Dairy farmers have continually found ways to become more sustainable in the ways in which animals are raised and cared for, and how the land is managed.
    In the next three decades, farmers will be asked to join their industry partners – cooperatives, processors and milk haulers – to reduce carbon emissions to net zero or better, as well as improve water and manure management as part of the Net Zero Initiative.
    “We’re looking across the total dairy value chain to make the industry more sustainable,” Jamie Jonker said. “We’re at the beginning of this journey, and at the end of the day, we want farmers to have a suite of opportunities for farmers to choose from to change their carbon footprint that are revenue-neutral; and more importantly, could be a source of additional income.”
    Jonker is the vice president of sustainability and scientific affairs at National Milk Producers Federation.
    NMPF together with United States Dairy Export Council, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and Newtrient developed the project as a means for the U.S. dairy sector to continue helping feed the global population all while minimizing climate impact.
    “Right now, we’re exporting more than 15% of dairy solids, so we’re very much a part of the global marketplace,” Jonker said. “We know there’s a lot of interest and pressure to change the industry’s carbon footprint, both domestically and internationally. We think we can be a solution.”
    The project, set to be achieved by 2050, will accomplish three goals: to reach carbon neutrality or better; to optimize nutrient recycling and minimize nutrient loss; and to minimize water quality impacts while upholding the industry’s reputation, markets and profitability.
    In 2019, the project was introduced before the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Yet, such ambitious goals were already set forth in the industry.
    “This is not a new concept,” Jonker said. “This is something we’ve been striving toward for more than a decade.”
    Previously, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States Department of Agriculture, with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas intensity 25% by 2020.
    The project is in its early stages as industry barriers are reviewed and solutions to bridge such barriers are being discussed. Those barriers may include financial feasibility, scaling abilities of intricate technologies and even market incentives.  
    “We know through modeling that we can get (to net zero carbon emissions by 2050). We also know where our barriers are and that’s going to help us in the coming years,” Jonker said. “There are technology, policy and financial barriers that need to be solved.”
    For example, methane digesters are widely accepted as a tool to reduce a farm’s carbon footprint, Jonker said. However, the opportunity for farms of all shapes to implement such technology is not reasonable.
    As barriers are fully addressed, the second pillar of the project moves forward to determine how dairy farms and industry partners have access to technical, financial and educational support to reach the 2050 goal.
    “Many of these things might fall into USDA programs and grants so that there is support for dairy farmers in whichever opportunities they choose for their farm,” Jonker said.
    The third tier of the project is to use pilot farms to closely examine the feasibility and scalability of new and emerging technologies to improve on-farm sustainability.
    “This is a unique thing being done from a U.S. perspective,” Jonker said. “We’re looking to see how we can expedite the project with these pilot farms. The idea is these farms will help demonstrate the efficacy of technology and reduce capital cost. When we combine those with support, then we can start scaling these opportunities across the industry.”
    Then, the industry should have a variety of opportunities dairy farmers and industry partners can choose from that is most appropriate for their businesses.
    The Net Zero Initiative should give the dairy industry a competitive edge in the global marketplace as well as create a roadmap for a better future that is led by the industry.
    “By having the industry take charge, rather than by government or customer mandates, it’s an opportunity for the dairy sector,” Jonker said. “We will partner with customers to come along for the journey, but they’re not going to be the ones dictating what the journey looks like.”
    Throughout the next few decades, the plan may be revised as technologies become available and opportunities are realized.
    “By having this long runway to a 2050 goal, it gives us the chance to systemically look at barriers and bridge those barriers,” Jonker said. “Ultimately, it will give each dairy farmer opportunities to participate in the journey to carbon-neutral or better.”
    While the plan will include options for each dairy farm, the goal of carbon neutrality is for the industry as a whole with the realization that some dairies of the nation’s 34,000 farms may never reach a net-zero carbon footprint.
    “We don’t want to say every farm must do XYZ,” Jonker said. “There may be farms that are carbon sinks, and while they’ll see reduced carbon, they may never be necessarily neutral. We’ll meet this goal by looking at the industry as an aggregate of every farm.”
    As the industry evolves with both customer and consumer demands, the Net Zero Initiative will help meet those expectations in a way that is favorable for dairy farmers and position the United States well in the global marketplace.
    “One of our realizations is that in the absence of the initiative, there will still be immense pressure to reduce dairy’s carbon footprint,” Jonker said. “This is our opportunity to put out that roadmap and make it financially rewarding at the same time. And that is the greatest outcome that can come from it.”