What Software Quantifies Dairy Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The short answer: Software tools are available for calculating or estimating the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for dairy farms; however, creating a tool that is easy to use while providing accurate results remains a challenge.

The big picture: Many tools have been developed to estimate the GHG emissions of dairy farms. These range from simple calculators to very sophisticated process models.

To obtain an accurate estimate of all emissions related to producing milk on the farm, the tool must consider:

  1. All direct emissions from the farm (check out this overview of on-farm emissions).
  2. The emissions occurring in the production of resources (fuel, electricity, fertilizer, purchased feed, etc.) used on the farm; and
  3. The indirect emissions from various forms of nitrogen lost from the farm.

Emissions calculators use descriptive information about the farm to estimate the direct emissions from important farm sources such as enteric methane from the cattle, methane and nitrous oxide from their manure, and on-farm energy use.

  • This type of tool usually requires general and readily available information about the farm. This could include animal numbers, milk production, feed crops grown, fertilizer rates and similar information generally known by the farmer.
  • Emissions calculators provide a rough estimate, but they are not precise enough to take the specific management of the farm into account or capture the potential benefits of mitigation strategies used to reduce emissions.

More sophisticated “process models” may simulate the various farm processes by tracking emissions on an hourly or daily basis. They consider weather and other environmental conditions that impact emission levels throughout the day and year.

  • This type of tool can provide a more accurate assessment as influenced by weather and management.
  • These tools are particularly useful for determining the benefits of management changes or technologies for reducing farm emissions.
  • However, these models require extensive input information to accurately represent the farm and they can require training for proper use of the tool.
  • These factors make process-based models too time consuming and cumbersome for most farmers to use on their own—they’re often seen in research settings.

Other tools fall within the range between simple calculators and process models. These use emission factors, which represent average or typical emission rates from the major sources as influenced by general weather and management information. These can still require much farm information and hours of training or experience with the tool to assure proper use.

Break it down: A few mid-range tools for determining dairy farm GHG emissions are available online at no cost. Here are five to check out:

  1. Cool Farm Tool – A general farm GHG estimation tool with a dairy option that can be used online.
  2. COMET-Farm – A whole-farm carbon and GHG accounting tool with a dairy option that can be used online.
  3. HOLOS – A whole-farm model focused on beef and dairy production. This is a program that can be installed and used on a Windows operating system.
  4. DairyGEM – A low-level process model designed specifically for dairy farms that can be installed and used on a Windows operating system. DairyGEM also includes a video training available for free online.

Other tools for the dairy industry include FARM ES and Field to Market. Note that neither tool is available to producers.

  • FARM Environmental Stewardship is releasing a software that uses a process-based model to estimate greenhouse gas emissions. The FARM ES system is based on collaboration between the National Milk Producers Federation and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
  • Field to Market offers a tool called the Fieldprint ® Platform, which is an assessment system to “measure environmental impacts of commodity crop production and identify opportunities for continuous improvement.” Note that this tool does not include animal emissions or forage crops, which may make it more difficult to use for big-picture dairy emissions.

In short: Software tools are available that provide an estimate of the total greenhouse gas emissions of dairy farms. How accurate that estimate is depends on the sophistication of the tool and the amount and accuracy of farm descriptive information required. Right now, tools providing accurate assessment of farms over a broad range of management approaches and mitigation strategies require training and experience with the tool to obtain reliable results.

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