Efficiency of production provides the key not only to greater profitability, but also to reducing carbon footprint and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the expert speakers at a RuminOmics workshop organised by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) in Edinburgh.
The two-day European regional workshop attracted around 70 delegates from 12 countries representing a wide interest in the subject of solving the challenge of emissions from livestock systems.
RuminOmics is an EU-funded 7th Framework project which was established in 2012 involving 11 partners from across Europe including QMS. The workshop in Edinburgh was aimed at transferring the knowledge collected to date and discussing how it can be applied on farm and used to help the industry progress.
Professor Cledwyn Thomas from the European Federation of Animal Science (EAAP) said the positive effect on the environment of livestock through grazing – including ecosystem and landscape benefits - was too often forgotten about.
However, the challenge going forward, he said, will be meeting the demand for animal products from a growing and more affluent world population without losing these benefits. This, Prof Thomas believes, is where technology and management come in.
"Greenhouse gas per kg of milk or meat produced is down globally but this is offset by increased numbers of livestock, therefore we have to look at greenhouse gas per ha or per farm or even per region,” he said.
One of the major areas of discussion at the workshop was whether GHG emissions could be reduced through livestock breeding programmes. Professor Thomas highlighted a range of mitigation strategies that farmers may adopt, ranging from feed additives to breeding. To useful strategies had to be profitable as well as reducing GHG. Breeding, he said, offered the greatest potential of up to 50% reduction in GHG emissions, according to some studies.
However, selection for low methane emissions may not be sensible strategy since there was no evidence that low emitters were more efficient or profitable. Was it therefore better to select for efficiency since this will reduce methane emissions.
Dr Jimmy Hyslop, Beef Specialist with SAC Consulting, part of SRUC, believed the focus should be on output per unit of fixed costs.
"It is quite simple really; profit equals income minus costs, and improving efficiency is the route to both improved profits, which in turn will also lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions," said Dr Hyslop.
His example was beef finishing where he said, although feed costs per tonne or per day were high on an intensive, fast-finishing (slaughter at 12 to 15 months) unit, the lifetime feed costs were low because the number of days required to produce a finished carcass were much less. This meant the fixed costs were similarly low and efficiency in producing beef over a short time was good, meaning that GHG emissions per kg of beef were also low as a result of fewer days to market.
Much of the work done by scientists on the RuminOmics team has been within the dairy industry and delegates were given a fascinating comparison of the Dutch and Irish systems by Dr Brendan Horen of Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority and Dr Erwin Koenen of CRV. CRV is a large co-operative cattle improvement organisation owned by Dutch and Flemish farmers.
In the Netherlands, there are 1.6 million dairy cows in 18,500 herds (average size 90 cows) producing 12.6 billion litres of milk per year. The average annual yield per cow is 7,900 litres from 2,100kg of concentrate. This gives a milk yield per hectare of 15,000 litres.
In contrast, Southern Ireland has 17,000 dairy farmers with 1.2 million cows (average 70 per herd) producing an average yield per cow of 4,750 litres from a grass-based system.
Both systems have government production and environmental impact targets to meet but they do it in very different ways. Dr Koenen explained that in an era without milk quotas, many Dutch farmers want to increase milk production to meet the increasing global demand for dairy products, but to comply with government legislation on reductions on nutrient surpluses (due to fertilisers, concentrates and manure application and GHG) emissions they will have to rely on new management and breeding tools.
He said: "To identify bulls producing more efficient daughters, CRV has developed a new breeding index based on breeding values for the main traits affecting production efficiency, this leads to increased profitability and lower methane emissions."
On the other hand, in Ireland's milk from forage systems, stocking rate is the main driver of productivity but the challenge here comes from environmental impact. Brendan said that a resilient, efficient system insulated from price volatility was the key.
Dr Horen said: "Irish farmers need to select cows suitable for a grass system, requiring traits such as longevity, able to withstand feed fluctuations and large herd situations. Desirable traits have swung away from milk production to fertility, ease of calving and new traits such as ease of management."
Interestingly, one of the RuminOmics studies, according to Professor Kevin Shingfield from IBERS, Aberystwyth University, indicated that producing higher quality grass silages and decreasing the reliance on concentrate supplements can maintain performance but lower whole farm GHG emissions It is possible to formulate diets that lower methane production, but care needs to be taken to avoid compromising productivity. He said the project had brought them much closer to understanding why when fed the same diet some cows emit more Greenhouse gas than others.