LA FARGE, WIS. –  A dairy lifecycle assessment study conducted on Organic Valley farms found that dairy farms are able to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

Authored by a research group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the study was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. The peer reviewed study explains how small organic dairy farms that focus on grazing and organic production techniques can mitigate up to 20% of GHG emissions.

The research team led by Horacio Aguirre-Villegas took into account the carbon sequestration benefits of grazed pastures. The modeling assessment made use of farm input provided by Organic Valley and, per the cooperative, reflects the style of production common to its dairy members.

"The study proposes a method to include carbon sequestration not only in organic but all dairy farm-related LCA studies,” Aguirre-Villegas said. “This method is based on the amount of carbon staying in the soil from above ground residue, below ground residue and manure. The effect of management practices affecting the carbon stock are also considered, such as tillage, land use regime, management and input of organic matter into the soil based on farm and region specific variables such as the level of activity and temperature."

The study also noted other factors that contribute to low GHG emissions, such as “the avoidance of synthetic crop inputs and use of organic crop amendments, the longevity of cattle and prevalent use of manure as a fertilizer source.”

Per Organic Valley, the study of its milk supply is ongoing and the remaining 40% will be assessed by the end of 2023. Previously, the cooperative announced its new carbon insetting program, which includes on-site projects that are regenerative.

Nicole Rakobitsch, Organic Valley’s director of sustainability, said the new lifecycle assessment study represents the baseline carbon footprint of the cooperative’s dairy farms.

“The science proves out what we all intuitively knew was the case – when you have pasture-based systems and organic crop production, you have a smaller carbon footprint," Rakobitsch said. "We are proud that farms in our cooperative average the lowest known carbon footprint of any US dairy supply, but we are not going to rest on that outcome. We are committed to helping our farmers and all of dairy continually lessen our GHG emissions. It's the right thing to do and consumers are looking for food that is good for the planet and their health."

Aguirre-Villegas’ research team included UW-Madison professors Rebecca Larson, Erin Silva and Michel Wattiaux, as well as Rakobitsch.