Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Fewer cows produce more milk

Neal Wallace
An emerging approach to dairying might let farmers obey environment rules while maintaining or growing milk production.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The farm system change project has found farmers can run fewer but higher-performing cows while maintaining or growing milk supply.

It is done by accurately managing costs, feed quality and quantity to maintain cow condition, which results in a more efficient farm and conversion of feed by cows.

Farm system change has been developed over many years by consultant Bryan McKay of Dairy Production Systems who says he has compiled up to six years of data from 18 farms to show it is workable and profitable.

“It’s about being more efficient.”

McKay says running fewer, more productive cows means feed use is higher and lowers the farm’s environmental footprint, helping it meet climate change and freshwater requirements.

The farms are also profitable. 

In the low milk payout of 2015-16 McKay’s clients averaged profits of more than $2000 a hectare compared to average Dairy Base farms, which recorded a loss.

“These farmers produce about 30% more milksolids per cow than conventional systems. 

“The cows lactate longer, are in better condition, enjoy better health and last longer.

“These guys have worked out you can manage and feed cows to a much higher level than previously considered.”

The key is to treat cows as a central processing unit and that means ensuring they operate efficiently and are fuelled with correct volume of high-quality feed.

But that does not mean buying in vast quantities of supplements.

McKay says the clients are all self-reliant in forage but bought complements equivalent to between 5% and 20% of a cow’s annual diet to ensure a balanced ration.

Such purchases were fed across the herd and results monitored to ensure it was economically worthwhile.

“The cost of production is no higher than conventional farms, in some cases it is lower, but productivity is 50% higher,” McKay said.

His clients follow a variety of farming systems across all regions, from all-grass to hybrid housing.

Whatever the system, they closely monitor costs and production to ensure they are viable.

Dunedin economist Ray Macleod worked with McKay on the project and says the farms averaged 206 cows per 100,000kg MS produced compared to the NZ average of 269 cows.

“They do that through rumen efficiency, through improved cow efficiency and performance.”

Macleod says benefits are not only from higher production and subsequently higher income but also a lower replacement rate of less than 20%.

They are satisfied the production benefits are proven but there are indications a cow’s higher performance means less nitrates leached and methane produced because of greater efficiency transforming feed into milk.

They have assessed nitrogen leaching using Overseer on farms as low as 12kg a hectare a year.

That requires more research but McKay says Overseer struggles to cope with the farms in the farm system change project.

Macleod agrees more work is needed to quantify what that means for greenhouse gas and nutrient emissions but the indications are promising.

“If you are improving the rumen efficiency and cow performance that means a higher percentage of feed is converted to milk and less to urine and manure.

“The cow is more efficient overall so commensurately there will be less nitrogen and other discharges.

“Our initial study of results from farms indicates we may have reached peak cow numbers but that does not mean peak milk.”

The average NZ cow produces 370kg MS but farm change system clients achieved more than 495kg MS a cow through more efficient management and breeding higher-performing and more efficient cows.

“I don’t think we’re even close to peak milk.”

They have worked with the Ministry for Primary Industries to develop and prove farm system change but that ended when the ministry’s focus moved to dealing with Mycoplasma bovis.

McKay says the system has been developed over more than 20 years but dismissed by DairyNZ and other industry bodies.

Given the challenges facing the sector, McKay says it is a viable alternative to simply reducing the national herd.

It does require further research into cow emissions and exactly what farmers following the farm system change approach do differently from conventional farmers and to determine the productivity and profitability drivers.

The Government has acknowledged farmers will need to change to adapt to its climate change and freshwater quality polices and has budgeted $229 million to help them.

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