As we move out of a year of instability for the dairy sector, experts are predicting greater optimism for 2020; but it goes without saying that the sector will continue to face challenges and opportunities, particularly when it comes to environmental issues. Sarah Kidby looks ahead at the coming year and explores how housing adaptions can boost productivity.
AHDB’s head of market specialists for dairy and livestock, Chris Gooderham, has described 2020 as ‘the start of a new era for the dairy industry’ – which follows last year’s uncertainties over Brexit, tightening margins for liquid milk producers and growing pressure from vegan and environmental movements.
Looking ahead, AHDB says it is already known that some farmers will lose their liquid milk contracts this year, but further changes can be expected as the industry adjusts to lower cream returns and changes in domestic consumption. Current wholesale markets are fairly stable and the milk market value indicator suggests there is no downward pressure from the markets on milk prices through to March. As to Brexit, we are on course to leave the EU on 31 January at the time of writing, but uncertainty remains over what a future trade deal will look like.
AHDB also predicts that extreme weather events will become more frequent and continue to impact production, while environmental concerns will increasingly drive consumers in their food choices. Kite Consulting recently published a white paper that cites environmental issues as the biggest challenge facing dairy producers, adding that new ways of farming, embracing technology and taking on workers with the right skills, or training existing workers, are key to achieving targets. The company says the industry can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, through increasing milk yield per cow; better feed conversion efficiency, health and fertility; and improved use of nitrogen.
Housing and productivity
As the sector faces growing financial and environmental challenges, making improvements to livestock buildings and cow management can bring significant financial, health and productivity benefits. Farm vet Owen Atkinson describes housing as the “fundamental plank” of dairy health and says the average sick cow requires the same amount of time and labour as 40 healthy cows. Farmers can achieve savings of as much as £468 per cow per year in Holstein herds upgraded to good facilities, factoring in improved milk yields and lower rates of mastitis, lameness and forced culling.
“Getting the housing right for cattle is so important for both health and production,” Owen explains. “One of the key elements is sufficient space, whether that be feeding space, sufficient loafing areas, decent passage widths or adequate bedded areas. Space is not necessarily cheap to provide, but conversely it is very expensive when it is not sufficient because there will be more health problems, whether that be in greater levels of lameness, mastitis and metabolic diseases, or reduced fertility.
“Over the lifetime of a building, providing sufficient space definitely pays dividends, not only in fewer health issues, but also higher production. Space provision governs the feeding and lying behaviour of cattle, as well as stress; this is how space affects feed conversion efficiency and overall productive performance.”
Cow flow is known to affect lameness, nutrition, fertility and farm efficiency, he adds, so it is important to make sure there are no dead ends, tight corners or congestion points and there should be extra width in feeding areas and around milking robots where congestion is likely to be high. Where space is limited and it is not possible to build a new shed, he recommends removing cows, removing cubicles or creating outdoor loafing and feeding areas.
Ventilation and slurry are also key, with urine, manure and moisture continually entering the immediate environment of housed animals, increasing the risk of digital dermatitis, claw horn diseases and mastitis. Slatted floors and underground slurry storage are a good solution but come with a high initial capital outlay, Owen adds. Other options include slatted slurry channels running the length of passages.
Kite Consulting also says improved nitrogen fertilisers, slurry and manure management will play an important role in hitting the 30 per cent reduction in GHG emissions.