Image: Dairy cows
Charlie Litchfield  /  AP
The United States is counting on cows to help reduce its carbon footprint.
updated 12/15/2009 3:18:15 PM ET 2009-12-15T20:18:15

U.S. Secretary Tom Vilsack announced an agreement with the American dairy industry Tuesday to reduce the industry's greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020, mostly by convincing farmers to capture the methane from cow manure that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere.

"This historic agreement, the first of its kind, will help us achieve the ambitious goal of drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions while benefiting farmers," Vilsack said at the U.N. climate talks.

Some farmers are already capturing methane, then using it to fuel a generator to provide electricity for their farms and the electric grid.

"(The) use of manure to electricity technology is a win for everyone," Vilsack added, "because it provides an untapped source of income for farmers, provides a source of renewable electricity, reduces our dependence on foreign fossil fuels, and provides a wealth of additional environmental benefits."

Agriculture accounts for about 7 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

The plan calls for persuading more American farmers to purchase an anaerobic digester, which essentially converts cow manure into electricity. The problem is that until now, only 2 percent of U.S. dairy farmers are using the technology, mostly because it is too costly for family farmers.

There are more than 60,000 dairy farms carrying for about 9 million dairy cows in the United States, but 77 percent of those farms have fewer than 100 cows, according to Dairy Farming Today, an industry group. Farms that would be interested in this new green technology would likely have more than 100 cows.

Thomas Gallagher, the chief executive officer of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and Dairy Management Inc., which signed the agreement with the government, said the commitment shows that U.S. farmers are concerned with making their operations increasingly sustainable.

"This memorandum came about because of the commitment of U.S. dairy farmers and the dairy industry to a sustainable future," Gallagher said. "Sustainability goes hand-in-hand with our heritage of taking care of the land and natural resources while producing nutritious products that consumers want."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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