What does a long-term sustainable dairy system look like?

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

What does a long-term sustainable dairy system look like?

Related tags Methane Feed efficiency covid-19 soils Grain

As pressure increases to move towards a more ecological or circular agriculture system, an expert outlines how dairy farming, particularly large-scale US operations, can become more sustainable.

In this episode of the Feed Matters podcast, David Hunt, cofounder and strategic director at computer vision and artificial intelligence company, Cainthus, outlines some of the directions that dairy farming needs to move in to bolster its sustainability profile. 

In a recent industry note: 5 Challenges for more Sustainable Dairy​, Hunt explores what are “genuine big picture issues that dairy needs to improve on”.​ It was partly triggered by the many misleading claims against the dairy industry that have been gaining traction in the past few years, he said. 

But can we focus on sustainability right now given the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on dairy producers globally?  

Covid-19 is affecting all industries, not just agriculture, not just dairy, and it is a new factor that we now must consider when we are discussing what a long-term sustainable dairy system looks like. But Covid-19 is a relatively short-term shock to the sector that is showing us that we need to re-evaluate how we organize certain [aspects]. 

“Economic, social and environmental sustainability – those are long term issues that we need to address, and to lose focus on where the industry needs to be in the long-term in response to a short-term shock is not a good idea. The pandemic has shown us that dairy has struggled to reorganize its supply chains in the face of an unexpected enforced change in consumer behaviour. Demand has not necessarily reduced.” ​ 

In a post-Covid-19 world, the sector will need to think about on-farm automation and remote access, he said. Indeed, the pandemic has created a lot of opportunities, stressed Hunt. 

“In short, I think it is a great time to be talking about dairy sustainability.”

Rethinking crop production 

Circular agriculture is the essence of a more sustainable dairy system, he believes. 

In terms of big picture solutions, Hunt reckon that a system based on the nutritional value or density of grain/food rather than the weight of it would have powerful downstream effects.  

In the dairy industry, some countries have quality bonuses for somatic cell count, fat, and protein content, he noted. This is the direction to travel in, and countries with quality bonuses are correlated with higher animal and farmer welfare standards. Technology could improve this system further by giving us individual animal feed intake nutrition data that can be correlated to the nutritional quality of their milk, according to Hunt. 

“In my opinion one of the biggest problems that we have in global agriculture today is how we produce crops, the current manner we use to produce crops, consisting of chemical inputs and monoculture, systematically degrades the soil every year.

“More nutritious feed gives more nutritious milk, and if farmers were rewarded for the quality of feed they produce rather than the weight of feed they produce then that would financially incentivize them to focus on improving the quality of their soils rather than just trying to ring everything out of the soils that they can. Healthy soils capture more carbon, etc.”​ 

He outlines how there are a lot of technology companies emerging that are looking at microbial solutions, etc to replace pesticides and to replace chemical fertilizers to create healthier soils. 

But the only way we can facilitate such a system is if we have the technology to analyse the nutritional quality of the grain as it comes out of the feed, pricing/trading mechanisms based on this and then sensors validating that the quality of the feed going to the animals and the quality of the milk that they produce match up.”

Genetic selection 

Among other topics, Hunt also explores the potential for genetic selection, beyond milk production factors, in making dairy farming more ecologically robust.

What if you started selecting cows on different factors, such as those that demonstrate stronger immune systems, or for factors such as feed efficiency and reduced methane output, he asks.

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