Reducing their impact on the environment does not mean that South African dairy farmers will suffer financially. They will still be able to maximise their profits. This is one of the findings of a new study at Stellenbosch University (SU).

“It is possible to achieve both the goals of reducing environmental impact and maximising profit on pasture-based dairy farms with the same farm system, using the same practices,” says dr Craig Galloway of Trace & Save at the Woodlands Dairy Sustainability Project in Humansdorp in the Eastern Cape.  Galloway obtained his doctorate in Conservation Ecology on 6 December at SU’s fifth graduation ceremony of December 2017.

Running a sustainable dairy farm

Galloway did research on sustainable agriculture on dairy farms in the Eastern Cape – the largest milk-producing province in the country. He points out that 65 farms participated in his perception survey, and that data was collected from 43 farms for the environmental impact and economic efficiency analyses.

He says there is a lot of buzz around sustainable agriculture, but not much widespread adoption of sustainable practices.

“There is very little research on farms with regards to the challenges of adopting sustainable practices, the benefits of sustainable practices, and the farm systems that should be adopted in order to achieve sustainable agriculture goals.”

As part of his study, Galloway focused on farmers’ perceptions of sustainable agriculture and the extent to which they had adopted sustainable practices on their farms. He also assessed some of the environmental impacts associated with dairy farming by calculating the carbon footprint and nutrient use efficiency of each farm. Galloway then examined the economic efficiency of dairy farms, while comparing this to the environmental impact measures.

Galloway says he tried to better understand the extent of the environmental impacts resulting from dairy farming in the Eastern Cape. He adds that by focussing on the grazing management and soil health aspects of pasture-based dairy farming, he wanted to identify if there were farms where the impact was lower and, if so, what they were doing to achieve this.

“I also wanted to examine whether the goals of profitability and reduced environmental impact could be jointly achieved and, if so, which farm system resulted in this.”

“My research showed that farmers do not need to sacrifice anything in terms of financial profitability when aiming to lower the environmental impact of their practices.”

“I also found that farmers are very positive and open to the idea of sustainable agriculture; the challenge lies in the implementation of sustainable practices.”

Galloway identified three main areas that farmers should focus on regarding farm management to have more sustainable dairy farm systems.

“Firstly, they should ensure that the farm is stocked according to the correct stocking density in order to maximise milk production on the available area without relying on excessive external inputs of fertiliser and feed.”

“Secondly, farmers should manage soil health better, which minimises the need for fertiliser, and thirdly they should improve grazing management, which minimises the need for imported feed.”

The challenge for farmers is that this requires more active management and, by doing this, farmers can both reduce their environmental impact and increase their profitability, says Galloway.

He points out that even though it is important to address the significant environmental impacts associated with the production of milk on dairy farms, it cannot be at the expense of the farming business and the people that rely on this industry.

“The triple bottom line of economic, environmental and social goals needs to be achieved in order for sustainability to be attained, and this is the best approach to address the challenges associated with dairy farming.”

“The importance of agriculture in terms of food security, its contribution to the economy and as a source of employment, especially in rural areas, means its long term success relies on the implementation of sustainable practices.”

Galloway says some of the findings of his study can also be applied to dairy farming in most parts of the world as well as to different types of farming. – Stellenbosch University