Biological and environmental efficiency of high producing dairy systems through application of life cycle analysis
Ross, Stephen Alexander
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Dairy production systems are an important global contributor to anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions including methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Due to the role GHG play in climate change, it is important to investigate ways to minimise their global warming potential (GWP) and to maximise the efficiency of dairy production systems. Finding a balance between improving productivity and suppressing the range and quantity of GHG produced in dairy production is crucial in order to maintain sustainability in the future. The Langhill herd is part of a long term genetic x feeding systems study, representative of a range of dairy production systems which may be found in the UK. Two feeding regimes (low forage (LF) and high forage (HF)) were applied to each of two genetic lines (control (C) and select (S) genetic merit for milk fat plus protein) giving four contrasting dairy production systems (LFC, LFS, HFC, HFS). Biological efficiency (production and energetic) and environmental efficiency (GWP) were assessed by way of life cycle analysis (LCA), accounting for dairy system inputs and outputs from off-farm production of imported feeds and fertilisers to raw milk leaving the farm gate over a period of seven years. Calculations were conducted using the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) methods, with system specific data implemented where possible. Select genetic line under low forage regime (LFS) had the highest gross production and energetic efficiencies (p<0.001). In LFS, milk yields were 56% higher per cow than the lowest ranked HFC system, representing a difference of around 3500kg per cow. Milk solids yield per kg dry matter intake was 18% higher in LFS compared to HFC. High forage with control genetic line required 17% more net energy intake than LFS to produce each kg of milk solids. LFS allocated the highest proportion of net energy to lactating after accounting for body maintenance (p<0.001). Rate of change in efficiency throughout lactation varied significantly (p<0.001) amongst systems, with loss of efficiency minimised in LFS and greatest in HFC. However, LFS involuntary culling rate was significantly higher than other systems (p<0.001). LFS was the most environmentally efficient system and HFC the least (p<0.001), both per unit productivity and per unit total land use. Implementing low forage regime with select genetic line lowered GWP per kg energy corrected milk (ECM) by 24% compared to HFC (p<0.001). GWP of LFC was around 8% lower per kg ECM than HFS (p<0.001). Methane from enteric fermentation contributed the greatest proportion of overall GWP (46-49%) in all systems. However, key factors in the differences amongst systems were higher off-farm CO2 equivalent emissions under low forage, and higher on-farm N2O emissions under high forage regime. HFC produced 91% more nitrous oxide per kg ECM from animal manures compared to LFS, and 65% more N2O from applied manufactured fertilisers (p<0.001). Conversely GWP associated with off-farm production of imported feeds in LFS was 11% higher than in HFC (p<0.001). In low forage systems high gross emissions were offset by high productivity but this was not the case for the high forage systems. Cows of high genetic merit managed under a Low Forage feeding regime had improved production, energetic and environmental efficiencies. However, issues with animal health and fertility raise questions about long term sustainability of the LFS dairy production system, emphasising the importance of examining trade offs between systems.