Milk production and methane emissions: the virtuous case of Finland

Finland is becoming more efficient in milk production while reducing methane emissions. It is what emerges from the study “Methane production inventory between 1960-2020 in the Finnish dairy sector and the future mitigation scenarios“, recently published in Agricultural and Food Science, that describes the virtuous case of Finland. In the last 60 years, the country has reduced the total emissions related to dairy farming by 57% and 37% per kilo of milk. This is due to the focus on animal welfare, feed composition, and manure management.

Methane emissions from dairy production account for about 2.5% of Finland’s total greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions. The methane of enteric origin emitted by cows during digestion in the rumen accounts for about half of the country’s climatic footprint of milk production. The role of ruminants in contributing to GHGs emissions has been under discussion for a long time. The purpose of this report is to study the development of methane from milk production in Finland between 1960 and 2020.

The study examined the factors influencing the emissions of this gas per litre of milk, such as the number of animals, milk yield, and diet composition, to report the methane inventory of milk production in Finland over the mentioned 60-year period. The study also discussed the potential future scenarios of mitigation strategies based on the further development of yield and feed efficiency. The analysis showed that emissions could be significantly mitigated by acting on efficiency by formulating the feed composition to improve yield. In fact, by increasing the productivity of cows and efficiency, the total methane emissions and methane intensity are reduced.

The study examined the dietary composition of cattle, methane production, and future mitigation scenarios, increasing milk yield and improving food efficiency. During the period analysed, the yield increased by three times, despite fewer animals than in the past. The whole methane production peaked at 110 million kg per year in 1965, falling to 48 million kg per year in 2020. This is a significant result, as it makes us understand that further reducing the number of animals makes no sense since the animals are already fewer than in previous years.

While acting on efficiency instead, it is possible to reach the goal of a higher milk yield and a reduction in methane emissions, which was as much as 56% during the inventory period analyzed. In addition, methane intensity also decreased by 36% (0.7% per year) per unit of product, confirming that the improvement of efficiency in milk production through genetic selection, the formulation of feedstuff, and the proper management of the farm can effectively contribute to the reduction of the environmental impact per unit of product.

With increased feed efficiency, milk production’s profit can also increase due to lower feed costs and increased milk yield. In addition to reducing enteric methane emissions, the improvement of efficiency also reduces manure production and emissions of other GHGs from feed production per unit of product. These trends observed between 1960 and 2020 should continue in the future by choosing animals with better food efficiency.

Among the future scenarios, the increase in milk yield and the improvement of feeding efficiency have a considerable potential to reduce methane intensity more effectively than other strategies. That is why the authors of the study conclude that selecting more efficient animals is the strategy to follow because it is more viable, more effective, and more sustainable for reducing emissions per unit of product and the carbon footprint of dairy farms.