Dairy Cows' Recycling Efforts Often Overlooked

Cornell researcher says cows have a smaller carbon footprint than originally thought

Published on: Oct 25, 2013

Cows and other ruminants have an important role to play in both providing valuable proteins and recycling, Cornell researchers report.

Michael Van Amburgh, professor of animal science, said in a Sept. 12 food policy symposium hosted by International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that cows are often fed byproducts of industrial processes.

The alternative – incineration of the byproducts – directly contributes to environmental degradation, so cows actually help reduce the impact of the human food supply and make that food supply affordable, he reports.

An example, he said, is the California almond industry, which relies on cattle to consume four billion pounds of shelled almond hulls each year. In addition, cows make use of land not suitable for food crops.

Cornell researcher says cows have a smaller carbon footprint than originally thought
Cornell researcher says cows have a smaller carbon footprint than originally thought

Now, thanks to new modeling techniques, dairy farmers can precisely calculate the carbon output of their cows and adjust their diets accordingly.

"We can't change the cow's methane production by much, but we can change efficiencies, milk per unit of gas," Van Amburgh said.

Animal products provide an important source of nutrients, especially for children and older adults, that should not be discounted, he said. Even if we switch to a more plant-based diet, we would need an environmentally sound system of disposal for matter not consumed.

Van Amburgh pointed out that every food has an environmental impact, and that we should consider how many nutrients we get in return for the greenhouse gas emissions generated in its production.