Regenerative Dairy Farming

How dairy farms can help fight climate change and biodiversity loss

Exploring regenerative dairy farming

How a dairy farm is managed has a big influence on the farm’s impact on the environment and climate.

Arla farmers have been reducing their CO2e emissions for decades by precisely managing their cows, fields, feed and energy usage. While they are among the most climate-efficient dairy farmers in the world and on the way to a 30% reduction by 2030 supported by Arla’s Climate Check programme, there are additional activities they can do to further improve their farm’s impact on nature.

Increasing biodiversity. Improving soil health. Protecting grasslands from overgrazing. Increasing carbon capture in soil. All of these activities are part of what is called a regenerative agriculture system, which is gaining attention as one of the responses to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

To gain a better understanding of how regenerative farming methods can be applied to dairy farming, Arla’s organic farmers are further intensifying their focus on biodiversity with annual self-assessments and on soil health through third party soil carbon analyses.

In line with official standards for organic milk production, our organic farmers are already focusing on nutrient cycling and proactive pest control to avoid the use of industrial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Their cows graze outside during the grazing season, and they have permanent grassland, cover crops and use crop rotations which are all examples of management practices associated with regenerative agriculture.

Pilot farmers provide data on regenerative farming methods

While there is a general consensus that soil health and biodiversity are core elements in regenerative agriculture, there is no universally agreed definition of what the farming system includes and very few examples of how the practices translate into grass-based dairy systems with livestock.

And while improved soil health, biodiversity and carbon sequestration are regarded as outcomes of regenerative farming, there is very little data or scientific documentation available on the matter that farmers can use as guidance for implementing new practices on their farms.

We want to do our part in changing that.

In a 4-year pilot farm programme, 24 Arla farmers will explore regenerative farming methods in a structured and coordinated manner together with regenerative agriculture experts from FAI Farms. The pilot farmers live in the UK, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark and are a mix of conventional farmers with both grazed and fully housed systems and organic farmers, as all types of farms are able to apply regenerative methods.

With the pilot programme, we aim to gain a better understanding of the benefits of regenerative agriculture in different regions and in different farming systems and how it can help maximise the dairy farm’s positive impact on the environment.

"Arla is by far the biggest partner we have on regenerative farming within dairy. Their ambition level is going over and above anything we have seen so far in the industry and there is not a pilot programme out there with this depth. What's really exciting is that we will work with different farmers in different countries each working within a unique farm, and the data we will collect along the way will be so insightful. It can significantly increase our knowledge of what regenerative transition looks like, the challenges and benefits which will help us understand how more farmers can get started on their journey.”
- Clare Hill, Regenerative Agriculture Director at FAI Farms

 

You can hear more from Claire Hill and Arla Farmers Tom and Sophie Gregory from Dorset by clicking the image.

Biodiversity - Soil health - Carbon Sequestration

Three benefits from regenerative dairy farming

While we will be exploring a number of regenerative agriculture methods and their beneficial impact on climate and nature, the following three outcomes are broadly recognized as positive outcomes of regenerative dairy farming.

Improving biodiversity

Biodiversity maintains the ecosystems on the farm. Among other things, biodiversity improves soil fertility, nutrient recycling as well as crop and tree pollination. It is broadly recognised that biodiversity mitigates and provides resilience to climate change.

As custodians of farmlands, dairy farmers can have a tangible impact on biodiversity. These are some of the actions farmers can take to gradually improve biodiversity:

  • Let sections of the land grow naturally
  • Allow flower-rich pollinator habitats to grow
  • Plant hedgerows and let them flower
  • Allow natural woodlands and wetlands
  • Reduce or avoid the use of pesticides

Improving soil health

A big part of a dairy farm’s farmland is typically used to grow feed for the cows. The more feed the farmers can produce on their own land, the more they can improve circulation of nutrients through the use of farm manure, and the less feed they will need to have transported to the farm, which prevents additional CO2 emissions.

How the land is cultivated during feed production can either improve or deteriorate the soil biodiversity and fertility. Over time, improved soil health can strengthen the soil’s ability to store carbon and retain water and it can enhance crop yield. It is one of the ways that can help the farmer become more efficient from a climate perspective.

Arla’s organic farmers are motivated to increase attention to soil health by testing the following indicators:

  • Soil smell: Smelling the soil is a quick and simple test to give an indication of what type of microbial community is present in the soil. Healthy soil smells sweet, while unhealthy soil has a sour smell.
  • Spading ease: Spading ease gives an indication of how compact the soil is. A soil that is too compact will have poor soil structure and can also restrict root growth.
  • Earthworm count: Earthworms are an indicator species. A healthy earthworm population indicates that other biology in the soil is thriving and that the soil is in good health overall.

These are some of the actions dairy farmers can take to gradually regenerate soil health:

  • Rotate crop types between different fields
  • Use cover crops, so the ground isn’t bare, when the land is in between crops.
  • Protect grasslands from cows overgrazing
  • Reduce tillage to protect top soil
  • Avoid compressing wet soil with heavy vehicles

Increasing carbon sequestration

When farmers succeed in improving biodiversity and soil health on their farms one of the benefits is that the plants and soil will capture more carbon. This is called carbon sequestration and can potentially be recognised as a positive handprint that ultimately reduces the farmers’ carbon footprint per kilo of milk.

Dairy farmers often have a lot of grasslands for growing animal feed and grazing that – if managed well – can increase carbon sequestration to capture CO2 in stable, solid forms in the soil. This is called carbon sequestration and can potentially be recognised as a positive handprint that ultimately reduces the farmers’ carbon footprint per kilo of milk.

However, it is one of the effects of dairy farming that is not fully scientifically understood and there is currently no consensus on how to account for this. In an attempt to change that, Arla is part of a collaboration called C-sequ, which is led by experts from Quantis and includes Danone, DMI, FrieslandCampina, Fonterra, Mars, McDonalds and Nestle among others to develop internationally recognised and globally adopted carbon sequestration calculation guidelines for the dairy sector.

As part of Arla’s organic farmers’ focus on soil health, they test their soil’s carbon level every five years. This is partly to understand how much carbon is stored in the ground, which is an indicator of soil health, but also to uncover the potential for farmers to review their soil and biodiversity management practices to increase carbon sequestration.

Meet our farmer owners

Hear how Ross works on improving soil health

Hear how Torben works with biodiversity