As sustainable practices become the standard way of doing business for the dairy industry, leaders say the focus moving forward is going to be connecting all the pieces along the supply chain together for a cohesive strategy.

New investments, ideas and innovations are working together to ensure the industry’s carbon footprint is on the decline.


Climate-smart practices

In September the US Department of Agriculture announced an $2.8 billion investment in 70 projects through its Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, and these projects include an effort from Dairy Farmers of America, Kansas City, Kan., to scale methane emissions reductions and soil carbon sequestration, as well as a carbon insetting program from Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis.

In their project, Dairy Farmers of America is working to accelerate the adoption of regenerative agriculture and increase soil carbon sequestration to improve soil health, according to Kevin O’Donnell, senior vice-president of sustainability.

Other efforts of the project include reducing methane emissions by optimizing herd ration and scaling feed additive pilots while focusing on manure management through assessments and technology solutions is another initiative. O’Donnell also said the development of low-carbon dairy products that generate farmer premiums will incentivize future investment in climate-smart practices.

“DFA’s vision is that scaling then further normalizing (these) approaches and technologies — a process fueled and advanced by low-carbon dairy product market growth — will help strengthen the business case that climate-smart agriculture is the best path forward for farmers,” O’Donnell said.

Such efforts are good for business because consumers want to invest in products and brands working to improve their footprint, and sustainable dairy products are needed to feed a growing world population, O’Donnell said. He added that new technology and out-of-the-box thinking will be needed in areas like genetics, quantum computing, feed additive optimization, manure to electricity pathways and market-based incentives for accelerated regenerative agriculture.

Organic Valley is focusing on investing in its member farms and offsetting its emissions within the scope of the cooperative. The USDA grant will help provide the resources for 1,200 new projects on 500 farms, and the cooperative will make payments directly to farms for carbon reduction and removal. Some of the efforts include improvements for grazing, pasture and croplands, manure management, feed supplements, agroforestry and solar energy.


Sustainability within the plants

Lowering water and energy use in dairy processing plants is critical to improving sustainability, according to Maxime Devourdy, vice president of corporate development and sustainable growth strategies for Agropur. Because of this, the company has been installing in its facilities digester technologies that use less energy and produce usable biogas.

That biogas can then be used as fuel in boiler systems to offset non-renewable natural gas use or be burned in an electricity generator to create renewable electricity. The company’s plant in Jerome, Idaho, is working to offset part of its electric load using this method, and the method will also be implemented in a new facility in Little Chute, Wis.

While the biogas from wastewater digestors offsets some natural gas use, there is still no substitute for natural gas. As a result, Agropur is also looking at a range of options including improving process efficiencies, recovering heat from exhaust streams and converting some equipment to electricity.

The new Agropur plant in Little Chute, Wis., is also installing LED lighting, high-efficiency HVAC equipment, a boiler stack economizer, blow down health recovery, a two-stage ammonia cooling system, VFD controlled ammonia compressors and VFD controlled air compressors.

Innovative ideas are often being discovered on the plant level. A few years ago, Agropur’s Jerome, Idaho, team also engineered a solution to reduce 100,000 gallons of water a day by creating a circular cooling process.

Efforts from Saputo to increase energy efficiency and lower water consumption include the installation of a water polisher system to clean and reuse water at one of its California plants, and this allows the company to reduce water consumption by 565,000 cubic meters per year.  In the last fiscal year, Saputo also completed nine energy-saving projects including heat recovery systems, steam accumulators and updated boiler controls, and these projects will save more than 94,500 gigajoules of energy and 8,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

Overall, by 2025 Saputo has committed to reducing the carbon dioxide intensity of operations by 20% and energy intensity of operations by 10%.


Adding packaging to the equation

Consumers are increasingly expecting their packaging to be produced in a sustainable manner, and companies are evaluating the impact of their packaging in their overall business practices.

Amcor is working to improve packaging sustainability through a focus on influencing product design standards for recycle-ready flexible packaging, promoting recycling infrastructure and encouraging consumer participation, said Travis Klug, dairy marketing manager for Amcor Flexibles North America, Deerfield, Ill. To achieve these goals, Amcor has introduced AmPrima PE Plus recycle-ready cheese packaging that offers better end-of-life solutions while still preserving product qualities like film clarity, the ability to host complex graphics, stiffness and strength, heat resistance, and compatibility with opening and closing features.

Clover Sonoma, Petaluma, Calif., was the first dairy in the US to switch to fully renewable plant-based milk cartons. Meg Sutula, vice president of marketing, said because plastic waste and fossil-based packaging are contributors to pollution, the company converted more than 10 million cartons to plant-based options in 2020 and will make sure all organic milk cartons are fully renewable by 2025.

Clover Sonoma is also a certified B Corporation business, and Sutula said because of better environmental standards, employee and community engagement and corporate governance, the company improved its score during recertification.

“Having third-party accountability through B Corporation certification keeps us focused on our goal to use our business as a power for good, putting purpose at the forefront of everything we do,” Sutula said.


Creating a sustainable future

While the dairy industry has met many targets in climate-friendly practices, continually advancing in sustainability is going to require forward thinking and creative solutions.

“This is going to drive the innovation in the industry for the next 25 years,” Devourdy said. “With the targets that are being set right now, we need new technologies and new ways of processing to be able to reach them.”

The whole supply chain will need to work together in multiple ways, and money will need to be invested to make sure there are technologies to support these practices throughout the entire supply chain and not just for one specific player in the industry, according to Devourdy.

“This is why we have merged together sustainability, strategy and innovation,” Devourdy said. “We really feel that’s going to be a catalyst for the industry and we need to be ahead on this to make sure we succeed in the future.”