TotalDairy Seminar 2019Overview

The 2019 TotalDairy Seminar, held on 19th-20th June, was the best attended yet. Over 450 dairy farmers, herd health advisers and dairy trade representatives travelled to Stratford-upon-Avon to hear a range of presentations and workshops from a range of international dairy experts.

Under the theme 2020 Dairying: Challenges and opportunities, speakers addressed a variety of topics from consumer demand for dairy foods and their perception of the industry, to staff management and technical aspects of cow health and nutrition. A consensus emerged that while there are consumer concerns over the way milk is produced and its impact on the environment, these fears can be allayed by clearer communications with consumers and openness to adapting existing management practices.

The scene was set with an opening presentation from Cees Jan Hollander, the global farming practices manager at multinational dairy foods manufacturer Danone.

He has a unique perspective on the dairy market – while Danone generates 53% of its €25 billion annual turnover from dairy products, this figure includes revenues from its Alpro branded range of milk and dairy alternatives based on soya, oatmeal and almonds among other plant proteins.

The clear challenge facing the dairy sector is a decline in milk and dairy product consumption, Mr Jan Hollander advised. There is a growing disconnect between what consumers want and the products that dairy processors supply. Danone market research has shown that over a quarter of consumers have stopped buying dairy for health and ethical reasons.

The company is responding to this by engaging with welfare organisations such as Compassion in World Farming to draw up farm welfare plans that are transparent in addressing consumers’ ethical concerns. For example, Danone milk suppliers are forbidden from using cloned semen, dehorning mature cows and tail docking the cattle on their farms. Nor are they allowed to feed poor quality forages – those that are obviously mouldy or unwholesome.

But Danone also recognises the opportunity in highlighting the essential role that ruminants play in converting low quality biomass that can’t be consumed by humans into useful food products. Society will continue to need ruminants, he argues, so dairy processors such as Danone have a vested interest in keeping dairy farmers in business.

But the present supply-led marketing system means milk producers are faced with volatile returns, which is extremely stressful for them at the human level – Danone believes dairy farmers would be better supported through a cost of production-linked payment model, not the current one based on volatile world market prices. Linking demand to supply would be much more efficient for all involved in the dairy supply chain.

Danone is also committed to sustainability, particularly in developing and promoting regenerative agricultural systems that can help mitigate the effects of climate change. The company aims to be carbon neutral by 2050 – it is working with Wageningen University to achieve this, but progress will be incremental over time – the partners are not expecting a giant leap.

Will Tulley of the Evidence Group of veterinarians observed that the “sustainable intensification” needed to feed a growing world population against a background of climate change means that dairy farmers and their advisers will be expected to produce more from less, but with no increase in reward.

There is scope to reduce the current high levels of food wastage – about 30% of the global volume grown and produced is wasted, he observed.

In the UK, there is actually a case for increased dairy consumption – guidelines recommend that a balanced diet should contain 443g/day of dairy products, while the average person consumes just 71g/day. In addition, Brexit should be beneficial for UK dairying: as a net importer of dairy products, there is room to increase output, subject to land and water constraints. But Mr Tulley echoed the previous speaker in calling for a demand - not supply led - market model to lift both dairy chain efficiency and producer returns.

Concern over dairy emissions and contributions to climate change can be addressed industry sustainability initiatives and the better use of resources – for example increasing cow longevity in the herd; reducing emissions through better feed utilisation; and cutting groundwater pollution from excess fertiliser nutrients. The ongoing sector consolidation into fewer, but larger dairy and beef production units will release land for other carbon reduction and mitigation work – as long as there is enough for forage production and slurry disposal.

A more sustainable approach must be developed in line with consumer acceptability, particularly when it comes to feedstuff and medicines, he warned.

Cows have the potential to produce 17,000 kilos of milk per year, although 12,000kg is average and some only produce 8,000kg, so lifting the average yield will save resources, he concluded. Technology will have an important role here – using data to predict illness and allow earlier treatment will help reduce the incidence of chronic conditions that reduce productivity.

Professor Marina von Keyserlingk, chair of animal welfare at the University of British Columbia in Canada, opened her contributions to TotalDairy by exploring how management practices can improve dairy cow welfare. She also echoed Mr Jan Hollander’s observation of a disconnect between what dairy consumers want and are offered.

Cow welfare is clearly a consumer concern, she argued, illustrating her case with three issues – metritis, lameness and outdoor access.

On the latter, work at British Columbia had shown that cows prefer TMR rations to pasture, but that they also prefer being outside at night. They would rather be in a cool barn with ad lib TMR than outside in the heat of the day, she noted, findings that have been backed up by research at the SRUC. But Prof von Keyserlingk was critical of most cubicle housing systems, which she said benefit herd management, rather than the cow.

The general public view links good dairying practice to cows being outside at pasture, she concluded. There is an industry communications challenge to replace this view with one based on the cow’s needs and preference.

In a separate session, Prof von Keyserlingk covered calf rearing and welfare. There are good dairy husbandry reasons for individual calf rearing, including a reduction in pathogen transfer, competition for milk replacer and feeds, and easier monitoring, she noted.

But consumers don’t like the idea of such separation, and media highlighting is making it an issue. Already retailers are responding to this pressure - Tesco has prohibited use of individual calf housing on farms using its milk contracts.

But there are positives in group housing calves, she continued. Her research has shown that group housed calves have better social skills and cognition; increased solid food intakes and higher growth rates. Pair housed calves were found to eat more concentrate pre-weaning and have less of a growth check over weaning. Prof von Keyserlingk argued that the health status of individually housed animals is not due to the system itself, but rather management attention to detail in keeping feeding equipment and housing clean.

Calf separation is going to become more of an issue in future, she concluded – activists will keep pressing through social and mainstream media channels. Group housing is one way to help mitigate bad publicity – higher milk consumption and socialisation through group systems points to positive welfare benefits.

By any yardstick, the UK dairy industry is a success, advised Susie Stannard of AHDB Consumer Insights. Dairy products can be found in 98% of the UK’s 27 million households and generate £10.5 billion in annual retail sales. Some 64% of all “food occasions” involve dairy products with the average person consuming dairy products at least twice daily.

But, she warned, negative perceptions around the dairy category are rising and sales falling. Worryingly, the decline is fastest in the 18-24 year old “millennial” generation. Figures show that liquid milk and butter sales are falling faster than cheese sales – AHDB research found that younger consumers like eating cheese, while there are few non-dairy alternatives, as is the case with milks and spreads.

There is a dairy market contradiction – consumer surveys point to a growing awareness of animal welfare issues and a stated desire to pay more for higher welfare milk and dairy products, but this is not borne out by actual consumer behaviour in the store, where buyers go for low prices and value.

The conclusion is that consumers put little value on the dairy products in their diet. The industry needs to seek to add value where it can, seek to ensure trust and transparency and address practices that cause consumers concern, such as calf housing and access to grass. Ms Stannard called for a more strategic approach – working together with clear messaging and acting proactively in delivering it

In a joint interactive session with Ms Stannard, Nuffield scholar Amy Jackson reiterated this approach. She also mentioned the disconnect between consumers and how their food is produced, particularly when it comes to “intensive” farming – and what constitutes good cow management.

At the same time, the dairy industry needs to gain a better understanding of the public’s priorities, if it is to adapt to their concerns, she argued. But these concerns are often complex and are not always rational. For instance, consumers value ‘naturalness’ – grazing, straw usage and plenty of space. Grazing is seen as a positive practice by most consumers, but it is often tied into other aspects such as small farms and traditional practices.

An answer might be for the industry to challenge what grazing means to consumers in practice, turning the argument round to cow comfort and cow health, advised Ms Jackson. By working out what grazing stands for in the consumer mind, a perspective can be found that delivers grazing’s attributes by other means.

Dr Gerard Cramer of Canada’s University of Guelph presented on dairy cow lameness. He said the condition needs a teamwork approach to be solved effectively, involving the herd manager, veterinarian, nutritionist and hoof trimmer collaborating to reduce the problem rather than passing on blame.

There is actually very little research evidence as to what good hoof trimming should look like – trimming should aim to prevent sole ulcers, but many practitioners tend to remove too much horn, he noted.

But poor hoof trimming can result in a loss of 1-2kg potential milk loss per day, Dr Cramer continued, and yield can be affected by the disruption to a cow’s routine around the treatment – this should be minimised as far as possible. Footbaths are essential to reducing herd lames, but they should be sited where they are best for the cows, rather than herd managers.

Dr Greg Penner, associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, explored the effect of rumen pH on digestion. An optimum rumen pH allows consistent microbial activity which maximise nutrient uptake from forage and feed. However, if PH is loo low - below 5.7 – digestion slows and there can be an inflammation response, which in turn diverts sugars and energy from milk production. Rumen pH can also drop with the time of day and as the rumen empties, so frequent feeding is helpful here.

Dr Jim Reynolds of Western University, California, spoke on mastitis and cow welfare. He described the cow behaviours associated with pain from mastitis and ways to alleviate this, from analgesia to a calm, clean environment with plentiful feed (particularly hay) and water. Treatments to stop inflammation include NSAID medicines and the newer core antigen vaccines.

Attention to detail at all stages of the milking process, from collection of the cows to their return to housing/pasture can have an impact on mastitis and its treatment, Dr Reynolds advised. Early detection and treatment of mastitis will always benefit the cow’s welfare.

TotalDairy 2020 is scheduled for July 1st -2nd 2020 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon.