Question 1: Cows and Greenhouse Gases

The correct answer is nine times more. Yes, cows in India produce nine times the amount of greenhouse gases than US cows do per pound or gallon of milk produced. This information is presented by Dr. Frank Mitloehner, an expert on farming and the environment, from the University of California, Davis.

The graphic below shows that one US cow produces on average over 22,000 pounds of milk per year and emits 500 grams of methane per year. Cows in Mexico produce less than half that milk, therefore the emissions more than double for the amount of milk produced. In Indian, cows produce just over one tenth of the amount of milk of the highly productive US herd, and thereby produce nine times the amount of methane than US cows.

Dr. Mitloehner’s studies make clear that as we increase efficiency in production, we decrease the environmental impact.

 

Question 2: Dairy manure regulations

The correct answer is ZERO! Under the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act absolutely no manure from our dairy cows is allowed to flow into streams, rivers, ditches or groundwater. Few other states or nations have regulations as stringent as we have in Washington. The Washington State Department of Agriculture is responsible for inspections and enforcement and reports high levels of compliance with this requirement.

This is good news for everyone. Our water needs to be protected and cows in the past have been identified as a contributor to fecal coliform or bacteria contamination. Also, if farmers apply too much manure to their fields as fertilizer, what the crops can’t use can leach into groundwater and cause nitrate levels to rise. Fortunately, laws such as the Dairy Nutrient Management Act combined with a commitment to environmental stewardship are producing results. In Whatcom County, for example, DNA tests in the river leading to tribal shellfish beds showed lots of human and animal markers, but no cattle markers. And nitrate levels in the area near dairy farms which had been elevated due to past farming practices now show reduced levels of nitrate.


Question 3: Organic fertilizer

A supplier of organic fertilizer to the growing number of organic farms in Eastern Washington reports that as much as half the manure produced by Eastern Washington cows finds its way onto organic farm fields. If the dairy farms in this part of the state went away (as some sadly are doing), it would mean a major bump in the road for the growing number of organic farms. The nutrients from the 100,000 plus cows in this part of the state would have to be replaced by another source of high quality organic fertilizer. A likely replacement would be chicken manure from Canada. But this is considerably more costly and because of needed transportation it would make organic farming less friendly to the environment. Organic farming costs would rise –– in carbon costs and in dollars. One very important reason to help make sure we keep our valuable dairy farms.

In Western Washington the percentage used by organic farmers may be lower but it still provides a strong benefit because of crop rotation with non-dairy farms. This crop rotation really matters. For example, tulips, potatoes and some other crops draw a lot of nutrients from the soil. So fields used to grow those crops are often exchanged on a regular basis with fields growing less nutrient-intensive crops like grass or corn. Those crops can actually help return important nutrients into the ground. That means some non-dairy fields growing vegetables, seeds, grains are using the cow manure from the dairies whether they or organic or not.

Some talk of today’s farming as a monoculture suggesting that is unhealthy. In reality, farming today is a tightly integrated community where a farm of one type can benefit from the by-products of another farm. We need all our farms. Farms of all types and sizes. Understanding how they work together for the benefit of you, the consumer, will help all of us work to preserve a future for our family farms.

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