Organic dairy farming stores carbon, reduces GHG emissions - study

The study showed positive results when cows spend time on organic pastures
calendar icon 22 August 2022
clock icon 3 minute read

A new study in the August issue of the Journal of Cleaner Production reveals that it is possible for farms to sequester carbon and reduce their overall greenhouse gas emissions. A University of Wisconsin Madison research group unveiled a dairy lifecycle assessment conducted on Organic Valley farms that shows small organic dairy farms, which focus on grazing and organic production techniques, are low greenhouse gas champions.

The peer reviewed study uses a breakthrough methodology that includes accounting for the carbon sequestration benefit of grazed pastures. Led by Dr. Horacio Aguirre-Villegas, Scientist III at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the research team conducted a first-of-its-kind study in the US that considered the positive carbon sequestration results of cows spending time out on pasture.

"The study proposes a method to include carbon sequestration not only in organic but all dairy farm-related LCA studies. This method is based on the amount of carbon staying in the soil from above ground residue, below ground residue, and manure," Aguirre-Villegas said. "The effect of management practices affecting the carbon stock are also considered, such as tillage, land use regime, management, and input of organic matter into the soil based on farm and region-specific variables such as the level of activity and temperature."

The modeling assessment was done with farm-specific input provided by Organic Valley and reflects the nature and style of production common within the co-op's dairy membership. Other factors contributing to the low greenhouse gas emission results included the avoidance of synthetic crop inputs and use of organic crop amendments, the longevity of cattle, and prevalent use of manure as a fertilizer source.

"This LCA represents the baseline carbon footprint of our dairy member farms today. The science proves out what we all intuitively knew was the case, when you have pasture-based systems and organic crop production you have a smaller carbon footprint," said Nicole Rakobitsch, director of sustainability at Organic Valley. "We are proud that farms in our cooperative average the lowest known carbon footprint of any US dairy supply, but we are not going to rest on that outcome."

"We are committed to helping our farmers and all of dairy continually lessen our GHG emissions," Rakobitsch added. "It's the right thing to do and consumers are looking for food that is good for the planet and their health."

The study of Organic Valley milk is ongoing and the remaining 40% of Organic Valley's milk supply will be assessed by the end of 2023. Organic Valley is also launching a new carbon insetting program which purchases carbon reduction from its farmers and helps producers implement site-specific projects like agroforestry, enhanced manure management, and on-farm renewable energy.

The research team measuring and analyzing the carbon impact at UW-Madison includes Dr. Rebecca Larson, associate professor at UW-Madison; Dr. Erin Silva, UW-Madison associate professor and Extension specialist in Organic Agriculture; Dr. Michel Wattiaux, UW-Madison professor in Dairy Systems Management; and Rakobitsch.

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