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A life cycle assessment of seasonal grass-based and confinement dairy farms


  • O’Brien, Donal
  • Shalloo, Laurence
  • Patton, Joe
  • Buckley, Frank
  • Grainger, Chris
  • Wallace, Michael


Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a holistic systems approach that aims to assess the environmental impacts (potential pollutants and resource use) of the production of goods and services. The aim of this study was to develop an LCA model to compare contrasting milk production systems, a seasonal pasture-based dairy farm and a confinement dairy farm. The environmental impacts considered were global warming, eutrophication, acidification, land use and non-renewable energy use. The LCA estimated on-farm, off-farm (pollutants and resources associated with the production and supply of purchased farm inputs) and total (on-farm and off-farm) environmental impacts. Environmental impacts were quantified per unit of milk and per unit area. The study only considered two research farms, because high quality data were unavailable for a large number of farms. Thus, this was not a representative LCA comparison. The genetic merit of cows modelled was similar for each system. A total mixed ration was fed in the confinement system and grazed grass was mainly fed in the grass-based system. Research data were used to confirm simulated dry matter intake (DMI) and predicted enteric CH4 output from simulated DMI. The study found that when expressed per unit of milk and per on-farm area, all total environmental impacts were greater for the confinement system compared to the grass-based system. Per total farm area (on-farm and off-farm area), all environmental impacts except global warming were lower for the grass-based system. The greater environmental impact of the confinement dairy system was due to the greater use of concentrate feed and the longer manure storage period. Scenario modelling demonstrated that there is potential to decrease the environmental impact of dairy systems, particularly the confinement system, by reducing the use of concentrate ingredients with a high environmental impact and by storing manure in solid systems. Scenario modelling also showed that assumptions regarding the carbon cycle should be clearly outlined when assessing milk production systems and that standardisation of LCA allocation procedures is required. This LCA study is one of the few to directly compare the environmental impact of a grass-based and a confinement dairy system. However direct comparisons are needed, using an LCA methodology such as described in this paper, and using data from a greater number of farms so that each system is better represented thereby ensuring a robust comparison of the two systems on a regional or national basis.

Suggested Citation

  • O’Brien, Donal & Shalloo, Laurence & Patton, Joe & Buckley, Frank & Grainger, Chris & Wallace, Michael, 2012. "A life cycle assessment of seasonal grass-based and confinement dairy farms," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 107(C), pages 33-46.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:agisys:v:107:y:2012:i:c:p:33-46
    DOI: 10.1016/j.agsy.2011.11.004

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Thomassen, M.A. & van Calker, K.J. & Smits, M.C.J. & Iepema, G.L. & de Boer, I.J.M., 2008. "Life cycle assessment of conventional and organic milk production in the Netherlands," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 96(1-3), pages 95-107, March.
    2. Binfield, Julian C.R. & Donnellan, Trevor & Hanrahan, Kevin F., 2008. "An Examination of Milk Quota expansion at EU member State Level with specific emphasis on Ireland," 107th Seminar, January 30-February 1, 2008, Sevilla, Spain 6467, European Association of Agricultural Economists.
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    5. Basset-Mens, Claudine & Ledgard, Stewart & Boyes, Mark, 2009. "Eco-efficiency of intensification scenarios for milk production in New Zealand," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(6), pages 1615-1625, April.
    6. Kramer, Klaas Jan & Moll, Henri C. & Nonhebel, Sanderine & Wilting, Harry C., 1999. "Greenhouse gas emissions related to Dutch food consumption," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 27(4), pages 203-216, April.
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    1. repec:eee:agisys:v:159:y:2018:i:c:p:42-49 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Pagani, Marco & Vittuari, Matteo & Johnson, Thomas G. & De Menna, Fabio, 2016. "An assessment of the energy footprint of dairy farms in Missouri and Emilia-Romagna," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 145(C), pages 116-126.
    3. Meul, Marijke & Van Middelaar, Corina E. & de Boer, Imke J.M. & Van Passel, Steven & Fremaut, Dirk & Haesaert, Geert, 2014. "Potential of life cycle assessment to support environmental decision making at commercial dairy farms," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 131(C), pages 105-115.
    4. Guyader, Jessie & Little, Shannan & Kröbel, Roland & Benchaar, Chaouki & Beauchemin, Karen A., 2017. "Comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from corn- and barley-based dairy production systems in Eastern Canada," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 152(C), pages 38-46.
    5. Mihailescu, E. & Ryan, W. & Murphy, P.N.C. & Casey, I.A. & Humphreys, J., 2015. "Economic impacts of nitrogen and phosphorus use efficiency on nineteen intensive grass-based dairy farms in the South of Ireland," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 132(C), pages 121-132.
    6. Franklin Egan, J. & Hafla, Aimee & Goslee, Sarah, 2015. "Tradeoffs between production and perennial vegetation in dairy farming systems vary among counties in the northeastern U.S," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 139(C), pages 17-28.
    7. Huysveld, Sophie & Van linden, Veerle & De Meester, Steven & Peiren, Nico & Muylle, Hilde & Lauwers, Ludwig & Dewulf, Jo, 2015. "Resource use assessment of an agricultural system from a life cycle perspective – a dairy farm as case study," Agricultural Systems, Elsevier, vol. 135(C), pages 77-89.


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