Both black and white, and red and white Holstein cows.
Figure 1: Holstein Cow. The most popular modern dairy breed, famous for its high milk yield and the black and white coat. The red variety of the Holstein Cow is slightly less common.

Welcome to Week 2

This week, you’ll explore the interrelationship between climate change and dairy farming. Humans have lived alongside cows for the past 10,500 years. Cattle are one of the earliest animal species to be domesticated by our ancestors, when they made the change from hunter gatherers to a more sedentary lifestyle. The result of this success story is a global population of about 1.5 billion cattle and a variety of different breeds.

In the early days of farming cattle, their main purpose was probably to deliver meat. Cattle and other ruminants (eg sheep, goats) are able to convert plant material that is of little nutritional value for humans into highly nutritious milk and meat. They also provide vital materials such as wool and leather. There is evidence that we started using cow milk about 8000 years ago and we have done so ever since. Even today, in tribes like the Maasai people in Africa, milk still makes up a substantial proportion of their diet, and their lives revolve around their cattle.

Cow milk is of high nutritional value and it can be processed into cream, butter, cheese and yoghurt. On average, a person in Europe consumes 3.5 kg butter, 60 litres of milk and 17 kg of cheese per year (AHDB 2015). In order to meet the demands of its customers, the dairy industry has changed a lot since our ancestors first started to live with cattle. Rather than having one backyard cow, dairy farms in developed countries, produce milk on a large scale. At the same time however, the milk price has been consistently low and dairy farmers struggle to keep their businesses competitive.

Climate change is an additional challenge for the industry, and it is likely to have an impact on milk production in the future. Farming dairy cows and cattle is responsible for a large amount of GHG emissions. With an increase in the number of cattle to meet the demands of a growing world population, it will be a challenge to maintain and reduce these emissions.

This week you will explore how milk is produced, how the industry is affected by climate change, and the potential solutions for making dairy farming more sustainable and climate friendly. You will visit the Centre for Dairy Research at the University of Reading and Cottage Farm, a carbon neutral beef and sheep farm in Cornwall.

In the next Step, we’ll be asking you some questions about dairy farming in a short quiz. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers (we’re not expecting you to be an expert!), it’s just to get you thinking about how much you already know and where you may still need to plug some gaps in your knowledge. Don’t forget to mark this Step as complete before you move on.

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This article is from the free online course:

The Future of Farming: Exploring Climate Smart Agriculture

University of Reading