Today our greatest dairy achievements could be at risk. At the very least there are seven issues that, if ignored, threaten to blow the agricultural industry to smithereens. These are food production, water conservation, climate change; land use; unpolluted air and animal and human rights. Each of these challenges holds within it the potential for disaster or positive improvement.  It is up to 21st Century dairy farmers to take responsibility for turning these threats into opportunities.

What are we as dairy breeders holding in our hands? Can we foretell a profitable, sustainable future? Or are we holding a time bomb that is set to explode?   

“We Want Food”

The oft repeated challenge is that agriculture must provide food to sustain a population of 9 billion at ever higher living standards by 2050. On the one hand, non-farm folks want the best food, and they want that to include the best quality, selection and quantity.  However, they want all of this produced on small (aka non-corporate) farms.  That unrealistic dream isn`t remotely possible because of the simple fact that the few remaining farmers would have the land, herd size or profit margins to feed themselves let alone the hundreds of non-food producing consumers who would be relying on them for subsistence neither. We all too easily forget that when we can’t feed ourselves, nothing else matters, because we will be dead in four or five days.  Having said that if there is a will to change there are now continuous digital communities that span the food chain and connect its many contributors. The potential is there to work together to help coordinate our food systems to meet the needs of the world`s hungry people.

“Without Water We Can’t Survive”

Perhaps the most threatening issue is the competition for dwindling sources of fresh water which are the key to providing for skyrocketing food, industry and living needs. Today, 70 percent of the global water withdrawals go to agriculture and food production for a rising world population.

This means that this is another area where farmers are targets of criticism. From the dairy side, all dairies must protect water from bacterial contamination to produce that safe milk. Furthermore, access to bodies of water on the farm must be restricted from cattle access and never in danger of manure contamination. Uncultivated areas should be maintained between fields and waterways. Responsible dairies test water quality regularly to ensure its quality. Enforcing such rules is difficult, and it is imperative that all water users address problems of inefficient energy production and traditional crop irrigation methods while dealing with ways to address issues caused by exponential population growth. There are numerous water agencies, but there is no coordination on ways to manage this shared resource. All levels including governments, international water management organizations, the private sector and businesses need collaboration in finding solutions.

One writer, referring to the documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars, presents this chilling perspective.  “Wars of the future will be fought over water as they are over oil today. As the source human survival enters the global marketplace and political arena. Corporate giants, corporate investors and corrupt governments vie for control of our dwindling water supply, prompting protests, lawsuits and revolutions from citizens fighting for the right to survive. Past civilizations have collapsed from poor water management.  Can the human race survive?”

“There is No Fresh Air to Breathe”

As more of the population moves into city settings, livestock production becomes less familiar.  For some, the manure production is regarded as air pollution and not as a by-product of a necessary industry. Manure is valuable to fertilize soils that grow crops to feed dairy animals. Modern farmers are accepting the challenge of finding ways to collect, store and apply manure to land so that they can manage odours and GHG emissions. For example, bio digesters minimize odours and use emissions to make renewable energy: a double win! Managing manure is an important aspect of dairy farming. Whether it’s about saving electricity or recycling, we’re all becoming more aware of our carbon footprint and the importance of minimising it.

“Don’t Destroy the Environment”

Headlines would suggest that farmers are destroying the environment when, in actual fact, farmers were the original good stewards of land and water resources and should endeavor to be so today. These resources are, after all, how farmers make their living, so it makes sense to protect them. Analysis of complaints reveals that misleading perceptions are at the root of criticism. What the public perceives as an environmental problem often is not. It is rare that farm related benefits such as green spaces and wildlife habitat are acknowledged or counterbalanced with the fact that farms use far fewer resources than the average urban or suburban home. (Read more: Top 10 Misconceptions about Ag & Farmers)

“Give Me Land Lots of Land”

We drive our grandchildren crazy with road trips where we point out that the passing city skylines were fields as far as the eye could see when we were their age.  Even our farm was one of three on the horizon … Today there are six more houses here where green belt restrictions mean fewer sustainable farms and more suburbia encroaching all the time. In contrast, some places are seeing huge rises in the cost of land. The high prices not only keep younger farmers out, but also cause larger farms (that need expansion to remain sustainable) to move the entire dairy operation. It’s a catch 22 situation.  “Don’t use more land but also don’t use technology.” In many of these areas that are challenging the future for all of us, part of the answer could be provided by technology. Improved technology — fertilizers, pesticides, improved irrigation, new storage or processing productions, improved livestock genetics – can transform the productive potential of land and livestock. But, before that can be realized, those from all sides of the issue have to agree on the goal and the ways to achieve it.

“You’re wrong.  I’m right.”

With the growing metropolitan areas and consumer separation from food production, both sides are lighting the fuse that could blow food production to smithereens. Headlines grab our attention as accusations fly back and forth. Like fights between children, our immature wrangling could have fatal outcomes – for agriculture, for consumers — for the future.

“Animals Have Rights”

It has to start with accountability. There is nothing wrong with being accountable for the way we treat animals … and for the way we treat each other.  Everyone needs to accept responsibility for treatment of animals … and for treatment of humans as well.  Nothing is gained from smear campaigns or vicious attacks.  Rather than assumptions of wrongdoing there has to be a commitment to improvement. (For a balanced viewpoint on the relationship between animals and humans check this link)

“Who Will Produce the Food?”

The average age of North American dairy farmers is near 60. Every active dairy farmer has concerns about where the next generation of farmers will come from.  Not everyone starting out is prepared for the financial roller coaster, the 24-7 working hours and, topping it all off, the poor public image that are part and parcel of dairy farming today.  However, there is a silver lining.  A recent Fox news feature reported that Ag degrees are the hot ticket for job growth. They quoted data from the Food and Agriculture Education Information System that says enrollment in U.S. college and university agriculture programs are up 21 percent since 2006. The data show more than 146,000 undergraduates in Ag programs. (Read more: Common Misconceptions in Food and Agriculture).  Positive steps are being taking, such as one coming out of Michigan. On April 30, the USDA awarded MSU $3.9 million to help Michigan farmers adapt to changing climate, tackle food safety issues, and help small- and medium-sized farms better compete in the marketplace. (Read more: USDA issues grants to MSU for food security, production).

“Adapt Your Strategic Plan”

Without a doubt, your hard work created the success you have had in the dairy industry.  Successful cattle sales.  Show ring winners. Best crop grower in your heat zone.  You have built your dairy business on what you do best.  Are those same skills going to keep and sustain you in the future?  Are the trophies on the mantle going to take your herd where it needs to go? Is there a lineup at your barn door for the genetics you’re selling today? You had a winning strategy up to now, and it worked.  But now it is being threatened by one or all of the preceding issues mentioned in this article.  The single minded focus that got you here could be your biggest problem in going forward.

“We Can’t Afford to have More Questions than Answers”

Of course, all of these issues are real threats. It would be great if the sources could be instantly cured. However, the cures will take time and will not be easy.  Having said that, we can all begin to eliminate our own contributions to the problem. Prevention trumps treatment any day. Any step you take can be one small, but mighty contribution to defusing the global time bomb and finding new and better solutions for the social, economic and environmental impacts of agriculture and, in our case, dairying.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

When it comes right down to it, a future with sustainable, profitable food production isn’t a place we are going to … it’s a place we are creating!  The following graphic should give us the impetus to start the process with our own practices.

wasted food



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