How Can Carbon Footprinting Improve Dairy Profits?

ANALYSIS - Nearly half the dairy farmers in the UK believe that taking measures to tackle climate change will add costs to their business, writes Chris Harris.
calendar icon 8 December 2015
clock icon 5 minute read

Just 10 per cent believe that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will boost the milk production efficiency of their units and increase profitability.

However, a recent independent survey of dairy farmers conducted for the on-farm environmental and carbon assessment company Alltech E-CO2 showed that three quarters felt it was important to take action to reduce GHG emissions.

Ben Braou, from Alltech E-CO2, said dairy producers need to take the opportunity for greater profitability that comes with reducing their carbon footprint.

“Dairy farmers understand it is a global issue, but don’t understand the benefits,” Mr Braou said.

“Unfortunately, the significant ‘profit opportunity’ point – as a result of becoming more environmentally efficient – is often lost on many UK dairy farmers.

“We recently commissioned an independent survey of 100 milk producers randomly selected from across the country and nearly half of those interviewed (45 per cent) thought that reducing their GHG emissions would add cost to their business. What’s more, just over a quarter didn’t attach any importance at all to the issue.”

The survey showed that 22 per cent of the farmers questioned felt under pressure to measure and mange greenhouse gas emissions with the greatest pressure coming from the milk buyer.

Dairy farming was seen as the highest contributor to emissions, followed by pig and poultry farming, but few farmers understand what contributes to greenhouse gas emissions on the farm.

The survey showed that around two thirds of farmers realise that GHG emissions come from methane from the rumen but they fail to understand the significance of the emissions and there is a misunderstanding that fuel used on the farm is the main contributor.

Few farmers also see feed as a high contributor to emissions.

Mr Braou said that there is an underestimation among some dairy farmers of their livestock enterprise’s contribution to the total carbon footprint of a litre of milk once it is on the retail shelf.

“Interestingly, the survey findings show that more than one in five producers perceive the largest GHG contribution to come from processor activity, which is not the case. The largest contribution (80 per cent) actually comes from the farm, so there is a lot that dairy farmers can do,” he said.

“For example, more than 40 per cent of on-farm GHG emissions come from the cows themselves. But we also know that by improving the health of the rumen and the cow, more milk will be produced while at the same time lowering methane emissions. Furthermore, healthy cows live longer, lowering culling and replacement rates.

“Emissions spread across a short milking life are very inefficient, whereas if they can be spread over increased lactations you help to offset those produced during the unproductive rearing period. All these factors boost your on-farm efficiency and profitability, whilst at the same time reducing your environmental impact,” Mr Braou said.

“Clearly though, as dairy farmers continue to struggle in a depressed milk price environment, there is even greater pressure to become more efficient.

“The good news for milk producers is that a reduced carbon footprint is inextricably linked to increased farm efficiency and profitability, so having a focus on cutting GHG emissions – and understanding the areas where improvements can be made – makes perfect sense,” said Mr Braou.

Dairy farms that are engaged in carbon footprint assessments over the last six years have increased their efficiency by almost 10 per cent according to Alltech E- CO2.

The environmental and carbon assessment company said that these farms will be more profitable as a result.

Analysis of 3,786 dairy farm assessment records collated by Alltech E-CO2 over the period from 2009 to 2014 shows average carbon footprint on these farms has fallen from 1,341g/litre (carbon dioxide equivalent) to 1,212g/litre, an improvement of 9.6 per cent.

Alltech E-CO2 joint business manager Andrew Wynne said that this shows the value of having a clear focus on farm efficiency.

“The assessment process carried out to establish the carbon footprint – which is certified by the Carbon Trust – provides a comprehensive analysis of all aspects of the farm business and includes a section that highlights areas for improvement,” he said.

“More than anything, this allows farmers to prioritise their efforts and concentrate on aspects of the management that will make most difference to overall efficiency.

“We know that a farm with a lower carbon footprint is a more efficient farm. If it is more efficient, it is more profitable.

“By focusing on the overriding objective of a reduced carbon footprint, dairy farmers are concentrating their efforts and becoming more profitable.”

Certification manager with the Carbon Trust, John Kazer, said that it was important for the farming industry to establish accurate carbon emission figures.

“It is vital that UK dairying develops robust indicators to allow it to properly evaluate progress against the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Action Plan.

“Engaging fully with an accredited dairy farm carbon assessment process that can generate robust data offers the industry the best route forward,” he said.

Mr Wynne also used the Alltech E-CO2 data to point out that a dairy farming system has no direct impact on a farm’s ability to be more or less efficient, revealing examples of both extended grazing units and high yielding 365-day housed units within the very best performers.

“Efficiency is not about the system but about the management of the system,” Mr Wynne said.

“Every dairy farm situation is different, with varying resources, so efficiency is about adapting to your circumstances and then managing the business as well as possible within the constraints that exist.”

Data from Alltech E-CO2 showed a number of key performance indicators where an improving trend was consistent with an overall fall in carbon footprint.

However, Mr Wynne stated that it was more important for individual farms to carry out their own assessments to identify specific areas for improvement, rather than adopt a standard approach.

“In a lot of cases, improving areas such as feed rate per litre, calving interval and age at first calving will result in a lower carbon footprint and increased efficiency and profitability,” he said.

“But it is important to look at the whole farm situation and to view each area in this context, not in isolation. This is where the individual farm assessment has such value, as it takes account of all of the specific challenges and nuances that exist on every farm.”

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