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Green Cheese

As I was sitting in a room filled with bespectacled scholars, mad-haired scientists and well-dressed industry experts yesterday, it occurred to me that the more I learn about cheese, the less I really know.

Case in point: about 50 people gathered at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture to get an update on The Green Cheese Project, which according to its website, is a “a partial LCA of integrated dairy and bio-fuels production systems.”

Yeah, I have no idea what that actually means, so I Googled it and found that for the past couple of years, a group of progressive dairy farmers, state agencies, and faculty at UW-Madison have been working together to quantify energy intensity, greenhouse gas emissions, and the overall environmental impact of dairy and bio-fuel production in Wisconsin. They’re calling their work the Green Cheese Project.


And, while I spent most of yesterday’s meeting trying to maintain consciousness and follow acronym-laden lingo, I did glean these facts, which I think are pretty neat:

Furthermore, while I have only a vague idea what the above chart represents (there’s a reason I have a Bachelor of Arts, vs a Bachelor of Science), I’m sure someone reading this blog will think it’s awesome. According to Professor Douglas J. Reinemann, it shows the main processes within the life cycle of one kg of Cheddar cheese.

And, while I admit to not understanding nearly as much as I should have from yesterday’s session, it did result in meeting some really cool people who provided more information about the sustainability of dairy. Sarah Gilbert, who works with the American Jersey Cattle Association, gave me a super cool handout on a study done on Jersey cow herd performance, taken from nearly 2 million dairy cows in more than 13,000 herds in 45 states.

The study concluded that per unit of cheese, the Jersey carbon footprint is 20 percent less than Holsteins, as Jersey cows weigh less and produce milk that is more nutrient-dense. Jersey cows also drink only 68 percent as much water as Holsteins, and because they are smaller, emit less methane (cow burps and farts), which unfortunately, contribute to greenhouse gases.

And then there was this study, handed to me by Dennis Presser at DATCP, which reports that computer simulation studies conducted by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest dairy cows raised year-round on pasture provide significantly greater environmental benefits than herds raised in high-production confinement operations.

Hmmm … studying cows on computers, that had to be fun. The study concluded that compared to confinement systems, dairy cows kept outdoors all year had 30 percent lower levels of ammonia emissions, and that a well-managed dairy herd kept outdoors year-round left a carbon footprint that was 6 percent smaller than that of a high-production dairy herd kept in barns. 

In addition, the study found when fields formerly used for feed crops were converted to perennial grasslands for grazing, carbon sequestration levels climbed from zero to as high as 3,400 pounds per acre every year.  Which, is great, providing you live somewhere that doesn’t experience a little something called winter.

All in all, the Green Cheese Project makes me wish I had paid more attention to subjects that ended in “ology” in school so I could understand it better. And if, unlike me, you understood half of what I just wrote about, then follow the team’s Green Cheese Project progress and check back for conclusions and publications coming soon.
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