Recent trends suggest dairy herd sizes will continue to rise, with large herds getting larger.
But what will the future dairy farm, and the cow, look like?
Dairy industry figures show the average herd size is growing year-on-year and experts analysing the data suggest this is a trend which is set to continue, albeit with some potential fluctuations.
Kathryn Rowland, of independent dairy specialist Kingshay, says data from Kingshay’s own dairy costings focus show average herd sizes have grown by 43 per cent in the last 20 years, and in the last 10 years alone the figure has risen from 152 cows to 205 cows.
However, for the first time in the past decade, the average herd size dropped in 2018/19. This, she says, is largely due to the hot summer of 2018, which goes some way to showing how much of an impact the weather has.
She says: “Many producers proactively sold less productive cows to preserve forage stocks. Heat stress was also a factor, which led to increased health issues during those months. As a result, average cull rates increased.”
Average yields have also increased over the past decade, by 11.7 per cent to 8,352 litres per cow, although the most recent eight years have seen more fluctuation than previously, perhaps due to the removal of milk quota, and mirroring changes in seasonal weather and therefore milk from forage.
For example, the very wet year of 2012 had a marked effect on both.
And the larger herds just keep getting larger. Ms Rowland says: “Not only have the highest producing herds boosted milk yields per cow, they have grown their herd size by an average of 17 cows to 743-head in 2017/18. This trend can be seen in each of the past three years.”
This, she says, is in part due to larger herds being more likely to be on supermarket-aligned contracts with a more stable milk price enabling a continued investment programme to increase output.
However, she also adds there is still a place for the more traditional family farm.
She says: “This is what the consumer wants to see. The future success of the dairy industry will be driven by supply and demand; it is a consumer-driven market and we need to be able to produce a product these consumers want.”
Breeding for the future
WHAT might the ‘ideal’ dairy cow of the future look like?
While the notion of an ‘ideal cow’ is entirely subjective, there can be no denying the changing climate is going to have an impact on our dairy cattle of the future.
Mike Coffey, professor of livestock informatics at Scotland’s Rural College, says the environmental impact of dairy cows is firmly at the top of the agenda.
He says: “Climate change has been drawn into sharp focus in light of recent weather events. We do not have the luxury of having 10 or 20 years to sort out this climate change problem, we have to sort it right here and right now.”
Prof Coffey says, in simple terms, the dairy cow of the future will have to produce a ‘large volume’ of milk from home grown forage.
He says: “They will need to be on that home-grown forage for much of the year. Under that scenario, we should not see an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and, effectively, we will be selecting for a cow which is a low producer of greenhouse gas emissions per kg of milk produced.”
He adds this will need to be done at a ‘low cost to the farmer’ and this will mean the health and durability of the cow is paramount.
He also says if dairy producers select for cows which produce milk well off grass, they are likely to be smaller in size and stature.
He says: “They will still need to be very resilient to disease and health problems, such as lameness, and be happy to be out grazing.”
Prof Coffey also predicts that in the future, the visual appearance of the dairy cow will be of less importance.
He says: “It will not matter what colour skin the animal has, instead it will be about the package of genetics the animal has which is relevant for a farm’s particular circumstance.”
WILL THE FUTURE BE GRASS-BASED?
TECHNOLOGY will undoubtedly play an important role in dairy farming in the future and, by 2025, it is anticipated the agricultural technology sector will be worth more than £136 billion globally.
This includes more than £12bn in the robotic market.
In a bid to drive growth from the UK in this area, Agri-Epi Centre, one of four agri-tech centres established by the UK Government, has been set up to look into some of these innovative ideas and feedback information which will help UK farmers become more profitable and sustainable.
A network of Agri-Epi hubs and farms includes the South West Dairy Development Centre, near Shepton Mallet, Somerset, which is billed as Agri-Epi’s ‘dairy farm of the future’.
Duncan Forbes, project manager, explains this is not to be seen as a blueprint for the ideal dairy farm, but instead as a platform for new and emerging technologies.
He says: “The driver behind this is the use of sensor technology and automation to optimise welfare and performance.”
This technology covers everything from milking, feeding and precision grazing.
The farm, which supports a herd of 180 autumn-calvers, is equipped with a host of the latest technology, including three robotic milking machines, an automated feed system and a fabricroofed building designed to optimise cow comfort and welfare. Technology around the concept of precision grazing is important at the farm.
Mr Forbes says: “Milk from forage pays, and milk from grazing pays even better. Secondly, cows out grazing is something the consumer wants to see.
“So we have combined state-ofthe art housing and technology with precision grazing using sensors to measure and manage all aspects of the system.”
Mr Forbes adds the goal is to reduce wastage and soil damage associated with grazing and he wants to see a system which can achieve the same level of precision from grazing as when feeding cows indoors.
He hopes technology such as drones and satellites already used in the arable sector can help with this.
He says: “The challenge is to use hyperspectral imaging to provide real-time analysis of grazing quantity and quality, so feed supplementation can be matched to the grass cows are eating.”
But Mr Forbes also says the challenge for farmers in the future will be deciding which technology fits their needs.
“We need developers to make sure all the different technology can be integrated, so farmers can pick and choose from different manufacturers.”