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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 24, 2007

Modern methods of dairy farming
can reduce greenhouse gases and preserve greenspace

We’ve heard the phrase "preserve rural character" for years now in each of the towns we cover. Suburbanites in Guilderland say they moved here for the rural character. A Hilltown as far up the Helderbergs as Rensselaerville is now in the midst of implementing a comprehensive land-use plan to preserve its highly-valued rural character.

Nothing does that better than keeping the farmers in business.

"Dairy farms are probably the best use for most of the agricultural land in New York State," says Carl Peterson, a Knox dairy farmer who for decades served on the board of directors of AgriMark, a dairy cooperative serving 1,300 farm families in New York and six New England states.

Dairy farming adapts well to the climate in the region, he says. Five generations of Peterson’s family have worked the farm on the Bozenkill. "If we were to lose our dairy farms," said Peterson, "I don’t know what would replace it."

We do: Housing developments and shopping malls, parking lots and traffic jams.

Dairy farmers in New York were hard hit last year. This April, they received an average of $16.50 per hundredweight of milk, $4 above what they got last April, according to figures released this week from the New York field office of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

We applaud Eliot Spitzer for initiating the Dairy Assistance Program, which appropriated $30 million for dairy farmers this year. Of that, $25 million has been given to farmers who applied by the April 27 deadline.

The deadline has been extended to July 9 to use the remaining $5 million. We urge dairy farmers who haven’t already applied for the funds to do so now; we’ll all benefit. We’ll keep parts of our towns rural and we’ll keep our economy vital.

Beyond that, the extra funds and increasing milk prices might help farmers to make improvements that will protect our future. Livestock contributes heavily to greenhouse gases. Cows produce methane and carbon dioxide as part of their digestive processes. Additionally, cow manure releases methane and nitrous oxide — all greenhouse gases that cause global warming. (The 8.3 million dairy cows in the United States, which produce about 180 billion pounds of milk a year, also produce about 342 billion tons of manure a year.)

Technological advances on dairy farms increase the amount of milk produced by each cow rather than adding more and more cows. In New York State, for example, the number of milk cows this April averaged 627,000 head, down 17,000 head from last April. But the milk produced per cow averaged 1,605 pounds, up 15 pounds from the rate last April, resulting in just a 2 percent decline in milk production.

No matter how much or little milk a cow is producing, metabolic needs must be met. A dry cow still produces waste, including methane and carbon dioxide. It is better for the environment and better for the farmer to have fewer cows efficiently producing more milk; the farmer benefits since feed is expensive and fewer cows to feed means more profits.

Modern farming allows cows to produce over 50 pounds of milk a day, with some cows averaging over 160 pounds. To reach this level, cows must be kept healthy, comfortable, and well fed.

The poorer the quality of the feed, the more methane the cow releases. Also, low-quality feeds, improperly-sized feed, and improperly balanced diets all add to pass-through material in cow manure, again causing more release of methane. So a properly balanced diet not only helps the environment but also cuts the cost of feed.

Increasing cows’ comfort is one of the most straightforward ways to increase milk production. Cows need easy access to food and clean water, room to lie down in comfortable bedding, and a clean disease-free barn. Cows that are stressed from over-crowding or have to waste energy getting to feed produce less milk.

Computer programs can help with good barn management as well as breeding programs — a cow cannot lactate if she has not given birth.

Efficient farms also put cow manure to good use. Manure is less harmful than manmade fertilizers on soil, nitrogen levels, and water. Also, current projects are underway to trap the methane from manure and use it as a fuel source to run farm equipment.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 1998 that increased efficiencies in the United States dairy industry over the last 30 years increased milk production by 10 million tons while it decreased methane production by 170,000 tons, meaning the methane produced per pound of milk decreased by almost a third.

Cash-strapped farmers are hard-pressed to make improvements that will sustain not only their own operation and the local economy but preserve the environment for the long run. We’d like to see the 30-year trend continue, so we support the Dairy Assistance Program and hope our state legislature will endorse similar programs in the future, particularly if the funds are earmarked for improvements that will increase milk production while reducing the number of cows or will lead to productive use of manure. These measures will keep greenhouse gases in check while sustaining farms that maintain valuable green space for the rest of us to enjoy.

"Every time farms go out of business, it affects more than just the farmer," said Douglas LaGrange, an eighth-generation New Scotland dairy farmer. The effects trickle down to the prices consumers pay at the grocery store, he said.

"Farms keep open space," LaGrange concluded. "The longer you keep farms operating, the longer you keep the rural character everyone desires."

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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