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A grand challenge for dairy – it’s not rocket science!

Mark Boggess for Progressive Forage Published on 28 September 2017

I recently read a series of articles that focused on dairy production in 2066. These articles were well-informed and particularly interesting because I have been pondering a related question for several months.

In ARS (Agricultural Research Service), we are focusing more and more on industry-based “grand challenges” as an opportunity to target complex problems for agriculture, so any informed perspective on the future of the dairy industry is particularly interesting to me.

a grand challenge for dairy

So what is a grand challenge for the dairy forage industry? At the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center (USDFRC), we have always been interested in learning more about forages for dairy cows and in improving forage and forage management for use in dairy production.

But what does that mean for dairy producers and for our future research programs? What research programs should be developed now to best address future challenges for the dairy and forage industries?

More specifically, and from a grand challenge perspective, maybe the question should be: How do we best describe and develop integrated dairy production systems for the future that both feed the world and ensure profitability for U.S. producers, while guaranteeing environmental sustainability and even providing ecosystem services? Tough questions. If this sounds like a grand challenge to you, then we would agree and that is exactly the grand challenge question we are now addressing.

With a look to the future at the USDFRC, our research starts and ends with soil health. No long-term dairy production system makes any sense if it does not ensure healthy, productive soils year on year. That sounds logical to most, but it’s currently a global challenge of epic proportion.

Soil loss and soil degradation is occurring at record (and completely unsustainable) levels globally. While we have made some progress in the U.S., we are giving some of those gains back due to increases in annual cropping, including more production of corn grain for ethanol and more corn silage for dairy.

The nutritional and economic advantages of corn silage for dairy systems are clear, but improving soil health, soil quality or soil security are not on the list. Consequently, we are working to develop and improve profitable and sustainable forage production systems for dairy that meet the nutritional needs of the cow with locally available resources.

One clear focus of this work is how to better manage corn silage in future dairy forage systems since current corn silage use makes so much sense both economically and for the cows. We are also seeking to improve the protein utilization of alfalfa, breeding more persistent and productive legumes and grasses for pasture-based dairy systems and more.

But what about the cow of the future? The national average annual lactation yield for Holstein cows in confined management systems is now about 28,000 pounds per year. This is a remarkable achievement, particularly compared to 1950 production levels, which were less than 9,000 pounds.

Clearly, remarkable progress has been made. That being said, there are currently many concerns with modern Holsteins including inbreeding, reduced genetic diversity, reproductive rates and general adaptability and fitness. But the current world record is over 78,000 pounds. So also as clearly, there is also much untapped opportunity.

We also have big cows. I have concerns about big cows and how mature size relates to overall production and efficiency, adaptability, animal well-being and future sustainability and economic viability.

Having thought about this a great deal, my initial question for producers might be: Is your future cow a 2,000-plus-pound cow producing 60,000-plus pounds of milk per year or an 1,100-pound cow producing 40,000 pounds of milk per year, but with much higher components? I am not sure of the answer to that question, but I can assure you there are strong opinions on both sides of that debate.

In either case, I think my question oversimplifies the challenge. There is a lot to learn yet about cow metabolic size and production efficiencies, especially how optimum metabolic size might be influenced by lactation yield, region, forage base and climate extremes – both cold and hot.

There is also no doubt that modern genomic technologies and a better understanding of all things “omic” (microbial and cow) will significantly influence dairy cow productivity and efficiency in the future.

Additionally, there will come a time in the future when dairymen in the U.S. will no longer be paid for pounds produced, but rather will be paid based on their resource use efficiency. This is already happening to a degree with quota systems and production limits in the European Union, but will be much more sophisticated in the future.

What do I mean by that?

We only have one planet, so in the larger picture, resources are limited – nitrogen, phosphorous, arable land, etc. Consequently, with 10 billion future souls to feed, (and with requirements for long-term environmental sustainability) agricultural systems as a whole will be required to balance resources consumed with resources produced. Both economic and regulatory drivers will ensure this balance.

Locally, a single dairy might be a net importer (most are today), but any long-term, viable agricultural system must balance resource use as a whole.

In other words, future dairies will be focused on optimizing the use of their resource base, in concert with their herd productivity, where efficiency is everything. Cows will need to be “performance” optimized and adapted to their local production system.

Assuming this scenario is accurate, how does that actually look on the farm?

  • Herd genetics will be completely tailored to farm location, forage and feed availability, housing system, health challenges, management system and product stream – fluid milk, cheese, other dairy, pharmaceuticals, etc. Dairy cow genetics will be developed and adapted for regional environments, then genomically edited to optimize gene expression and all things “omic” for a particular production system on the farm.

  • Rumen and gut microbes in the cow, microbial systems in forage production and preservation, and microbial systems in farm soils will be developed, customized and managed in concert with specific production systems to promote or optimize productivity, efficiency and sustainability.

  • Feeds and forages will be improved specifically to best meet the needs of the individual cow in a specific production system and to rely nearly exclusively on solar-provided energy and nutrients with almost no reliance on fossil fuels and commercial fertilizers.

  • To be sustainable, all dairy production systems will need to improve soil health and fertility at a minimum, and most likely will also provide additional benefit to society through diverse ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, improved water quality, drought mitigation and enhanced biological diversity.

Fundamentally, our challenge is to better understand the biological systems we manage on dairy farms including the complex relationships between microbial, plant and animal genetics (and other omics) and how these interact with the management and environmental factors inherent in a dairy production system.

Add socioeconomic factors such as animal care and well-being, the human health and nutrition benefits provided by dairy products, and ecosystem services, and you have a grand challenge indeed.

No, the future of dairy science for the dairy industry is not “rocket science.” It’s way more complicated than that.

At the USDFRC, we are up to the challenge and are excited to be working on this exact problem with our excellent collaborators and partners all across academia and the dairy and forage industries. Stay tuned.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

Mark Boggess
  • Mark Boggess

  • Director
  • U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center
  • Email Mark Boggess

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