Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack signed a renewed memorandum of understanding (MOU) agreement on April 25 that takes aim at reducing greenhouse gas emissions through construction of anaerobic digesters and other innovative methods to reduce products previously considered waste streams from dairy production, processing and handling.

The U.S. Dairy Sustainability Initiative was launched in 2008 by Dairy Management Inc., along with the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association, in order to accelerate innovation and build public trust in the industry's commitment to provide consumers with the nutritious products they want in a way that is economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible.

Through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy,  leaders from approximately 80% of the dairy supply chain — including dairy farmers, cooperatives, associations, processors, manufacturers and brands — endorsed this original commitment.

The group’s first priority was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, in 2009, a goal and roadmap were established for the entire value chain to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020.

The MOU calls out the objective of building more anaerobic digesters because they capture methane from waste products, such as manure, to convert into heat and electricity. The technology utilizes generators that are fueled by the captured methane. Dairy operations with anaerobic digesters routinely generate enough electricity to power hundreds of homes per year.

Doug Young, a New York dairy farmer, explains that 70% of the industry's environmental footprint comes at the farm level because of a complex biological system.

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While the first MOU with USDA recognized that the dairy industry was on the right track, Young says this second agreement solidifies the commitment, in a monetary sense, with $9.9 million, which "probably understates the value because you have all the (Agricultural Research Service facilities) and land-grant (universities) now able to feed into this system dairy farmers can use."

The MOU doesn't allocate specific funds but allows each participant to direct, manage and finance its own involvement.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack explained that part of the agreement is to establish a roadmap for biogas patterned after USDA's biofuel roadmap. This will help the industry determine the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

“We want to essentially provide a life-cycle assessment tool as they make infrastructure investments so they can fully understand the costs and benefits of significant investments," Vilsack said.

Since 2009, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has provided $257 million in funding that has helped more than 6,000 dairy farmers plan and implement conservation practices to improve sustainability. That support has resulted in 354 on-farm and in-plant energy audits as well as 18 conservation innovation grants for dairy-related projects during the past three years.

Using the Farm Smart software, Thomas P. Gallagher, chief executive officer of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, says the on-farm audits can help dairy producers of any size evaluate ways to improve efficiencies. This also can help keep dairy prices lower for consumers.

USDA support for agricultural and waste-to-energy research has played a key role in the agreement's success to date, the agency said. Since signing the MOU, USDA has made nearly 180 awards to help finance the development, construction and biogas production of anaerobic digester systems.

Young, who says he has been watching anaerobic digester technology advance for 20 years, should finally be able to build one on his farm this year. "I'm looking forward to converting manure from a liability into an asset and fully recovering the nutrients, carbon and water," he noted. He says technology advancements made over the last two years should increase the adoption rate for anaerobic digesters.

Vilsack sees the MOU as an enormous opportunity for American agriculture to lead itself. “It is sending a message to the rest of the country that we want to be in greater control of our energy use," he says.

 

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