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Demonstrating a Seismic Shift in Dairy Sustainability Collaboration

California faces a unique tension: On one side, we are blessed with a mild climate and rich alluvial soils that combine to give California some of the most fertile farmland in the world. Juxtaposed with that, it is one of the world’s most desirable places to live.

We are blessed with a beautiful, rich natural landscape that is home to 40 million people. Urban and rural populations, livestock and other agriculture and wildlife compete for space and resources.

Further complicating this proximity challenge is scarcity of the region’s water. Despite historically abundant runoff from the Sierra Nevada mountains, California’s limited surface and ground water stores are in significant demand from people, agriculture and wildlife.

This tension drives a demanding environmental sustainability management effort and California’s dairy industry is rising to meet the challenge. The recent inaugural California Dairy Sustainability Summit in Sacramento marked a turning point where dairy producers, regulatory bodies and NGOs reached a milestone — recognizing that we are all in this sustainability challenge together, and a collaborative approach gives us a far better chance for success.

From a regulatory perspective, California has some of the strictest environmental regulations in the nation — and indeed, the world. For decades, California dairy farmers have been working with state regulators to reduce environmental impacts, making steady improvements while optimizing animal care, ensuring food safety, and contributing to communities and local livelihoods.

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Looking at land management, we are taking a pragmatic and realistic approach to the tough tasks on the table — water, land, air and climate; along with cow comfort, nutrition and responding to progressive consumer expectations. At the same time, we recognize the extreme financial challenges faced by California dairy producers and agree that “sustainability” must also mean economic viability. If we work together and embrace new approaches and partnerships, we can be successful.

California is also the only state to set aggressive GHG-reduction goals, calling for a 40 percent reduction of the state’s GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 2030. Part of that goal is aimed squarely at the state’s cattle industry, which has been asked to reduce its emissions of methane from manure by 40 percent from 2013 levels by 2030. Fortunately, the state’s goal has been backed by a willingness to invest in dairy methane-reduction projects, with close to a half-billion dollars invested in incentive programs over the past five years.

Additional milestones of the California dairy industry include:

  • The installation of methane digesters and alternative manure-management projects demonstrate that California dairy farms are already on track to achieve a 40-percent reduction in manure methane emissions by 2030. It is anticipated that up to 120 dairy digesters will be operating in the state within five years.

  • A growing number of dairy farms are reducing the use of fossil fuels by converting diesel-powered equipment to electric. Conversions made by individual farms can eliminate up to 20 tons of smog-forming emissions per year, the equivalent to the emissions of 7,800 cars.

  • Ongoing investment upwards of $20 million per year to improve water quality.

  • New digester technologies are creating carbon-negative transportation fuel from dairy biogas, produced by stored manure. This fuel is being used instead of diesel to power heavy-duty trucks and farm equipment, and is ten times more effective at reducing carbon than even electric vehicles.

  • In one 1,100-acre pilot, the Alfalfa Project has reduced water usage by 47 percent and increased crop yields by up to 77 percent. Consider the potential of better yields with less water applied to the 350,000 acres of California alfalfa crops — a primary feed stock of the livestock industry.

  • More than 100 California dairies are generating solar energy. The 65 dairy solar projects in Tulare County produce enough solar energy to meet the energy needs of more than 18,000 homes.

I am proud that all of us in the California dairy industry are taking ownership, showing leadership and committing to collaboration. We are doing this in a pragmatic, realistic manner that fully balances the need for both economic and environmental sustainability. There is a compelling business case for doing this, because it will build trust in our industry and allow California to remain a strong player in the supply chain, while building efficiencies and cost savings into our production, even as we continue to provide some of the most wholesome food in the world. We own our destiny — it is a worthwhile cause, and will have a positive impact now and for generations to come.