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Screening for diets that reduce urinary nitrogen excretion and methane emissions while maintaining or increasing production by dairy cows

Gregorini, Pablo, Beukes, Pierre C., Dalley, Dawn, Romera, Alvaro J.
The Science of the total environment 2016 v.551-552 pp. 32-41
Lolium, beets, dairy cows, decision making, diet, excretion, farmers, feeds, forage, grains, greenhouse gas emissions, late lactation, methane, milk production, models, nitrogen, pastures, pollution, risk, screening
Farmers face complex decisions at the time to feed animals, trying to achieve production goals while contemplating social and environmental constraints. Our purpose was to facilitate such decision making for pastoral dairy farmers, aiming to reduce urinary N (UN) and methane emissions (CH4), while maintaining or increasing milk production (MP). There is a number of feeds the farmers can choose from and combine. We used 50 feeds (forages and grains) combined systematically in different proportions producing 11,526 binary diets. Diets were screened, using an a posteriori approach and a Pareto front (PF) analysis of model (Molly) outputs. The objective was to identify combinations with the best possible compromise (i.e. frontier) between UN, CH4, and MP. Using high MP and low UN as objective functions, PF included 10, 14, 12 and 50 diets, for non-lactating, early-, mid- and late-lactation periods, with cereals and beets featuring strongly. Using the same objective functions, but including ryegrass as dietary base PF included 2, 4, 8 and 4 diets for those periods. Therefore, from a wide range of diets, farmers could choose from few feeds combined into binary diets to reduce UN while maintaining or increasing MP. If the intention is maintaining pasture-based systems, there are fewer suitable options. Reducing UN will simply require dilution of N supplied by pasture by supplementing low N conserved forages. The results also evidence the risk of pollution swapping, reaching the frontier means arriving at a point where trade-off decisions need to be made. Any further reduction in UN implies an increment in CH4, or reduction in CH4 emissions increases UN. There is no perfect diet to optimize all objectives simultaneously; but if the current diet is not in the frontier some options can offset pollution swapping. The choice is with the farmers and conditioned by their context.