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What can we expect from the dairy farm of the future?

Organised by Innovation for Agriculture, the UK’s first Precision Dairy Management Conference was held at the Three Counties Showground. Louise Hartley reports.
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THE most profitable dairy units are those which are focused, regardless of whether they are a grass-based, or more intensive, high yielding systems.


That was the message from David Alvis, managing director of Yorkshire Dairy Goats, who gave his thoughts on ’what we can expect from the dairy farm of the future’.
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Mr Alvis who manages a large dairy goat business, previously completed a Nuffield Scholarship on large scale cattle dairying and prior to his current role oversaw the investment of over £60million of government funds to develop new technologies aimed at improving agricultural productivity.


Speaking to conference delegates, he said there would be fewer dairy farmers in the future and the ones which remained would be bigger and more specialised.


"DairyCo profitability figures show the most profitable systems are the ones which are focused," he explained. 


Mr Alvis said dairy farmers must also be conscious of competing products in the liquid milk sector, such as the soya-based Alpro, believed to be the largest and fasted growing non-dairy ’milk’ brand in the UK.


Another big challenge would be addressing the protein issue.


"Europe is currently less than 30 per cent self sufficient in vegetable protein, with a huge amount being imported from Brazil. But, there is a much bigger, and increasingly affluent, player eating up a big proportion of the world’s soya - China.
"This is likely to drive up the price of protein longer term and we therefore need to think more about it’s cost effective use.


“Most vegetable protein used for animal feed is sub-optimal in terms of its amino acid profile and we tend to overfeed protein to compensate. This can have a knock-on impact on our environmental discharges. We must therefore concentrate on precision feeding to maximise protein use efficiency."


Mr Alvis said TMR was arguably the ’gold standard’ for feeding, but questioned it’s place in the future. He said despite it having high levels of operational efficiency and working well on large dairies, it also had large opportunities for error.


"It is often said there are three diets fed to dairy cows - the one which is specified, the which is one fed and which is one eaten. The feed consumed by the cow can be an awfully long way from the diet designed by the nutritionist and manager. A TMR ration also feeds to the ’median’, so requires uniformity in groups or runs the risk of over/under-feeding, limiting individual management. 


Mr Alvis said a more precise way of feeding was through automated systems, but conceded this required a large capital investment which some businesses would not want to make. A solution, he said, was through the adoption of centralised feed storage systems, where feed was stored, processed and distributed to farmers.


"These feed centres are professionally managed and monitored, serving a number of farms to reduce the cost per tonne of infrastructure, allowing group commodity purchasing, hedging and professional stock management. The system involves mixing a set diet and delivering it out to individual farms.


This concept was proven to work said Mr Alvis, who highlighted its success in Israel, where it is used extensively.


"Israel is a highly resource constrained country, but has the highest average milk yield in the world, at 11,750kg per cow per year in 2012. Adopting a similar feeding system would allow us to gain better consistency and management of feed on farms in the UK."


The next big thing shaping the industry’s future was genomics, explained Mr Alvis. He said advances in animal genomics were already fundamentally changing the industry’s approach to breeding, but we had only just scratched the surface of what it could offer.


"Genomics has allowed generation intervals to be shortened and us to look at the genetic potential of animals at birth rather than waiting for several years for actual performance data. 


And the technology is advancing rapidly with new techniques , such as whole genomic sequencing, which allows the entire genetic make up of an animal to be known, potentially within the reach of individual breeders in the next few years.


"The cost of whole genome sequencing has come down massively in a relatively short time. In 2001 the first human genome sequence cost an estimated $100 million, but within the next couple of years it will probably be commercially available for less than $1,000, allowing us to further accelerate the benefits of genomics and improve genetic gain in the dairy industry."

Mr Alvis' technology watch list

Other future technologies sited by Mr Alvis:
  • Rumen boluses allowing real time monitoring of rumen temperature, sending an alert to a central computer to flag up a change in an animals body temperature
  • The use of gaming technology, such as that found in ‘Wii’ game controllers, to monitor activity and type of activity of cattle. Some will measure differences in gait, allowing 24-7 real-time mobility scoring, without the need for visual assessment or measuring via weight/pressure differential on the hooves. 
  • In-line milk analysis will become more widespread to analyse milk components, conductivity and metabolic indicators. Some systems will be able to measure milk solids in real time to give farmers the ability to separate milk according to its solid weight and suitability for the cheese or liquid market.
  • Advances in both genomics and embryology will potentially mean instead of waiting until an animal is born to genotype it, it will be possible to genotype the in-vitro fertilised embryos two to three days after fertilisation and before the embryo is implanted, further shortening the generation interval. This technology is currently being developed in the UK and could be available commercially in the next couple of years, driving forward genetic gain at a truly phenomenal rate
  • Meta-genomics is something you may not have heard of yet, but you will. It is the genomic analysis of entire system biomass and has the potential to unlock the mysteries of complex biological systems such the rumen and the soi, which contain millions of different micro-organisms virtually impossible to isolate an analyse individually. Increasing our understanding of how these complex systems function will allow us to simultaneously increase the efficient use of feed and fertiliser, improve plant and animal health and reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient losses. Sustainable Intensification in a nutshell
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