Virginia Tech study finds cows have minimal impact on greenhouse gas emissions

New River Valley News

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — With the ongoing conversation of climate change in our current culture, our nation’s dairy farmers were lumped into the mix of contributing factors to this global concern.

Cows, which are ruminant animals, meaning they have multiple stomachs that give the ability to digest certain types of food through fermentation, produce methane gas.

How much of it? That’s what Virginia Tech’s Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences wanted to find out.

“If we took a supply-side decision-making approach and we got rid of all dairy cattle from the agricultural system, what might happen to greenhouse gas emissions,” Robin White asked hypothetically.

White, who is an associate professor with Virginia Tech’s Animal and Poultry Sciences Department, says the study sponsored by Dairy Management Inc. found cows produce 20% of the nation’s methane gas emissions.

When that’s lumped into greenhouse gas emissions, as a whole, that’s a different story.

“It’s something like a less than one-percent change,” White said. “There’s an environmental benefit from reducing the size of our dairy industry, but the cost, in terms of human-edible nutrients, is pretty substantial.”

The exact percentage in the study is a 0.7% decrease in the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Dairy farmers like Dale Flory in Pulaski County are aware of the methane produced from cows and aren’t opposed to new methods that would cut down on those numbers.

“Maybe we can adjust their feed to reduce the amount of methane being produced,” Flory said. “That would be beneficial. I mean, it’s wasted energy from the cow.”

Flory has milked cows in Pulaski County for 41 years.

His farm, Hillside Farm, has around 230 milking cows, and around seven years ago, Flory adjusted their diet to cut down on methane emissions.

“Corn silage, alfalfa silage, and then there’s some corn grain added in there,” he said pointing at the rows of feed in his barn. “With the feedstuffs that are more digestible, there’s less methane being produced, and these are as digestible of crops as what we can get into these cows to get that high-level milk production.”

“There are available supplements that have, at least short-term, reductions in methane emissions that are pretty substantial,” White said.

White mentioned there are incentive/grant programs in other states that help farmers implement technology that can help cut down on methane numbers.

“In California, they’ve got really tremendous programs to harvest the emissions from animal manure to use that as an energy source and through that are dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions in their dairy industry,” she said.

When asked, Flory said there aren’t program like that in Virginia, at least not many.

“You’re always looking for new opportunities to harvest that methane,” said Flory. “Right now, we’re separating our solids and our liquids (referring to manure and the water used to wash it out of the barn), and that does cut down, somewhat on the methane production.”

White hopes the study can be used to build a collaboration with farmers to find ways like in California that keep cow population where it is and bring down methane emissions.

White said “That number (<1%) is not intended to make people think cattle can’t be part of solving our climate change problems. It’s just to help people develop realistic expectations.”

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