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Nutrient losses and greenhouse gas emissions from dairy production in China: Lessons learned from historical changes and regional differences

Zhang, Nannan, Bai, Zhaohai, Luo, Jiafa, Ledgard, Stewart, Wu, Zhiguo, Ma, Lin
The Science of the total environment 2017 v.598 pp. 1095-1105
animal manure management, cows, cropland, dairy industry, developed countries, environmental impact, farms, feeds, food chain, grasslands, greenhouse gas emissions, greenhouse gases, herds, industrialization, landfills, milk, milk yield, models, nitrogen, nitrogen content, nutrient use efficiency, phosphorus, recycling, wastewater, China
The dairy industry in China was rapidly expanded and intensified from 1980 to 2010, engendering potential long-term impacts on the environment and natural resources. However, impacts of dairy intensification on nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) losses and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were unknown. This study was undertaken to examine these relations using the NUtrient flows in Food chains, Environment and Resources use (NUFER)-dairy model. Results showed that milk yield increased by 64% from 1980 to 2010 on average, and the use of concentrate feeds increased by 57% associated with a shift of production from traditional and grassland systems to collective and industrialized systems. At herd level, the N use efficiency (NUE; conversion of N inputs to products) doubled from 7 to 15%, and the P use efficiency (PUE) increased from 10 to 17%, primarily resulting from increased milk yield per cow. In contrast, at the system level, NUE showed a small increase (from 10 to 15%, associated with reduced gaseous losses) while PUE decreased from 46 to 30% due to a large increase in manure discharges. This is attributed to decoupling of feed and dairy production, as the proportion of manure N and P recycled to cropland decreased by 52% and 54%, respectively. Despite this, the average total N loss decreased from 63 to 48gkg−1 milk, and the average GHG emissions from 1.7 to 1.1kgCO2equivalentkg−1 milk associated with increased per-cow productivity. However, average P loss increased from 1.4 to 2.8gPkg−1 milk due to higher discharge rate to wastewater and landfill in collective and industrialized systems. Anyhow, average N and P losses exceeded levels in developed countries. There were large regional variations in nutrient use efficiency, nutrient losses and GHG emissions in China, largely determined by the dairy production structure. Average N losses and GHG emissions per unit of milk showed a negative correlation with production intensification based on the proportion of farms in collective or industrialized systems, while average P losses per unit of milk in different regions showed a positive relationship with intensification. In conclusion, dairy intensification was associated with increased milk yield per cow and reduced average N losses and GHG emissions per unit of milk, but reduced system level PUE and manure recycling contributed to high levels of total N and P losses. Dairy production in China is likely to continue to be intensified as a result of rising milk demand, and significant improvements must be made in manure management to control N and P losses and GHG emissions.