A Sustainable Moo-vement: How the Dairy Industry Is Fighting Climate Change

Dairy farming has quickly evolved for sustainability. Here are just a few examples of how innovative dairy organizations and farmers are working to fight climate change by reducing their impacts, improving soil health and using regenerative agriculture.
Mar 8, 2024 7:15 AM ET
A herd of cows in a field

The people who work from sunup to sundown to supply our nation with milk are the backbones of our nation — so much so that in 1938, the playwright Thornton Wilder immortalized the notion of the “milkman” in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town. The character of Howie Newsome, Grover’s Corners’ local dairy farmer and milkman, was created by Wilder to show the continuity of life in America. That is how deeply dairy farming is woven into the fabric of our society.

In most places, the days of the local milkman are gone; but dairy still plays a huge role in the diets of most Americans. As National Dairy Month comes to a close, we want to honor the dairy farmers and cows that provide the milk that feeds the nation — and look at how dairy farming has evolved to reduce the industry’s climate impacts.

In 2021, Hoard’s Dairyman reported that “95 percent of dairy farms, no matter the size are family owned, and 87 percent of all dairy cattle in the US call these family farms home.” These family farms are largely multi-generational operations and are some of the earliest adopters of regenerative agriculture practices that are key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and sustaining the land and natural resources for the future.

How the dairy industry is working to combat climate change

Two dairy cooperatives leading the herd

The 11,500 family farm members of Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) have made sustainability a top priority. While GHGs from the dairy industry only account for 2 percent of the nation’s overall emissions, DFA is striving to reduce absolute emissions across its supply chain by 30 percent by the end of 2030 through transportation efficiencies, plant optimization, healthy soil, renewable energy and healthy cows. According to DFA’s 2022 Sustainability Report, this is equivalent to taking 3.4 million cars off the road for one year.

This goal was not the first made by the largest dairy cooperative in North America. For 15 years, DFA has utilized its Gold Standard Dairy Program to promote continuous improvement in farm practices. This includes incorporating The National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program, a national program whereby dairy farmers commit to measurable criteria focused on protecting the environment and herd well-being.

DFA is also leading by helping our farm families embrace renewable energy sources such as on-farm anaerobic digestion. DFA’s strategic partnership with Vanguard Renewables to develop and operate on-farm anaerobic digesters enables farms across the US to host an anaerobic digester and do their part to address climate change.

Anaerobic digestion can positively impact the economics and carbon footprint of a farm, allowing generational sustainability and energy independence. As our partnership with Vanguard continues to grow, we look forward to more of our farms taking advantage of the new carbon economy to make a positive impact.

Hansel New, director of sustainability programs at DFA

Meanwhile, Cabot Creamery Co-operative has more than a century of experience making its award-winning cheese, butter and dairy products on behalf of its 600-plus farm family members. A decade ago, Cabot was the first dairy co-op in the world to become a certified B Corp; as a dairy industry first mover, Cabot embraces circularity throughout its product and process lifecycle. Cabot farmers produce the high-quality milk used in the company’s products; and the inedible processing waste is then sent back to the farms as feedstock for Farm Powered® anaerobic digesters. In Massachusetts, Cabot closes the circularity loop by purchasing renewable energy to power its manufacturing facility created by those same digesters.

“We value our collaboration with Vanguard Renewables as a model of how to use on-farm anaerobic digestion technology to optimize the value of cow manure while reducing food waste and generating renewable energy,” said Bill Beaton, CEO of Agri-Mark/Cabot Creamery Co-operative. “This is a wonderful example of our farms and our manufacturing facilities cooperating to create award-winning, closed-loop solutions.”

The dairy farmers who became climate warriors

Dairy farming has come under fire due to the methane emissions that are naturally produced by dairy cows and their manure. Yet, family farmers around the country are working to reduce those emissions and enhance the practices used to care for their land and their herd, and are some of our fiercest climate advocates.

Chase Goodrich and Danielle Goodrich-Gingras — Goodrich Family Farm

The Goodrich Family Farm in Salisbury, Vermont, a member of the Cabot Creamery Co-operative, was recognized by the Innovation Center for US Dairy with the 2021 Outstanding Dairy Sustainability Award. It has been a journey for the family and particularly for Chase Goodrich and his sister Danielle Goodrich-Gingras, who took over the generational dairy farm in 2009 and developed a transformational and environmentally sustainable business model with a focus on being great members of the community and protecting the sensitive Lake Champlain watershed. Their journey began when milk prices had plummeted, milk production costs were soaring, and the dairy industry was under intense scrutiny centered around climate impacts.

Following extensive research, the duo developed a manure and nutrient management plan that would use their dairy manure in an environmentally beneficial way and mitigate GHGs. Partnering with Vanguard Renewables, Vermont Gas and Middlebury College, the farm now hosts the largest anaerobic digester in New England. In addition to the manure from the farm, the Farm Powered anaerobic digester recycles inedible organic waste from commercial producers including Cabot Creamery, Ben & Jerry’s and Vermont Creamery, converting it into renewable natural gas, low-carbon fertilizer and animal bedding.

“At the time, we saw two major challenges to our viability: The dairy business was getting more volatile, and the environmental impact of dairy farms was under greater scrutiny,” Chase Goodrich reflected. “Hosting the anaerobic digester diversifies our income; improves our carbon footprint while protecting water quality; and makes us better neighbors, farmers and animal owners.”

Since the completion of the Farm Powered anaerobic digester in 2021, the Goodrich Farm has recycled more than 66 thousand tons of organic waste, which is the equivalent impact on GHGs of removing more than 34,000 cars from the road for one year. Additionally, the digester provides renewable energy to Middlebury College, enabling the college to meet its net-zero goals.

Peter Melnik — Bar-Way Farm

Like the Goodriches, Peter Melnik has been working on his family farm — Bar-Way Farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts — since his return from college in 1991. Peter and his father, Steven, have implemented several strategic regenerative agriculture practices on the family’s 102-year-old farm. These include the use of cover crops to slow erosion, improve the overall soil health, increase biodiversity and help control diseases and pests, and a no-till program.

The family is committed to the modernization of their dairy farming practices with a focus on herd health, how they are managing their nearly 10,000 tons of manure annually, and the related on-farm methane emissions; along with other regenerative ag programs they’ve employed, this is all part of the Melniks’ commitment to protecting the Pioneer Valley watershed along the Connecticut River. As DFA members, they also utilize that partnership to help guide their decisions and further their regenerative and sustainable ag approaches.

About 10 years ago, the Melniks began to explore building an anaerobic digester to manage manure, reduce their carbon footprint and create supplemental revenue from selling renewable energy in the private market. Realizing that a project of that scope on their own was out of their reach, they partnered with Vanguard to bring their sustainability vision to life with less risk and farm investment. The Farm Powered digester combines inedible, commercial food and beverage waste with Bar-Way’s manure to produce enough renewable energy to power nearly 1,600 homes a year.

In 2019, Bar-Way became one of the first farms to legally grow hemp in Massachusetts. In the first year, Heritage CBD allotted the Melniks 10 acres of hemp. By using the digestate byproduct from the anaerobic digester to fertilize the crop, they harvested the equivalent of 14 acres of hemp. This notable yield, combined with the quality of the Melniks’ hemp crop, resulting in Heritage increasing the farm’s allotment to 30 acres.

“The digestate fertilizer byproduct of the anaerobic digestion process has been beneficial in increasing yields from our traditional crops and enabling us to expand into hemp growing. Our crop is the envy of others trying to do the same thing,” Melnik said. “The digestate is a wonderful non-toxic fertilizer — it does not emit odors; it has a complex and balanced portfolio of nutrients that makes the crops thrive; and being able to stop using synthetic chemical fertilizer has helped us continue to be good stewards of the land.”

Adam and Jane Graft — Leatherbrook Holsteins

Adam Graft of Leatherbrook Holsteins in Americus, Georgia, is one of the newest farmers to join the Farm Powered movement. A leader in the dairy industry for over 20 years, Graft and his wife joined the Farm Powered movement as a way to manage their manure sustainably. The Leatherbrook Holsteins manure-only to renewable energy anaerobic digester will produce enough energy to heat 10,000 homes a year; and the low-carbon, high-nutrient and nearly odorless digestate will benefit their soil management program and save money on costly fertilizer.

Graft and his family work with many of the region’s colleges and universities. Every year they invite agricultural students from 15 schools across the Southeast to the farm to help uncover potential improvements and share ideas about sustainable and regenerative agriculture. As a former agriculture student, Graft feels that this is one of the best ways for students to learn about dairy farming.

Closing thoughts

Dairy farming has always adapted and evolved with an eye on sustainability and being stewards of our natural resources. These efforts are accelerating quickly. The stories profiled are just a few examples of how progressive and innovative dairy organizations and farmers are working to make a significant difference in the fight against climate change by their carbon footprint, improving soil health, and using regenerative agriculture as a way to protect not just their land, but our planet.

At the end of the day, we are a family dedicated to being good neighbors. I’ve been working on farms my whole adult life, from California to Washington and now in Georgia. I understand the complexities of dairy farming, which is why I was eager to put a manure management plan in place to mitigate the odor that comes from having a large dairy farm. We are also excited to use the digestate as fertilizer to help reduce our dependence and farm expense on purchasing traditional chemical fertilizers — which are costly and detrimental to soil, water and crop health as compared to the digestate from the anaerobic digestion process.

Adam Graft of Leatherbrook Holsteins