Pennsylvania dairies put the notion of climate-smart milk to the test

The U.S. dairy industry is aiming to go greenhouse gas neutral by 2050. Researchers have many ideas to help get them there — from feed additives that minimize methane-filled cow burps to new timing for fertilizer applications. But there’s little data on how well many of these strategies work on actual dairies with varying environmental conditions.

Now, at a select group of Pennsylvania dairies, farmers are about to find out just how much methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide they’re producing. This spring and summer, a team led by biological systems engineer Armen Kemanian, of Pennsylvania State University, will install emissions sensors on dairies implementing some of the most promising greenhouse gas reduction strategies. 

“You can measure a gallon of milk, or a bushel of corn. But how does a producer conceptualize a reduction in methane emission when they cannot see it?” says Kemanian.

The Penn State-run program, dubbed Climate-smart Agriculture that is profitable, Regenerative, Actionable, and Trustworthy (CARAT), is funded with a $25 million grant from the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative.

The sensors will capture hyperlocal emissions — identifying, for example, a single spike in nitrous oxide from a recently fertilized field, or the methane released from feeding cows. By measuring emissions on sections of each farm that are and are not practicing climate-friendly strategies, the researchers will demonstrate how big a difference the practices really make—data that will become available in a couple of years. 

CARAT is currently recruiting applicants. Ultimately, a dozen dairies will receive sensors and some 150 will be given tailored greenhouse gas mitigation guidance. The hope is that these insights will help dairy producers lower their greenhouse gas footprints — while raising their incomes. Sixty-nine farms will get financial support to transition to new management practices. 

Tony Brubaker, co-owner of Brubaker Farms in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, is interested in applying to CARAT to expand his farm’s sustainability work. Many climate smart practices ultimately increase the farm’s efficiency, Brubaker says. “However, there’s often high investment and risk of the unknown going into these projects.”

And if dairy producers know how much their work helps the planet, they may be able to earn a return on that benefit. 

“To make these [climate smart] projects work from an economic standpoint, there has to be some sort of value generated in the carbon world,” says CARAT applicant Brett Reinford, co-owner of Reinford Farms in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania. Reinford previously attempted to collect greenhouse gas data, but he only has “guesstimates.” He’s hoping for more concrete data, both to inform his team’s ongoing sustainability initiatives and to add value to his product.

Red Barn Consulting, a CARAT partner based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, will advise participants on which management practices could reap returns in the emerging carbon market within the dairy supply chain. A dairy might, for example, sell carbon credits to food manufacturers that use dairy inputs, says Peter Hughes, Red Barn’s president. “But we really want to make sure that there is sound science and replicable science put towards these practices or it will not be worth anything.”

“The holy grail,” he adds, is to market climate smart milk to consumers, so the team’s findings could ultimately inform a certification label that gives people the option of paying more for milk that’s better for the climate. 

CARAT’s greenhouse gas emissions data is really important because consumers want to know that they are getting what they paid for, says agricultural economist Jay Lillywhite of New Mexico State University, who is not involved in the program. “Once you break the trust of a consumer, it is very hard to build that back. So getting it right from the start will be extremely important for the entire program.”