Why you should keep investing in sustainable dairy farming
The environmental impact of dairy farming in the U.S. already decreased significantly between 2007 and 2017:
- 19% less GHG emissions, equal to the CO2 removed by half a million acres of forest
- 21% less land used, equal to 100,000 NFL-sized football fields
- 30% less water used, equal of water consumption of 29 million U.S. households
Stricter legislation and consumer demands drive the need for more sustainable dairy farming practices. The costs of implementing sustainable dairy farming practices, inflation, increasing purchase prices for energy, water and feed increases the need for long-term strategies to cut costs and increase profits. To become a sustainable dairy farm - in the sense of eco-friendly operations and of lasting farm profitability - dairy farms need to stop with scale increase and first invest in a more efficient herd by improving dairy genetics.
Invest in a more efficient herd
To stay profitable, a sustainable dairy farm should invest in efficient genes. Or to be more specific; genetic progress towards breeding value Efficiency.
This decision protects farm profitability, because:
- It is maintainable. Current external factors threaten farm profitability. For example, higher feed costs can minimize any profit. New (regional) laws could restrict the hours of farm workers. You could run out of land to expand your barn and grow feed crops on.
- It is more environmentally friendly. Of course, it is true that economies of scale afford more efficient manure management. But investing in a more efficient herd keeps end consumers happy and DNR or DEC off your porch. Because manure would not increase, there is less water pollution and greenhouse gases. And less feed transport means less greenhouse gases.
- It allows you to stay in the competition and not go out of business. More efficient farms that do invest in efficiency will outcompete you as they can stay profitable in case of lower milk prices or restrictive milk base prices.
To make your herd more efficient, you could work to lengthen the profitable lifespan of a dairy cow, decrease involuntary culling, work on feed efficiency or work towards specific component ratios to make milk more valuable. Improving dairy genetics is a good way to do so.
“A lot of dairies just add cows. I would rather milk more profitable cows, than just have a bigger herd. I think adapting a new genetic strategy worked out well for us. We can be really profitable with 1.400 cows and I don’t really need to milk 3.000 cows to get the same profits.” With the pandemic and everything, we’ve been penalized for making pounds of milk. But we’ve been able to stay very profitable.”
Change dairy genetics, change farm efficiency
There are several genetic strategies that increase dairy efficiency and profits. Breeding for health, a longer productive lifespan of a dairy cow, fertility, milk production all help to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHG) in one way or another. All genetic strategies create long-lasting environmental wins directly or indirectly, as they produce more or better milk on less feed. Because of this increase in average milk production per day or in premium components, the herd can be smaller for the same milk revenue - or would not need to grow to increase it. ILVO studies in Belgium showed that if the culling rate of dairy cows goes down by 5% and average milk production per day goes up by 3 kg, methane emission per kg of milk produced decreases with 11.7%.
Focusing on higher feed efficiency makes dairy farming ‘greener’ in most ways. Like healthier cows (less culling), higher fertility (shorter dry period, more pregnancies) and higher milk production per cow, it will make the milking herd more efficient in producing milk. As a result, a smaller milking herd is needed for the same production or a herd of the same size will use less feed which saves money and transport fuel and takes up less crop land.
Even the milk component strategy will make the milking herd indirectly more efficient and decrease carbon footprint. The more the milk contains the components the processing factory is looking for, the less energy and water needs to be used in the industrial process, and the higher price will be paid for it. Whether those are macronutrients like fat for cheese or protein for sport supplements, or micronutrients such as A2 or kappa casein. A smaller herd producing better components produces equal profits than the larger herd producing more milk, because of the premium prices the components will yield. Whether the herd will produce more milk or milk of better quality, farm efficiency is increased.