Exploring dairy sustainability – Miles Middleton’s Nuffield report

In this blog post, Miles Middleton, a member of the Future Farmers of Yorkshire and Yorkshire Agricultural Society-sponsored Nuffield Scholar, shares the findings of his Nuffield studies.

Sustainability is a hot topic in farming, but what do we truly mean when discussing this?

While carbon foot printing and ‘net zero’ frequently dominate many contemporary discussions, sustainability encompasses far more holistic considerations.

For over eight generations my family has farmed in Wensleydale and I work as a veterinary surgeon with Bishopton Veterinary Group, and I was fortunate enough to be selected for a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, sponsored by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, allowing me to visit experts in the US, The Netherlands, Republic of Ireland and across the UK to discuss net zero and broader sustainability issues relating to the dairy sector.

Miles Middleton Nuffield Scholar 2021

So, what did I learn?

The carbon footprint is an indicator of environmental impact that has become widely recognised by the public, adopted by media, commercial entities and by government.

Due in part to its simplicity in communicating results, it has become the focus of many contemporary debates around environmental sustainability.

Yet, the calculation of carbon footprints is relatively subjective.

Different methodological and modelling choices can result in very different results, even when using identical source material.

This is particularly pertinent to biologically complex production systems such as dairy farming.

What we do know is that enteric methane is the biggest driver of the dairy industry’s carbon footprint.

This by-product of the natural digestive process often makes up over half of the footprint of milk production on a dairy farm.

Production of this gas is usually estimated using the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s ‘Tier 2 methodology’.

This bases the measure of enteric methane on the cattle’s feed intake, which means that overall feed efficiency is key to driving the carbon footprint of milk.

For farmers seeking to reduce the carbon footprint of milk the primary focus should be on improving feed efficiency.

Chasing efficiencies

The drive for efficiency has seen the dairy industry consolidate into ever fewer farms, using ever less land but with ever greater dependency on bought-in, nutrient-dense concentrate feed and purchased inputs, supporting high stocking rates in pursuit of marginal financial gains.

Is this how we define sustainability?

When asked to define sustainability experts converge on a description of an industry that can continue in perpetuity whilst protecting natural capital – healthy soil, water quality and biodiversity.

We know that grazing livestock can improve these environmental outcomes, but at high stocking rates supported by high levels of supplementary feeding, these benefits can be difficult to realise.

Healthy soil forms the basis of a healthy ecosystem, promoting plant, animal and human health.

Symptomatic of a reductionist view of sustainability, it misses the point to view soil as an inert material into which we seek to stuff carbon to generate ‘credits’ which somehow permits the burning of fossil fuel!

Sustainable productivity

In a world with growing demand for food, but with limited land, it’s imperative that farmland productivity is maximised.

However, this must be done in a way that preserves the land’s integrity for future generations.

The pursuit of narrowly defined environmental criteria such as carbon footprints frequently rely on capital intensive solutions that can consolidate production and exacerbate wider social and environmental vulnerabilities.

Sustainability is about the long run; time periods spanning generations not just investment cycles.

It’s about rural communities. It’s about resilience far more than it’s about efficiency.

I believe resilience should be viewed as the adaptive capacity of agricultural systems to respond to climatic, environmental and economic challenges.

In a world of changing climate leading globally to increased political uncertainty, how resilient is our food production?

We can achieve ‘net zero’ but do absolutely nothing to address the key issues of sustainability facing agriculture.

Watch Miles present his Scholarship findings at the 2023 Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust Annual Conference in Exeter, below.

Nuffield Farming Scholarships

Since 1980, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society has been supporting the development of farming and agricultural industries by helping individuals to unlock potential and broaden their horizons through the sponsorship of Nuffield Farming Scholarships.

The scholarships allow individuals to study and travel abroad, meet like-minded people and explore cutting edge developments in the industry, which makes for a life-changing opportunity.

To give you an idea of what to expect if you are considering applying for a scholarship, we have asked several of our previous scholars to share their experiences – have a look here.

For more information and for more details about what a scholarship has to offer, visit the Nuffield website.

Since 2010, the Future Farmers of Yorkshire has been bringing together like-minded farmers, vets and industry professionals, supporting them by providing a platform for debate and the sharing of ideas.

The group is supported by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society and is open to everyone within the industry.

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