Getting more milk per cow nets environmental bonus

A study shows that increasing productivity on dairy farms decreases their environmental impact

Dale and Aaron Smith started focusing on improved herd health and feeding efficiency to boost milk production on their Mt. Hope, Ontario dairy farm — and they succeeded.

Milk production increased 15 per cent, from 34 litres to 40 litres per cow per day from 2011 to 2016.

What they didn’t expect to find was that they were also reducing their operation’s environmental impact.

They aren’t alone. A recently released study says that as dairy farmers have increased their productivity, they are reducing their carbon footprint — good news for a sector badgered by negative publicity.

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Why it matters: Dairy production is often targeted in reports on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in agriculture. Production efficiency improvements show that the climate impact of dairy production is decreasing.

The Smiths milk 75 cows in a compost-pack barn and credit changes in feed, and management around the feeding regimen, for their increase in milk production. They are getting more milk per cow per day and are getting more lactations from each cow.

“[Our milk production] increased by decreasing their lameness and somatic cell and therefore keeping cows healthier and happier by producing more per cow, and [we are] able to get more lactations from the cows,” says Aaron. They have a surplus of two-year-old heifers as they are able to milk their mature cows for longer into their life cycle.

Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) had Groupe AGÉCO conduct a life cycle assessment of milk production across Canada. The study was previously completed in 2010-2011. The study took into account the evolution of farm practices and increased efficiency.

Milk production per cow increased an average of 12.8 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

“While the decrease in carbon footprint, water consumption and land use of Canadian milk production decreased by 7.3 per cent, 5.6 per cent and 10.9 per cent respectively,” the report stated.

When looking at the environmental impact of Canadian milk production, greenhouse gas emissions were decreased as more corn silage was implemented in feed rations across the country.

Relative contribution of the life cycle stages to the average environmental profile of producing one kilogram of Canadian milk.
photo: Source: Canadian milk production LCA Update For Dairy Farmers of Canada

“The higher milk production led to a reduction in water consumption and land use inventory,” said the report. The result is a decreasing carbon footprint for the dairy sector across Canada and the world.

The report looked at data from across the country involving many areas of dairy farm production, including cost of production studies for milk production, studies of manure management practices, Statistics Canada information along with surveys of farmers.

The milk production lifecycle started at crop production, through cattle feed consumption and milking and included transportation of milk as far as the processor. No processing impacts were included.

The livestock portion of the lifecycle is the large contributor to the dairy carbon footprint, due to emissions from dairy cows. Fermentation of feed in the rumen creates methane, a significant greenhouse gas.

Enteric emissions decreased from 0.47 to 0.44 kg carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of fat and protein corrected milk between 2011 and 2016. »

Feed production actually contributes more to the water use portion than does consumption of water by cows. Feed production dominates the land-use portion of the measure at 99 per cent. Crop production for feed measures show that farmers decreased conventional tillage between 2011 and 2016.

Cows consumed nine per cent more feed in 2016 over 2011, but that compares to an increase of 12 per cent in milk production.

The Smith family started using essential lipids in 2012. Since then they have been able to feed the same amount of feed per day while still getting more milk from each cow. “The quality of our feed is helping to maintain intakes while increasing the milk production,” says Smith.

On top of adding two new products to their feed, the essential lipids help balance the omega fatty acids. Silage inoculants have helped to slow down the fermentation process of the feed and they have changed their feed storage system.

“We used to fill bags with corn silage and transfer it to an upright silo, now we use straight bags,” explained Aaron. “Once the feed was exposed to the air it was degraded and now we take the corn silage straight from the bag and put it in the TMR mixer.”

With dairy farmers across Canada adopting beneficial management practices, more towards forage management and optimizing the cows’ rations, such like the Smiths did, they have been able to increase their production while lowering their carbon footprint.

About the author


Jennifer lives on a farm in Cayuga, Ontario and has a lot of experience in the many aspects of agriculture.



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