The Role of Manure for Dairy Carbon Neutrality Targets: An Environmental Assessment of Organic Farms


Different dairy associations and cooperatives have been establishing aggressive environmental goals, including reaching carbon neutrality. Carbon sequestration has been largely absent from environmental dairy studies as it is challenging to estimate. The daily feed intake of dairy cows under organic management is composed mainly of pasture and forages, which have a significantly more developed root system than many other grain cropping systems usually included in conventionally managed feed rations. Moreover, manure is also an important source of carbon, that could be sequestered in the long-term depending on the farm’s management practices. This paper quantifies GHG emissions from organic dairy farms in the U.S., including the benefits of carbon sequestration from above and below ground residues.

What Did We Do?

The U.S. was divided into eight regions based on U.S. climate categories and management practices of the organic dairy farms that participated in the study. This paper presents the results for the Midwest-Great Lakes, New England, California, and the Northwest, where representative organic farms and management practices for each region are modeled with life cycle assessment (LCA) techniques to estimate GHG emissions (kg CO2-eq). The model keeps track of key constituents in milk, meat, and manure based on the defined feed ration and animal characteristics. All inputs and outputs at the farm level during feed production, herd management, milking, and manure management are included in the analysis. Results are expressed per 1 kg of fat and protein corrected milk (FPCM), adjusted to 4% fat and 3.3% protein.

A novel approach has been developed to estimate carbon sequestration from carbon staying in the field that considers environmental factors such as temperature and farm management practices that affect the carbon content of manure reaching the soil and posterior sequestration. Three major steps are used to estimate C sequestration from the pasture and crops portion of dairy feed in the modeled organic systems: i) estimate the C added to the soil from biomass in above ground residues, below ground residues, and manure; ii) estimate the change in C above and below ground as a result of crop and grassland management practices, iii) determine the amount of C from the first steps that will be sequestered long-term.

What Have We Learned?

Average GHG emissions for the modeled farms and regions range from 0.76 – 1.08 kg CO2-eq/kg FPCM after accounting for C sequestration. Enteric methane (CH4) represents more than half of total GHGs and is closely related to the efficiency of conversion of feed to milk by the cow. Carbon sequestration benefits reduce overall emissions by 7 – 20% in the modeled farms and regions. Farms in the Midwest and New England rely heavily on pasture during the grazing season and on grass forages produced on-farm during the non-grazing season, meaning that most of the C is sequestered through residue that stays in the soil system (42 – 49% from below ground residue vs. 35 – 42% from manure). The addition of carbon in manure is also significant, contributing more carbon to the soil than below ground residue in some farms, especially in those relying on imported feeds (43 – 47% from manure in California and the Northwest).

Future Plans

GHG emissions, ammonia emissions, resource depletion (energy, land, and water) and eutrophication potential of organic dairy farms will be estimated for the remaining regions in the U.S. The effect of alternative management practices, key to organic practices, will also be modeled to identify mitigation strategies. Finally, different LCA modeling decisions, such as allocation and use of enteric CH4 predictive equations, will be evaluated to determine their effect on final results.


Horacio Andres Aguirre-Villegas, Associate Scientist, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Corresponding author email address

Additional authors

Rebecca A. Larson, Associate Professor. Department of Biological Systems Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Nicole Rakobitsch, CROPP, Organic Valley.

Michel A. Wattiaux, Professor, Animal and Dairy Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Erin, Silva, Associate Professor, Plant Pathology, University of Wisconsin-Madison


This work was funded by the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producers Pools (CROPP) Cooperative – Organic Valley


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