The effect of improving cow productivity, fertility, and longevity on the global warming potential of dairy systems

M Bell, E Wall, G Russell, G Simm, AW Stott

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93 Citations (Scopus)


This study compared the environmental impact of a range of dairy production systems in terms of their global warming potential (GWP, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents, CO2-eq.) and associated land use, and explored the efficacy of reducing said impact. Models were developed using the unique data generated from a long-term genetic line × feeding system experiment. Holstein-Friesian cows were selected to represent the UK average for milk fat plus protein production (control line) or were selected for increased milk fat plus protein production (select line). In addition, cows received a low forage diet (50% forage) with no grazing or were on a high forage (75% forage) diet with summer grazing. A Markov chain approach was used to describe the herd structure and help estimate the GWP per year and land required per cow for the 4 alternative systems and the herd average using a partial life cycle assessment. The CO2-eq. emissions were expressed per kilogram of energy-corrected milk (ECM) and per hectare of land use, as well as land required per kilogram of ECM. The effects of a phenotypic and genetic standard deviation unit improvement on herd feed utilization efficiency, ECM yield, calving interval length, and incidence of involuntary culling were assessed. The low forage (nongrazing) feeding system with select cows produced the lowest CO2-eq. emissions of 1.1 kg/kg of ECM and land use of 0.65 m2/kg of ECM but the highest CO2-eq. emissions of 16.1 t/ha of the production systems studied. Within the herd, an improvement of 1 standard deviation in feed utilization efficiency was the only trait of those studied that would significantly reduce the reliance of the farming system on bought-in synthetic fertilizer and concentrate feed, as well as reduce the average CO2-eq. emissions and land use of the herd (both by about 6.5%, of which about 4% would be achievable through selective breeding). Within production systems, reductions in CO2-eq. emissions per kilogram of ECM and CO2-eq. emissions per hectare were also achievable by an improvement in feed utilization. This study allowed development of models that harness the biological trait variation in the animal to improve the environmental impact of the farming system. Genetic selection for efficient feed use for milk production according to feeding system can bring about reductions in system nutrient requirements, CO2-eq. emissions, and land use per unit product.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3662 - 3678
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Dairy Science
Issue number7
Publication statusFirst published - 2011


  • Dairy cow
  • Global warming potential
  • Land use
  • Production system


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