by Courtney Llewellyn

Big news was announced in the dairy world earlier this month, with Nestlé offering its support – in the form of $10 million over a five-year period – for the Net Zero Initiative, a new industry-wide effort that will help U.S. dairy farms of all sizes implement new technologies and adopt economically viable practices. The initiative ties into the dairy industry’s environmental stewardship goals of achieving carbon neutrality, optimized water usage and improved water quality by 2050.

“Supporting and enabling farmers through the Net Zero Initiative has the potential to transform the dairy industry,” said Jim Wells, chief supply chain officer for Nestlé USA, in an official statement. “Scaling up climate-smart agricultural initiatives is key to Nestlé’s ambition to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and will help reduce the carbon footprint of many of our brands. We are excited to collaborate with the U.S. dairy industry and our suppliers to contribute to an even more sustainable dairy supply chain.”

Mike Haddad, chair of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, broke down what this investment means. He said the Innovation Center, which was formed in 2009, evolved naturally over time into an organization that’s socially responsible. “We truly believe dairy can become carbon neutral, and we believe in certain situations we could even sequester carbon,” Haddad said. “We have enough evidence that we could achieve that over time by scaling up the technology. We have 11 years of working together with each other. We share this goal and we need to back it up with actions.”

The Net Zero Initiative came about because the industry listened to what its stakeholders said was important, Haddad said. “We’re letting people know we’re taking care of the earth while we’re making dairy products – and we need to prove it. There are very high expectations, but we’re proud of where we’re at.”

Haddad added that Nestlé’s support validates the initiative – because other investors in the financial and technology sectors have already reached out to learn more.

Krysta Harden, executive VP of global environmental strategy at Dairy Management Inc., noted that today’s dairy farmers are already creating a 20% smaller carbon footprint to produce a gallon of milk than they did in 2007. She explained that while there is no “one size fits all” solution, the initiative will focus on four key areas: feed production, manure handling and nutrient management, cow care, and renewable energy and on-farm efficiency. The $10 million investment will be used for research, on-farm work and to develop new products.

“The practices and technology largely exist today. We just need some further development,” Harden said. The big hurdle is large investments by farmers, but with better technology, the hope is to lower costs. “It’s critical to being self-sustaining for the future,” she said, noting she is also anticipating more proactive approaches from other animal ag sectors.

California dairy farmer and vice chair of Dairy Management Inc. Steve Maddox stated, “When we first started talking about sustainability efforts, most dairy farmers viewed it with a jaded eye. Then we realized sustainability focuses on a lot of things we’ve been doing for years and it increases profitability and protects the environment. We need science-based points to prove our commitment to our land, air, water and animal care. And ultimately, sustainability practices need to have a bottom-line impact.”

That impact can be seen in the efficiency improvements over just a decade: Due to innovative practices in cow health, improved feed and genetics and modern management practices, the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk in 2017 shrunk significantly from 2007, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint.

How can farmers get involved in the Net Zero Initiative now? Harden said those using cover crops, digesters and other environmentally-minded practices are already making a difference to lower emissions. “With new science, new technology, we believe more farmers will do more,” she said. “They have to do what’s best for them and their farms. This [initiative] has a long runway for a reason.”

“We’re imagining that dairy can get to net zero partly because of energy that we think we can create on-farm over time,” Haddad added. “Dairy can be an environmental solution, not a problem. There are parts today that may be a problem, but we believe ultimately will be a solution.”

For more information on the dairy industry’s sustainability journey, visit