Quick gains for cutting your carbon footprint

Reducing your farm’s carbon footprint may seem like yet another government requirement to make your life more difficult, but ongoing research has found making changes can bring significant financial benefits.

Economic and environmental benefits often go hand in hand, explains Karen Wonnacott, DairyCo research and development manager. “Many of the things that can affect the environmental impacts of dairy farms are already being tackled by British dairy farmers because they make good economic sense and can help to improve overall business efficiency.”

An ongoing DairyCo-funded project, that is due to complete in spring 2013, is assessing the carbon footprint of more than 400 dairy farms across England, Scotland and Wales. All farms vary in size, system and geographical location to give a representative picture of the industry.

“We fully appreciate that British dairy farmers are striving to operate their businesses as efficiently as they can,” says Dr Wonnacott. “The aim of the project is to identify key ‘hot spots’ that bring about further reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as economic savings on-farm.”

The project will also enable the dairy industry to gain a fuller understanding of the carbon footprint of GB milk production and to highlight the best practises being undertaken by British dairy farmers.

“We’ll be able to use this data to demonstrate the steps British dairy farmers can take, or are already implementing, to reduce environmental impact whilst improving business efficiency,” she adds.

Preliminary results show a direct link between lower carbon footprints and making improved returns from milk production, says project manager Peter Darlington, from E-CO2 – which is undertaking the project work on behalf of DairyCo.

Results to date highlight clear areas that farmers can focus on to improve farm businesses whilst also reducing carbon footprint. Some examples include:

1 Make better use of home-produced nutrients

Making better use of slurry and manure will not only reduce your carbon footprint but reduce the overall need for, and cost of, bought in fertilisers, says Mr Darlington.

“Consideration of timing of application, weather and crop-nutrient requirements and application method will help reduce nitrate leaching and volatilisation, but will also help with better nutrient uptake by grassland and crops.”

2 Reduce herd culling rates

During the rearing period a heifer is contributing to the farm’s carbon footprint without contributing to its output, explains Mr Darlington.

“Ideally you want a cow’s productive life to be as long as possible. Increasing the lifetime of cows in the herd, as well as their overall production regardless of your farming system, will reduce your carbon footprint.

“The high cost associated with rearing replacements is well known. Reducing the number of replacements your herd requires makes economic as well as environmental sense. Environmental impact is another reason to address the causes of early culling in your herd, be it lameness, fertility or mastitis – something that dairy farmers have been working on for years.”

3 Consider use of home grown forages

Using home grown forages will help replace some of the bought in feeds, again reducing carbon footprints. Making the most of your grass, whether you operate a grazing system or TMR system, can help to save money. Providing cows with the right quantity and quality, at the right stage, means you’re feeding the most sustainable and cheapest form of feed as efficiently as possible.

4 Feeding of by-products

By their nature, by-products such as brewers grains, bread waste and apple pumice are the by-products of other industries. Consequently most of their carbon footprint will have already been accounted for by that industry so will earn your farm carbon credits, adds Mr Darlington.

5 Reduce energy use on farm

Reducing energy use, for example by using a heat-recovery system, reviewing electricity use or changing to low-energy light bulbs, can result in good costs savings. But while they will play a role in reducing the carbon footprint of the farm, it’s important to remember all energy use on farm equates to about 1% of the farm’s carbon footprint, he says.

“Increasing the yield of a cow, regardless of what milk contract you are on, or what farming system you operate, will reduce the carbon footprint for every litre of milk produced.”

GHG information

For information on how diets can affect GHG emissions, visit www.fwi.co.uk/ghgdietsFor more information on energy saving, carbon footprints and cost saving tips you can find DairyCo’s energy calculators at www.dairyco.org.uk. You can also access GHG factsheets and case studies.