Feeding the world with 60m cows

With the enforced downtime of Covid-19, it gives space to reflect on the options we have available to us to feed a projected 10bn+ people by 2050. As followers of Canthus are aware, we are big believers in the ability of dairy to help mitigate a number of big problems in the world:

1. Dairy is a highly efficient source of complete protein that is proven to combat malnutrition

2. Most of a dairy cow’s diet (~90%) is waste from crop production, mitigating the waste creation of that agricultural sector

3. Cows can produce high-quality food on land that is unsuitable for growing human-edible crops

4. A well-managed manure system can reduce the need for chemical fertilizer, sequester a lot of carbon, restore degraded land, and create a more circular and environmentally friendly crop production system. Manure can also be used as an energy source.

There is a trend with certain Ag Tech start-ups and special interest groups to take the worst traditional agricultural metrics available on the spectrum and use those to justify a new, unproven way of doing things that rely on generous assumptions and projections (we covered this in a previous post called The Bull About Cows). In this post, we will take the best in class metrics for dairy and see what it looks like if we apply those metrics on a more widespread basis.

Arguably the most exciting thing about modern dairy is that it is one of the few agricultural systems that improve global sustainability simply by scaling current best practices. What do we mean by this? The global average production for dairy is 2,587 liters per animal per year, from a global dairy herd of ~264m cows. The best national production system in the world is the USA with ~10,500 kg of milk/animal/year. The dominant American production system also enjoys having the lowest GHG emissions per liter of milk in the world. However, as you can see in the table below there is a lot of variability to emissions based on farm type and milk production levels.

The general rule of thumb is that economies of scale matter and that free-stall / indoor system generate fewer emissions per kg of milk produced (largely because pasture animals produce less milk with roughly the same amount of methane generation and use more land overall – even though most of this land is unusable for crops). Manure impact is drastically reduced by using anaerobic digestion, which is not possible on pasture systems.

It must be noted that the above table only shows emissions from the best commercial producers in the world. Relatively few global cows exist in such systems (ie, USA, NZ, and Ireland represent ~16.9m or 6% of the global herd). But we can take it that the best in the class dairy system produces 0.75kg of CO2e/kg of milk or 21.4kg of CO2e/kg of protein and that this is a replicable system (as evidenced by its ubiquity at the national level in America).

The country with the most cows in the world is India (~40m cows or 15.5% of the global herd), whose cows produce an average of 1,200 kg/animal per year. India’s emissions are 1.83kg of CO2e/kg of milk or 52.4kg of CO2e/kg of protein, more than twice what the most efficient system in the world produces. As you can see in the map below, most of the world’s cows exist in systems that are more like India than the USA. When we talk about mapping best practices, we are talking about getting the yields of places like India to the level of the USA by matching the dairy practices that produce such consistently high yields.

Let’s take a closer look at the history of milk production in the USA. In 1950, the US had 25 million dairy cows and 152m people. Today, there are slightly over 9 million cows (human population approx. 320M). With a much smaller herd today vs 1950, the US produces 60% more milk, which reduced the carbon footprint by approximately two thirds. The dairy farmers of America deserve tremendous respect and thanks for doing so much for the US’s food supply and carbon footprint.

While this transition took 50 years or so, the basic principles of it are relatively straight forward; improve genetics, use indoor production, access to modern feed additives, economies of scale, and tight animal husbandry/management. In Cainthus, we believe that technology can be used to map best practices from regions like the US to the rest of the world in a relatively rapid amount of time (as best evidenced by the modernization of dairy in China, the Gulf states, and Russia). Technology like Cainthus’ Alus can effectively provide a global level best-practice audit system, where we can benchmark all dairy farms management practices against each other.

What does the dairy world look like if we assume that anyone can produce dairy as America can? Global dairy production was 683 million tonnes of milk in 2018, provided by 264m cows, giving a yield per cow of 2,587kg/cow. If we assume

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