Wisdom of Doug

By David Schmidt

Reprinted from: Animal Ag

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Doug is a dairy producer (about 1700 cows). I met him a few months back and at a Dairy Conference at Cornell. I was recording some interviews with researchers and farmers on the topic of climate and animal agriculture. I am still reviewing the interviews as I continue to put together more instructional videos on the topic. In any case, I thought what he said good wisdom on how educators approach the issue of climate change and animal agriculture.

“I’m not smart enough to know if we have climate change or global warming. I do know that it’s good stewardship to recapture the resources in our control to harvest them, to make them part of the business revenue. And I also know that if we do that successfully, we will have virtually eliminated the environmental footprint we are causing to society.”

He went on to explain in more detail.

“A lot of people think of sustainability as fluff or nice stuff. I view it as a major business opportunity, I calculated, we have $800,000 a year of resources in our control that we waste. So we’re systematically trying to recover those resources, nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorous. Our rescuing them, adding to business revenue, preventing losses and risk. To me it’s a substantial business opportunity we must pursue. Coincidentally, it’s good stewardship. So it’s a win-win.”

Unfortunately we don’t always follow Doug’s advice as we discuss this issue with public, policy makers and farmers. Often we start hammering on the percent of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and how it is our responsibility to control these emissions. We might then talk about anaerobic digestion as the best tool to reduce these emissions.

What if we changed our frame? For example, in general animal agriculture emits greenhouse gasses primarily from three sources: production of feed for the animals, enteric fermentation, and manure management.

I think Doug would be passionate about stewardship of resources:

  • Methane emissions from manure storage is carbon escaping the farm. By not capturing these emissions (manure storage covers or anaerobic digestion) we lose carbon that should be going back in the soil system.
  • Soil erosion is carbon loss, that can also end up contributing to methane emissions (decomposition of soil organic matter). This soil and soil organic matter is critical for long term crop production.
  • Nitrogen loss from manure storage and management can result in nitrous oxide emissions (a greenhouse gas). Reducing nitrogen volatilization from the manure storage and proper application rates and timing result in more nitrogen available for crop production.
  • Inefficiencies in feed conversion means more greenhouse gas emissions from feed production per unit of animal product in addition to more enteric fermentation from ruminants.
  • Good stewardship can also be seen through the lens of morality. No faith group puts a priority on wasting or depleting natural resources.

The message must be that agriculture has done a great job producing more with less but, we are not done yet.

Always Considering Climate– David

David Schmidt MS. PE is a researcher and educator in the Department of Bioproducts and Bioysystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota and regional project coordinator for the project Animal Agriculture in a Changing Climate, a national project of the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center and funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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