Enhancing sustainability in vital smallholder dairy operations in India.

Newswise — Philadelphia, December 20, 2023 India – with a dairy sector consisting mainly of small dairy farms – is one of the world's largest producers of milk and home to more dairy cows than any other country. Its small farms feed millions and are a critical source of employment, income and nutrition. As the dairy sector works to reduce its emissions and meet global sustainability goals, a A new study this year Journal of Dairy Science It sheds light on the steps these precious small dairy farms can take to reduce their carbon footprint and provide huge economic and nutritional benefits.

The study's lead researcher, Anjumoni Mech, Ph.D., of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research's National Institute of Animal Nutrition and Physiology in Karnataka, India, explained, “The small dairy farms that dominate India's dairy sector – 73 million in fact – have an average of just two dairy cows but contribute 72% of India's milk production. So understanding their unique impact on the environment and how it can potentially be reduced is critical as we all work towards common sustainability goals.”

Although many studies have measured the carbon footprint of dairy products, very few have focused on small farms in India, and to date none have examined the Karnataka region of India, which is a major contributor to the country's overall dairy production system.

Dr. Mech said, “We set out to better understand the holistic life cycle of dairy production, including its emission hotspots and collective carbon footprint, and ultimately outline steps to increase sustainability.” This is a challenge, given that India's small farms are also incredibly diverse and operate with different dairy breeds, management practices and landscapes.

Dr. Mech and the research team conducted a life cycle analysis of 47 small farms in Karnataka. Their analysis primarily used data collected directly from local dairy farmers, including farm size, animal management, body measurements and milk production. The team collected data on feeding practices, animal handling, manure, feed and feed production, and other farm management practices through a questionnaire. Additional data (such as fertilizer, transportation, and energy emission factors) were based on government reports and peer-reviewed literature.

Dr. Mech elaborated, “Our analysis shows that the carbon footprint of dairy production on these small farms is comparable to small dairy operations in Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and other regions of India. While the data also indicate that these farms still produce roughly twice as much carbon as high-production large dairy farms in the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden and similar countries, they also highlight specific opportunities for improving sustainability.

The main sources of emissions on farms were intestinal methane produced by the digestive processes of cows, and greenhouse gases produced by food production.

Dr. Mech said, “Our results indicate that the most effective interventions to reduce the carbon footprint of smallholder dairy farms are to maintain high-yielding animals and adopt appropriate feeding strategies for better feed utilization.” Therefore, future breeding strategies target milk production traits and feed utilization efficiency as critical phenotypes for improving the next generation of dairy cows.”

The research team quickly identified the need for larger-scale future studies, along with scenario analysis of how to apply emission reduction strategies. Nevertheless, this study is a crucial first step towards a more sustainable and resilient path for smallholder dairy farms in India.