Methane digester

Rethinking methane: Dairy farmers capture an opportunity for leadership

Here's our perspective on what’s working now, what still needs to be done and why methane management is so important to today’s farmers

This past October, many international policy watchers were surprised when the U.S. and China jointly announced at the UN COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, they would work together to limit greenhouse gas emissions. They called for incentives to help reduce methane emissions in agriculture.
This announcement marked another turning point in the expanding conversation on methane, a conversation that often returns to America’s farms. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates U.S. agriculture generates about 10 percent of greenhouse gases emitted by the U.S. economy. Farmers are on the front lines of climate change – with disruptions and volatility affecting their day-to-day operations and livelihoods. They are also in a unique position to lead some of the most impactful climate solutions – starting with methane. Land O’Lakes is a cooperative owned by farmers, and we pride ourselves in empowering farmers to make improvements to tackle these complex problems and ensure their livelihoods while protecting the environment for generations to come.
As we look ahead to COP27 this November and further discussions that will inevitably follow, here’s Land O’Lakes' perspective about what’s working now, what still needs to be done and why methane management is so important to today’s farmers as well as to everyone else.

Understanding dairy’s impact begins with data

The U.S. has a goal to reduce methane emissions 30 percent by 2030. Yet, for dairy farms to meaningfully contribute to this goal, we, as an industry, need focus to include improving measurement frameworks to identify economically sound on-farm interventions that can lead to tangible methane reduction. Data from the cows, data from the farm, and data from the farmer must all be considered for an accurate, U.S dairy industry life cycle analysis.
Our sustainability business, Truterra, is taking a leadership position on the quantification and data aspects of emissions. Curt Gooch was recently hired within Truterra to lead the development of technology and innovation related to accurate greenhouse gas measurement on dairy farms.
“In considering approaches to measurement, one solution involves sampling a farm population and scaling the results to represent the U.S. dairy industry greenhouse gas emissions footprint,” says Gooch.  “At Truterra, we are taking a different approach, the cow-centric approach, which borrows on the strength of knowing dairy cattle, their nutritional needs across stages of life, and products they produce. This method uses region, state, and multi-state-specific data on type and quality of feed, along with milk production outputs, as appropriate, to quantify greenhouse gas emissions more accurately.”
The work Truterra is leading in this space will help bring the data used to quantify dairy emissions more into the modern age and facilitate better insights for processors, food companies, dairy producers and more.

Curbing methane emissions now: Working cooperatively

It also will take a wide range of economically viable, sustainable options to reach the 2030 goal. Many recognize agriculture’s potential to serve as a “carbon sink,” sequestering carbon in the soil. Dairy farmers can go a quantum step further – they can also produce renewable energy from manure, which not only displaces fossil fuels used for electricity generation and transportation, but also reduces naturally occurring methane emissions from long-tenure manure storages, a double up reduction on climate warming. In recent years, dairy farmers have accelerated adoption of anaerobic digester technologies – various approaches and methods that converts manure solids and food waste into renewable energy, helping displace methane emissions from polluting the atmosphere.
In 2018, Truterra initiated a collaboration with leading dairy digester developer California BioEnergy (CalBio), and focused on developing sustainability infrastructure that farmers need to generate renewable energy from manure.
CalBio is a company working to bring the technology to more farms across California, with 44 digesters currently active, including several Land O’Lakes members. The company is producing renewable natural gas (RNG), as an energy fuel. When truck fleets switch from diesel to natural gas, pollution emissions are reduced by approximately 90 percent, delivering an immediate advancement for air quality in California’s San Joaquin Valley and L.A. basin.
CalBio operates the project and provides farms with full financing – or offers the option for farmers to invest and be an owner.
Several Land O’Lakes farmer members have installed digesters on their farms as part of this partnership between Land O’Lakes and CalBio, and these farmers in the Tulare, California area feel that this is just an extension of doing their part as environmentalists and expands on the nature of the co-op because of the way they work together for a common purpose.

Methane technologies crucial to sustain the future

Across the country in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, we have another Land O’Lakes farmer member considering how methane management will drive their future.
Reinford Farms includes 22 employees cultivating 1,400 acres and nearly 700 cows producing about 50,000 pounds of milk per day that’s shipped to a nearby Land O’Lakes facility. At its heart, though, it’s a multi-generation family business, involving Steve and Gina Reinford, and their sons Brett, Drew and Chad. The family sees their commitment to sustainable technology as a pathway to ensuring its future.
The farm also has a manure-based anaerobic digester, which processes 12,000 gallons of manure per day, in addition to food waste from 15 local grocery stores and food manufacturers. On the farm, they’re able to take that food waste and turn it in to renewable energy. Reinford Farms co-digester results in 6,000 to 12,000 gallons of food waste diverted from landfill per day, and combined with the manure they are processing, it's enough to power their entire farm and 100 homes.
Always looking for what’s next, the farm recently purchased a de-packager that allows them to accept culled pre-packaged foods and remove the packaging before adding the food waste to the digester.
While it hasn’t come together overnight, enough pieces have been put in place to survive, sustain, innovate, and one day pass the farm on to the next generation eager to make a positive mark on the planet.

The opportunity for leadership

U.S. dairy’s bold greenhouse gas commitment – to be net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 –  requires actionable data and working together for full-system solutions. Farmers’ work as stewards of their land is the most important baseline from which to scale methane reduction via cattle management, anerobic digestion of manure and food waste, nutrient management, and innovative partnerships.
Dairy farmers are leaders in their communities and leaders in sustainability, and Land O’Lakes is committed to enabling them as leaders in methane reduction.