cows go on a diet to save the planet

A project underway at Stonyfield Farms is changing the food cows eat and finding herds' methane reductions reduced by 18 percent, while also improving cows' health and the quality of their milk.

The project launched in January, when 15 farms in Vermont switched up the feed for their cattle herds to include more grasslike foods like alfalfa and flax and less corn and soy.

The results are surprising: in addition to the significant methane reductions, farmer Guy Choiniere told the New York Times, "They are healthier [...] Their coats are shinier, and the breath is sweet."

More from the Times' article, which was reported by Leslie Kaufman:

[...]with worldwide production of milk and beef expected to double in the next 30 years, the United Nations has called livestock one of the most serious near-term threats to the global climate. In a 2006 report that looked at the environmental impact of cows worldwide, including forest-clearing activity to create pasture land, it estimated that cows might be more dangerous to Earth's atmosphere than trucks and cars combined.


In the United States, where average milk production per cow has more than quadrupled since the 1950s, fewer cows are needed per gallon of milk, so the total emissions of heat-trapping gas for the American dairy industry are relatively low per gallon compared with those in less industrialized countries.


A reason farmers like corn and soy is that those crops are a plentiful, cheap source of energy and protein — which may lead some to resist replacing them. But Ms. Laurain said flax cost less than soy, although grain prices can fluctuate. The flax used in the new feed is grown in Canada, is often heated to release the oil in its seed and yield the maximum benefit for the cow. For now, however, that process is expensive because there is no plant for it in the United States, and the flax is shipped to Europe for heating.


Ms. Laurain maintains that even if the feed costs more, it yields cost savings because the production of milk jumps about 10 percent and animals will be healthier, live longer and produce milk for more years.

As we reported yesterday, farming practices are key to any efforts to reduce climate change, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute. Agriculture and land use together are responsible for about one-third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, the report said, and although there has heretofore been a lack of policy work on promoting greener practices, there have been no shortage of innovations coming from farmers and food producers themselves.

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