CALS leads new $9.9 million initiative on dairying and climate change

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack came to campus last week to announce a new, CALS-led, $9.9 million effort to help dairy farms reduce their output of greenhouse gases and become more resilient to the impacts of a changing climate (see coverage in this week’s CALS in the News).

Matt Ruark, assistant professor of soil science, will direct the project, which involves researchers and extension staff from seven universities, five federal labs of the U.S. Agriculture and Energy Departments and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Molly Jahn, professor of genetics and agronomy, serves as co-director.

Ruark says that the effort aims to find ways to reduce GHG emissions generated in all phases of dairy production while continuing to grow profitability and productivity.

“We will be working across the entire dairy production system to improve production efficiency while decreasing negative impacts in an effort to support U.S. dairy producers’ ongoing sustainability efforts,” Ruark says.

“This is about adaptation—how to move agriculture forward to be as productive as possible as we move into a changing climate,” Ruark says. “Anything we can do to reduce losses of carbon, nitrogen and water from the system can lead to greater efficiency. This will lead to more profit for the producer, less impact on the environment and a sustainable milk supply for the consumer.”

The project is supported by a coalition of dairy industry organizations, which in 2008 made a voluntary commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from milk production by 25 percent by 2020.

“This award is built on the very strong partnerships that are in place to further the commitment of America’s dairy producers to world-class science and continue to move the dairy industry toward a vibrant, prosperous future in balance with our natural resource base, including climate,” says Jahn, who has worked to build industry support for the effort.

In their quest to identify opportunities to reduce GHG emissions, multidisciplinary research teams will look at all aspects of milk production—dairy rations and dairy cow genetics, manure handling and storage, crops, tillage and rotations—to identify systems that are most effective at retaining carbon, nitrogen, and water while maintaining healthy financial bottom lines.

Among the research partners is the industry-sponsored Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, which is working with university and federal researchers to refine a decision tool that farmers can use to assess the impact of various management practices on their own farms’ production and sustainability. The decision tool will be informed by the research findings and tested on commercial dairy operations in several states, including farms participating in Wisconsin’s Discovery Farms program.

There is also an educational component. Science educators will work with public school districts to develop curricula that integrate food and agriculture with cutting-edge approaches to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That effort includes a partnership with the Milwaukee Public Schools anchored at Vincent High School.

The project is being funded through USDA’s Coordinated Agricultural Projects program, which brings together teams of researchers that represent various geographic areas to support discovery, applications and promote communication leading to innovative, science-based solutions to critical and emerging national priorities and needs.

Along with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the project includes researchers from the University of Arkansas, the University of Michigan, Cornell University, Pennsylvania State University, North Carolina A&T State University and the University of Washington, along with four USDA-ARS laboratories, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.