At the recent 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the United States announced that it would join the international Global Methane Pledge, which aims to limit methane emissions by 30%, compared to 2020 levels, by 2030. That’s an ambitious goal, but one that the U.S. dairy industry is already tackling.

The dairy industry launched the Net Zero Initiative in 2020, a five-year effort to fill research gaps and make sustainable practices and technologies more accessible and affordable to U.S. dairy farms of all sizes and geographies. U.S. dairy updated its public-facing environmental goals to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality, optimize water use while maximizing recycling, and improve water quality by optimizing utilization of manure and nutrients, according to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

Methane reduction

Just to be clear, cow burps, not farts, account for 90% to 95% of the methane produced by a cow. Methane (CH4) molecules have a more powerful warming effect on the atmosphere than CO2 molecules, so reducing methane can have a more immediate effect on global warming.

According to Heerlen, Netherlands-based DSM, 58.5% of dairy greenhouse gas emissions come from enteric methane. Novel feed additives designed to reduce methane emissions are currently being trialed.

A new compound, 3-NOP (3-nitroxy-propanol), reduces methane emissions from ruminants. Just a quarter-teaspoon added to their daily diet allows dairy cows to emit 30% less methane and beef cows to emit up to 90% less methane, DSM notes. 

In September 2021, DSM received its first full regulatory approval from the Brazilian and Chilean authorities to commercialize Bovaer, its branded 3-NOP, for beef and dairy cows, sheep and goats. U.S. and European approval might take a bit longer.

Another feed additive being tested for methane reduction is Asparagopsis taxiformis seaweed. Straus Family Creamery, Petaluma, Calif., says it tested this seaweed feed additive — from Blue Ocean Barns — in its organic dairy operations. Study results showed an average of a 52% reduction — and as much as a 90% reduction — in enteric methane.

Water conservation

From 2007 to 2017, dairy farmers were able to use 30% less water to produce a gallon of milk, according to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Those numbers are shrinking even more, thanks to new technology.

The Varcor system from Sedron Technologies, Sedro-Woolley, Wash., uses a process called vapor recompression and distillation to produce clean water and fertilizer from cow manure. Manure that has been mixed with water from cleaning dairy barns is piped into the Varcor system, where it reaches a near boiling point. It then is dried and scraped. The finished products are clean water, organic liquid nitrogen fertilizer, and organic dry fertilizer. 

“Depending on farm specifics, it is possible for a 3,500-cow dairy operation to save 35 million gallons of water per year,” says Stanley Janicki, vice president of business development with Sedron. 

Plans are underway for additional dairies to add this technology in 2022.

One of the winners of the 2020 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards (organized by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy) was Denver-based Leprino Foods. Leprino installed water purification and reclamation equipment. Cow’s milk is about 87% water, and this technology enables Leprino to capture most of this water after cheesemaking and whey processing for cleaning and other uses throughout the facility. This water purification technology yields about 300,000 gallons of water for reuse per day.

In the market

In 2022, sustainability leads Innova Market Insights’ top list of consumer trends. According to Innova, trust and transparency are key to a product’s sustainability story. 

In September, Portland, Ore.-based Neutral Foods said it introduced the first-carbon neutral milk, produced from three small dairy farms in Oregon.

The 2050 goals of the U.S. dairy industry support dairy as an environmental solution, and all of us in the dairy industry need to share dairy’s sustainability story.

Sharon Gerdes is a Certified Food Scientist and author who writes extensively about dairy’s role in health and wellness. Learn more at