NI dairy farms ahead of the UK curve when it comes to carbon footprint
As governments introduce policies seeking to achieve net zero carbon emissions over the coming decades, all parts of industry and society will have a role to play in reducing their carbon footprint and enhancing sustainability.
For dairy farmers in particular, rising to the challenge of addressing climate change also provides an opportunity to demonstrate their environmental credentials and explore innovative ways to reduce emissions.
“Dairy needs to tell its story from a factual, science-based position, and champion environmental sustainability right across the supply chain,” says Neville Graham, Head of Farmer Services at dairy cooperative Dale Farm.
“Livestock farming is very much in the spotlight when it comes to climate change, so it is important that we demonstrate how agriculture can be part of the solution.
“This is something that Dale Farm is taking very seriously,” Neville explains. “We want to lead on sustainability within the dairy sector and are constantly assessing our processes and facilities to see how we can improve efficiency and reduce our carbon footprint.
“For example, in 2018 we launched the largest ‘self-consumption’ solar farm on the island of Ireland, powering our cheddar cheese plant in County Tyrone and guaranteeing us 20 years of green energy. We also work with the 1,300 dairy farmers who own our business to help them take measures today to protect their farms, and the land, for tomorrow.
“In 2018-2019 we used Alltech’s ECo2 calculator to measure the carbon footprint of our milk supply base. We studied 25 farms, fully representative of our milk production systems. We focused on various breeds, herd sizes and geographic locations across Northern Ireland.”
The results, Neville explains, were positive. “The carbon footprint of these farms, selected at random and representing a range in production efficiency, averaged 1,120g of Co2 equivalent per kg of milk corrected for fat and protein. This is favourable when compared to the UK average and is much lower than the global carbon footprint for milk which is 2,900. This autumn we are planning to carry out further research on more herds, using the latest data.”
So, what does a low carbon footprint dairy farm look like, and how can farmers continue to reduce their impact on the environment? As Neville points out, much of the answer lies in maintaining an efficient farm business.
“When we calculate a carbon footprint, we are measuring the farm’s outputs – such as milk sold, milk quality, livestock produced, manure generated - against all the farm’s inputs such as energy and feed costs. So, from a practical point of view, a carbon footprint pulls together all the key areas which ultimately affect profitability. In simple terms, the lower the carbon footprint, the more financially sustainable a dairy business will be and vice-versa.
“At Dale Farm, we provide services to farmers that improve both the financial and environmental sustainability of their businesses. Through Dairy Herd Management, we offer a service for farmers to measure individual cow yields and milk quality, and also can test the health of their herd. We are also in the second year of our soil sampling service, where we are now looking at the soil biology and the carbon fixing ability of the soil. We also have an initiative looking at feed efficiency – again if you are using feed more efficiently, you are saving money and reducing your carbon footprint.”
While efficient farming is a large part of the solution, Neville also highlights other factors that need to be considered when looking at environmental sustainability on-farm.
He explained: “To complete the picture, we must be able to formalise the role played by well managed grassland, trees and hedgerows in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through what we call carbon sequestration.”
Looking forward, Neville is confident that dairy farming in Northern Ireland is a success story when it comes to sustainability.
“In Northern Ireland, we have an abundance of rainfall and can grow huge quantities of grass. We also have a progressive, innovative farming base that is committed to running efficient, flourishing farm businesses that can be passed on to future generations. At the same time, technology is always improving, and new technologies associated with diets, genetics, manure treatment and spreading will all help significantly reduce the carbon footprint of local dairy herds.”