Net Zero Initiative will ‘shape future of dairy,’ say leaders

Editor’s Note: Part one provided some details on the “official” launch of the Net Zero Initiative, which according to DMI’s Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, “signals bold climate action” as “an industry-wide effort that will help U.S. dairy farms of all sizes and geographies implement new technologies and adopt economically viable practices.”

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, October 27, 2021

CHICAGO, Ill. — The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy — formed in 2008-09 by the national dairy checkoff via Dairy Management Inc (DMI) — unveiled the Net Zero Initiative earlier this month along with Nestlé’s announcement pledging up to $10 million over five years as the first ‘legacy partner’ to fund research, pilot farms and provide expertise to scale technologies and practices to achieve carbon neutrality, optimized water usage and improved water quality by 2050.

Innovation Center chairman Mike Haddad noted in a DMI media call Oct. 14 that the Environmental Sustainability Committee “has been in place a very long time – many, many years.

‘Mature effort’

“Mike McCloskey has always chaired this committee. This is quite a mature effort for us,” Haddad explained, adding that the committee decided a couple years ago that dairy can become carbon neutral, and many dairies can sequester carbon.

“We felt like there was enough evidence already with existing technology and practices, that by scaling them, we can achieve this over time, and we have been working for years to build out this framework,” he said.

As chairman of Schreiber Foods, Haddad said suppliers, companies like Schreiber, “already see this requirement from our customers who want to have our sustainability efforts feed into their sustainability efforts. They want to know that we are taking care of the earth in making our dairy products, and we have to prove it to them with our measurements along the way.”

Environmental ‘mapping’

In 2007-08, just as the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy was being formed, the mapping of dairy’s environmental footprint began.

“We were the very first ag sector to establish life cycle measurement of greenhouse gas emissions, showing U.S. Dairy at 2%,” said Krysta Harden, DMI executive vice president of global environmental strategy and former USDA undersecretary of Tom Vilsack when he was ag secretary.

“Through modernization and innovation, the environmental impact of producing milk uses 30% less water, 21% less land and manure, and has a 19% smaller carbon footprint today than in 2007,” she said. “It’s amazing where we have come since 2007.”

Harden explained that Net Zero Initiative (NZI) was started as “a dairy organization that represents farmers, cooperatives, processors, and includes DMI and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, NMPF, IDFA, U.S. Dairy Export Center and Newtrient.

“All of these groups came together to establish NZI,” she said. “This really is the pathway for how to get there, how to break down barriers and make it more accessible and affordable for dairy farms of all sizes and all places.”

‘Piloting’ underway

Pilot farms are already being identified throughout the country, and 2021 is set as the year to move them forward.

Next, the constant focus will be on “scaling up to accelerate progress over time to our 2050 goals,” Haddad said.

“Largely these technologies already exist but need operational improvement,” Harden added. “We can see how we can get there, but the barrier is the significant investment needed by farmers to get there. We want to knock this out by scaling, to lower the investment by farmers and generate new revenue streams for farmers. This will be critical to a self-sustaining future.”

Bottom line, said Harden: “Dairy is committed to being an environmental solution.” She said the key, at the heart of it, is the dairy farmers.

According to the Innovation Center’s official statement, the 27 dairy companies that make up its board, represent 70% of the nation’s milk production and have voluntarily adopted the U.S. Dairy Stewardship Commitment and contribute to the industry’s ability to track, aggregate and report on progress.

“We know dairy farmers are leaders, and they care about what they are producing and how they are producing it,” said Harden. “They are passionate first-adopters, embracing how the world is changing.”

Sustainable profit?

DMI vice president and California dairy producer Steve Maddox shared his thoughts from the producer perspective.

“When we first started talking about sustainability efforts by the Innovation Center, most dairy farmers viewed this with a jaded eye because it often means requiring more of them, and not of others,” said Maddox. “But this effort focuses on improving profitability and efficiency that is also environmentally sound.”

He said farmers know the importance of being as efficient as possible. Early-on, Maddox said the Innovation Center started down the road of environmental sustainability to fight claims by anti-animal-ag groups by doing the scientific measurements in 2008, to show how dairy has reduced its footprint since 1944.

“That is a significant date near the end of World War II when some of America’s greatest generation went to college, and extension — through our land grant universities — taught us to maximize production and take better care of the land,” said Maddox. “That led us to continue improving.”

As that generation retired, and with government budget cuts to research and extension, a dropoff in improvement was seen, according to Maddox. He said this signals the need for the industry to pick things up to “shape the continuous improvement of the industry at the farm level.”

During media questions, Harden stated that the $10 million from Nestlé is specifically geared toward on-farm improvement — not changes in processing or new dairy products.

However, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy is also looking at the processing and transportation aspects of achieving the NZI goals.

In fact, the climate impact of transportation and refrigeration of milk and dairy products is already a big part of the entire shaping process through innovations such as ultrafiltration, microfiltration, and aseptic packaging for shelf stable beverages and products. These are other pieces that come from precompetitive Innovation Center collaborations.

As for the farm-level impacts of NZI, Maddox stressed how the 2007-08 life cycle analysis on milk and cheese showed that the industry reduced its use of feed, land and water through collaboration on animal care, improved genetics and the FARM program.

Shaping dairy

In other words, through FARM and NZI, companies will shape dairy’s “continuous improvement” instead of relying on extension education for those gains — mainly because, they say, the industry is at a point where these future gains will cost money. Since farms will need to invest in those gains, NZI is banking on industry and government to step up and help pay for it.

Something that often gets lost in discussions about climate change and sustainability, said Maddox is: “Cows, being ruminants, are miracles onto themselves. They convert byproduct to nature’s most perfect food.”

At his California dairy, over 50% of the cow feed on a dry matter basis is byproduct that would have gone into landfills.

“This, too, is a major part of it. We can feed all sorts of things, bakery waste, Doritos, sunflower meal… There are 400 different commercial crops grown in California, and all of them can be fed to cattle,” said Maddox.

He painted a picture of farmers learning from each other within the NZI framework.

Maddox observed that cow care and breeding to have more efficient cows is a big part of reducing dairy’s environmental impact to meet the ambitious new industrywide goals. 

“All of these sustainability practices will have a bottom-line impact,” he said.

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