Cleaner Cows

Consequential Life Cycle Assessment of Environmental and Economic Effects of Dairy and Beef Consolidation and Intensification Pathways

Cluster Leader: Dr James Gibbons, Bangor University.

Milk and beef production are globally important for the economy and livelihoods, but also contribute to environmental degradation through land-use change, greenhouse gas and nitrogen emissions, and depletion of nutrients and other resources. The UK dairy industry has been undergoing a trend of consolidation and intensification (C&I) for over 20 years. The environmental impacts of C&I vary between different farm types, for example depending on feed type and whether animals are housed or live outside.

Cleaner Cows aimed to identify UK dairy and beef production systems that optimise sustainability, whilst ensuring productivity is not unduly compromised.

Research activities:

  • Applying a model-based interdisciplinary approach combining Life Cycle Assessment, economic and environmental farm data and information from animal trials to analyse:
    1. socio-economic and environmental drivers and effects of the C&I of dairy farm systems;
    2. environmental effects of changes to management of inter-linked dairy and beef farm systems;
    3. effects of indirect land use changes via feed production and import;
    4. the wider impact of animal diets and management practices e.g. outdoor vs. indoor farms.
  • Conducting sensitivity analysis to investigate the effects of the recent revisions of UK greenhouse gas inventory emission factors on emission mitigation strategies.
  • Using feedback between farm management, economic and Life Cycle Assessment modelling to assess the long-term sustainability and best practice for the dairy and beef industry.

Key findings:

  • Milk production from individual UK dairy farms has increased by 12% in the last 15 years.
  • Intensive dairy farms can incur lower production costs and lower emissions per hectolitre of milk than extensive dairy farms.
  • The efficiency of nitrogen use for milk production by individual cows depends on time to first calf, calving interval and diet quality.
  • Management practices can be optimised to reduce environmental burdens: high-sugar grass varieties for pasture-fed cattle, for example, have no adverse effects on milk production, but reduce nitrogen excretion and mitigate both water course eutrophication and acidification. These burdens can also be mitigated by changes in manure storage infrastructure and spreading methods, which are more expensive but also more effective than conventional methods.
  • The interconnectivity between dairy and beef production may limit opportunities to reduce emission burdens from livestock agriculture. Therefore, reducing national and global emissions from dairy production depends on the consequential effects on global beef and feed production.
  • The recent revision of the UK greenhouse gas inventory emission factors has not had a significant effect on potential farm emission mitigation strategies.

Publication highlights:

  • Styles, D., Gonzalez-Mejia, A., Moorby, J., Foskolos, A., Gibbons, J. (2018). Climate mitigation by dairy intensification depends on intensive use of spared grassland. Global Change Biology 24: 681-693.
  • Soteriades, A.D., Gonzalez-Mejia, A.M., Styles, D., Foskolos, A., Moorby, J.M., Gibbons, J.M. (2018).  Effects of high-sugar grasses and improved manure management on the environmental footprint of milk production at the farm level. Journal of Cleaner Production 202: 1241–1252.
  • Soteriades, A., Rowland, K., Roberts, D. J., Stott, A. W. (2018). Identifying and prioritizing opportunities for improving efficiency on the farm: holistic metrics and benchmarking with Data Envelopment Analysis. International Journal of Agricultural Management 7: 16-29.

The NRN-LCEE produced the following briefing on the policy implications of Cleaner Cow’s research:

Science to Policy: Sustainable intensification of dairy farming

The Cleaner Cows researchers included:                                                               

Bangor University

  • James Gibbons                          
  • David Styles                                   
  • Andreas Soteriades                    
  • Alejandra Gonzales-Mejia             

Aberystwyth University

  • Jon Moorby
  • Andreas Foskolos                      

Cardiff University

  • Max Munday                                
  • Annum Rafique        

University of Nottingham

  • Paul Wilson


  • Ray Keatinge   

Please see the ‘NRN-LCEE Final Overview 2013-2019’  for further details of the Cluster’s research.