons CO2eq
|1,356 kg N20|
x 298 kg CO2 / 1 kg N20
= 404,088 kg CO2 eq
|car equivalent |
600 dairy cows
|CH4 from 600 dairy cows|
= 1,223 – 4,544 cars
|N2O of 600 dairy cows|
= 87 cars
No matter how you cut it, the environmental impact of dairy is high
In terms of the equivalent impact of cars, depending on what CH4 to CO2 conversion factor you use, those cows are heating the earth as much as thousands of cars. Measured after 100 years, the impact is 1,310 cars (1,223+87). But if you measure after ten years, the impact is like 4,631 cars (4,544+87).
Our original question was, “What if a Dairy Farm became a Hazelnut Orchard?”
Answer: In terms of environmental impact, this transformation would be like taking up to 4,600 cars off the road.
|☞ Continue to Part II: Extrapolating Dan’s Dairy Operations to the World||☞ Dig into the Deets: Why so many various CH4 to CO2 conversion values?|
† IPPC Supplementary Material: Anthropogenic and Natural
https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/07/WGI_AR5.Chap_.8_SM.pdf page 39 ( Table 8.SM.16 "Metric Values to Support Figure )
keywords: environmental impact of dairy