Changes and innovation in the livestock industry - the example of dairy farming
In this IIL accident lecture Christopher Reynolds gave an overview of the recent evolution of the dairy industry, the economic and social drivers of change in the industry, and past and current innovations that are shaping the structure and future of the industry.
Modern dairy farming has undergone huge transformation since the food shortages of World War 2 that has been driven by government and industry led research and innovation. A key factor has been the genetic improvements in dairy cattle that have been accelerated by the use of artificial insemination and more recently through the use of DNA-based genetic evaluation and embryo transfer technologies. Similarly, the development of milking and feed management technology has dramatically reduced on-farm labour requirements, although a shortage of skilled labour continues to be a risk for dairy farmers. These innovations have led to sustained annual increases in milk yield per cow that have accompanied dramatic decreases in the total number of dairy cows, decreases in the number of dairy farms, and a general increase in farm size. Recent developments in robotic milking and wearable sensors for reproductive management and cow monitoring are two examples of innovations now increasingly used in the industry.
Milk is a perishable product containing over 85% water and post-harvest processing to manage product supply and demand is a particular challenge for the dairy industry. In this regard the global market for lower moisture (thus concentrated) co-products with longer shelf-lives such as butter, cheese, and milk powders are a major determinant of farm gate milk price and the margin for dairy products. In addition to these and other economic pressures, consumer concerns over healthy foods, provenance, animal welfare, and the carbon footprint of their foods are driving change in the industry through milk contracts and milk pool specific regulations. In this regard environmental impact has emerged as a major concern for the industry, as well as the impact of climate change through heat and drought events and the spread of disease.
In other countries the dairy industry has become polarized with a relatively small number of very large farms supplying 60% or more of 'commodity' milk extremely efficiently and profitably, with smaller, 'low input' farms providing more local markets with specific branded products. It remains to be seen whether the industry in the UK will follow a similar path in which commodity milk production adopts a model more akin to modern pork and poultry production.
By the end of this lecture members would have gained an insight into:
- How technology and innovation is shaping dairy farming and, in particular, robotic and genetic technologies
- Economic and social pressures facing the dairy industry
- Risks for dairy farmers, including those associated with climate change
Graham Plaister MBIAC, Principal Livestock & Equine Specialist, Sedgwick International UK.
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