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As methane rules loom, some Southern California dairies flee while others see potential

In the parlance of climate change, the phenomenon is known as “leakage.”

Last month, Northview Dairy in Ontario sold nearly 3,000 cows to a farmer with properties in Kansas and Colorado. During a recent lunch break — after tearing down the rows of cow sheds that have paralleled a stretch of Haven Avenue for three decades — Northview dairy manager German Cisneros said the sale was the result of a combination of increasing regulations, high prices for cows, and a great offer from an Irvine company to turn the land into housing.

It makes perfect sense from a business perspective. But those former California cows are now residents of states with different air quality laws. And in the global effort to combat climate change by cleaning up dairy farming, that matters.

When Northview Dairy set up shop in the 1990s, there were an estimated 500 dairy farms housing some 400,000 cows in Chino and south Ontario, making the region one of the most concentrated places for milk production on the planet. Today, Cisneros said there are just 22 dairies left, surrounded by massive warehouse buildings and tract home communities with names like “Amberhill Farms.”

Many of the once-local cows have gone north to places like Bakersfield and the San Joaquin Valley, where land is cheaper and urban creep less intense. But, as with Northview’s herd, thousands of others have been shipped across state lines to dairies that don’t have to worry as much about rising costs, worsening water shortages and rigorous regulations around everything from animal welfare to air quality.

California has set the most ambitious goals in the nation for reducing methane emissions. These greenhouse gasses don’t stick around in the atmosphere nearly as long as carbon dioxide but are much more potent, which means they contribute significantly to global warming. And since dairies are responsible for more than half of the state’s methane emissions, legislators in 2016 set a goal to reduce emissions from farms by at least 40%, or some 9 million metric tons, by 2030.

Since passage of that law, the state’s 1,200 dairies have made huge strides in reducing methane emissions. A report this spring by the California Air Resources Board estimated state farms are nearly halfway to the goal.

But while half of those reductions have come from dairies changing they ways they process cow manure, the other half has come because California simply is losing cows. And when cows are moved, global methane emissions don’t actually drop. They just shift, or “leak,” into another state, where lighter regulations mean the greenhouse problems likely will get worse.



Cow exodus

Many industry advocates fear that such leakage could get worse in the next couple of years.

So far, California has relied on incentives and outreach programs to get dairy farmers to help reduce methane emissions. But under the 2016 law, Senate Bill 1383, the state could shift to a more punitive approach, with possible fines attached, as soon as Jan. 1, 2024.

If that happens Michael Boccadoro, executive director of Dairy Cares, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability for the industry, said he fears more of the state’s remaining 1.7 million cows will head east — even as global demand for milk products rises.

“California doesn’t want to be accused of adopting policies that result in the export and increase of methane emissions,” Boccadoro said.

Farmers and industry advocates hope state and federal money will mean more support for the dairies that stay. And while some questions remain, many dairy operators are hopeful that new programs and technologies will help them meet emissions goals while also bringing needed upgrades and new revenue streams to their operations.

“The fact that there’s a lot of government assistance for it, and it’s developing rapidly, I think it creates some momentum with folks who want to get things done and who see long-term potential,” said Lakeview farmer Michael Oosten, 36, whose family’s Marvo Holsteins Dairy has been in Southern California since the end of World War II.

Solutions are working

When it comes to methane emissions from dairies, the problem originates from both ends of the cow.

A combination of what most dairy cows eat and how their digestive systems work leads to concentrated methane being released with each enteric emission — that’s polite farm talk for a burp. And when cow manure decomposes without oxygen, just as with all organic material, it releases methane along the way.

Aside from having fewer cows, the most proven way to reduce methane at dairy farms is to add an anaerobic digester system to deal with manure. Roofs are placed over manure lagoons to capture methane and other gasses as they’re released. Those gasses are then converted into renewable biogas, which can be used to power natural gas-equipped vehicles, injected into existing natural gas pipelines or used to produce electricity.

Already, more than 120 digesters are up and running at California dairy farms, and Boccadoro said at least another 120 are in some stage of development. Those systems are reducing methane emission from manure lagoons by 80%.

Digesters aren’t cheap, though. It costs about $6 million to add one at a 2,000-cow farm. Existing state incentives can cover up to 50% of those costs, but that comes through competitive grants, and the state says farmers typically request twice as much money from the state as what is available.

A few California farmers have covered the remaining costs themselves, Boccadoro said. In most cases, the companies that make the digesters cover most of the balance, then work out agreements with farmers to get a cut of the revenue that comes from selling the biogas. So industry insiders hope new public funds will add to the incentive pool for digesters.

Not one dairy farm in Southern California so far has a digester, though, according to Boccadoro. That’s because most local farms don’t flush manure into lagoons. Instead, farms like Oosten’s use some form of dry manure collection, which produces methane in a less concentrated fashion and makes digesters less economically feasible.

Those farms can reduce methane emissions by about 20% through “alternative manure management practices.” That can mean letting cows spend more time on pasture or building systems to let worms help digest the manure. Those types of systems typically cost less than $1 million. The state has grants to cover up to 100% of those costs, with 115 such projects funded so far.

Those projects, combined with California’s cow population declining by at least 0.5 % each year, have got the state almost halfway to its methane reduction goal. Another 210 digesters and 210 alternative manure management projects could get the state the rest of the way there, according to the air board. But industry insiders also are excited about potential options for tackling the other end of the methane problem.

Cow burps account for an estimated 30% of California’s methane emissions. The industry is waiting on government approval for a variety of products that, when added to cow feed, have shown promise at substantially reducing the amount of methane in each belch.

Replacing less than 1% of a cow’s daily diet with a red seaweed supplement, for example, has been shown to reduce methane by as much as 90%. Sprinkling a quarter teaspoon a day of a white powder called Bovaer — which is approved for use in Europe, Brazil, Chile and Australia — might cut methane by 30%. Researchers also are experimenting with a wide variety of other additives, from garlic to grape pomace.

Oosten said he’s particularly encouraged by early research showing some of these additives can also help improve cow nutrition and therefore milk production, which would mean more revenue to offset the cost of the products.

Farmers like Oosten see these methane-reducing steps as part of larger sustainability plans.

Like most of the industry in California, for example, he already gets up to 50% of his cow feed through byproducts from other industries, such as stale bread from bakeries and pulp from local citrus farms. This reduces resources needed to grow feed crops and it keeps those byproducts out of landfills, where they’d generate their own methane as they decomposed.

Oosten also added solar panels to his property, and he just ordered his first electric tractor.

Michael Oosten, owner of Marvo Holsteins Dairy, keeps 2,500 milk cows in Lakeview on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Michael Oosten, owner of Marvo Holsteins Dairy, keeps 2,500 milk cows in Lakeview on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Such practices, if widely used, could help the state’s dairy industry reach climate neutrality by 2027 predicts Denise Mullinax, executive director of the California Dairy Research Foundation, who said her organization reached that conclusion as part of a study it completed with a researcher at UC Davis.

Challenges remain

Of course, all of these promising programs have their challenges.

When it comes to food additives, cows are notoriously picky eaters. The seaweed option so far has proven pricey and tough to scale up, while the FDA hasn’t yet approved Bovaer. And even with fully natural ingredients, farmers have to worry about those flavors showing up in their products. Garlic-flavored milk, anyone?

“There is a lot of hope and potential behind it,” Oosten said. “But that’s about all we have right now.”

There are even challenges in accurately measuring emissions from each farm. Currently, methane samples from a farming area can be captured by plane. But such flights are expensive, and UC Riverside graduate student Zihan Zhu said the resolution in those tests is such that methane emissions from specific farms can’t be tracked.

That’s why Zhu is working with post-doctoral fellow Javier Gonzalez-Rocha on a drone-based system that promises to offer a cost-effective way to accurately measure methane and other emissions, even pinpointing emissions from one section of a farm to another. And measurements can be recorded downwind of the property, Gonzalez-Rocha said, so the process won’t disturb the cows.

Still, Gonzalez-Rocha  said some farmers aren’t thrilled about the idea of having drones flying nearby, or about many of the technologies coming their way.

“There’s definitely some old timers that are skeptical, that just don’t like government telling them what they need to do and not do,” Oosten said.

Some Inland Empire farms said they hadn’t yet even heard of the new law about methane reduction. At P&D Dairy in Ontario, Debbie Garcia said she’s sure it will just mean one more monthly report for her fill out.

Both Oosten and Boccadoro said they suspect farms in that area haven’t been focused on these programs simply because most aren’t expected to be around past the 2030 target date.

Oosten’s own family used to have a farm in Chino. That property now belongs to Amazon, where methane emission will be replaced by carbon emissions from trucks hauling goods to and from the retail giant’s latest warehouse.

If the last dairies do get pushed out of the area, Oosten said he hopes the farmers — or at least their cows — can find homes elsewhere in California.

“If our goal really is climate neutrality, and it really is to help the environment and to help society, then we need to do it here in our backyard, not just kick it to our neighbors.”

Source: Orange County Register

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