The effect of lactation length on greenhouse gas emissions from the national dairy herd

E Wall, MP Coffey, GE Pollott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


Many governments have signed up to greenhouse gas emission (GHGE) reduction programmes under their national climate change obligations. Recently, it has been suggested that the use of extended lactations in dairy herds could result in reduced GHGE. Dairy GHGE were modelled on a national basis and the model was used to compare emissions from lactations of three different lengths (305, 370 and 440 days), and a current ‘base’ scenario on the basis of maintaining current milk production levels. In addition to comparing GHGE from the average ‘National Herd’ under these scenarios, results were used to investigate how accounting for lactations of different lengths might alter the estimation of emissions calculated from the National Inventory methodology currently recommended by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Data for the three lactation length scenarios were derived from nationally recorded dairy performance information and used in the GHGE model. Long lactations required fewer milking cows and replacements to maintain current milk yield levels than short ones, but GHGEs were found to rise from 1214 t of CO2 equivalent (CE)/farm per year for lactations of 305 days to 1371 t CE/farm per year for 440-day lactations. This apparent anomaly can be explained by the less efficient milk production (kg milk produced per kg cow weight) found in later lactation, a more pronounced effect in longer lactations. The sensitivity of the model to changes in replacement rate, persistency and level of milk yield was investigated. Changes in the replacement rate from 25% to 20% and in persistency by −10% to +20% resulted in very small changes in GHGE. Differences in GHGE due to the level of milk yield were much more dramatic with animals in the top 10% for yield, producing about 25% less GHGE/year than the average animal. National Inventory results were investigated using a more realistic spread of lactation lengths than recommended for such calculations using emissions calculated in the first part of the study. Current UK emission calculations based on the National Inventory were 329 Gg of methane per year from the dairy herd. Using the national distribution of lactation lengths, this was found to be an underestimate by about 10%. This work showed that the current rise in lactation length or a move towards calving every 18 months would increase GHGE by 7% to 14% compared with the current scenario, assuming the same milk yield in all models. Increased milk yield would have a much greater effect on reducing GHGE than changes to lactation length, replacement rate or persistency. National Inventory methodology appears to underestimate GHGE when the distribution of lactation lengths is considered and may need revising to provide more realistic figures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1857 - 1867
Number of pages11
Issue number11
Publication statusFirst published - 2012

Bibliographical note



  • Dairy
  • Emissions
  • Greenhouse gases
  • Lactation


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