FAQ on Dairy Farming and the Environment

What are greenhouse gases?

Greenhouse gas makes life on earth livable. It forms a kind of giant umbrella that directs a portion of the sun's heat downward. Without this umbrella, all the heat from the sun would escape back into space, turning the earth unbearably cold. Agricultural activities produce mainly carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (NO2).

So what's the problem?

The problem is too much of a good thing – greenhouse gas is becoming excessive. It started around 200 years ago when humans began burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Greenhouse gas doesn’t allow sufficient heat to escape back into space, causing the planet to warm up. That may not sound like a big deal but even a few degrees' increase in average global temperatures can cause havoc – everything from crop devastation to massive flooding and hurricanes. Leading scientists believe we should work to curb greenhouse gas emissions, so global temperature do not rise more than two additional degrees.

Why should dairy producers care?

Dairy producers are part of both the problem and the solution.

We're part of the problem because we generate greenhouse gas on our farms: cows produce methane during the rumination (digestion) process and manure emits methane and nitrous oxide.

We're part of the solution because we can minimize these emissions. In fact, much is already being done but we can and must continue to do more.

What specifically can we do?

We can continue along the path we're already on. For example, we continue to improve the quality of our feed, and seek out the most effective manure, fertilizer and conservation measures. Most importantly, we continue to increase production capacity so that with fewer cows, we are able to produce the same quantity or even more milk. Ultimately such strategies make dairy farming businesses more efficient and profitable – a bottom line benefit if there ever was one!

Is organic milk production more environment-friendly?

The jury is still out on the question. Both contribute and can improve their footprint on the environment.

More producers are now producing organic milk. Both "mainstream" and organic farmers have environmentally friendly practices. Organic dairy producers feed their animals with crops grown without the use of pesticides. Meanwhile, conventional milk production results in overall lower greenhouse gas emissions as cow productivity increases.

In Canada, dairy producers have already exceeded the Kyoto target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6%. Between 1990 and 2003, greenhouse gas emissions from dairy cows had dropped by 12% and they continue to be reduced by 1% per year through the use of efficient production methods.

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