The recent expansion of the Irish dairy industry has reduced the global footprint of milk production by about four million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), assuming that Irish milk displaced milk with a global average carbon footprint. So said Teagasc researchers Laurence Shalloo and Padraig French in their presentation at last week’s Teagasc Dairy Open Day, at Moorepark, Co Cork.
They said there is considerable debate about the impacts of agriculture in climate change policy, the nitrates directive, ammonia emissions ceilings, and biodiversity — all areas that require greater focus within the farm gate.
“On a positive note, the grass-based system provides an advantage over high input/TMR based systems. For example, a recent FAO report has highlighted that the average carbon footprint of global milk is 2.5 kg of CO2e for each litre of fat and protein corrected milk produced.
"The corresponding figure for Ireland is about 1 kg of CO2e per litre of fat and protein corrected milk, when carbon sequestration is included.
Hence the claim that Irish dairy expansion has reduced the global footprint of milk production.
“While the initial starting point in Ireland from an emissions perspective is good, there needs to be a focus on continuous improvement on all the environmental concerns.
“Luckily, most of the technologies that increase efficiency and profitability will also reduce emissions. The future target system has a substantially lower carbon footprint than the current system.
The researchers said that for each kg of human edible protein consumed, the average Irish cow produces 4.92 kg of human edible protein. This outcome is nearly 50% better than if the land used to feed the cow was converted to protein-producing crops (where possible).
“This is not the case with high-input and TMR-based systems and it is increasingly difficult to justify these systems in the allocation of scarce resources globally.”
They revealed that Ireland has developed a methodology to quantify the proportion of grass in the cow’s diet, and it is being implemented within the SDAS system. This is a response to the increasing consumer interest in knowing the typical quantities of grazed pasture and forage in a dairy cow’s diet.
Consumer interest has led to development of milk brands that require farmers to mainly feed their cows grass (such as Organic Valley’s Grassmilk in the USA). These dairy products are in high demand in many countries, and are sold at a market premium price.
“There is scope to build on this development and further develop brands and credentials to satisfy the growing market demand through producing dairy products from grass in a sustainable and efficient manner.
”Ireland can grow this potential further, ultimately adding value to dairy products, increasing the returns to the primary producers and satisfying the demand of consumers, by producing grass-fed high value product.
“Ireland is uniquely positioned to capitalise on the grass fed narrative, but must continue to focus on grass-based systems.
The Irish dairy sector has just gone through a very successful period of expansion, with milk output increasing by 64% and dairy farm income by 70%. The carbon footprint and farm debt per kg of milk have reduced, compared with the 2007–2009 period.
For continuing success, the Teagasc experts advised farmers to refocus efforts on profitable, grass-based milk production systems (the only competitive/comparative advantage for the Irish dairy industry), with significant opportunities to further increase efficiencies. But expansion of milk production using extra imported feed would generate a poor return, expose the farm to more risk, and increase the environmental footprint.
“Continued expansion for some farmers is the right thing to do if based on increased grass utilisation and dairy farm conversions with low capital cost infrastructure.“