Dairy processors in the US and beyond are aware of the impact of sustainability on the dairy sector and the ongoing efforts to produce products that are respectful to the resources, land, animals and people involved.

In recent years there has been increasing pressure on dairy companies to demonstrate greater environmental stewardship and social responsibility. This comes at a time when the business case for sustainable operations grows stronger every year.

Over the past 75 years, US dairy production has made significant reductions in water and land use while drastically reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – but consumers and investors want more from the industry.


Goal setting

A year-long consultation process that included input from the Dairy Sustainability Alliance and an extensive stakeholder and public comment period led to the development of voluntary environmental stewardship goals in 2020. As a result, US dairy collectively commits to achieve GHG neutrality, optimize water use while maximizing recycling and improve water quality by optimizing utilization of manure and nutrients by 2050.

“Reaching these goals requires partnerships across the dairy value chain and with partners in agriculture and research as well as with global, multilateral companies and organizations,” said Karen Scanlon, senior vice president, Environmental Stewardship, Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, Ill. “US dairy will reach these goals through the work of individual farm and company efforts and through two main strategies: the US Dairy Net Zero Initiative for field and farm and the Processor Working Group for the plant.”

The Processor Working Group, which was established in 2017, convenes more than 50 participants representing over 25 organizations to support continuous improvement in GHG, packaging, waste and water.

The group has shaped a processor handbook that provides insight and guidance for processors to assess the sustainability of their operations, highlight responsible management practices and demonstrate the industry’s commitment to continuous improvement. This handbook and its metrics are now widely used through the US Dairy Stewardship Commitment and is currently adopted by 75% of the US milk supply cooperatives and processors that have adopted the Stewardship Commitment.

“Dairy processors are pursuing a range of strategies to increase energy efficiency, reduce water withdrawal and deliver significant GHG reductions and cost savings,” Scanlon said.

Scanlon cited Denver-based Leprino Foods’ sustainability projects at its Greeley, Colo., facility, including the installation of a water reclamation and purification system that maximizes efficient use, allowing 600,000 gallons of clean water returned to the local river daily. The company also installed a $22 million combined heat and power system that generates 12 megawatts of electricity, increasing the plant’s energy efficiency and lowering costs.

“Processors – whether as a cooperative with farmer members, or a processor that has procurement relationships with farmers – have an opportunity to support and collaborate along the dairy supply chain to help farms achieve GHG reductions through the Net Zero Initiative,” Scanlon said. “One of the biggest challenges is ensuring the economics of a project also makes good business sense and the pace at which companies are prepared and able to implement capital intensive infrastructure changes is in line with the economics.”

The costs associated with US Dairy’s Net Zero Initiative, and ultimately reaching the goals, include investments in new research, on-farm pilots and new market development to make sustainability technology and practices affordable, accessible and economically viable for farms of all sizes, according to Scanlon.

To date, the program has received more than $36 million in grants and partnerships to support US dairy’s progress toward its goals.

“Dairy farmers, the organizations that support them and dairy processing companies are committed to and investing in progress toward the industry’s 2050 environmental goals,” Scanlon said. “As with any business, dairy farms and companies determine how best to lower their environmental footprint in an economically sustainable way. This balanced decision making requires science-based information, technical expertise, financial assistance and market opportunity.”

Standing out

Each year, the US Dairy Sustainability Awards program, hosted by the Innovation Center for US Dairy, recognizes farms, businesses and partnerships for their socially responsible, economically viable and environmentally sound practices and technologies that have a broad and positive impact. The program has given more than 80 awards since its creation in 2012.

This year, Milk Specialties Global (MSG), Monroe, Wisc., was recognized for Outstanding Dairy Processing Sustainability. To meet demand for dairy protein in foods and beverages, MSG acquired a plant in Monroe, Wisc., to collect and process whey, a by-product of cheesemaking, into whey proteins. However, the whey supply from local cheesemakers far outweighed processing capacity. Instead of trucking the whey to a larger plant, MSG found a way to double capacity at the plant without increasing the facility’s footprint. Artisanal cheesemakers saw a waste product turn into a revenue stream.

Additionally, truck miles decreased by 237,232 miles, saving 47,446 gallons of diesel fuel and reducing GHG emissions by 486 metric tons; 2.9 million gallons of water are now reclaimed and returned to the local watershed and more than 53,000 pounds of whey protein is produced annually.

Bel Brands USA, Chicago, and Land O’Lakes Inc., Arden Mills, Minn., were also recognized for Outstanding Supply Chain Sustainability for a collaborative multi-year program designed to demonstrate the value of feed production practices that improve soil health, reduce greenhouse gas, improve sustainable farming practices and reduce dairy’s environmental footprint.

The project provides cost incentives, access to resources and expertise, and the use of the Truterra Insights Engine to participating farms. The first pilot took place on Boadwine Farms, Baltic, SD, a member-owner of Land O’Lakes, where efforts to improve soil health have been ongoing for more than 10 years. The program is being expanded to dairy farms ranging in size from 450 to 2,000 cows.

“Our partnership with Land O’Lakes and dairy farmers exemplifies our unwavering commitment to sustainability,” said Brian Zook, director, milk sourcing and sustainability at Bel Brands USA. “We want to be the best possible partners to dairy farmers in their efforts to make the dairy industry more sustainable and conserve the planet’s resources across all areas of supply chain.”

In early 2022, Bel committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout the entire value chain by 25% between 2017 and 2035. Similarly, Land O’Lakes committed that all dairy farmer-owners will complete an intensive on-farm sustainability assessment by 2025.

Bel Brands USA has also partnered with Dairy Farmers of America, Kansas City, Kan., and recently announced the results of their sustainable milk cooling pilot program, which launched in 2021. In search of energy efficient and cost-effective methods, the 12-month project featured new natural well water systems and forced air barn cooling systems installed on a DFA member Iowa dairy farm that is a milk supplier for Bel Brands.

The cooling methods used led to a 6% reduction in electricity use, as well as a 4% increase in milk production at the farm. Sand bedding also helped farmers spend less time on tractors, reducing CO2 emissions by 58 tons.

Bel and DFA are extending their partnership and implementing a new program designed to support the next generation of US dairy farmers.

“Sustainability has been important to our farm families long before it was a buzzword, as taking care of their animals and the land is their future and livelihood,” said Hansel New, director of sustainability programs at DFA. “Partners like Bel Brands are helping bring technologies to our farms to help reduce their environmental footprint and climate impact.”