DAIRY processor Lactalis wants farmers supplying it with milk, including Western Australian farmers supplying Harvey Fresh, to join its global Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project.
Three of its 14 Harvey Fresh suppliers are already part of a pilot CSR project to collect and analyse detailed data on their farming operations, Lactalis Australia's WA supplier relationships manager Carl Dinkelmann told last week's Western Dairy Spring Forum at Bunbury, WA.
Lactalis hopes the other 11 in WA and the remainder of its Australian suppliers will voluntarily join the CSR project - once it is formally launched nationally in January - to have their farms independently audited at least once under the program within the next four years, Mr Dinkelmann said.
Lactalis International, the largest dairy processing company in the world, hopes to have all of its milk suppliers around the globe signed up to its CSR project by 2025, he said.
Currently, the CSR project collects data from dairy farms across 11 countries which produce 76 per cent of the global "Lactalis milk pool", Mr Dinkelmann said.
He explained the CSR project collected data on a range of dairy farm operational areas, with the ultimate aim of establishing best practices for its milk suppliers to enhance sustainability, minimise greenhouse gas emissions and preserve water resources, while improving animal welfare and food safety.
"(Lactalis) global have launched the project to reduce our environmental footprint, strengthen our positive social impacts and better answer to the increasing expectations of our clients and civil society," Mr Dinkelmann said.
"The idea is to try and get an indication of (greenhouse gas emission) outputs across the (dairy products) supply chain.
"It's not so much a carbon program, but an environmental program that is also looking at animal welfare, which is a huge part of our industry."
Mr Dinkelmann said there were two components to the project for Harvey Fresh and other Lactalis Australia dairy farmer suppliers who sign up.
One is an on-farm audit requiring farmers to complete an animal welfare questionnaire and allow an independent inspection and assessment of their operation and herds.
The second requires the farmer to input a broad range of farming operational data onto a dairy module of the Cool Farms Tool digital platform, which has a greenhouse gas emissions calculator as part of it.
The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development also recommends the same digital platform be used by other farmers to self-assess their operations' likely greenhouse gas emissions.
"The on-farm assessments will look at things like is there enough water available (for cows to drink), how many troughs do you have, animal comfort including things like back scratchers - there are some farms that have them in holding yards coming into the dairy," Mr Dinkelmann said.
"They will also look at the condition of holding yards and the dairy.
"Then, on the sustainability side, it (CSR program) will be looking at your whole farm - dairy platform, pasture area, annual cropping program, how many trees you have in paddocks, energy consumption and whether it is from renewable sources, recycling of water and supplementary feeds."
Part of the interest in supplementary feeds was to determine whether they contained products like soybean and palm oil - responsible for modern mass deforestation to grow them as cash crops and blamed for contributing to global warming, he explained.
Lactalis's CSR program has already run for several years in France, the United Kingdom and Ireland - where farm employee health and safety and quality of 'work life' are also audited aspects of dairy farm operation - and some of the typical animal welfare questions farmers there answered were shown to the forum.
Animal welfare sample questions included about udder health, cows' productive lifetimes, mortality, use of growth-promoting substances, use of antibiotics and use of animal-derived protein in feed.
For calves the sample questions covered colostrum intake, fibre in feed, castration of male cattle, disbudding or dehorning and tail docking.
On-farm audit assessments required inspection of a sample of lactating and dry cows, comprising 7-25pc of a herd, depending on herd size, an assessment sample shown to the forum indicated.
Observations to be recorded during assessments include human avoidance behaviour, body condition, cleanliness of yards and cowshed, lameness and skin changes.
Mr Dinkelmann said Lactalis Australia had already appointed a local independent assessor for the regular on-farm audits required by the CSR program after it is officially launched.
He indicated the data would be collected, processed, consolidated and used anonymously to try to establish national and international average performance indicators and to compare national and international statistics for "pools" of Lactalis supplier farms.
The intention was also to identify "priority on-farm sustainability topics" Lactalis could discuss with its supplier farmers and to "communicate best practices and related impacts" to suppliers, Mr Dinkelmann indicated.
"We will send all the information to France," he said.
"They will analyse all this information, they will break it down into individual countries, they will look at countries compared to each other, different farming systems and eventually information on what can be addressed on-farm will filter back to our farms here."
Mr Dinkelmann then joined DPIRD senior development officer Mandy Curnow and Murdoch University associate professor Fran Hoyle in a panel session on carbon accounting and farm greenhouse gas emissions.
The forum was told that while carbon dioxide (CO2) was the main greenhouse gas of concern in relation to global warming, farming in general and dairy farming, in particular, produced volumes of far more volatile greenhouse gases in methane and nitrous oxide.
One tonne of enteric methane (from cow burps) had the equivalent environmental impact of 28t of CO2 and 1t of nitrous oxide (produced by working the topsoil, spreading nitrogen fertiliser and from animal manure) had the same impact as 265t of CO2, forum guests were told.
While WA's CO2-equivalent (CO2e) annual greenhouse gas emissions from energy production had increased from about 35 million tonnes in 1990 to more than 80mt in 2019, agriculture's CO2e greenhouse gas emissions had reduced from about 12mt a year to about 8mt a year over the same period, they were told.
Of WA's agricultural CO2e greenhouse gas emissions, enteric fermentation (cow burps again) was the clear major source, but it had generally been in decline since 2005 because of reducing stock numbers.
Over the same period, the next major source of WA agriculture's CO2e greenhouse gas emissions, soils - but still producing less than half of enteric fermentation volumes - had remained about the same, allowing for annual variation for better seasons like this one when more area is cropped, figures presented to the forum showed.
Last year the six WA shire council areas which produced the most greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural cattle were Albany, Esperance, Busselton, Manjimup, Harvey and Augusta-Margaret River.
Rabobank's head of sustainable business development and previously its national farm support manager, Crawford Taylor, told the forum that consumer attitudes were changing and regulatory oversight of farming was increasing.
Global investors will increasingly require transparency on sustainability risks and availability and cost of capital will incorporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards criteria, Mr Crawford said.
Access to future markets or barriers to market could also be determined by ESG standards and globally "agri-corporates" were increasingly adopting ESG objectives, he pointed out.
"Supply chains need to adapt, innovate - including inside the farm gate," Mr Crawford said.
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