South Dakota's livestock industry can slash its methane emissions. What's stopping it?

Dominik Dausch
Sioux Falls Argus Leader
A dairy cow stands in a stall as it prepares to be milked at MoDak Dairy in Codington County, South Dakota, June 11, 2022. According to the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, South Dakota does not currently have any federal or local regulatory programs that limit methane emissions from cattle, whose digestive processes and manure generate the vast majority of greenhouse gases in the state.

In 2018, scientists concluded there was a 10% chance global warming would cause a dangerous rise in temperatures worldwide, but today's odds nearly resemble a coin flip even if all greenhouse gas emissions —  atmospheric gases that gradually warm the planet and drive global warming — ceased immediately.

Agriculture, South Dakota's No. 1 industry, is one of five primary economic sectors where greenhouse gases  are measured. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, ag produces 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions, the least among the five industries.

But if you ask Frank Mitloehner, ag also has the greatest potential to solve the climate crisis — at least in the short term.

Frank Mitloehner, air quality specialist at University of California-Davis.

Mitloehner is a professor and air quality specialist with University of California-Davis, an institution with the No. 1 agriculture program in the nation. He is also one of the nation's leading researchers in methane emissions from livestock.

West Coast dairies, which have been pioneers in meeting greenhouse gas reduction benchmarks in the U.S., are what primarily fall within his purview. But he says South Dakota's dairy industry can also be part of a climate solution. The question is does it even want to?

A black and white problem

A May 16 joint study between South Dakota State University and UC-Davis determined enteric digestion, the release of gas when a cow belches, is the leading cause of all greenhouse gas emissions in South Dakota (46.1%), followed by cattle manure (32.9%), crop production (13.8%) and farm management (7.2%).

One way to reduce greenhouse gases from cattle is through feed additives, which are supplementary products added to the food that can affect cattle digestion. By adding certain nutrients and vitamins, the balance of greenhouse gas-producing organisms in the cow's stomach is changed. Depending on the feed additive used, UC-Davis has seen enteric emissions reduced anywhere from 5% to 50%.

An anaerobic digester at a farm in California. Manure from cattle is collected here, and methane created by microorganisms that are naturally found in the cow poop is siphoned out and converted into a renewable natural gas.

Another promising route some farms are taking is the installation of anaerobic digesters, which are structures where manure is stored and allowed to break down.

However, instead of simply letting the gas disperse into the air, the digesters also separately collect the emissions and convert it into biogas, a renewable source of energy.

"That biogas is cleaned up and turned into renewable natural gas," Mitloehner told The Farm Forum in a phone call on June 6. "(California dairies) started covered lagoons to cover the manure from where dairy cattle is stored, which captured and converted (greenhouse gas emissions) into vehicle fuel, and this fuel is used to power semi-truck fleets."

A South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources spokesperson said in an e-mail June 10 they are supportive the implementation of digester technology to South Dakota because of its effectiveness in reducing methane emissions.

"DANR has approved plans and specifications for the construction of eight digesters that will use dairy manure to generate biomethane, which will be injected into utility pipelines as renewable compressed natural gas," the spokesperson said. "Based on preliminary discussion with the dairy industry, DANR anticipates receiving plans and specifications for up to an additional eight to 10 digesters in the coming months."

DANR said nine South Dakota farms will have digesters installed, which will take manure from 42,910 adult dairy cattle. According to the USDA, 170,000 dairy livestock reside in South Dakota. When operational, the digesters would take manure from about 25% of dairy cattle in the state.

However, South Dakota "does not have any regulatory programs limiting methane emissions from cattle," according to DANR.

The department did not address questions about whether the state would reduce methane emissions from the 1,780,000 non-dairy livestock cattle in the state nor whether reimbursements would be provided to farms with methane digesters. The department also did not comment on to what extent greenhouse gas reduction in the state's beef and dairy sectors would be prioritized in the future.

A cost that's hard to stomach

However supportive DANR might be of digesters, the reality is that they cost money — and farmers are historically calculated investors.

California Senate Bill 1383, which passed on September 19, 2016, requires milk houses in the state to reach a 40% reduction in their methane emissions by 2030.

Forty percent, according to Mitloehner, is the magic number to achieve climate-neutrality — the point where the rate of methane being emitted into the atmosphere is no more than what can naturally break down over its 12-year lifespan.

When farmers first heard they needed cut their emissions by close to half, "they went wild," Mitloehner said. He explained there is an initial cost — which is usually the first obstacle in any technological investment — that put-off the majority of dairy producers.

Greg Moes operates a 2,000-head dairy near Goodwin. Courtesy photo

Greg Moes, co-owner of MoDak Dairy in Codington County, is one farmer facing this very obstacle. He is negotiating with an outside company that plans to build a methane digester at his facility, but the installation cost is too high.

According to a California Agriculture report, installing a digester on a typical, 2,000-cow dairy would require a one-time investment of about $4.8 million for set-up and about $588,000 in annual operating costs.

What farmers need is an incentive, Mitloehner said.

"Without incentives, (climate-neutrality) is impossible. I'll tell you that right now. If you put solar panels on your roof, you will definitely, at some point, think about the financial cost of putting solar panels on your roof," he said.

MoDak Dairy.

"The same is true for farmers," he said. "Their bottom line is usually very slim. There's no other way these changes will happen otherwise."

So, in 2011, California began to entice farmers by starting a Low Carbon Fuel Standard credit system, which rewards producers for collecting greenhouse gases from methane digesters.

The digester system separates water vapor and other greenhouse gases from the collected methane, converting it into renewable natural gas that can be used as vehicle fuel. The producer is then given a sellable credit — about $239.18 per metric ton of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases removed, according to the California Air Resources Board.

"That has led to so much methane reduction that we see a situation where [California's dairy industry] has reduced methane emissions by 30% … and it only took a few years," Mitloehner said.

An aerial view of a California farm with an anaerobic digester site.

"Our dairy industry will not add any additional warming to our planet," he continued.

The UC-Davis researcher looks to the future. He has a timeline where the nation reaches this goal by 2050.

"These goals are reachable," Mitloehner  said. "These goals are real."

Methane: the key to combating climate change

It is worth explaining that methane, in particular, is an important component in the climate change crisis, according to Mitloehner. It is up to 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the most prominent greenhouse gas, but only exists in the atmosphere for a fraction of the time.

He uses an analogy to describe methane's lifecycle: The atmosphere is a bathtub that has a faucet and a drain. Normally, when the faucet is turned on, water (methane) pours out and spills into the drain. As the faucet is turned higher and higher, the tub slowly starts to fill. Beef and dairy cattle are the faucet, if one follows this analogy.

The bathtub analogy also applies to carbon dioxide, but there's a catch. There's no drain for carbon dioxide. When that tub fills, the water stays in the tub. When CO2 enters the atmosphere, it takes anywhere from 300 to 1,000 years to be destroyed.

Because of methane's short lifespan and much higher global warming potential, Mitloehner said cutting down on it can buy some time for policymakers to figure out how put a stopper on carbon dioxide emissions.

And going beyond the 40% methane reduction goal nationwide can even "eat up historic contributions to warming or emissions from other sections," he said, which could cool the planet over time.

An intersection of sustainability, efficiency and reality 

Methane digesters can create a second income stream for farmers, which is why Moes was initially intrigued by the concept.

Mitloehner, who is also director of the CLEAR Center, an animal science research branch of UC-Davis, said one cow's manure can generate $1,000 to $2,000 per year. A farm with thousands of cows will make millions in annual revenue, offsetting the capital costs within a few years, he said.

Dairy cows in a large pen at MoDak Dairy.

However, California's sustainability policy, for now, is "favorable" to dairies — policies can always be amended, the Cal ag report noted, especially when a state government decides it doesn't want to continue assuming some of the risk.

At the same time, dairy farmers are more familiar with their product's traditional market than a relatively young environmental policy. And methane emission are open to some volatility.

Additionally, a breakdown in this policy could drive dairies out of California and — if they aren't run out of business — into agriculture-focused states like South Dakota, the report indicated, which may not have similar or any incentives to alleviate the costs of operating a digester.

Feed additives, specifically those that are especially efficient at reducing cattle methane emissions, are also not yet viable for mainstream dairy farms.

"None of the feed additives are commercially available at present," the SDSU-UC-Davis study noted.

"On the enteric side, we are not at a point where we can go full steam," Mitloehner said. "The companies that make these additives are not allowed to make the claim they reduce methane emissions because they don't have full FDA approval.

Furthermore, Mitloehner said, some additives that are especially efficient at reducing emissions can come with drawbacks. For instance, red seaweed, a product that is harvested in Australia, can cause cancer in cows when too much is added to the diet.

Ag under the microscope

Benoit St-Pierre, South Dakota State University assistant professor

Benoit St-Pierre is an animal scientist with SDSU who specializes in rumen microbiology — the study of microscopic organisms in the stomachs of grazing animals like cattle.

He said during a phone interview that he believes the ag industry should do what it can to be a "good citizen" of the planet.

However, St-Pierre said, livestock are naturally carbon-neutral — the point where the rate of carbon dioxide being emitted is no more than what can be destroyed during its lifespan — because when cows emit carbon dioxide, generally, the gas is eventually absorbed by the same plant matter cattle forage on.

With that in mind, he believes the ag community gets a bad rap.

"It feel like we're being picked on. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but if you consider the extra carbon that's released from a car, that would offset the amount of methane produced from (livestock)," he said.

Mitloehner furthered the argument: "Every time we burn gas or coal, we add new and additional carbon to the atmosphere." 

Fossil fuels, the primary contributor to global warming (totaling about 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to Mitloehner) are a one-way contributor to global warming because they add CO2 to the atmosphere. This is unlike ag's biogenic carbons, which are essentially being constantly recycled. 

"Say a miracle happens and we stop burning all fossil fuels — that CO2 will still warm our planet," he added.

Dairy cows standing side-by-side while robotic milking arms suction raw milk from their udders at MoDak Dairy.

Mitloehner calls himself "very bullish" about reducing methane since it could potentially prove a boon to preventing global warming from getting out of control, but said that reducing carbon dioxide should be the environmental endgame for policymakers and farmers alike.

"We cannot reduce methane while letting loose on CO2," he said. "Global warming (is) … going up so fast because of the fossil fuels. Methane reductions will help us buy some time in the short term, but will not ultimately reduce the effect of CO2 in the atmosphere."

"I've seen a lot of openness to discussion right now on livestock and climate, and farmers in South Dakota have been really open to climate solutions. This is independent of whoever is in the White House or in state government," Mitloehner said.

Dominik Dausch is the agriculture and environment reporter for the Argus Leader and editor of Farm Forum. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @DomDNP and send news tips to ddausch@gannett.com.