COVENTRY, Vt. — Vermont dairy farmers Tim Maikshilo and Kristen Dellert, mindful of shrinking their carbon footprint, have changed their cows' diet to reduce the amount of gas the animals burp — dairy cows' contribution to global warming.
Coventry Valley Farm is one of 15 Vermont farms working with Stonyfield Farm Inc., whose yogurt is made with their organic milk, to reduce the cows' intestinal methane by feeding them flaxseed, alfalfa and grasses high in Omega 3 fatty acids. The gas cows belch is the dairy industry's big- gest greenhouse gas contributor, research shows, most of it emitted from the front and not the back end of the cow.
"I just figured a cow was a cow and they were going to do whatever they were going to do in terms of cow things for gas," Dellert said. "It was pretty shocking to me that just being organic wasn't enough, actually."
The dairy industry contributes about 2 percent to the country's total greenhouse gas production, said Rick Naczi, a vice president at Rosemont, Ill.-based Dairy Management Inc., which funds research and promotes dairy products. Most of it comes from the cow, the rest from growing feed crops for the cattle to processing and transporting the milk.
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To satisfy consumers' demands for sustainable production, the DMI's Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy is looking at everything from growing feed crops to trucking milk to reduce the industry's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. That would be the equivalent of removing about 1.25 million cars from U.S. roads every year, said Naczi, who manages the program.
One way is by feeding cows alfalfa, flax and grasses, all high in Omega 3s, instead of corn or soy, said Nancy Hirschberg, head of Stonyfield's Greener Cow Project. The feed rebalances the cows' rumen, the first stomach of ruminants, and cuts down on gas, she said. Another way is to change the bacteria in a cow's rumen, Naczi said.
The idea of regulating cow burps has drawn derision at times in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. One letter to the editor of The Modesto Bee in 2005 called it "idiotic, illogical and patently stupid."
Yet diet changes have been suggested by the California Air Resources Board as a way to comply with its new rules on reducing greenhouse gases. This could be a challenge for many dairy farmers, who consider corn a key part of producing milk at reasonable cost.
Since January, Coventry Valley Farm has reduced its cows' belches by 13 percent. At another farm, they've gone down 18 percent.
Maikshilo and Dellert also have noticed a difference in their cows. The coats of the black-and-white Holsteins and brown Jerseys are shinier and they've had fewer foot problems and no stomach ailments, they say.
So far, it hasn't cost them any more for their custom-made grain, which the cows only get in the winter. Now they're out grazing on grass in the pasture, getting as many Omega 3s. And the vet bills have gone down.
It's a win-win for farmers, Naczi said.