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Food, fibre and pharmaceuticals from animals
RESEARCH ARTICLE (Open Access)

The impact of genetic selection on greenhouse-gas emissions in Australian dairy cattle

Jennie E. Pryce A B D and Matthew J. Bell C
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Agriculture Victoria, AgriBio, Centre for AgriBioscience, Bundoora, Vic. 3083, Australia.

B School of Applied Systems Biology, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Vic. 3083, Australia.

C The University of Nottingham, School of Biosciences, Sutton Bonington Campus, Loughborough, LE12 5RD, UK.

D Corresponding author. Email: jennie.pryce@ecodev.vic.gov.au

Animal Production Science 57(7) 1451-1456 https://doi.org/10.1071/AN16510
Submitted: 28 July 2016  Accepted: 9 January 2017   Published: 1 March 2017

Abstract

In Australia, dairy cattle account for ~12% of the nation’s agricultural greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. Genetic selection has had a positive impact, reducing GHG emissions from dairy systems mainly due to increased production per cow, which has led to (1) requiring fewer cows to produce the same amount of milk and (2) lowering emissions per unit of milk produced (emission intensity). The objective of the present study was to evaluate the consequences of previous and current genetic-selection practices on carbon emissions, using realised and predicted responses to selection for key traits that are included in the Australian national breeding objective. A farm model was used to predict the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq) emissions per unit change of these traits, while holding all other traits constant. Estimates of the realised change in annual CO2-eq emissions per cow over the past decade were made by multiplying predicted CO2-eq emissions per unit change of each trait under selection by the realised rates of genetic gain in each of those traits. The total impact is estimated to be an increase of 55 kg CO2-eq/cow.year after 10 years of selection. The same approach was applied to future CO2-eq emissions, except predicted rates of genetic gain assumed to occur over the next decade through selection on the Balanced Performance Index (BPI) were used. For an increase of AU$100 in BPI (~10 years of genetic improvement), we predict that the increase of per cow emissions will be reduced to 37 kg CO2-eq/cow.year. Since milk-production traits are a large part of the breeding goal, the GHG emitted per unit of milk produced will reduce as a result of improvements in efficiency and dilution of emissions per litre of milk produced at a rate estimated to be 35.7 g CO2-eq/kg milk solids per year in the past decade and is predicted to reduce to 29.5 g CO2-eq/kg milk solids per year after a conservative 10-year improvement in BPI (AU$100). In fact, cow numbers have decreased over the past decade and production has increased; altogether, we estimate that the net impact has been a reduction of CO2-eq emissions of ~1.0% in total emissions from the dairy industry per year. Using two future scenarios of either keeping the number of cows or amount of product static, we predict that net GHG emissions will reduce by ~0.6%/year of total dairy emissions if milk production remains static, compared with 0.3%/year, if cow numbers remain the same and there is genetic improvement in milk-production traits.

Additional keywords: abatement, climate change, methane, nitrous oxide.


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