A systems approach to dairy

29th July, 2014

RIchard Sheane

This week saw the publication of a new edition of the International Dairy Federation research bulletin. Featured in it is an analysis I helped scope and deliver in partnership with Best Foot Forward for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). The paper presents results of detailed research assessing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in different types of UK dairy farming systems.

 

Phase 1 assessed the impact of animal welfare improvements on GHG emissions, showing they could provide up to a 10% improvement in GHG efficiency (e.g. through reductions in mastitis, improvements in fertility, etc.).

Phase 2 compared dairy GHG emissions in higher yield breeds versus moderate yielding ‘dual-purpose’ breeds (i.e. those that produce better quality and more beef as well as milk). The point of the analysis was to model the wider implications of dairy intensification in high yielding breeds – which includes a reduction in dairy beef production (a key source of cattle meat for the UK).

The study concluded that apparent improvements in milk GHG efficiency in high yielding herds were neutralised if looking at the consequential increases in suckler beef production needed elsewhere in the economy to meet the associated dairy beef declines. The work supports the  conclusions of other researchers (such as Monika Zehetmeier at Wageningen) and adds to the growing awareness within the industry of this important dynamic.

These results are important as most product carbon footprint analyses (including those used in industry dairy farm emissions benchmarking) do not take into account these ‘consequential emissions’ – and so risk unintentionally driving emissions in the wrong direction through overly focusing on intensification as the means to reduce the carbon footprint of milk.

The paper recommends efforts to increase beef production from dairy herds and join up dairy and beef supply chains to maximise total livestock sector GHG efficiencies. This systems approach is preferential to treating  beef and diary sectors in silos (e.g. in the development of public policy, industry targets and corporate sustainability programmes).

 

Further information: International Dairy Federation research bulletin

 

Photo credit: By groms78 (photo prise dans une prairie du Haut-Doubs), via Wikimedia Commons

The study concluded that apparent improvements in milk GHG efficiency in high yielding herds were neutralised if looking at the consequential increases in suckler beef production needed elsewhere in the economy to meet the associated dairy beef declines.