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Farm sustainability metrics

Speakers at the recent Minnesota Nutrition Conference in Mankato, Minn., focused on opportunities and challenges associated with improving the sustainability of livestock operations. While it is extremely important that everyone in the dairy industry focuses on how we can reduce our environmental impact, the term sustainability is sometimes hard to define from a practical or scientific standpoint. The conference provided some valuable insights that I think are worth sharing.

Erin Cortus, a professor in the UMN Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering Department, clarified that sustainability is not a single metric, but rather a set of attitudes, practices and systems that reduce the environmental burden and waste from a system. Because of this, the way in which the term is applied is often context-dependent and specific to a certain operation or industry’s goals.

Factors including greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water quality and promotion of biodiversity are all important to consider when determining the sustainability of a livestock operation. Typically, assessments of the sustainability of any system are determined using a modeling approach called a life-cycle assessment (LCA). This approach considers the entire environmental impact of a product at all stages of development.

For dairy farms, this means the environmental costs of raising livestock, growing or transporting feed, and harvesting and transporting cattle and milk are all considered.

One of the challenges with LCA is that, like with any model, it is completely dependent on the inputs. Because of this, factors such as the timescale, geographic scale, inputs and outputs can all affect the calculated carbon footprint of a system. It is important to understand what environmental footprint values mean and to make sure that producers and the allied industry clearly communicate with scientists and policymakers to ensure that our goals and contributions are being appropriately reflected.

Market and policy decisions related to sustainability are largely driven by financial investors. Many of today's investors require that a company makes a sustainability claim before they are willing to provide financial backing. This requirement is largely market-driven and companies that make sustainability claims have been shown to be six times more profitable than those that do not.

The dairy industry has a huge marketing opportunity in highlighting the ways in which we contribute to global environmental sustainability. Several state and national commodity groups have already begun setting sustainability goals to capitalize on this market trend. The Securities Exchange Commission is currently discussing a policy that would require companies to provide proof that sustainability goals were met in order to claim them publicly.

Animal agriculture plays a crucial role within the context of a circular agricultural economy. A circular economy is one in which products are used, reused, recycled, and put back into the system. A great selling point of the livestock industry is that 40% or more of feed inputs are by-products and animals recycle waste from other food industries. Using methane digesters to produce renewable natural gas and feeding unique by-products like grocery waste to animals are other ways to work animal agriculture into a circular economy.

Overall, the conference highlighted that the dairy industry has to both promote the strides we have made in improving our environmental sustainability and continue to make improvements in this area.

Find out more about the Minnesota Nutrition Conference.

Author: Isaac J. Salfer, assistant professor of dairy nutrition, University of Minnesota

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