The Environmental Impact of Dairy Farming in Eau Claire, Wisconsin

Dairy production has a significant effect on climate change due to the emission of greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. In the US, the main sources of these emissions in milk production include feed production, enteric fermentation, and manure management. The World Wide Fund for Nature found that dairy production contributes to climate failure in all sectors of the environment. It has been shown to affect air and atmosphere, soil health, and water quality, and causes habitat degradation.

The dairy industry is facing a maelstrom of economic and demographic forces that are causing exceptional distress. To understand these complex trends, it is important to understand the price of milk. Regulations that originated in the 1930s have generally helped stabilize the ups and downs of the dairy industry and have allowed farmers to ensure more stable prices for their milk. However, foreign demand for US products has decreased, while New Zealand experienced an ideal climate for milk production.

This has caused an increase in export markets for dairy products, resulting in lower milk prices. Wisconsin's dairy farmers are feeling the effects of these changes, with many nearing retirement with little prospect of their operations lasting with the next generation. Despite this, advances in technology and genetics have led to record highs in milk production per cow. This dynamic, the continuation of unprecedented milk production, together with the stagnation of milk prices, is worrying many debt-burdened farmers.

The dairy industry is also focusing on sustainability and reducing its environmental impact. However, factory farms circumvent regulations that require a minimum amount of grazing time for cows in order for milk to be certified organic. Dairy production can also have unintended environmental consequences, as more natural habitats are transformed into mass agricultural production to supply dairy cattle with corn, alfalfa and soy. The first step in reforming Wisconsin's dairy practices is to recognize that local, family-run dairy farms aren't the industry's biggest problem.

Highly marketed dairies are often referred to as factory farms or mega-farms; they can house thousands of cows in huge metal buildings. Most factory farms in Wisconsin are family owned; however there are outside investors in some operations. These large dairies are by far the biggest contributors to the industry's environmental impact. Milk production affects the environment in several ways; and the magnitude of these impacts depends on the practices of milk producers and feed producers.