Researchers gather data on environmental impact of feed

New tool would illuminate environmental impact of animal feed, enabling producers and distrbutors to share the burden of reducing emissions.

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New tool would illuminate impact of animal feed, enabling producers to share burden of emissions reduction

Who’s responsible for reducing the environmental impact animal feed? While the burden often falls to producers, researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise believe data could take some of the burden of sustainability off animal agriculture.

For the past five years, the Northstar Initiative has worked to collect data on the environmental impact of food supply chains, particularly with respect to animal protein. With the data nearing completion for beef, chicken and pork, the institute has set its sights on a new, more challenging target: dairy.

Animal production, particularly beef, takes a lot of heat from the private sector for contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, but consumers — and even corporations — aren’t always aware of the specifics of where those emissions come from, according to Jennifer Schmitt, program director and lead scientist at the Northstar Initiative.

Emissions, she said, are “more and more, part of what you need to be paying attention to, if you want to be in business.”

But in agriculture, most of the burden of reducing emissions has fallen on animal producers.  Tools exist to help farmers estimate the environmental impact of their operations and choices, right down to the kind of feed they choose. But corporations lack access to the same kind of data, which Schmitt believes hinders opportunities for collaboration and industrywide reductions in emissions.

The institute’s research on supply chain emissions for meat production are already available online, but work has only just begun to gather data on dairy, which Schmitt said will be significantly more complex to model, particularly because of differences in how animals in each sector are fed.

Feed contributes significantly to the environmental footprint of animal production, Schmitt said. Diets for cattle, pigs and chickens are, however, relatively simple, allowing Northstar researchers to focus mostly on collecting data for corn and soy meal supply chains. Dairy cattle, she said, consume significantly more feed alternatives, which will require the institute to expand its data set.

Northstar is gathering information from dairy industry stakeholders and hopes to have some initial modeling available for release in May 2020, with a working dairy model slated for completion this summer.

The initial model, Schmitt said, will mostly serve educational purposes, helping dairy distributors identify strategies that might lower emissions. But longer-term, perhaps in the next phase of the project, she said she would like to see the ability to test potential environmental solutions added to the model’s capabilities. Future iterations of the project might be able to determine, for example, how emissions from feed would change if cover crops were used more widely.

That capability, Schmitt hopes, will “lead to more collaborative work and action in this space, so we don’t see all the burden on the livestock producers and farmers.”

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