Can Dairy Farms Help Save the Planet?

white and black dairy cow in field
When looking for ways to reduce environmental impact, an increasingly popular strategy is to eat less meat, dairy and other animal products. Considering the magnanimous carbon footprint of factory farming, the countless ecological problems caused by CAFOs, and the fact that that raising an animal requires more energy than growing vegetables, this strategy certainly has merit. However, not all meat and dairy production is equally destructive. As a mighty contingent of small-scale, organic and regenerative farmers and ranchers demonstrate daily, animal-derived foods and beverages can be produced much more sustainably than conventional products. In fact, depending on the specific livestock-raising and agricultural practices employed, their production may even help to revitalize the environment. A newish style of dairy farming fits this bill precisely. Managed grazing, a mainstay in big dairy-producing nations like New Zealand and Ireland, is gaining more traction in the U.S. It’s a much more sustainable alternative to conventional dairy—both ecologically and economically speaking. In a nutshell, managed grazing involves planting the majority of acreage with perennial forages and carefully controlling livestock density and grazing activity to match the land. Cows are rotated through paddocks at various growth stages to ensure they consume optimally nutritious grasses and produce top-quality milk. Meanwhile, their hooves churn up the earth, their ruminant stomachs produce nutrition, their manure enriches the soil and the fields flourish, with some native plant species even reemerging over time. This system requires no tilling, no fertilizing, no manure spreading and significantly fewer inputs overall than conventional dairy farming. Healthier, more resilient soil also means less runoff and erosion. And because managed grazing operations must be on the smaller side, they can be integrated into more and more sensitive areas. Tera’s latest Edible-Alpha® podcast guest, longtime Wisconsin dairy farmer Joe Tomandl, recognized the immense potential of managed grazing many years ago. But beyond the system’s environmental benefits, he also realized it could inject new life into the state’s dairy industry, which has lost 44% of its dairy farms over the last decade. In doing so, managed grazing could help revive rural economies. This led to the creation of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, which connects aspiring dairy farmers with existing managed grazing operations for on-the-job training. After proving successful in Wisconsin, the program has since expanded to 15 states and now includes 200 training farms. Be sure to tune into the new podcast for the whole scoop! But for managed grazing to continue scaling and reach its full environmental and economic potential, there has to be market demand for dairy products produced in this fashion. Same story for 100% grass-fed beef, organic eggs, regenerative goat cheese and any other type of animal-based food produced sustainably. This will require continual consumer education about how and why these products can be part of an environmentally conscious diet and part of the climate change solution.

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