Sector focus: Impactful dairy industry collaborating to meet strict targets

The dairy industry conjures up visions of the UK’s green and pleasant lands, with cows walking down country lanes to be milked in picturesque barns.

But it is big business and it is an industry that has its fair share of environmental impacts, particularly in relation to greenhouse gases, water and biodiversity. At the same time, the UK dairy industry also faces some enormous economic and social challenges.

“According to a 2011 report in Farmers Guardian, the price paid for milk ‘at the farm gate’ has fallen by 28% in real terms since 1994 (when the Milk Marketing Board was abolished),” says Dairy 2020, an industry initiative set up to explore what a sustainable dairy sector looks like. “Globally, dairy production accounts for some 2.7% of humankind’s carbon footprint, so pressure is on to cut carbon – and some say, yields. And young talented graduates are not tripping up over each other in their rush to join the dairy industry – the skills shortage and age profile of the industry is a real concern.”

The Dairy 2020 project is an 18-month collaboration between over 40 organisations from across the UK dairy supply chain, ranging from Marks and Spencer and Asda to TetraPak to the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers and the RSPCA. It sits alongside another industry initiative, the Dairy Roadmap.

“The Dairy Roadmap was set up four years ago by Defra as the Milk Roadmap with the aim of looking at the environmental impacts of producing and distributing liquid milk,” explains Richard Warren, environment manager at Dairy UK, the industry’s trade association. “It became the Dairy Roadmap in 2010, bringing in the processors.”

Processors The main environmental impacts of dairy processors are: transportation of raw milk & products from farm to dairies to retailers; emissions arising from energy use at dairies; water use on site; use of cleaning chemicals on site; discharge of effluent; packaging of dairy products; and factory food and packaging waste.

Processor targets for 2010 were:

  • Plastic milk bottles to contain a minimum of 10% of recycled plastic
  • All processors to meet or beat energy or carbon reduction targets of Climate Change Agreements
  • Implement an industry environmental benchmarking programme,

All of these targets were met. However, the processors face a number of tougher and more wide-ranging targets for 2015 and 2020 that include:


  • The removal of all HCFC refrigerants at large processors
  • The continued meeting of Climate Change Agreement targets
  • A 20% reduction of water brought onto site
  • Plastic milk bottles to contain a minimum of 30% of recycled plastic

And by 2020:

  • To send zero ex-factory waste to landfill
  • A 30% reduction of water brought onto site
  • 10% of non-transport energy use to come from renewable sources
  • Plastic milk bottles to contain a minimum of 50% of recycled plastic

Producing the Roadmap was a collaborative process, says Lars Dalsgaard, senior vice-president for supply chain at Arla, the dairy processor. “We have initiatives relating to each area of our supply chain. Our company policies and industry-level programmes such as the Dairy Roadmap are complimentary – we played a key role in defining the dairy road map that helped shape some of our thinking, but we have also shaped it for example, including logistics and making the link to FTA LCRS (the Freight Transport Association’s Logistics Carbon Reduction Scheme.”

The industry-level scheme has been important in driving progress in certain areas, he adds, citing commitments on packaging where “the whole industry setting common goals led to the infrastructure to be developed for the incorporation of rHDPE in bottles”.

Farmers For dairy farmers, the key environmental impacts include: farmland and landscape management; farm inputs (feed, fertilizer, etc); energy (electricity); water use (drinking, washing, milk cooling); nutrient and resource management (slurry, manure, etc); emissions (CO2, CH4, N2O); and farm wastes (plastic wrap, etc).

For 2010 the industry achieved a series of demanding targets which included:

  • 50% of dairy managed farmland entered into Environmental Stewardship Schemes,
  • 20-30% of dairy farmer’s trialling new technologies, a 5-15% up-take of water use efficiency measures, 65% of dairy farmers actively nutrient planning and  95% of dairy farmers have a manure management plan.

All 2010 targets were met, except for the target of piloting of 30 on-farm anaerobic digesters, with nine digesters being achieved.

Key targets for 2015 and 2020 include:


  • 65% of dairy managed farmland into Environmental Stewardship Schemes (ESS) thus fully recognising the potential implications of greening of the CAP
  • 90% of farmers to have nutrient management plans
  • 50% of dairy farmers trialling new technologies

And by 2020:

  • 40% of energy used on dairy farms is from renewable sources
  • 20-30% reductions in GHG emissions balance (CO2 & equivalents, CH4, N2O etc.)
  • 70% of non-natural waste is recycled or recovered (highlighting the need for infrastructure development)

Farmers may incorporate new targets for 2015 and 2020 on issues including farm inputs (e.g. feed, fertiliser), on-farm renewables and greater energy and water use efficiency.

“Dairy farmers have got the message on climate change – efficient production reduces carbon footprint and makes economic sense,” says Dr Duncan Pullar, Director of DairyCo.

Derek Kennedy, executive officer at Assured Dairy Farms says that while proactive herd health planning primarily improves herd health and welfare benefits to the cows directly, “milk production will also be maintained/improved and involuntary culling rates reduced, improving farm efficiency. This boosts the economic performance of the business and benefits the environment through lower emissions per unit of milk output.”

You can see more about Dairy 2020’s vision for the future here.

Mike Scott is a freelance journalist