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Cleaner Cows: Research

Milk and beef production contribute significantly to ecosystem damage via greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, nutrient losses to water, ammonia (NH3) emissions to air, and depletion of finite resources. Dairy farms in the UK are an excellent system to study in relation to sustainable intensification (SI), owing to an ongoing trend of consolidation and intensification (C&I) that has implications for the environmental efficiency of coupled beefLproduction systems, and for indirect land use change (ILUC) via feed production. Recent studies have applied attributional life cycle assessment (LCA) to compare the environmental efficiency of different types of dairy system. However, these studies came to opposing conclusions, and did not evaluate changes that occur when one type of farm system replaces another. Such changes can be evaluated using consequential LCA (CLCA), capturing wider effects for beef production and ILUC. Although there has been recent application of CLCA to evaluate the GHG balance of bioenergy interventions, we are not aware of published studies that apply CLCA to evaluate, across the suite of relevant environmental and economic effects: (i) the sustainability of dairy C&I pathways; (ii) farm level better management practices. The Cluster will develop a truly interdisciplinary and scientifically excellent framework drawing on LCA and farm management modelling expertise (BU), animal husbandry expertise (AU), economic modelling expertise (CU), and detailed data on existing farm structure and trends (FBS, DairyCo). As well as addressing key questions of international scientific importance, the framework will be methodologically innovative by allowing feedback between the LCA, farm management and economic components. The cluster will develop efficient scaling and optimization algorithms to run the framework at the national level.

Key questions addressed by the Cluster will be:

  • How do different types of dairy farm compare in terms of resource, environmental and financial efficiency?
  • What are the resource, environmental and farm business effects when milk production shifts from one type of farm system to another (i.e. transition effects) during C&I, including consequences for nonLdairy beefLproduction and marginal feed production?
  • What are the regional, national and global resource, environmental and socioLeconomic effects of widespread decadal transition from disappearing towards expanding dairy systems?
  • Which better management practices can most efficiently mitigate C&I hotspots, considering multiple direct and indirect (expanded boundary) environmental effects?
  • How can UK policy steer C&I to maximise the global sustainability of dairy production (avoid pollution swapping and pollution export)?

With the following deliverables:

  • A model framework, coupling farm management, LCA and economics, for improving the sustainability of UK food production, accounting for regional/national socioLeconomic effects and international environmental burdens
  • A database of regional farm structure, production, environmental burdens and employment under a range of policy scenarios
  • An evaluation of the environmental and economic costLbenefit of farmLlevel management interventions accounting for regional to international teleconnections and economic feedbacks
  • >Efficient optimisation and simplification algorithms for scaling up from single farms to the regional/national level

”Sustainable intensification of UK dairy production: challenges and prospects” Cleaner Cows briefing note.

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