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Intensification pathways for beef and dairy cattle production systems: Impacts on GHG emissions, land occupation and land use change

Creative commons licence 2.0, Hans Splinter, Flickr "some more cows"

The authors of this paper compare the impact of intensification in the beef and dairy sectors via two pathways; either intensification within a system (e.g. a mixed crop-livestock system) or through transitioning to another more productive system (from pasture to mixed crop-livestock production) and assesses the mitigation potential that could arise.   It reviews the impacts of these forms of intensification on both GHG emissions, land occupation and land use change (LUC), the last of which has often been excluded in other similar analyses.  

The livestock sector contributes approximately 15% to total global greenhouse-gas emissions and as such it is essential to reduce emissions, both through production and demand side measures.  On the production side, previous studies have estimated that emissions in the livestock sector could be reduced by around 30%, of which 65% would come from changes in the cattle sector. The three most common livestock production systems are pasture-based, mixed and industrial systems with the degree of intensification progressing  from pasture -> mixed and from mixed -> industrial.  

The authors of this paper analyse the mitigation potential arising from changes in  beef and dairy cattle production. They carried out literature studies of papers looking at GHG emissions and land-use requirements of dairy (72 papers) or beef production (47 papers) in different regions, most of which were based on models rather than empirical evidence. They also used the Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM) to look at land occupation and land use change. The emissions (both farm gate and LUC related impacts) are quantified in relation to kg of milk or beef produced.

Looking at the two intensification pathways, the study concludes that in general (for both beef and dairy):  

  • Intensification within pasture-based systems shows potential for farm gate emission reductions in both the dairy and beef sector but a transition to mixed systems is important in order to reduce land occupation and LUC related emissions.
  • When it comes to land-use change (LUC) related emissions, the GHG reductions that could be achieved by moving to mixed or industrial systems are limited. This is especially true in developing countries where there is significant potential for emissions reduction in pasture-based systems.
  • The authors argue that if the goal is to reduce both land occupation and LUC emissions a transition to mixed systems is needed.  


For dairy in Europe specifically, the study finds that by intensifying production within a system, reductions in emissions between 2-14% are possible, while moving from one production system to another could reduce emissions between 2-26%. They conclude that “moderate reductions in cradle to farm gate emissions can be realized by both intensification within a system and system transitions”. The greatest potential is found for emissions reduction via intensification within the pasture-based systems.


On a global scale, there are larger differences in emissions within and between beef production systems than for dairy. For both developed and developing regions emissions reductions can be achieved through intensification within pasture based systems (in Brazil, this was shown to have a potential to create significant farm gate emission reductions of >50%). Transitioning to mixed systems offers greater emissions reductions for beef than for dairy and is a good strategy for minimising land occupation and reducing land-use change impacts.


Cattle production is characterized by high land requirements, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the resulting land use change (LUC) and cradle to farm gate processes. Intensification of cattle production systems is considered an important strategy for mitigating anthropogenic GHG emissions. When categorizing production practices into three systems, i.e. pasture-based, mixed and industrial systems, intensification can either take place within one system or through the transition to another more productive system. This study investigates the impacts of these two pathways on farm gate emissions and LUC-related emissions (expressed in kg CO2-eq per kg of milk or beef) in nine world regions. First, a review is conducted of bottom-up studies on farm gate emissions (without LUC) from dairy production in Europe and beef production in North America and Brazil. Then, a global data set on GHG emissions from cattle production is used to discuss the GHG emission impacts of the two development pathways in other regions. Finally, the GLOBIOM model is applied to perform a global assessment of land occupation and LUC-related emissions. For dairy in Europe, farm gate emission reductions of 1%–14% are found for intensification within one system and 2%–26% for system transitions. In Europe as well as other developed regions, the comparative influence of both pathways on the GHG balance largely depends on the specific design of the initial and final production systems. In developing countries especially, there is a greater potential for emission reductions through intensification within the pasture-based system. The additional reduction potential of moving from pasture-based to mixed and industrial production is limited. Also, emission reductions of intensification within the mixed system are smaller compared to the pasture-based system. For beef production in Brazil, intensification within pasture-based systems can attain significant farm gate emission reductions (>50%). The same is true for pasture-based systems in other developing regions and also some developed regions. Furthermore, the additional GHG reduction potentials of moving from pasture-based to mixed systems, and of intensification within mixed systems are larger for beef than for dairy. Although both the dairy and beef sector can often attain significant farm gate emission reductions through intensification within pasture-based systems, the transition to mixed systems is important to reduce land occupation and LUC-related emissions. LUC mitigation is considered to be the most important GHG mitigation strategy for cattle production in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Important, but technically and economically constrained strategies to reduce both farm gate and LUC-related emissions include increasing the productivity of grassland and cropland, and increasing the animal productivity through improved feed quality.


Gerssen-Gondelach, S. J., Lauwerijssen, R., Havlík, P., Herrero, M., Valin, H., Faaijd, A., Wicke, B., (2017) Intensification pathways for beef and dairy cattle production systems: Impacts on GHG emissions, land occupation and land use change, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Vol. 240, 1,

Read the full paper here.

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