Goal: More Milk with Fewer Cows

Is drinking organic milk from small farms kinder to the environment? Many Americans think so, but the data proves otherwise, argues David Galligan, a professor of animal health economics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, who spoke during a recent conference at the Penn Museum called, “Globalization in Progress.”

A veterinarian and a dairy cow specialist — whose quirky website includes posts such as the Net Present Value of a Dairy Cow — Galligan believes most Americans are missing the big picture. Producing more milk with fewer cows, he says, means less input and less waste – and ultimately, less overall strain on the environment. “This is at the heart of the efficiencies of intensive agriculture – this dilution of these fixed animal costs, fixed maintenance costs,” Galligan says. “Because all of these animals produce manure, burp methane, consume resources and take up land space.”

For Galligan, this is more than theory. He backed up his argument with an interactive graphic analysis of figures from the United States Department of Agriculture. In 1950, the dairy industry supported 22 million cows and produced 117 billion pounds of milk – an average of about 5,314 pounds (about 664 gallons) of milk per cow per year. Today, the United States dairy cow population has dropped to 9 million cows that produce 176 billion pounds of milk – an average of 19,576 pounds (or 2,447 gallons) per cow per year. “That’s a tremendous story of efficiency,” Galligan says.

It may also be a story of environmental conservation, according to Galligan’s analysis. Based on the amount of milk the cows produced, Galligan calculated how much food each cow would have to eat – and consequently how much methane, nitrogen and phosphorus each would create. Analyze the output of noxious gases per cow, and things look bleak: methane, nitrogen and phosphorus gases have all steadily increased over time. Break it down by unit of milk, however, and a different story emerges: Since fewer cows are producing more milk, the overall emissions of methane, nitrogen and phosphorus per pound of milk has gone down.

Understanding the economics behind milk production and other forms of intensive agriculture is essential if the world is going to feed itself in the future, Galligan says. Based on current population growth, world food production will need to double by 2050, but arable land is expected to increase by just 1%, he notes.

“How will we feed these population centers?” Galligan asks. “Growing locally sounds good, but it can only put so many calories on the table and [generate] so many grams of protein per day. We [must] realize that we’re going to need intensive systems … to feed these large populations…. Society has a certain demand for animal products,” he says. “We should encourage production systems that minimize environmental impact while increasing production.”

Milk Yield Graph