With all the news about climate change and allegations about what is to blame for it, dairy and livestock farmers should keep themselves informed about those claims and not take them at face value.
Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor at the University of California-Davis, has been a leader in challenging the assertion in a United Nations report that the livestock industry is responsible for producing 18 percent of the greenhouse gases - those gases that scientists say are at fault for trapping heat and raising the temperature in the atmosphere.
He recently spoke to members of the Dairy Business Association in Madison about his work in debunking the UN report with up-to-date science.
The 18 percent of greenhouse gases produced by livestock that was cited in the UN report, says Mitloehner, is "more like 2 percent and declining as livestock producers improve and become more efficient."
It is also an international numbers, and shouldn't be used in a blame game on livestock producers in any given country, he added.
The report blamed livestock for more greenhouse gases than transportation, which Mitloehner found to be incredible. "We decided to investigate where these numbers came from.
"If you think this doesn't affect you, think again; if the big boys think it's important, it's important," he told the dairy audience.
The German native has spent the last 10 years at UC-Davis, where he is an air quality specialist, doing experiments on things like how much methane or carbon dioxide cows produce.
Using "bovine bubbles" he and a group of graduate students measure manure emissions and provide scientific proof of what is actually generated by cows.
There are three main greenhouse gases (GHG), he explained - carbon dioxide or CO2, methane, which is 20 times worse than CO2 and nitrous oxide, which traps 300 times more heat than CO2.
In the 2006 UN report a life cycle analysis of livestock activities looked at lots of contributors but when they compared livestock to transportation they only looked at the cost of burning the gas, he said, and that skewed the data.
They also compared livestock activities in places like Ethiopia, where there is virtually no transportation sector, or Paraguay where there are twice as many cattle as people and then used that data to come up with the 18 percent that "was then used erroneously by the media."
It led to things like "meatless Mondays" when people thought they would be helping the planet by skipping meat one day a week.
Mitloehner argues that if everyone skipped meat on Mondays it would only drop the GHG emissions by two tenths of one percent. He thinks people should be clearer about where the actual emissions come from so they can act accordingly.
Transportation has a much larger impact on GHG than meat or livestock production, especially in developed regions where farmers feed their livestock more efficiently, optimize genetic potential and manage manure properly.
The United States has "by far" the lowest emission from livestock of any region in the world, partly because of what he called "intensification."
It takes five Mexican cows to produce the amount of milk produced by one California cow and that is one key to mitigation of environmental effects.
"The more efficient you are the less effect there is on the environment." It's also important to keep cows around longer because raising dairy replacement heifers has an environmental effect - they eat and excrete while not producing anything.
When the UN report, titled "Livestock's Long Shadow" came out, the media was all over it, he says, and as he raised questions about the science the writers of the report acknowledged their errors. "But the horse had left the barn."
Some major publications followed up with stories on the debunking of the UN data, but for many consumers that has not been enough to erase the impact of the original report.
Believing that the issue is one of global importance, Mitloehner held the UN agency responsible and forced them to do all kinds of follow up on the report.
What came to light is that livestock and dairy producers in the United States have the lowest carbon footprint of anywhere in the world. He said he didn't force the issue because he wanted notoriety.
"It's not because you want the limelight. Believe me, you don't want the limelight."
Mitloehner has now been tapped to represent the American Feed Industry Association to help assure that the methodology used to calculate these kinds of figures in the future is the same. He is chairman of the Partnership for Livestock Benchmarking.
Newer numbers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency place the contribution of GHG from transportation at 26 percent, from energy production at 31 percent and from livestock activities at 3.4 percent and Mitloehner said he generally agrees with that assessment.
There are two industries in the world that can sequester or trap carbon to keep it out of the atmosphere - agriculture and forestry - and these are two industries that are routinely not at the table for major discussions on climate change, he said.
He admits that California has real air quality problems. Fresno has the worst air quality of any city in the country - behind Los Angeles and Houston. People tend to overlook lots of pollution sources.
Scientists should consider the "life cycle" analysis of a 1,000-cow dairy versus 1,000 houses that may take its place with all of the leaf blowers, cars, lawnmowers and other pollution-emitting machines. "Nobody asks that question."
Now Mitloehner is asking those questions. When emission inventory data was released by the California Air Quality Bureau for the San Joachin Valley, it blamed dairy cattle for a lot of the smog-forming pollutants.
He questioned where that data had come from and regulators had to admit they used the most up-to-date information they had - from a 1938 source.
"It might amuse you right now, but it would not amuse you if that is what your state was using to regulate you," he told the dairy group.
That report was also a public relations nightmare for the state dairy industry, he said, as headlines proclaimed that "cows rival cars" as smog producers.
It led to things like mandates for covering manure lagoons so dairies could trap the gases and flare them off or use it in digesters.
"That 1938 data is not meaningful to regulate dairies. It not only uses outdated numbers, but uses outdated numbers improperly."
A judge agreed to request further studies and lifted regulations after the issue of this old data was brought to light.
Many California dairymen "are suicidal today" because of economic stress, he said, and the rigorous regulatory climate hasn't helped.
Instead of looking at cows, regulators should look at trucks and trains and planes and other sources of air pollution that they seem to overlook, he added.
When he arrived in California from Texas 10 years ago, Mitloehner said there were 2,000 dairies - now there are 1,500 - a measure of the regulatory climate and the high-cost of doing business there.
The volatile organic compounds or VOCs in manure tend to want to stay in the liquid form and are therefore less of a problem than other things on a large dairy farm, he said.
In California, silage piles are probably a worse problem than manure. Showing pictures of how feed is kept on farms, he noted that most farms have land issues and have their feed put up by custom choppers.
They pile the feed very high in steeply pitched piles and can't compact them. As a result dry matter losses are high from these feed piles and VOCs escape from the feed. "Feed is the biggest regulatory issue for them. They don't use defacers they use John Deere loaders."
The larger the face, he explained, the more VOCs will escape.
The high cost of feed is one of the financial stresses that is leading California dairy producers to be so depressed and many farmers have blamed ethanol. Mitloehner says the whole ethanol industry troubles him from his viewpoint of life cycle analyst.
"A few years ago I thought ethanol was a bad idea. Now I feel it's a very, very bad idea. It's 20 percent worse for the environment than burning a gallon of gas."
He also teaches 270 undergraduate students who have "no clue where food comes from." As part of their education he takes them out on commercial farms and ranches to see how milk is produced these days.
These young people have seen the film, "Food, Inc." and they may have only that one viewpoint. In addition, they will help shape the future viewpoint on food and farming.
California, he said, is "not a common sense regulatory environment" and he encourages dairy farmers to make sure they know what's going on in other states. "Things are changing rapidly and they are infectious.
"They happen in one state and move to another state. Keep an eye on how you're being regulated and where that's coming from."