Home-grown protein

Why is homegrown protein of interest for dairy farmers?

Organic and low-input dairy farmers have an interest in replacing imported protein feed with local or homegrown protein sources such as e.g. peas, faba beans or lupin in order to improve the sustainability of the dairy system.

It is to large extend possible to replace the imported feeds with homegrown protein. However,  the substitution might have a negative impact on farm productivity and profitability, and  in case of lower yields the carbon footprint of the production will increase. On-farm reseach conducted by scientists from the SOLID project has documented these challenges.

Read more: in the SOLID Technical Note: Feeding homegrown protein and novel feeds for dairy cows 
Learn more:  eLearning on by-products and underutilized feeds


Examples of homegrown proteins:

  • Pea  (Pisum sativum)
  • Faba bean/horse bean (Vicia faba)
  • Lupin (Lupinus species)

Grain legumes are well-suited to organic and low-input farming as the seeds are high in protein and well suited for animal feed and as the plants can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere.

These crops can be cultivated throughout Europe and can also be harvested as whole-crop silage or even grazed.  However, the area used for growing grain legumes in Europe has decreased during the last decades, while the use of imported soybeans has expanded.

Pea (Pisum sativum)      Faba bean (Vicia faba)

Local by-products providing protein

By-products may also play a role in replacing the imported protein feeds. The developing bio-economy, increased use of bioenergy and development of different bio-refineries provide potential new opportunities to the feed sector in the future.

Examples of by-products high in protein

  • High-protein and low-fat distillers’ grains
  • Oilseeds such as camelina, crambe, safflower and rapeseed

By-products from the plant oil industry are rich in protien. Their on-farm production could offer a good opportunity to increase supply of oils either for human consumption or biodiesel production, to produce high quality protein supplements for animals and to improve the farm’s finances.

Read more: 

Soybeans – an environmental concern

GM soybeans 2

Replacing imported protein by local or homegrown protein is to large extent replacing soybeans, and the use of soybeans as feed for livestock in Europe is by many considered unsustainable.  However, the soybean based feeds are highly popular as animal feed because they contains very high amount of protein with a more complete range of essential amino acids than most other feeds.

On the other hand, soybeans are often grown in areas with fragile ecosystems such as rainforest or savannah. The expansion of the soybean production may therefore endanger biodiversity and threatened species and bring the livelihood of local communities at risk, the critiques argue.

In addition, most soybeans are GM crops, which are not allowed in organic productions an deemed unacceptable by many consumers.

Read more about consumers´ view on GM Crops:
Increasing sustainability for SC Stakeholders & Consumers

The carbon footprint of homegrown protein – a case study

Italian caset
A herd with 136 cows (Italian Friesian) in Modena, Italy was case-farm for the SOLID on-farm research on homegrown protein.

Although, soybean production often is considered to have a damaging effect on the global climate, homegrown feeds are not necessarily more climate friendly, a SOLID case study  shows.

Read the summary of “Climate friendly organic milk production

The aim of the study was to evaluate the carbon footprint of organic milk produced by cows  on two different diets on a dairy farm with 136 cows (Italian Friesian) in Modena, Italy.

In the study, the milk produced by cows fed on home-grown feeds proved to have a higher carbon footprint than cows fed on purchased feed.

The main reason was lower feed efficiency reflected in a  milk yield 3.9 kg lower per day on average.  Consequently, the impact of the homegrown feed on green house gass emission –  calculated in CO2-equivalents per kg milk produced –  was higher than impact of the feed in the control system.

Read the full report on the study

The two groups of cows in the case study:

  • Control based on purchased ingredients – crushed maize (7%) and protein (mainly based on sunflower and soya bean) meal (10%) – and on-farm produced ingredients -lucerne hay (60%), crushed barley (13%), crushed sorghum (10%)
  • Home-grown feed based almost solely on feed ingredients produced on-farm- Lucerne hay (64%), crushed barley (16%), crushed sorghum (19%) and protein meal (1%) as the only purchased feed.

Alsikke 1-1       Ærtemark 1-1


  • Combine lucerne hay with faba beans or peas to improve home-grown protein supply  in low-input dairy systems as alternative to soybean-based feeds.
  • Considering the possible effects of home-grown protein on milk yield and consider also the environmental impact.
  • Take the consumers’ preferences into consideration. Consumers are  not likely to pay more for changes in animal diets unless it is either organic or reducing the contamination with GM material or improving the positive impacts of the product on human health.

Read more


How to improve sustainable organic and low-input dairying