Thinking about feed ingredient choice can reduce the carbon footprint of dairy cow diets by up to 50% according to calculations carried out by Mole Valley Farmers.
The British farmer owned cooperative recently established the carbon footprint of every compound feed and straight up to delivery to farm and collated ‘best estimates’ for homegrown forages.
The move is the next step in the business’s ‘Climate Positive Agriculture’ initiative, which started with understanding the carbon footprint of every feed straight delivered to their feed mills. The ultimate aim is to help farmers get on the front foot in preparation for imminent changes in support payments. This will see producers rewarded for environmental improvements and increasing public goods, such as mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.
With Nottingham University research showing that feed represents nearly 50% of a farm’s carbon footprint, thinking carefully about feed ingredient choice, together with how feeds are manufactured and transported will help facilitate environmental gains.
Mole Valley Feed Solutions’ Nutritionist, Dr Matt Witt, says there is a big difference in the carbon footprint of different compounds. As expected, those with the highest environmental impact include soy and palm originating from deforested areas, whilst those with the lowest include by-products of the food and beverage industries and British-grown feeds, such as rapeseed.
With this in mind, he believes there are some simple ‘wins’ farmers can make to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, without compromising production. He used the company’s Precision Nutrition rationing programme to compare different total diets. In one example, he was able to reduce the carbon footprint of the diet by half.
“Taking out imported soy and palm from deforested regions has the biggest impact on the carbon footprint of a dairy diet,” he says. “On an example diet with a 50:50 forage mix of maize and grass silage, rationed for maintenance +38 litres, replacing palm kernel, soya, soya hulls and US maize distillers with rumen protected British rapeseed expeller, rapeseed meal, biscuit meal and sugar beet pulp, reduced the carbon footprint of the diet from 0.6kg CO2e/litre to 0.3kg CO2e/litre.”
In this example, the balance of maize and grass silage was kept the same. However, Matt says changing forage proportions can also influence a diet’s carbon footprint.
“Forages are a crucial factor to consider as they make up around 50% of the total diet,” he explains. “We have collated information from global research papers to generate ‘best estimates’ for homegrown forage.”
All of this feed and forage carbon footprint data has been incorporated into Mole Valley Farmers’ Precision Nutrition rationing programme so the company will be able to advise farmers on practical steps to reduce their carbon footprint.
“The Government has already outlined its intentions to reward farmers for reducing carbon emissions in its ‘The Path to Sustainable Farming” document. Farming is only going to fall further under the spot light, so monitoring and looking at ways to reduce farming’s impact is critical,” Matt adds.
The British agricultural industry is well placed to lead the world in reducing farming’s impact on the environment having already reduced its carbon footprint by 16% since 1990 (NFU). Further improvements in feed efficiency, animal health, soil management and carbon sequestration will help move UK agriculture toward net zero over the coming years.
Matt believes understanding the environmental impact of different diets and asking how the industry can get better will be a key component to environmental gains.
“This process is in its early stages and will evolve as we go, but the important thing is we’re tackling the issue head on. As an industry we need to work together to reduce farming’s environmental impact, and in doing so, drive consumer acceptance of sustainable, animal-based food,” he concludes.