Sustainable agriculture for the future

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

It’s not just a trendy phrase among those concerned about the environment. “Sustainable agriculture” also represents a good business model. Dr. Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability consultant in the UK, recently presented a webinar on the topic for AMTS as part of the organization’s “The Nutritionist 2020” series.

“When I first started talking about sustainability and carbon footprint, I thought I’d have to look for something else to research,” Capper said.

That was 15 years ago. Capper has long since realized that it’s a lifelong issue for many reasons.

“Globally, we have a challenge,” she said, “but particularly in the U.S., where we have quite a dichotomy. We love technology, smartphones and clever computers and hybrid cars, but when it comes to food, we have this rose-tinted image where even those of us who understand the food industry and think that if it’s like the old days and traditional, it must be better for us.”

Though the red barns, pastured cows and split-rail fences appear idyllic, Capper said the small-scale farming that image represents cannot meet the needs of the growing population, estimated to be around 10 billion by 2050, with a disproportionate number of people in less-developed countries.

“Globally, and particularly for the U.S., how do we produce safe, affordable food for the population while keeping consumers happy?” Capper asked.

Previous studies showed that the carbon footprint per cow doubled from 1944 to 2007, but that doesn’t show the whole picture. The carbon footprint per liter of milk produce dropped by 63% in the same time period.

“The U.S. dairy industry changed considerably over that period,” Capper said.

One example is herd size. Instead of smaller herds and smaller breeds, herds became bigger, along with the cows. A larger animal has a larger carbon footprint; however, since larger breeds produce more milk, their output is much bigger. Advances in herd management and nutrition also contributed to the effect of greater output. Capper called the industry’s 41% decrease in carbon footprint “a really great achievement.”

“Over the past 10 years, there’s the supposition that we’ll reach some kind of peak,” Capper said. “Milk yields surely can’t go up and up and up – although that’s exactly what’s happened. We see a pretty consistent linear increase. It has been remarkably consistent, independent of other changes in the dairy industry. The question is, can it keep going?”

When comparing 2007 to 2019, milk yield per cow has consistently increased. The crop yields from 2007 – 2017 show increase in yields of corn silage (16%), grass hay (4%), wheat straw (13%), corn grain (113%) and soybean meal (16%), while alfalfa hay remained the same. Maximizing nutrition can help keep milk yield climbing.

In a current study, she’s researching when possible peer-reviewed public or government data on milk yield with the animals grouped as primiparous, multiparous and dry by days to calving. Under each category, they’re grouped by milk yield per day.

“The model looks pretty simple, but what has frustrated me – and the researchers in the past – as we all know, there’s a big difference between a Jersey and a Holstein,” she said.

She also studied the environmental effects of heifers and bulls.

“We accept that 70% of cows are certified AI, but there are conceptions that don’t occur via AI,” she said. “With any dairy cow operation, whether you raise your own heifers or they’re brought in, you have to have heifers there somewhere.”

The average milk yield per year by kilogram increased from 9,164 per cow to 10,406 in 2017. Over the same time span, milk fat percent increased from 3.56 to 3.99 and milk protein percent from 2.92 to 3.22.

“When comparing the environmental impact, what’s really clear is we’re talking about resource use and greenhouse gas emissions,” Capper said. “There are other environmental metrics as well. We need to take a closer look at other issues.”

At the same time, the environmental impact decreased, including the number of cattle (-25%); amount of feed used (-17%); land use (-21%); water (-30%); manure (-21%); and greenhouse gases (-19%).

“That’s really important because even though we’re far more cognizant of greenhouse gas than we were 15 years ago, it underscores how important efficiency is,” Capper said. “It does show we can make some really great strides in cutting both resource use and greenhouse gases if we improve efficiency and productivity.”

Capper warned that increased milk production doesn’t “cancel out” greenhouse gas emissions, but it does show that providing more milk to the world isn’t going to worsen the situation.

“We can make 25% more milk and keep the industry greenhouse gases the same,” Capper said.

Lactating cows contribute to more greenhouse gas emissions than heifers, followed by dry cows and then bulls. Lactating cows contribute more than the other groups combined.

“They’re eating more and the highest proportion of the cattle mass,” Capper said. “If we can do something to cut greenhouse gas emissions in dairy cows, that would help.”

She thinks that environmental responsibility is only one component of ag sustainability. It also pertains to how consumers relate to the dairy industry and the economy. With more global customers having money to spend on meat and milk, farmers in the U.S. need to be ready to supply their needs, but in a sustainable way.

“If we have any system that has adverse effects in any of these, we are not sustainable,” Capper said. “Generally, if we’re more efficient and productive, it has positive effects on our cost of production per unit of milk or meat.” But she warned that if consumers don’t want to buy farmers’ products, it won’t matter. Many consumers have to feel good about how farmers treat their animals, for example. They have to feel their food is safe.

Reducing critically important antimicrobials has shown to not cause decline in herd health or treatment outcome.

“If we take a more holistic approach to herd health and herd health planning, this is going to be of immense importance to all of us in the dairy industry,” Capper said.

She also said that many headlines claim going vegan is the best thing to reduce one’s carbon footprint; however, “going vegan is not the end-all, be-all for reduction of carbon footprint,” she said. “The percent of people who are vegan isn’t proportional to the amount of noise vegans get from the mainstream media.”

She gathered data from several organizations that show 85% of the population is omnivorous; 5% is vegetarian or vegan; and 10% is “flexitarian” (people who sometimes eat animal products).

“The flexitarian category is the one where we face the biggest challenge and opportunity,” Capper said.

Arguing with consumers who aren’t eating meat isn’t helpful; however, Capper said it is a good idea to promote the environmental strides made by the industry and encourage those who do eat meat that the industry is improving.

“Most of us think back 10 to 30 years, we had this image that we’ll have flying skateboards and powdered food in capsules filled with nutrients,” Capper said. “While the food industry has done very cool things we wouldn’t have imaged 40 years ago, we need to start thinking ahead now.”

Capper envisions future food labels to offer information on sustainability, carbon footprint, water usage, antibiotic footprint, community support ratings and a QR code that links to a farm webcam and sustainability assessment data, all for shoppers who want the background of their food’s effect on the environment.

“We must care for our cows in the very best way that they can be as productive as their genetics allow,” Capper said. “If we lose consumer trust, we’re going down a slippery slope. As an industry we have to work ever harder to educate.”

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