Eco-efficient Management of Canadian Dairy Farms

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A group of 13 scientists from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) with a passion for the environment have pooled their varied expertise to work toward a single objective: to help dairy producers choose practices that reduce the environmental footprint of their farms while remaining profitable.

For Martin Chantigny, scientist and director of the project on the eco-efficient management of Canadian dairy farms:

"This national networked agri-environmental research has led to the rapid development of agricultural practices aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of dairy production while taking into account the various 'climate realities' in Canada."

– Martin Chantigny, Scientist in Soil Biochemistry and Nutrient Cycling, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Here are a few of the discoveries made under the four components of this Dairy Research ClusterFootnote 1 project. The trials were conducted in Quebec, Nova Scotia, Alberta and British Columbia.

Forage production research

Research has demonstrated that cows produce 5% more milk when they eat sweeter alfalfa. With the help of a number of collaborators, scientists Gilles Bélanger and Gaëtan Tremblay developed methods to produce sweeter alfalfa or mixed alfalfa/grasses. A number of factors, such as when crops are cut and harvested, make a big difference, as explained in this article and video:

Giving cows sweeter forage is also good for the environment. There is less nitrogen in their manure, so fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) are produced.

New forage crops

Gaëtan Tremblay and nine other scientists also tested alternatives to corn, a forage crop that requires a lot of nitrogen fertilizer. Sweet sorghum and sweet pearl millet were found to use nitrogen from the soil more efficiently. These alternative crops show good potential, because at three of the four test sites, the yields obtained were equivalent to and sometimes greater than that of corn. However, the dry matter content was not high enough for it to be easily ensiled. More research is therefore needed to develop quicker-maturing varieties that are adapted to silage.

Soil fertilization

Martin Chantigny and Denis Angers have demonstrated that using dairy manure rather than mineral fertilizers improves the capacity of soil to retain carbon and nitrogen. The positive impact is maximized when the manure is used on perennial crops, such as timothy, bromegrass and orchardgrass, while it is less so with annual crops. When the manure is spread, carbon stocks sequestered in the soil are 16% greater than those obtained after mineral fertilization. As for nitrogen, it is retained in the soil at a ratio of between 15% and 20%, compared with only 10% with mineral fertilization.

Forecast models

Trials conducted in the course of various research projects have provided scientist Guillaume Jégo with metadata. He is in charge of improving the Integrated Farm System Model initially developed for the United States. Adapted to the Canadian climate, the IFSM predicts the economic viability and environmental footprint of various management practice scenarios in three of the main dairy regions of Canada: Quebec/Ontario, the Maritimes and the Prairies. It is possible to do simulations with the improved IFSM model.

According to Mr. Chantigny,

"The collaborative work between research practitioners in the field and the modellers helped to best showcase the results and quickly develop models that properly model the various types of dairy farms."

– Martin Chantigny, Scientist in Soil Biochemistry and Nutrient Cycling, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Dairy producers are not the only ones facing challenges in adapting to climate change. The new approaches developed by AAFC researchers and their Dairy Research Cluster partners will be able to help them make their farms even more eco-efficient!

Main discoveries (benefits)

  • Dairy producers can now adopt methods to produce sweeter alfalfa. Cows that eat sweeter forage produce slightly more milk, while their manure is lower in nitrogen, which is a source of greenhouse gases.
  • Fertilizing soils with cow manure rather than mineral fertilizer increases the soil's capacity to sequester carbon and nitrogen. This greater retention helps to reduce greenhouse gases. The positive impact is maximized when the manure is spread on perennial crops, such as timothy, bromegrass and orchardgrass.
  • This interdisciplinary study by the Dairy Research Cluster adapted the Integrated Farm System Model to Canadian climate conditions. It can predict the economic viability and environmental footprint of various management practice scenarios in the dairy regions of Quebec/Ontario, the Maritimes and the Prairies.

Photo gallery

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Martin Chantigny, Scientist in Soil Biochemistry
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Dairy cows chewing their forage.
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Alfalfa field.

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