What will the future of dairy farming look like in 10 years? More consolidation, more regulations and more use of technology are a given.
“If the road we’re on is any indication, the next 15 to 20 years are going to be quite interesting as we look ahead,” said Chad Heiser, president of Lely North America, who was joined by executives from GEA and DeLaval to talk about the future of dairy farming and how technology and innovation will play a role during a panel discussion at World Dairy Expo.
Matt Daly, president of GEA North America, says it’s a given that dairy producers in the U.S. and Canada will face a more regulated environment the next 10 years, and that companies will have to meet their needs with new product development.
Things such as on-farm power generation will continue to grow, Daly said, adding that right now GEA is involved with nearly two-dozen manure digester projects across the country.
Along with that, producers will need to be more proactive in dealing with the public.
“The farmers themselves are just getting better at what they do, which means they have to be much, much more cognizant of the public that surrounds them and how they’re seen,” Daly says. “And so I think you’ll see a lot more openness and sharing information with the public. The public needs to know where their food comes from.”
Data is key
Fabian Bernal, head of sustainability at DeLaval, says on-farm data will be key to drive decisions on and off farms by better informing the people about how producers make decisions and how it affects their food.
Heiser added, “As we go forward in 10 years, the utilization of that data is going to be imperative. One, to make better decisions for the animal, I think we have to keep the animal front and center. This is a transparency opportunity for the industry to be very clear to consumers about what’s going on.
“But the other challenge, the demand for nutritional sources as the population grows, that’s a growing challenge of how to fill that, and producing things in a sustainable, data-minded way — whether we like it or not — we’ve got to run headlong into this part of the industry because this is where I think we’re going to be pushed in geopolitical situations, as well as in opportunities. We need to look at this as opportunities.”
On preserving natural resources, such as water, Heiser said the industry is just scratching the surface on what it can do, citing smart irrigation and animal waste reclamation projects as two examples.
Daly said that producers, particular young ones, are much more willing to learn about things such as precision feeding and how to do more with less.
“This is real science that has come a long way in our industry,” he said. “You don’t have to harvest as much; you don’t have to be out there cutting five or six times with some of the new digestibility and some of the forages that are out there. It’s amazing what you can do.”
But communicating that with the public is key.
Daly pointed to regenerative practices some dairy farms are already doing, such as recycling water that helps cool milk to flush manure out of barns.
“Regenerative agriculture is what every farm is doing, whether it’s seen that way is something that should be gotten out there more,” Daly said.
Bernal said this is where data can make a difference.
“With regenerative agriculture, I believe we have two predicaments. One will deal mostly with how we communicate our practices to consumers, but also what we can do on our farms to either improve or reduce the impact of certain things,” he said, adding that with better measurements and data, farms can lower the impacts of things that were once detrimental — and then talk to consumers with the data to back it up.
Encouraging small farms
Cellphones and laptops were once seen as luxury items for most people. But prices eventually came down, and the devices themselves became so advanced that cellphones have now become a common household item.
Heiser said he sees the same adoption curve for small farms putting in advanced technologies, such as robotic milkers, precision feeding and advanced manure application on fields. The costs to do these things will come down to the point that small farms will be just as able to do them as large dairies, he said.
Bernal said that reforming regulations could help drive more adoption of advanced technologies. He said current regulations, like the federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, have led to higher adoption costs — 20% higher for U.S. producers than producers in other countries — for similar technologies.
Daly said his company has already built closed wastewater treatment systems on farms in Europe and other countries that clean the wastewater and feed it back to the cows, not just discharge it back to a stream.
Regardless, though, Heiser said it is a matter of when, not if, dairy farms could be fully automated, a result of producers trying to solve labor and regulatory issues, and the technology just getting better.
“There are a lot of manually redundant tasks that happen right now with physical labor,” he said. “There are innovations available today, and I believe innovation is coming that can truly automate every one of those tasks inside of a dairy barn.”
“Immediate feedback to the user, to that employee, will generate enough information that these employees will be able to answer the call for action much faster, making the process much more efficient,” Bernal said.
“In other words, if an animal was to present a clinical case, the feedback will be immediate so the employee will make decisions much, much faster, rather than having to lose time and separating the animal and other things, the employee will be able to answer to those processes much, much faster, and feed back into the system so the farmer knows what to do in the future, either in terms of treatment, cull decisions.”