Happy cows in a field

UK dairy farms embracing ‘poo power’ and IoT to decarbonise

Image credit: Dreamstime

Farmer-owned cooperative Arla has published a report on the carbon emissions associated with dairy farming, which finds that UK dairy farms are experimenting with a range of technologies in an effort to make their operations more sustainable.

Dairy farming, along with farming livestock for meat, faces ongoing criticism for its contribution to climate change, being relatively carbon and methane-intensive compared with plant-based foodstuffs. Recent years have seen an explosive growth of interest in plant-based diets and particularly in artificial meat alternatives.

Arla's report, based on data from 1,964 farms, aims to assess the carbon footprint of milk. It acknowledges that the main sources of emissions for the milk produced on its own farms are cow digestion and belched methane, along with how and where livestock feed is produced. Other sources of greenhouse gases include manure handling, energy production and use, and peat soil. Arla calculated that the average carbon footprint of milk from its farms is 1.13kg per kg of milk; this is under the average for UK dairy farms and around half the global average of 2.5kg of CO2 per kg of milk.

Arthur Fearnall, who sits on Arla Foods’ board of directors, said the cooperative hoped the report would help the public understand dairy farming better: “We have put a huge amount of time and investment into collating the data which we will now use to make decisions on farm,” he added.

Arla aims to cut its carbon emissions by 30 per cent per kg of milk at farm level by 2030, with a view to reaching net-zero carbon emissions across the supply chain by 2050.

It outlines the measures farmers can and are taking in order to reduce waste and carbon emissions These include precision slurry-spreading techniques which aim to cut ammonia emissions and trialling biogas made from manure (“poo power”) to fuel milk tankers. It also highlights current research in which its farmers are participating to aid decarbonisation, such as efforts to quantify and accelerate the storage of carbon by farmland, trees, hedges and pastures, and a study into feed additives that could reduce methane emissions from cows.

Other measures are focused on improving cow wellbeing, as healthy and content cows are associated with more efficient and humane milk production. Farmers have experimented with Fitbit-like collars and ankle bracelets for monitoring their health, along with other sensors to check animal behaviour for signs of distress.

The report also recommends increasing the renewable energy produced on farms to reduce emissions, with 27 per cent of Arla farmers generating electricity from wind or solar to power their own operations and feed into the grid.

Alice Swift, agriculture director for Arla Foods, said: “Dairy can and should be part of a sustainable diet and our new report is a major step forward in demonstrating just how much action is already under way across Arla farms as we move towards carbon net-zero dairy production. All food production creates emissions, but our farmers are stepping up to help with the climate and environmental crisis we face.

“If we want more biodiversity, fewer emissions through natural processes and a reduced reliance on ultra-processed foods, then the only answer is to support British farmers, who already have many of the answers, but not always the financial resources to implement them.”

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