What will dairy farming look like in another 10 years? One strategy to answer this question is to chart the current pressures on the industry and extend those trends. Environmentally, nitrate leaching, phosphate and effluent runoff will be increasingly regulated. Antibiotic resistance issues will reach tipping point and as such antibiotic use in production animals will be curtailed. And, animal welfare regulation will fundamentally change our management systems.
Anticipating these sorts of changes is critical. Fighting to merely stay as we are is doomed to failure and will damage, perhaps fatally, the credibility of the industry. But how do we promote healthy and productive animals without the widespread use of antibiotics and hormones? How do we manage nutrient such that ecological attributes of waterways are enhanced while contributing positively to the climate change problem? And finally, how do we have an industry that is sustainable and enjoyable?
Just ask the cows! What do they need? What is limiting to their health and performance? Great farmers are great observers. Mix that with more detailed analysis of their milk production parameters, mating data, diet, what diseases affect them and what the pattern of disease is, and pretty soon we find they tell us an awful lot.
Being led by this information takes us down an intriguing trail. It requires us to control our use of phosphate fertiliser. It requires us to control the nutrient level in effluent blocks, and to use this resource more wisely. It requires us to control nitrogen inputs to avoid pastures with excess crude protein. It asks us how better to manage the nitrogen cycle. This in-turn requires us to grow mixed swards with more clover. It promotes improving soil carbon to better manage nitrogen, promote clover and reduce nitrogen loss.
Responding to cow needs requires us to ensure they have sufficient and consistent energy intakes, and good weight management in the framework of balanced nutrition so that our cows work in their comfort zone rather than, as happens far too often, at the limits of their physiological ability to cope. It asks us about ensuring feed provision and promotion of feed utilisation even in extended periods of bad weather. We then think about the promotion of shelter and methods of feeding to promote intakes and as such promote cow comfort.
Welfare wise, what are our disease rates and severity? What is our process for continuous improvement and how can we anticipate and prevent conditions that may cause pain, suffering and loss? What are the practices we have in place to carefully transition a cow from the trauma of calving to getting her into the best shape for a strong lactation and to get in calf nice and early?
Who would have thought that being driven by cow needs would arrive at a discussion about promoting soil carbon, effluent management and the amenity value of our farms? It also maximises the nutrient value and the food safety of our animal products. Not to mention a very strong ethical and welfare centred approach to the management of food producing animals.