More With Less: Nature-Inspired Advances

Shrinking dairy’s footprint with every gallon of milk


Efficiency through Technology

Historically, technology has helped to stem the expansion of the agriculture frontier. During the “green revolution,” productivity increased faster than population and consumption, slowing or even halting habitat loss. Now, technology lags behind. And it needs to catch up, fast.

We must double the efficiency of every agricultural input—including water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy. Soil (see Restoring Soil Carbon) is a great place to start.

But it also takes one liter of water to produce one calorie of food. Can we use a half-liter to produce two calories? These are the kind of results we need if we are going to produce enough food for everyone on a finite planet.

Mike McCloskey is Chair of the Sustainability Council at the Innovation Center for US Dairy.

Since I was young, I've been amazed by how chickens lay eggs, sows have 12 piglets and cows give milk—producing food for all. It's a joy to be a farmer.

As a dairy producer, I think the beauty of a cow is that the better you treat her, the more productive she is. Over the last few decades, we've figured out how to make cows very comfortable, and we've achieved great productivity.

But you can only make a cow so comfortable, so innovation must now come from elsewhere if we are to continue our trajectory of increasing productivity while decreasing our environmental footprint. Over the last 70 years, the US dairy industry has decreased both carbon emissions and the use of water by nearly two-thirds. In 2008, we committed to further decrease our greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020, embracing sustainability across the entire value chain in a pre-competitive approach.

The carbon footprint of a gallon of milk continues to shrink as we leverage technology—in genetics, pharmacology, chemicals, feed and water delivery to our feed crops. Technology also plays a major role in protecting the environment.

On my farm, manure is our best soil amendment. Traditionally, we applied it directly to our land. Today, we put manure through anaerobic digesters to produce methane gas—a potent energy source. A farm can produce enough electricity to run its own business, sell 60% to the grid as green power and still use digester waste as fertilizer.

We're now able to fuel 42 milk trucks with compressed natural gas produced right here. As I watch those trucks leave our farm, fueled by our own biogas, I'm hungry for more advances. We're just scratching the surface. I can't wait to see what's next.

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