Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation in Dairy Production Systems of the Great Lakes

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To better understand how dairy agriculture can reduce its impact on climate change, the USDA has supported a large, transdisciplinary research project to examine dairy production systems across the Great Lakes region of the United States. The goals of the Sustainable Dairy Coordinated Agricultural Project are to identify where in the life cycle of a dairy system can beneficial management practices (BMP) be applied to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) without sacrificing productivity or profit to the farmer. Since 2013, a team of 70 researchers has been collaborating across institutions and disciplines to conduct the investigations.

What did we do?

Experimental data were collected at the cow, barn, manure, crop and soil levels from 2013-2016 by agricultural and life scientists. Modelers continue to conduct comparative analyses of process models at the animal, field and farm scales. Atmospheric scientists have down-scaled global climate models to the Great Lakes region and are integrating climate projections with process modeling results. The Life Cycle Assessment team is evaluating select beneficial management practices to identify where the greatest reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) may occur. Results of focus groups and farmer surveys in Wisconsin and New York will help us understand how producers currently farm and what types of changes they may be willing to implement, not just to reduce emissions but to adapt to long-term changes in climate.

What have we learned?

Through the Dairy CAP grant, researchers have developed and refined the best ways to measure GHG emissions at the cow, barn, manure, crop and soil levels, and these data are archived through the USDA National Sustainable Dairy LogoAgricultural Library. Results show that the greatest levels of methane produced on a farm come from enteric emissions of the cow and changes in the diet, digestion and genetics of the cow can reduce those emissions. Another significant source of methane—manure production, storage and management—can be substantially reduced through manure management practices, particularly when it is processed through an anaerobic digester. Changes in timing of nitrogen application and use of cover crops practices are found to improve nitrogen efficiency and reduce losses from the field.

A comparative analysis of process models showed multiple differences in their ability to predict GHG emissions and nutrient flow (particularly nitrogen dynamics) at the animal, farm, and field scales. Field data collected were used to calibrate and refine several models. The Life Cycle Assessment approach shows that a combination of BMPs can reduce GHG emissions without sacrificing milk production. The application of down-scaled climate data for the Great Lakes region is being used in conjunction with the suite of BMPs to develop mitigation and adaptation scenarios for dairy farming in the Upper Midwest.

Research findings are shared through a series of fact sheets available on the project website, and a web-based, virtual farm that presents educational materials for 150- and 1500-cow operations to a variety of audiences, ranging from high school students to academics.

Future Plans

The Dairy CAP grant sunsets in 2018, but research questions remain relative to the efficacy of beneficial management practices at different stages in the life cycle of a farm. Challenges revolve around the complexity of farming practices, the individuality of each farm and how it is managed, and uncertainty associated with the predictive capabilities of models. Mitigation and adaptation strategies will be shared with the dairy industry, educators and extension partners who will be responsible for working with farmers at the field level. Implementation of these strategies will make dairy farming in the Great Lakes region more resilient.

Corresponding author, title, and affiliation

Carolyn Betz, Research Project Manager, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Department of Soil Science

Corresponding author email

Other authors

Matt Ruark and Molly Jahn

Additional information


This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2013-68002-20525.