Scenarios to limit environmental nitrogen losses from dairy expansion

Hoekstra, N.J.; Schulte, R.P.O.; Forrestal, P.J.; Hennessy, D.; Krol, D.J.; Lanigan, G.J.; Müller, C.; Shalloo, L.; Wall, D.P.; Richards, K.G.


Increased global demand for dairy produce and the abolition of EU milk quotas have resulted in expansion in dairy production across Europe and particularly in Ireland. Simultaneously, there is increasing pressure to reduce the impact of nitrogen (N) losses to air and groundwater on the environment. In order to develop grassland management strategies for grazing systems that meet environmental targets and are economically sustainable, it is imperative that individual mitigation measures for N efficiency are assessed at farm system level. To this end, we developed an excel-based N flow model simulating an Irish grass-based dairy farm, to evaluate the effect of farm management on N efficiency, N losses, production and economic performance. The model was applied to assess the effect of different strategies to achieve the increased production goals on N utilization, N loss pathways and economic performance at farm level. The three strategies investigated included increased milk production through increased grass production, through increased concentrate feeding and by applying a high profit grass-based system. Additionally, three mitigation measures; low ammonia emission slurry application, the use of urease and nitrification inhibitors and the combination of both were applied to the three strategies. Absolute N emissions were higher for all intensification scenarios (up to 124 kg N ha−1) compared to the baseline (80 kg N ha−1) due to increased animal numbers and higher feed and/or fertiliser inputs. However, some intensification strategies showed the potential to reduce the emissions per ton milk produced for some of the N-loss pathways. The model showed that the assessed mitigation measures can play an important role in ameliorating the increased emissions associated with intensification, but may not be adequate to entirely offset absolute increases. Further improvements in farm N use efficiency and alternatives to mineral fertilisers will be required to decouple production from reactive N emissions.