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Research article2023Peer reviewedOpen access

What can we learn from the past? Tracking sustainability indicators for the Swedish dairy sector over 30 years

Karlsson, Johan O.; Robling, Helena; Cederberg, Christel; Sporndly, Rolf; Lindberg, Mikaela; Martiin, Carin; Ardfors, Elsa; Tidaker, Pernilla


CONTEXT: The dairy sector has undergone profound transformation over recent decades, resulting in considerably fewer but larger and more specialised farms, with unclear implications across sustainability dimensions.OBJECTIVE: The objective was to develop and employ a framework for assessing sustainability in the Swedish dairy sector to shed light on how recent historical developments (1990-2020) have influenced sustainability outcomes.METHODS: Using a data-driven, multidisciplinary approach, main areas of concern for sustainability in the primary production stages of the dairy sector were identified. These were then populated with indicators to track developments over time and highlight synergies and trade-offs.RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Four areas of concern were identified and populated with eight indicators (listed in brackets): 'supporting ecosystems' (semi-natural grassland area, ley area, mean field size), 'climate impact' (methane from enteric fermentation), 'animal welfare' (veterinary treatments, percentage of culled cows due to diseases) and 'farm viability' (competitive wages, farmer age structure). The results showed that area of seminatural grassland per dairy cow decreased by 27% from 2003 to 2020. Area of ley per cow decreased slightly but the proportion of arable land on dairy farms devoted to ley cultivation increased, due to improved roughage quality enabling an increase in proportion of roughage in feed rations. In terms of climate impact, enteric methane emissions per kg milk decreased by 21%. Regarding animal welfare, veterinary treatments of diseases decreased from 45% to 21% over the 30 years, with declining trends for most recorded diseases except hoof disease. The indicators for farm viability showed that the average dairy farm was unable to pay a wage com-parable to the national average throughout most of the period 2004-2020, but a slightly positive trend was observed, although with large year-on-year variability. A rapid change in age structure was seen between 2003 and 2020, with the proportion of land managed by older farmers (+60 years) increasing from 12% to 22%, indicating challenges with demographic viability.SIGNIFICANCE: Tracking changes over time across sustainability dimensions gives important insights into improvements made and challenges that remain to be solved. Overall, developments in the Swedish dairy sector have diminished its capacity to support ecosystems, particularly related to semi-natural grasslands, while reducing its climate impacts and improving animal welfare. An increased specialisation has also resulted in spillover effects where services and impacts have shifted from dairy herds to specialised beef herds. These findings are important in navigating policy processes targeting developments in the dairy sector.


Milk; Sustainable development; Ecosystem; Climate; Animal welfare; Viability

Published in

Agricultural Systems
2023, Volume: 212, article number: 103779