Five ways dairy farms can reduce their carbon footprint

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Many Welsh dairy farms will need to increase the efficiency of their production to reduce their carbon footprint and meet market and policy emissions targets.

In a recent Farming Connect webinar, agricultural consultant Diane Spence informed farmers that agriculture was responsible for 14% of all emissions in Wales, of which around 27% came from the dairy sector.

Although this is lower than the 29% emitted by the energy supply industry, the 22% by business and the 16% by transport, farmers attending a recent Farming Connect carbon footprint webinar were told that it is important to take action to reduce this level if the objectives agreed by the industry are to be achieved.

A product’s carbon footprint is the sum total of the greenhouse gases it emits over its entire life cycle; these include methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.

Enteric methane emissions are the main source of direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in ruminants, but nitrous oxide emissions (mainly related to nitrogen contained in purchased fertilizers and manure) are also important.

Unlike nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, methane is a dynamic gas that remains in the atmosphere for 10 to 12 years.

Diane told the webinar that the efficient use of inputs versus produced outputs is the key to reducing the carbon footprint, and this is closely tied to a company’s overall technical performance.

There are five key areas that are relevant for all types of dairy farms – from extensive grazing to full-stall systems – in terms of reducing their carbon footprint:

Food and protein efficiency

There are interventions, such as ration formulation and silage analysis tools, to improve this.

Diane advised farmers to consider alternatives to soybean meal (which is imported from tropical countries like Brazil and Argentina, and is synonymous with deforestation and high greenhouse gas emissions), such as soybean meal rapeseed – and also the role of by-products such as brewers’ cereals and sugar beet pulp in the ration.

Animal health and genetics

Fertility, age at first calving and mortality are important.

Diane recommended that breeders use their herd health plan to monitor performance. This should include identifying the cow mortality rate over the past 12 months, establishing three focus areas and setting realistic improvement targets. “It’s about having healthy cows,” she says.

Efficient use of inorganic fertilizers and nutrients in manure, especially nitrogen

Nitrous oxide emissions come from the production and application of mineral fertilizers, and from farmyard slurry and manure (FYM) during storage and application.

Optimizing the amount of purchased nitrogen applied and improving the use, storage and spreading of manure have a significant effect on the carbon footprint. It is important to maintain a nutrient management plan and regularly test soils to assess nutrients and demand.

Applying FYM when grass is actively growing in spring and early summer improves nutrient uptake efficiency; it also reduces emissions and consequential environmental problems such as runoff and leaching, which are a particular problem when applied in wet conditions.

Covering manure storage also reduces nitrous oxide emissions and helps improve nutrient utilization rates.

land use

Fodder is an important part of the feed on Welsh dairy farms; it is therefore important to optimize grassland productivity.

To ensure good quality lawns and reduce the carbon footprint of their operation, farmers should consider avoiding tillage, maintaining lawns without reseeding using overseeding or minimum crops, or aiming to maintain long meadows.

“They should encourage a greater contribution of legumes and consider incorporating deep-rooted species, for example, plantain,” Diane said.

Sequestration

Blocking greenhouse gases is also important; this is directly correlated to soil health. Uncompacted, healthy soils will sequester more carbon.

“All of this is also good for grassland performance,” Diane pointed out.

Agriculture is uniquely positioned to sequester carbon because it has the land and the capacity to do so.

Diane urged farmers to take advantage of the support available through Farming Connect for soil testing, forage analysis and advice on grassland management and ration formulation.

About sixty tools have been developed to calculate the carbon footprint of a farm. However, three free tools are available and are the most commonly used: the Farm Carbon Toolkit, the Cool Farm Tool and the SAC Agrecalc.

When deciding which tool to use, it’s important to select one and stick with it, for a follow-up footprint after changes are implemented.

For farmer groups registered with Farming Connect, 100% funding is available to calculate the carbon footprint of their businesses.

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