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Intensive ag improves sustainability

By Staff | Dec 16, 2011

Not only does intensive livestock production allow relatively small herds to satisfy the food needs of society, but producing more milk with fewer cows helps protect the environment, said Frank Mitloehner, an associate professor and air quality Extension specialist at the University of California-Davis, who spoke on Dec. 7 at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting.

By Darcy

Dougherty Maulsby

Farm News staff writer

Des Moines – It may sound counter-intuitive, but intensive livestock production is the key to protecting the environment, according to a University of California-Davis researcher who said this high level production also offers a viable way to feed a growing global population.

“Improved genetics, energy-dense feed and better animal health increase productivity,” said Frank Mitloehner, an associate professor and air quality Extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the UC-Davis. “The more an animal produces, the lower its environmental impact.”

Mitloehner, who spoke during the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s 93rd annual meeting on Dec. 7, cited the example of an average California dairy cow, which produces 20,000 pounds of milk per year.

Contrast this with Mexico, where the average dairy cow produces 4,000 pounds of milk per year.

“It takes five times as many Mexican dairy cows as California cows to produce the same amount of milk,” said Mitloehner, who added that it takes 20 cows in India to produce the same amount of milk as one California dairy cow.

“Not only does intensive livestock production allow relatively small herds to satisfy the [food] needs of society, but producing more milk with fewer cows means less waste and methane, too.”

Livestock’s long shadow”

Mitloehner’s message took on increased urgency following the release of a 2006 United Nations report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which created public confusion over meat and milk’s role in climate change.

The report’s executive summary stated that “the livestock sector is a major player [in climate change], responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents). This is a higher share than transport [including cars, trucks, trains, ships, airplanes and other vehicles].”

These statements are not accurate, Mitloehner said, yet their wide distribution through news media have put policy makers and other leaders on the wrong path toward solutions.

“In developing countries,” he said, “we should adopt more efficient, Western-style farming practices to make more food with less greenhouse gas production.”

Mitloehner said other leading authorities agree that raising cattle and hogsin the United States for food accounts for approximately 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, while transportation creates an estimated 26 percent.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees with our numbers,” said Mitloehner. The 3 percent figure stands in stark contrast to the report, which produced its numbers for the livestock sector by adding up emissions from farm to table, including the gases produced by growing animal feed; animals’ digestive emissions; and processing meat and milk.

The report’s transportation analysis did not similarly add up all emissions, only counting emissions from fossil fuels burned while driving.

This flawed comparison is an “apples-to-oranges” analogy that confuses the issue, said Mitloehner, who supports U.S. producers’ efforts to optimize the performance and productivity of their livestock.

“The developed world’s efforts should not focus on reducing meat and milk consumption, nor should we go back to a 1950s style of production, because this is an unethical choice that hurts farmers’ ability to feed our population,” he added.

“We should focus instead on efficient production, both here and in developing countries, where growing populations need more nutritious food.”

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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