Dairy cooperative Arla Foods has announced that it is taking tangible, farmer-led steps to gain more data and knowledge of how dairy farming can help improve soil biology, carbon capture, water quality and biodiversity via regenerative farming methods.

The first step in its plan is to establish a pilot programme created in partnership with regenerative farming experts from FAI farms and other expert organisations.

24 selected pilot farmers across five countries – UK, Sweden,
Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark – will be trained and coached to implement various regenerative methods.

Their learnings, combined with data collection, will build knowledge of how regenerative methods can be applied to different dairy farming systems in Europe and how they impact climate and nature, according to the co-op.

Arla organic milk suppliers

The second step is a commitment from the cooperative’s 916 organic farmers, who are responsible for an annual production of 1,000 million kg of organic milk, the world’s largest organic milk pool.

Starting this year, they will self-assess and register their farm’s biodiversity activities once every year to generate data.

In addition to this, they will collect soil samples, which will be analysed by a third party
laboratory, to establish a baseline for their soil carbon.

The organic farmers will also guarantee that a number of soil health and biodiversity measures are activated on their farms.

They will get access to a lever catalogue including information about how to measure and manage improvements.

From 2022, they will also self-assess soil health indicators e.g. testing soil smell, spading ease and earthworm counts.

‘Positive impact of dairy farming’

Member of Arla’s board of directors, Janne Hansson, who is also chairman of
Arla’s Organic Council said: “As a farmer-owned dairy cooperative, we have a huge interest in understanding how we can reduce the negative and maximise the positive impact of dairy farming.

“A number of farmers in our community have been exploring regenerative farming practices for some time, and motivated by their enthusiasm, we decided to take a broader approach to this as a cooperative, spearheaded by the organic farmers and a group of pilot farmers.”

According to The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), soil organisms and biodiversity could be a nature-based solution to many of the problems that humanity is facing today.

These include the provision of healthy food and the improvement of agricultural production, water filtration and carbon sequestration.

The FAO also suggests that it can enhance soil fertility, agricultural production, and
environmental sustainability, according to Arla.

Regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture has been gaining attention from producers, retailers, researchers, and consumers as one of the responses to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, according to Arla.

While there is a general consensus that improving soil health and biodiversity are core elements in regenerative farming, there is no universally agreed definition of the approach.

So far, there are few scientific examples of regenerative methods being implemented on dairy livestock farms in Europe, that farmers can use as guidance.

Arla has said that it wants to be part of filling the data gap using the experience and knowledge of its farmer owners.

“A central part of why we want to explore regenerative farming is to gain data-driven proof points of using regenerative methods on dairy farms,” Hansson said.

“While we have full attention on reducing our negative impact, the positive impact we can create as stewards of the land, has not yet been thoroughly scientifically proven and we want to secure more science-based knowledge to enable dairy farmers to take the right action for the future,” he added.

Other Arla initiatives

Arla is one of eight organisations in a consortium that has been awarded funding as a part of the UK government’s Direct Air Capture and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Removal Technologies competition.

The project will test the feasibility of using biochar commercially in agriculture.

The consortium believes that if this could be achieved and biochar became commonly used across agriculture, it could result in significant amounts of carbon being removed from the atmosphere and stored in farm soils for centuries, whilst also supporting good soil health.