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Investigating the potential of dairy farming in the future

DairyNZ lead scientist Paul Edwards told farmers and rural professionals at the Northland Dairy Development Trust conference that future dairy farming systems will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

He stated that the industry must be globally competitive, locally responsible, and regionally resilient now and in the future.

The dairy industry must work within domestic constraints, also known as the social licence to operate, while also dealing with regional and year-to-year variations.

Because 95% of New Zealand’s milk is exported, the country must ensure that its products are more appealing than competitors’.

He cited the current Northland Agricultural Research Farm trial in Dargaville on alternative pastures and low emissions as an example of the resilience effort.

NZ is already in a good position in terms of global competitiveness, but DairyNZ is tasked with determining where the NZ industry should be in a decade.

It is evaluating competitors, such as the efficiency of US mega-dairies, and milk alternatives to determine where it can be more competitive. The goal is not to replicate systems, but to improve the pasture-based farm systems in New Zealand.

DairyNZ researchers investigated mega-dairies and tested the concept against various scenarios:

• Business as we expect it to be, with existing trends continuing.

• Consumers’ awareness of product attributes such as footprint or welfare grows.

• The world may become more chaotic and isolated.

• Governments may impose more regulations, and society may impose more standards, and

• Agriculture could see a significant increase in productivity.

“We then look for common themes across the scenarios to see what is likely to be important for future dairy systems,” Edwards explained.

Labor, farm costs, footprint, animal care, and system transparency, which is about “demonstrating we are meeting consumer and regulatory expectations and providing product provenance,” were common themes.

Because of the limitations on increasing herd size and the difficulties in employing rural labour, labour is already a hot topic.

According to Edwards, milking is an important part of farm labour, and there have been some notable shifts in the use of once-a-day (OAD) and flexible milking strategies over the last decade, which have already been well documented.

Twice-a-day milking has dropped from 65% of farms to less than 40%, and 60% of farms now use full-season once-a-day, part-season OAD, or part-season flexible milking.

According to Edwards, Northland herds were only 27% full-season twice-a-day in 2021-22, with 30% full-season OAD, compared to 9% nationally.

Monitoring production for four seasons before and five seasons after switching to OAD milking on farms where seasonal production is less than 250kg/cow or 251-300kg reveals little change or even a slight improvement in production.

With a provincial average of 320kg in Northland, the preference for once-a-day milking is logical.

“It’s possible that the time saved will be used to better manage the farm,” he said.

While milking frequency can help to reduce labour requirements, on-farm demand during calving and mating still creates labour peaks.

Late last year, DairyNZ held a workshop for rural professionals and farmers, and it was determined that flattening labour demand throughout the year and within each day would be beneficial.

This could be accomplished by considering changes such as extended lactations and batch robotic milking.

Reduced calvings and matings due to extended lactation would undoubtedly save time, money, burnout, fatigue, and bobby calves. It may also improve animal welfare by improving reproductive performance and extending life.

A 24-month calving interval with half of the herd calving every year corresponds best to feed demand and reduces winter weather risks to cows.

“The modelling suggests that a Dargaville-type pasture curve may be more profitable,” Edwards said, but there are many assumptions and limited data.

DairyNZ is therefore establishing a farmlet-scale pilot at Scott Farm beginning in the 2023-24 season to investigate what cows can produce in their second year of lactation, as well as the relationship between feed supply and demand.

Batch robotic milking refers to group milking (similar to conventional milking) rather than voluntary milking, with milkings spread out over a 24-hour period.

“Current robotic technology on the market cannot directly replace a milker, which means a robot would be needed at every milking point, for example a 50-bail rotary would have 50 robots.

“With the obvious capital expenditure required for this, a system redesign is required,” Edwards explained.

Combining robotic milking with virtual herding technology and dividing the herd into batches of 100 cows is one example of a redesign that drastically reduces the number of robots required.

Production costs are linked to labour requirements, and DairyNZ has used an inflation-adjusted average milk price of $6.80 over the last decade to estimate where production costs may need to be in 2030.

This is calculated by converting historic milk price values to what they would be in today’s terms using the consumer price index, which accounts for inflation.

Assuming a 30% gross margin, the required operating expenses would be $4.76, which is 10% less than the actual farm expenses figure for 2019-20, which is $5.32.

“The technological gains … would add extra costs and it is part of our thinking to evaluate those costs and benefits to see if they stay within the required farm working expenses and generate the required margin.

“On the plus side, halving the number of matings and calvings would lower costs; however, the farmlet pilot will help quantify how this compares to changes in production.”

According to him, the rich data capture required for system transparency should be complementary to the goals of automation and system simplification.

“Another example of how data integration can provide management insights is heat stress.

“We can take a weather forecast and turn it into an indicator of heat stress, combine with grazing records and shelter knowledge, and present options for cow management.

“Then, following the event, we use data on what happened – actual weather data as well as animal behaviour captured on their smart halters – to review and refine management.”

Edwards stated that his Future Farming Systems project was evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and that it largely projected existing dairy farming trends.

“It is also critical that we re-examine old ideas through a new lens or purpose as operating contexts change.”

“In conclusion, this is an opportunity to lead change rather than be forced into it.”

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