Got Facts?

Defending Agriculture

Dairy and livestock producers under fire for their approach to farming need more support, a Cornell report offers plenty of help.

Published on: December 10, 2012

"[T]he environmental impact of the modern U.S. dairy production system is considerably less than that of the historical system with substantial reductions in resource use (feedstuffs, crop land, energy and water), waste output (manure, N and P excretion) and GHG(Green House Gas) emissions. Contrary to the negative image often associated with "factory farms,..." And, have we got lots of milk! (13.6 billion gallons in 1944 to 25.6 billion gallons in 2007)

But, the anti-CAFO environmental groups such as Sierra Club and Union of Concerned Scientists and EPA flood the media with negative images of concentrated animal feeding operations ("CAFOs"). These groups argue "...society in general pays a high price for such products in the form of taxpayer subsidies and damage to the environment, public health, and rural communities."

These assertions are challenged by a 2009 report issued by the Journal of Animal Science entitled "The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007". This study, supported by the College of Agriculture at Cornell University, is the kind of factual data producers must have at their fingertips to defend themselves when environmental groups claim CAFOs must be eliminated and animals returned to bucolic pasture land.

Environmental groups want smaller feeding operations and pasture based dairy, swine and poultry operations. The Cornell Study debunks many of these misleading assertions. The study evaluates the environmental impact of dairy production in 1944 although it reviews scientific literature from 1935-1955. It then compares this data with the dairy industry of 2007. The environmental contrasts are revealing.

First, in 1944, the dairy herd population was 25.6 million cows.

This herd produced approximately 116 billion pounds of milk annually. These cows were all on pasture and their manure was deposited on pasture land and subject to runoff during rain events.

In 1944, one cow required approximately 2.2 acres for subsistence whereas in 2007, a dairy can have 2.3 cows for 2.2 acres. The characteristics in 1944 included low yielding pasture based feeding with no antibiotics, no inorganic fertilizers and no chemical pesticides which is basically the modern organic system of today.

In 2007, the U.S. dairy herd was comprised of only 9.2 million cows!

These cows produce an annual average production of approximately 185 billion pounds of milk. It is absolutely stunning that production agriculture and USDA have allowed environmental groups, anti-animal activists and EPA to convince the American public that returning to the pasture-based system of the 1940s will produce less manure and pollution than today's tightly controlled and regulated no discharge of pollutants CAFOs.

Just think of 25.6 million cows roaming the countryside on rolling hills excreting approximately 148 pounds of solids and water per cow on to the ground and into streams versus the 9.2 million cows under controlled conditions today producing just 24% of the manure, 43% CH4 and 56% N2O per billion kg compared to the 1944 dairy herd. Think of 54,020 pounds of manure per cow per year in 1944 deposited on pasture land and streams!

Another fact little noted is that we had several million bulls to service the 25.6 million cows. With the advent of artificial insemination and frozen semen, there has been a severe curtailing of the number of bulls needed. Sorry guys!

Environmental groups also do not recognize that the average yield per 1940 cow was 4562.8 pounds of milk per year as compared to the average 2007 cow which produced 20,224 pounds of milk per year.

The report claims that pasture grass production in 1944 did have the ability to transfer more nitrogen and phosphorus into groundwater. Also, "...the 1944 population size,...resulted in increased total production of CH4 and N2O from enteric fermentation and manure." So much for the allegations that the pasture based systems and organic systems would be more environmentally sound as presently alleged.

CAFOs are accused of generating enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, but the report's facts even debunk this assertion. "The increased carbon footprint of an average 2007 cow compared to its 1944 equivalent appears to prove the argument that modern-day intensive productive practices are less environmentally sustainable than their 1944 equivalents, and that it would be beneficial to return to the husbandry systems practiced 60 years ago. However, when expressed on an outcome basis, the carbon footprint per kg of milk in 2007 is only 37% of that in 1944."  

The icing on the cake is the total carbon footprint for the 1944 dairy industry of 25 million cows was "...194 million metric tonnes of CO2-equivalents compared to 114 million metric tonnes of CO2-equivalents in 2007." The modern dairy industry which is constantly under attack for its environmental damage, has reduced its carbon footprint by 41%.

EPA and the environmentalists might want to look at the 2009 Journal study. They might learn something, i.e. the facts about the dairy industry and how successful it has been in reducing agricultural environmental impact.