Last month’s TotalDairy Seminar 2019 in Stratford-upon-Avon was the best attended in the series to date, with over 450 dairy farmers, herd health advisers and dairy trade representatives present. The event is organised by the Evidence Group and the Model Nutrition consultancy.

As well as technical presentations and workshop from a range of international speakers, the seminar theme, 2020 Dairying: Challenges and opportunities, covered consumer concerns over the way milk is produced and its impact on the environment.

Cees Jan Hollander, global farming practices manager at multinational dairy foods manufacturer Danone, said the clear challenge facing the dairy sector is a decline in milk and dairy product consumption. He drew attention to a growing disconnect between what consumers want and the products that dairy processors supply. Danone’s research has shown that more than a quarter of consumers have stopped buying dairy for health and ethical reasons.

As a result, the company is engaging with welfare organisations such as Compassion in World Farming to create farm welfare plans that addressing consumers’ ethical concerns. For example, Danone milk suppliers are forbidden from using cloned semen, dehorning mature cows and tail docking their cattle. There are also protocols to ensure they only feed wholesome feeds and forages – for example, mouldy feeds are prohibited.

Society needs ruminants to converting low-quality biomass into useful food products, he continued. Dairy processors such as Danone have a vested interest in keeping dairy farmers in business. This would be best achieved through a cost of production payment model, rather than the current one based on volatile world market prices. Linking demand to supply in this way would be much more efficient for all involved in the dairy supply chain, and less stressful for milk producers.

Will Tulley of the Evidence Group said concern over dairy emissions and contributions to climate change can be addressed through 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.

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

Professor Marina von Keyserlingk, chair of animal welfare at the University of British Columbia in Canada spoke on management practices to improve dairy cow welfare.

Her work at British Columbia has 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 stated, findings that have been backed up by research at the SRUC.

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

Calf separation is going to become more of an issue in future, she continued. While there are good dairy husbandry reasons for individual calf rearing, such as a reduction in pathogen transfer, less competition for milk replacer and feeds, and easier monitoring, consumers don’t like the idea of such separation. The media is making this an issue, and already retailers are responding to this pressure – Tesco has prohibited the use of individual calf housing on farms using its milk contracts.

Activists will keep pressing through social and mainstream media channels, she concluded. Group housing is one way to help mitigate bad publicity – her research has shown higher milk consumption and socialisation through paired calf housing. Group systems have positive welfare benefits and can meet consumer concerns.

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