The cow project aims to reduce intestinal methane, the single largest component of the dairy industry's carbon footprint, said Thomas P. Gallagher, chief executive officer of the U.S. Dairy and Dairy Management Inc.'s Innovation Center in Rosemont, Ill.
One area to be explored is modifying the dairy cows' feed so they produce less methane, said Rick Naczi, the leader of the initiative.
"Right now there is some work being done on fish-oil additives and some other things," he said. "The cow is responsible for the majority of the greenhouse gas on the farm itself. We know there are ways that we can find to cut or reduce that production."
Another possible solution is targeting the microbes in the cow's gut, Naczi said. "You can change the mix of the bacteria in the cow's rumen and change the methane production that way."
He expects the research to develop some solutions within a year.
The initiative could have a huge effect in Wisconsin. The state has about 1.25 million dairy cows, or about 14 percent of the national total.
Dairy Management Inc. manages the national dairy checkoff program, which collects 15 cents per hundredweight of raw milk produced by farmers to fund research and promotion of dairy products.
Greenhouse gas emissions are blamed for global warming. Cutting the dairy industry's emissions by 25 percent would be equivalent to removing about 1.25 million passenger cars from the nation's roads every year, Gallagher said.
The University of Arkansas' Applied Sustainability Center estimates the dairy industry contributes less than 2 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
But consumers increasingly demand products that are produced, packaged and distributed in a sustainable way, Gallagher said.
The industry said it has dramatically reduced the carbon footprint of its products by 63 percent over the past 60 years through production efficiencies, nutrition management and technological improvements.
Other greenhouse gas emission projects to be explored include turning digester-generated methane into energy that can be sold. A pilot program in California identifies the best energy-efficiency practices in milk processing plants and assesses current and new packaging formats.
Managing agricultural operations in a sustainable way can improve efficiencies and cut costs, said Bryan Weech, livestock agriculture program director with World Wildlife Fund. Those efforts can also protect watersheds and improve soil health and water quality.