Gaining insights into impacts of individual farms

by Dr John Lynch

Can current technologies help achieve sustainable intensification of farming practices? We took evidence from milk recording on Irish dairy farms to examine environmental impacts, social acceptance and economic performance.

It is increasingly acknowledged that agriculture, and livestock production in particular, has a significant impact on the environment. But there can be large differences in the environmental performance of different farms, which makes things rather complicated, given the huge numbers of producers: 217,000 holdings in 2017 in the UK alone!

So how can we reliably estimate the impacts of individual farms? And if we had this information, could we use it to identify and promote practices or technologies that are better for the environment, for the animals, and even farm profitability?

In a recent paper in the journal Land Use Policy that I contributed to with colleagues in Ireland, we investigated how monitoring a range of farm ‘sustainability indicators’ might help answer these questions.  Using farm management and production data, we generated three key indicators covering different aspects of sustainability: the environmental impacts, social acceptance, and economic performance.

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Our environmental indicator looked at greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per unit of milk produced; our social indicator a milk quality measure (‘somatic cell count’) associated with mastitis, an uncomfortable condition of the udder and an animal health and welfare concern; and our economic indicator the gross margin (€) per cow.

We were interested in whether a recommended farm technology, regular monitoring of milk for an early indication of possible mastitis, was associated with improved performance across all three of these indicators. Using detailed econometric analyses, we found that milk recording was associated with greater margins and lower milk cell counts, but did not have an effect on GHG emissions efficiency. So while the technology provides a ‘win-win’ for both social and economic sustainability, it fell short of a ‘triple-win’ covering all three sustainability pillars.

While our research provided useful insights into the role of milk recording, and perhaps didn’t detect the environmental wins we were looking for, we were not only interested in this specific management practice. The indicators we used were generated from pre-existing farm management and production datasets, and so could easily be extended to test the benefits of other technologies or management practices, or simply investigate what types of farm or farmer are leading the way. We hope our approach will have broader applications and in particular help us identify avenues to sustainability.

This study focussed on how the data might be used to encourage individual farms to become more sustainable, but could also prove valuable for the bigger picture research undertaken by LEAP and the Oxford Martin School. In order to examine the global impacts of livestock production, we have to take a relatively small number of data points from study farms or farm surveys and assume they are representative of most other farms for that region. Encouraging even wider collection of the data and indicator approaches used in this study will give us a better idea of just what impacts agriculture is having across the large numbers of producers in livestock supply chains, more accurately scaling up impacts from individual farms to the whole planet.

In the future, when this sort of data collection becomes commonplace, it will hopefully also be communicated to consumers so they can make an informed decision aware of the specific impacts of exactly what they purchase. This might look like, or be inspired by, ongoing work in LEAP studying the impact of environmental labelling on purchasing decisions! [Have a look at our blog on Environmental Labelling of Food Products]

This work was led by Lorraine Balaine, a PhD student at the National University of Ireland, Galway and Teagasc, funded by a Walsh Fellowship. LEAP member John Lynch contributed to the work as part of his previous position at Teagasc, and at Oxford as part of LEAP.