Dr. Frank Mitloehner, University of California – Davis, delivered the message at the Vita Plus Dairy Summit that there are opportunities to dramatically reduce the environmental impact of livestock while supplying a growing world population with the meat and milk they crave.

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Coffeen is a former editor and podcast host with Progressive Dairy. 
“Production intensity and emission intensity are inversely related,” explained Mitloehner.

The professor and air quality specialist is also the leader of a global effort to reduce environmental footprints through the partnership of the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance (LEAP). Well known for his emissions research in California, Mitloehner gained further accreditation when he spoke up for the livestock industry following the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow.

The report deemed the livestock sector a “major player” in the global contribution of greenhouse gas emissions, estimating that cows and other livestock contribute more emissions than the transportation system. Mitloehner pointed out a flaw in the calculations, which caught worldwide media attention and prompted the group to re-examine its claim.

The global impact of livestock on emissions is as high as 14 percent, Mitloehner said. Developing countries with less efficient livestock production systems are the highest contributors. However, in developed regions like the United States, livestock are only estimated to contribute 3.4 percent of the overall emissions, with 2 percent coming from dairy.

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As production per cow becomes more efficient, the environmental footprint is reduced. Mitloehner demonstrated this by comparing milk production and methane output between a California dairy cow and her counterpart in Mexico. The California cow will produce five times more milk each year, while giving off only a quarter of the methane of the cow in Mexico.

This comparison is an example of how modern technologies improve production per animal, thus reducing the number of animals needed to contribute to the overall supply of product. Better health, fertility and genetics contribute to the need for fewer animals.

In the U.S., milk production has increased by 60 percent since 1950, even though the dairy herd has decreased by 16 million head. Further, when these more efficient animals consume better quality feed, methane emissions per animal are decreased. In fact, the carbon footprint of a glass of milk is two-thirds smaller than it was 70 years ago.

While there is success to celebrate regarding improved production efficiencies and environmental impact, the dairy industry must also acknowledge some areas that need improvement. According to Mitloehner, the biggest contributor to emissions on dairies is replacement animals.

During the last 10 years, the average length of lactation has decreased from 31 months down to 25 months. This means that a larger portion of a cow’s lifespan is spent during growth phases or between lactations, as opposed to actual milk production. This is mostly due to high levels of reproductive culling, which drives the demand for more herd replacements.

Mitloehner emphasized that technology will be an important part of environmental improvement in the livestock industry, such as the use of bovine somatotropin as a dairy management tool. However, the right for producers to utilize technology is threatened by activist groups that are telling the story that efficiency is inhumane. He called for action from the grassroots level, warning, “If people don’t hear it from you, they will hear it from PETA.”

“There will be no other way to feed the 9 billion people who will populate the world,” Mitloehner said. “Don’t let those things [technologies] go away.” PD

View a Vita Plus video interview with Dr. Mitloehner.

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Peggy Coffeen
PD Staff

Check out a slideshow featuring various activities at the Vita Plus Dairy Summit.

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Other aspects of the summit are covered on the Vita Plus website.