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Diversification not specialization reduces global and local environmental burdens from livestock production

Soteriades, Andreas D., Foskolos, Andreas, Styles, David, Gibbons, James M.
Environment international 2019
beef, beef cattle, beef production, carbon footprint, dairy farming, data collection, emissions, farm management, farms, forage, life cycle assessment, livestock production, milk, milk production, United Kingdom
Milk and beef production generates environmental burdens globally and locally. Across many regions a typical dairy intensification pathway is for dairy farms to specialize on milk production and reduce the co-production of beef (i.e. ‘dairy-beef’). Dairy-beef thus reduces and beef needs to be produced elsewhere if beef production is to be maintained. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies quantifying the environmental implications of dairy and beef production have largely focused on the farm level and not captured system connections. Further LCA work has generally represented the ‘average’ farm of a region, consequently ignoring the range in farm management observed in practice and few studies consider a range of LCA environmental footprints other than carbon footprints. For the first time, we present comprehensive LCA results for multiple environmental burdens based on a large panel dataset for commercial dairy and suckler-beef farms. We present a 15-year LCA assessment of a total of 738 dairy (3624 data points in 15 years) and 1887 suckler-beef (10,340 data points in 15 years) UK farms for five major LCA footprints. We also explore the footprint implications of compensating for reduced dairy-beef through producing this ‘displaced’ beef on suckler-beef farms. We found a substantial variation in farm footprints not captured in ‘average farm’ studies. Dairy-beef was much more efficient than beef produced on suckler-beef farms in terms of footprints per unit of beef output. Reducing dairy-beef and replacing it on a suckler-beef farm generally significantly increased environmental burdens. A reduction in carbon footprint was also associated with a reduction in other burdens suggesting no trade-off between local and global emissions. Increasing dairy farm diversification via higher dairy-beef output per unit of milk reduced burdens by up to 11–56%, on average, depending on burden and sensitivity run. We conclude that overspecialization of dairy farms in milk production increases the combined burdens from beef and milk, and that more intensive beef systems that make more efficient use of forage land play a crucial role in mitigating these burdens.