Swapping shoes: shrinking milk footprints may increase beef footprints

An international workshop funded by Sêr Cymru NRN-LCEE has concluded on the need to account for indirect effects on crop and beef farms when investigating the efficiency of greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation strategies in the dairy sector. The workshop, Resolving scale discrepancies in evaluation of sustainable intensification pathways for dairy and beef farms, was organised to explore novel modelling methodology undertaken by the “CLEANER COWS” research cluster led by Bangor University, recently published in Global Change Biology. Twenty-seven international experts in agriculture and GHG modelling participated in the workshop, representing organisations such as the UN FAO, Wageningen Research, Teagasc and National University of Costa Rica, alongside UK dairy industry representatives and university researchers.

Direct and indirect GHG emissions consequences of intensification were explored for national dairy herds in Costa Rica, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK. Dr David Styles, of Bangor University, demonstrated how conventional milk footprints could support misleading conclusions on the GHG mitigation efficacy of dairy intensification strategies, and highlighted the importance of accounting for indirect effects on inter-connected crop and beef farms. Specifically, dairy intensification was shown to reduce the direct carbon footprint of milk production whilst increasing indirect GHG emissions by driving cropland expansion and leading to a less efficient beef sector. GHG mitigation by dairy intensification was shown to be dependent on secondary effects related to the use of grassland spared from dairy production. Based on these findings, Dr Jon Moorby, of Aberystwyth University, suggested the revival of dal-purpose cattle breeds to support resilient, climate-smart intensification milk and beef production.    

Dr Laurence Shallo, of Teagasc, demonstrated how a dramatic intensification of milk production in Ireland has been supported by better use of grass, whilst Professor Theun Vellinga, of Wageningen Research, illustrated the regulatory constraints to further intensification of highly productive dairy farms in the Netherlands, where leakage of nutrients presents a key challenge. Professor Vellinga emphasised the need for a new generation of scientific models that represent entire food systems, in order to identify appropriate strategies for sustainable intensification. Workshop findings will be used to refine modelling being undertaken in ongoing dairy intensification research projects such as SusCoRiDa in Costa Rica. Workshop participants are now collaborating to publish their conclusions on how to advance scientific modelling of sustainable intensification.

Publication date: 3 October 2017