Future Farming Systems in dairying will be evolutionary, not revolutionary, DairyNZ lead scientist Paul Edwards told farmers and rural professionals at the Northland Dairy Development Trust conference.
He said the industry now and in the future needs to be globally competitive, locally responsible and regionally resilient.
The dairy industry must operate within domestic constraints, often called the social licence to operate, and cope with regional and year-to-year variations.
Because about 95% of the country’s milk is exported, New Zealand must ensure that its products are more attractive than those of competitors.
The current Northland Agricultural Research Farm trial at Dargaville on alternative pastures and low emissions is a good example of the resilience effort, he said.
With regard to global competitiveness, NZ is already in a good position but DairyNZ is tasked with considering where the NZ industry might need to be in a decade.
It is assessing competitors, like the efficiency of United States mega-dairies, and milk alternatives to identify where it can be more competitive. The aim is not to replicate systems but to design NZ’s pasture-based farm systems to achieve better outcomes.
Looking into mega-dairies, DairyNZ researchers tested the idea against different scenarios:
• Business as we expect it to be, a continuation of existing trends.
• Consumers become highly attuned to product attributes, such as footprint or welfare.
• The world may become increasingly chaotic and insular.
• Governments may impose more regulations and there may be more society-imposed standards, and
• Agriculture may take a significant leap in productivity.
“We then identify common themes across the scenarios to determine what is likely to be important for future dairy systems,” Edwards said.
Common themes were labour, farm costs, footprint, animal care and system transparency, which is about “demonstrating we are meeting consumer and regulatory expectations and providing product provenance”.
Labour is already topical because of limits on increasing the herd size and the difficulties of employing rural labour.
Edwards said milking is a big part of farm labour and that has shown some notable shifts in the use of once-a-day (OAD) and flexible milking strategies over the past decade, already well documented.
Twice-a-day milking for the whole season has fallen from 65% of farms to less than 40% now and 60% of farms are using either full-season once-a-day, part-season OAD or part-season flexible milking.
Edwards pointed out that Northland herds were only 27% full-season twice-a-day in 2021-22, along with 30% full-season OAD, compared with 9% in the country as a whole.
On farms where seasonal production is below 250kg/cow or 251-300kg, monitoring of production for four seasons before changing to OAD milking and for five seasons after changeover, shows little change in production or even a slight improvement.
Therefore, with the Northland provincial average of 320kg, the preference for once-a-day milking is logical.
“It may be that the time freed up is available to manage the farm better,” he said.
Milking frequency may help to reduce the labour requirement but on-farm demand during calving and mating still creates peaks for labour.
DairyNZ held a workshop of rural professionals and farmers late last year where it was identified that flattening labour demand through the year and within each day would be advantageous.
This could be achieved by, for example, looking at changes such as extended lactations and batch robotic milking.
Reduced calvings and matings from extended lactation certainly would save time, costs, burnout, fatigue and bobby calves. It may also enhance animal welfare with improved reproductive performance and longer lives.
A 24-month calving interval with half the herd calving every year fits best with the feed demand and reduces winter weather risks to cows.
“The modelling suggests it may be more profitable for a Dargaville-type pasture curve,” Edwards said, but there are many assumptions and limited data.
Therefore, DairyNZ is setting up a farmlet-scale pilot at Scott Farm starting in the 2023-24 season to investigate what cows can produce in their second year of lactation and, among other things, the relationship between feed supply and demand.
Batch robotic milking means milking as a group (like conventional milking) rather than voluntary milking, with milkings distributed 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 redesign of the system is required,” Edwards said.
One redesign example is combining robotic milking with virtual herding technology and dividing the herd into batches of 100 cows, drastically reducing the number of robots required.
Costs of production go hand in hand with labour requirements, and DairyNZ has used an inflation-adjusted average milk price over the past decade of $6.80 to estimate where cost of production may need be in 2030.
This is calculated using the consumer price index to convert historic milk price values to what they would be in today’s terms, that is, to account for inflation.
Assuming that farmers will need 30% gross margin, the required operating expenses would be $4.76, some 10% below the actual farm expenses figure in 2019-20 of $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 reduce costs, though the farmlet pilot will help quantify how this compares to changes in production.”
Rich data capture required for the system transparency outcome should be complementary to automation and system simplification goals, he said.
“Integration of data sources can also offer management insights – take heat stress as an example.
“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 after the event we use data on what happened – the actual weather data plus animal behaviour captured on their smart halters to review and refine management.”
Edwards said his Future Farming Systems project was evolutionary, not revolutionary, and largely projected existing trends in dairy farming.
“It’s also important we re-examine old ideas with a new lens or purpose given operating contexts change.”
“In summary, this is an opportunity to lead change and not be forced into it.”