Talk of future technology and the best ways to combat methane emissions were hot topics at this year’s Dairy-Tech held at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire. Katie Jones and Hannah Noble report.
Farmers have been using sensor technology for a number of years, but Mark Rutter from Harper Adams University, said this technology would be increasingly used to aid in the more rapid diagnosis of a number of diseases.
Professor Rutter, who specialises in applied animal behaviour at Harper Adams University, said he saw a future when dairy farmers would use more than one sensor.
This, he said could include an ear tag accelerometer and positing system, a rumen temperature bolus, a 3D camera as well as the more commonly seen neck and leg mounted accelerometer.
He explained that research done at Harper Adams had used sensor technologies to compare the lying behaviour of cows testing positive for Johne’s disease, but before they showed any clinical signs, against Johne’s negative cows.
Prof Rutter said: “The Johne’s positive cows had a lower daily lying time, with fewer but longer bouts compared to Johne’s negative cows around peak lactation.
“These positive cows were spending more time eating when in the early stages of the disease, which is not unusual given it is a gut disease, but it also means they are spending less time lying down.”
Prof Rutter said he was interested to see whether there were specific behaviour changes associated with other diseases, and said further research could allow the use of sensor technology to diagnose a disease, rather than just tell the farmer that a cow was sick.
He also suggested ‘sensor-based welfare monitoring’ would help ensure assurance schemes were more robust and evidence based.
“Current welfare assurance, for example Welfare Quality, relies on farm visits by auditors,” he said.
“These farm visits are sometimes problematic as they are time-consuming, and are comparatively infrequent snapshots that rely on too much on research-based rather than animal-based measures.”
However, Prof Rutter said it was important to remember that precision livestock technologies were designed to complement the skills of the expert stock person and not replace them.”
He also said innovations in robotic scraping would facilitate innovations for housing, which would increase cow comfort and provide opportunity to reduce emissions.
He highlighted the Dutch ‘high welfare floor’, which promises the hygiene of a mattress with the comfort of an open straw yard.
He said: “This is the sort of innovation we are likely to see in the future. And it’s good in terms of public perception.”
He did however, concede there were challenges with this floor, which did not ‘deal well’ with slurry, which meant robotic scraping innovations would be necessary.
Research work at Nottingham University has found that certain core rumen microbes are heritable and it may be possible to breed cows for the particular diet they will be fed and thereby reduce methane emissions.
Professor Phil Garnsworthy who led the research explained that cows may have to be bred according to the diet they will be fed throughout their lifetime in an attempt to reduce dairying’s environmental footprint.
That is the finding of work being done at Nottingham University in an EU project involving 1,000 cows across Europe looking at methane emissions and rumen microbes.
The work, an EU project which involved 1,000 cows across Europe, showed that although some cows were found that did produce less methane than others, they were also the poorest milk producers.
Prof Garnsworthy said: “The original thought was that if we could reduce methane emissions the energy saved would go into milk production.
“But what we found was that the cows which produced less methane did not digest forage very efficiently.
“They were poor digesters, inefficient cows that produced less methane. So, we need to be careful when breeding cows that we do not just select them on methane production alone, or we will end up having lower milk yields and, therefore, need more cows which produce more methane in total.”
The work showed that some cows produced twice as much methane as others eating the same amount of the same diet, but the higher methane cows produced around 1.5 times as much milk.
He tended to reject the idea that diet change alone could reduce emissions, as cows tended to stay in the same sort of emission ranking even with dietary change.
“We found a core set of microbes in the rumen which are heritable so we could select cows according to their rumen microbes,” he said.
“In the long term, we will be able to look at the rumen microbiome and select microbes for the particular types of fermentation they are specialist in, so for example we might have a particular cow for a high maize silage diet, or grazing diet, or whatever.
“If we can breed for cows that produce a particular population of bugs, in the long term we will be able to still get that production but with lower emissions.”
WITH methane emissions firmly on the agenda, Mole Valley’s Chris Bartram said there was a need to go back to basics when it came to nutrition.
He said: “We need to look at different diets and how the methane changes.”
And to help farmers do just this, Mole Valley announced it was incorporating methane output into its precision nutrition ration programme.
Dr Bartram explained this meant software would be able to predict the grams of methane/cow/day and grams of methane/litre that a specific diet was likely to produce, based on its nutrient profile.
The decision to look at methane followed on from research carried out at Harper Adams University.
The work looked at methane output on different diets and found that rations based on maize silage and starch reduced daily methane emission by about 7 per cent, compared to grass silage and higher fibre diets.
Although there is currently no penalty or reward for producing more or less methane, the company’s feed solutions technical manager, Dr Matt Witt, said it was likely these parameters would become more important in terms of milk payments, support payments or both.
He said farmers needed to be ‘prepared for that’.
Dr Witt said: “Having figures on methane will allows us to benchmark so we are in a better position to help farmers plan for the future.”
WINNER of the NMR RABDF Gold Cup 2019 was the Sloan family from Auchinleck, Ayrshire.
Robert Sloan, with his parents Bryce and Anne, and wife Emma run the 180-cow Townlaw Holstein herd which averages 11,980kg, alongside the 60-cow Darnlaw Jersey herd, which was introduced in 2016, and produces an average of 7,115kg.
In 2011, to increase productivity while managing the available labour, the Sloans switched to robotic milking in a new purpose-built shed on a greenfield site on the farm.
The Holsteins are now housed all-year-round and milked through three robots.
The Jersey herd is run separately and milked twice-a-day through the original parlour, grazing in summer and housed in winter.
Dairy Tech saw the launch of Kite Consulting’s Dairy 2030 report which outlined the pressures facing the UK dairy industry over the coming decade and what it meant for farmers.
The report said environmental pressures, consumer trends and concerns, a shifting marketplace and new technologies were all expected to impact the industry and they needed to be addressed with a change in farming practices.
John Allen, Kite Consulting, said the UK dairy industry was a bright place to be in the long-term despite an expected loss of 4,000 dairy producers over the next decade.
He said: “In terms of producer numbers we currently sit at just under 12,000, there is no surprise, the expectation is that these will diminish to just under 8,000 in the next 10 years.”
He said this figure was derived from the long-running pattern of a three per cent net loss of dairy producers each year, but he said they were expecting this loss to increase to six to seven per cent by 2024-25.
“By 2024 it is expected farmers may need a permit to milk cows, similar to those required by intensive poultry and pig operations. This would require major changes in order to comply with the clean air act which is coming, and this is expected to cause an increased exit rate in 2024/25.”
“We think in order to comply with environmental standards we will have to see a significant hike in cow yields, the reality of this is we need to get more from less.”
Mr Allen said the increase in yield would need to be seen across all systems which would drive a reduction in carbon footprint.
He said in the future they expected to see farmers becoming more interested in getting more out of their cow places rather than expanding their herds.
However he said this meant herd size was not expected to rise dramatically, but the UK would produce a similar number of litres overall.
“We can produce the same amount of milk in the UK with half a million less cows, or there may be the possibility to retain some of those half million cows, produce more milk in the UK, assuming we have the processing capacity, and export it.
“The UK potentially going forwards is a place where environmental standards could be seen to be very attractive and a good place to produce milk.”
DESPITE the noise caused by anti-dairy activists, the UK farming industry still very much had the backing of the majority of consumers.
This was the message from Arla’s director of agriculture, Graham Wilkinson. He said: “If you look at the figures while we might see small declines in standard fresh milk here in the UK we are still seeing growth in added value milk but globally we are seeing increases of dairy demand in the region of two per cent.
“Between now and 2030 it has been projected that global dairy demand will increase by about 35 per cent.
Mr Wilkinson said these figures were backed up by a survey which showed 77 per cent of consumers still trusted in their local farmers to produce safe products, and this was an improvement on figures from 2012.
However, he said animal welfare was becoming increasingly significant, 56 per cent of consumers said it was important compared with 52 per cent in 2018.
Figures released in 2019 showed eight per cent of consumers believed dairy farming was cruel and over 250,000 people signed up to veganuary, but that it was unclear how many completed it.
Mr Wilkinson said: “The dairy industry is starting to respond but it is without doubt we need to do more. I personally believe there is food confusion out there and we need to help consumers understand agriculture better.”
“A massive lens is now being put on how food is produced consumers are wanting to know more about how their food is produced and who is producing it and that is where we all need to play a part.”
As well as this Mr Wilkinson said the impact farming had on the environment, particularly dairy farming, was a concern, especially for younger consumers.
He said: “One of the challenges is that we have never had competition in the dairy industry. Everyone has always known milk is good for you and nutritious, we now have competition in the market and we need to embrace that, but with competition also comes opportunity.”
Mr Wilkinson added the future was gathering real-time data on farm to help demonstrate high animal welfare as well as investing in research on carbon sequestration to combat misleading information.
He said Arla were committed to ceasing the euthanasia of bull calves on farm and this would be in place from December, 31 2020.
“This is an example where consumers are encouraging us to make the tough but right decisions.”