Big data empowers Arla farmers to decarbonise dairy at a faster pace
Photo: Ard Jongsma
The results are in for Arla’s climate checks, one of the world’s largest externally validated sets of carbon footprint data for farms. Since launching last year, 8,131 farms across seven European countries have submitted data to 203 questions covering the number of animals, feed composition, crop production, use of fertiliser, manure handling, use of electricity, fuel and renewable energy. This data has then been validated by external assessors in every market in a process which will be repeated annually.
The data confirms that Arla farmers are among the most climate efficient dairy farmers in the world with 1.15 kg of CO2e per kilo (against a global average of the current industry standard is 2.5kg (FAO) ). The best performing Arla farmers are able to produce a kilo of raw milk with a farm level footprint well below 0.9 kg of CO2e. The data also shapes a clear blueprint of what will drive further reductions on farms over the next decade.
“We have made a major investment in developing and implementing a solid model for measuring climate impact on a dairy farm. The unique data set that Arla farmers have now created clearly shows which activities will accelerate our reductions over the next decade. We will use this to decarbonise our farms at a faster pace and share our findings with stakeholders to help drive an effective transition for the whole industry. There’s a huge amount of value in this for all of us,“ says Arla Foods chairman Jan Toft Nørgaard.
The data will now be analysed and organised so that it can be made accessible to Arla farmers as part of their own journey to reducing their climate checks. From June, the new portal will enable them to see average results for farms with similar conditions, size or geography to them. But the potential for the data extends beyond farmer action as Alice Swift, agriculture director for Arla Foods UK explains: “As a cooperative and as an industry, we need to re-educate the public about British dairy. An absence of UK data has made others reliant on global data, and that’s simply not representative of how sustainable British and European dairy can be. The exceptional lengths our owners have gone to in participating in this process now gives us the opportunity to start setting the record straight on British dairy, as well as continuing to work towards improvements that lead us to carbon net zero.”
The data has revealed five universal levers to a lower carbon footprint for dairy on all types of Arla farms. They are:
- Better feed efficiency to improve milk yield
- Precision feeding to reduce surplus protein in feed rations
- A healthy and long life for the cow to improve milk yield
- Precise fertiliser management to reduce nitrogen surplus from feed production
- Better land use management to ensure better crop yields
These five levers account for the majority of differences between the carbon footprint scores across all Arla farms. The five levers apply to all Arla farms in the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg regardless of size, geography, breed or landscape conditions.
“The data shows that all types of farms can achieve tangible results if precision farming is increased in these five areas. This will help us significantly going forward both to lower our CO2e footprint and for future investments on farms to help meet our ambitious climate goals,“ says Jan Toft Nørgaard.
A baseline, not a result
“We are proud of where we’ve got to, but we are determined to go a lot further. For us, the number is not a final result but a baseline from where we need to improve. The Climate Checks is a tool to guide our next steps, to accumulate more insight and transparently measure our progress going forward,” says Jan Toft Nørgaard.
From June, the insights generated from the compiled data will be shared within the cooperative and also presented to politicians, research partners and industry stakeholders. This will help improve the common understanding of what works and where to focus funding and research to support the longer-term transition to carbon net zero dairy farming. Early findings already highlight the true value this dataset will provide.
Alice Swift continues: “It is a myth that farms of a certain system, type, size, breed or location are in a more favourable position to lower their footprint than other farms with different conditions. Lowering your footprint is all about finding the right balance between the resources that go in and the value that comes out. The data shows that all types of farms can achieve tangible results if precision farming is increased in the five areas we have identified and it will often benefit both the climate and the farm’s longer term profitability.”
The journey to carbon net zero
Whilst extensive in its content, Arla’s climate check data will still need to evolve in the years to come as science and research continues to evolve. One example is carbon sequestration that can potentially be an important positive lever to mitigate climate change, not least for dairy farmers who have a lot of grasslands. Arla is part of a collaboration between a number of global companies such as FrieslandCampina, Fonterra, Mars, McDonalds and Nestle to develop internationally recognised and globally adopted carbon sequestration calculation guidelines for the dairy sector and when these are in place the aim is to include the impact of carbon sequestration in the Climate Check measurement.
The relatively low average footprint for Arla’s raw milk at farm level is a result of year-on-year improvements made by the cooperative’s farmers over the past three decades. In this decade of action, they aim to triple the speed of reductions to meet Arla’s science-based target of -30% CO2e from 2015 to 2030 and to become carbon net zero by 2050.
Alice Swift continues: “The excitement around this data is palpable, across the Arla team and our farmer owners. When data drives a clear road, change is inevitable. Add to this some of the ground breaking science and technology based trials taking place across Arla and through our Arla UK 360 programme and it’s safe to say there are some game changing opportunities ahead in our journey to carbon net zero dairy farming.”