How the Australian dairy industry is working to slash its carbon footprint

By Jane Allman
Tuesday, 29 June, 2021

How the Australian dairy industry is working to slash its carbon footprint

The Australian dairy industry is adopting strategies focused on improving land management, increasing water use efficiency, reducing waste and decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity by 30% by 2030.

In its latest report — 30 Ways Australian Dairy is Tackling Climate ChangeDairy Australia outlines the many ways the industry is working to reduce its environmental impact.

The Australian dairy industry is using a host of innovative measures to reduce GHG emissions.

The case of Ellinbank SmartFarm

The Ellinbank SmartFarm Research Facility in Victoria is trialling innovative measures to reduce the environmental footprint of farms, exploring if these measures are feasible for farmers to implement.

Boasting everything from solar panels to wind turbines, Ellinbank SmartFarm is a leading farm and research facility with the ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2026. Currently operating as a commercial display farm, Ellinbank tests and displays feasible options for farmers to reduce their environmental impact in an economically viable way; just one of the ways the dairy industry is reducing its environmental impact.

Led by Agriculture Victoria Research Director Professor Joe Jacobs, Ellinbank aims to become carbon neutral by reducing methane emissions, improving fertiliser and manure management, and generating electricity through solar, wind, hydro and biodigestion.

Based at Ellinbank Dairy Research Centre, Professor Jacobs said, “Here at the Ellinbank SmartFarm we’re trying to achieve carbon neutrality and we’ve set ourselves an ambitious target of achieving net zero emissions by 2026.”

He explained that the first step on the path to carbon neutrality was determining the sources of the farm’s GHG emissions, so, using the national framework for accounting for GHG emissions established by The University of Melbourne, Professor Jacobs determined the farm’s emissions to be 2600 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year, with 60% of those emissions coming from dairy cows burping methane; about 16% from energy; and about 12–13% from manure waste. Together, these numbers equated to just over 90% of the farm’s GHG emissions.

Professsor Jacobs was not surprised with this figure — which is in line with commercial farms of similar sizes.

“The key steps that we’re looking to undertake at Ellinbank to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions are reducing the amount of methane that animals burp every day through feed additive, genetics and feed efficiency; generating our own energy on site through a combination of solar, wind and hydro; using our own electric vehicles; and through better management of waste streams on the farm to generate energy and use them as products for fertiliser in replacement of inorganic fertiliser use.”

Professor Jacobs believes that future research efforts to help the farming environment move towards carbon neutrality will be around feeding systems, given that this is the largest GHG producer on livestock farms.

When discussing the economic viability of biodigesters, Professor Jacobs suggested working with other local agricultural industries to co-mingle waste products, to keep biodigesters running at an optimum pace.

“I think there’s some real opportunities involving a range of agricultural industries working together in that space,” he said. “Another important factor to consider is the lifetime efficiency of the animal. Can we actually make a difference with newborn calves, bringing calves through to weaning and actually setting the animal up, and setting the rumen environment up for that long-term mitigation of methane emissions?”

Targeting enteric methane

South Gippsland dairy farmer Graeme Nicoll milks just over 300 cows on a pasture-based system.

He began looking at the carbon footprint of his farm from a broader concern relating to GHG emissions 10–15 years ago, running the dairy carbon calculator, which at the time was the DGAS tool, to find that a large proportion of the farm’s emissions could be attributed to enteric methane — the emissions from the farm’s cows.

Nicoll explained that, over the last 30 years, the Australian dairy industry has reduced its enteric methane emissions by 40%. This substantial reduction is something that Nicoll has also witnessed across his farm.

“Better breeding and feeding of cows has a significant impact on enteric methane,” he said.

“Imagine if our whole community reduced their greenhouse gas footprint by 40% over 30 years. The dairy industry has done this with enteric methane. That’s pretty exciting, and there are more opportunities for better breeding and feeding of cows to further reduce those emissions.

“There’s also some really exciting technology — the potential of seaweed. The dairy industry is well positioned to capitalise on the opportunities of these diet additives to ruminants, because we see our cows twice a day and have the opportunity to give those additives twice a day.”

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