Climate Action
Food & Farming

Why Cows at Shelburne Farms?

brown swiss cows grazing in a field with lake and mountains in the distance

Cows are a known contributor to climate change, so why do we continue to have them on our farm?

As a nonprofit education organization, Shelburne Farms encourages conversations and questions around how to live sustainably. We ask those questions of ourselves, and we are continually learning together. The role of agriculture in a climate-challenged world is definitely a question to wrestle with.

Fundamentally, we believe that animals play an essential role in sustainable farming systems and cycles. They can generate food for people from land that can’t viably grow vegetable or grain crops. This includes much of the sloping, stony acres at Shelburne Farms. And animals can help build healthy soils that sequester carbon and boost the yields of both pastures and cropland. 

We also respect and follow the science, which, depending on the study, indicates that livestock contribute 11-19% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The growing research on this question and the sometimes diverging data it produces point to an important central truth: livestock farming–like all farming–is complex and varied, and the details of your farming system matter.

Shelburne Farms’ dairy farming system is a grass-based one. For 40 years, we have prioritized the health of our pastures as a way to avoid tillage and the use of toxic chemicals, protect water quality, and provide high quality feed to our cows, with limited grain supplements. And what has become apparent over time, is that these years of best grass management practices have created pastures and soils that are a large carbon sink.

But we can do more. So as part of our Climate Action plan to reach net zero emissions by 2028, we will be conducting new experiments to reduce dairy methane emissions: adding a linseed-based supplement to the cows’ feed and incorporating biochar into our manure management system. We are also exploring pasture improvements, like encouraging forage species that reduce cow methane emissions, and incorporating trees into some pasture areas (“silvopasture”) to help sequester more carbon. Some of the climate impact of livestock globally is due to the conversion of forests to pasture. Silvopasture is a partial response that makes sense within our Champlain Valley landscape.

As we continue to make cheese, raise meat, and pursue these experiments, we will share the reasons and results with you, and with our audience of educators, so they can engage their students with these questions, and, hopefully, with some of the answers.

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