Beyond Boutflour – the 20,000 litre cow

This article was written after a presentation by Dr Toby Mottram who gave a presentation on this subject as a part of an Agriculture and Technology seminar held by the Tropical Agriculture Association (TAA) in March 2014 at Cannington College, Somerset.

 

Professor Robert Boutflour is considered to be one of the pioneers of modern grassland and livestock productivity.  A Professor at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester from 1931-1958, his use of scientific technology applied to animal nutrition and feed compounds revolutionalised milk yields within the dairy sector. During the 1950s, he raised the milk yield of the Sterling herd at the college to 13,500L per cow, per year– a figure that has not been regularly bettered since. (*ecow.co.uk)

In our current hi-tech world, it seems extraordinary that the yields have remained static for 60 years.

Today we have AI (artificial insemination), better quality sileage and hay, bulk tanks, cold chain management, maize and computers which resolve all problems.  With new technology come new challenges however.  Today, the issues are over water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, nitrates leaching into water, disease and animal welfare.

There are huge benefits to increasing the efficiency of cow production.  Less cows would be required – one million fewer cows reduced the carbon equivilant of 1 billion tons.  Fewer cows mean that higher attention can be given to the welfare of individual animals.  Lower labour costs are an inevitable result of less livestock to maintain.

The three areas of research highlighted by Dr Mottram in his quest for the 20,000 Litre cow were:

  1. Management

The intensive monitoring of the welfare of the cows will be vital to increasing the efficiency of a herd. Happy cows make more milk – that is generally accepted. Using bolus technology (*www.ecow.co.uk) the cow can be closely monitored to see what and when they are eating and drinking.  Cows seem to thrive on a strict routine.  Using a bolus with a temperature sensor, drinking can be monitored (the temperature dips when they drink). A Ph measuring bolus tracks the food consumption.

 

  1. Housing

Animal welfare is increasingly becoming an issue with consumers.  Supermarket supply chains are having to assess the conditions in which the meat that they sell is reared.  This is a good thing.  Farmers are vital in the food supply chain.

30% of cows are lame in a herd at any one time.   Collars are used on cows primarily to measure their oestrogen levels but they can be adapted to measure steps and calculate mobility.

Housing is a large area of management. Cows are bad for fields because they cause soil compaction. Research is indicating that cows health improves when their family groups are maintained.  They need comfortable beds and plenty of ventilation and light in winter. Cows don’t like concrete as a surface – it makes them nervous and lame.

Regarding excrement, storing urine and dung separately reduces the emissions.

  1. Sileage

Sileage is a great way of harvesting forage.  It does have some major drawbacks though. There can be  40% losses due to mould and rot.  Sileage analysis techniques are pretty poor and as such is difficult to quantify the nutritional contents and dry matter. There is definitely room for a rethink in this area.

The future holds a lot of promise for a 20,000 litre cow.

With consumer awareness and pressure for higher animal welfare standards, it is not inconceivable that the government may legislate to get cows outside.  However, the evidence is that when cows are reared indoors, the productivity increases and better welfare standards are maintained.  It is also easier to control the animals diet indoors. Robots could be used to do the dirty work of cleaning and mould removing inside.  Robot milkers have some success but they seem to work best on family farm herds of 120 cows or so. Robot milking machines don’t work outside as cows only get up to eat. Drinking water also needs to be very easily accessed or the cows don’t bother.

Larger dairy projects use contract labour of mainly Eastern Europeans.  Without the Latvian and Polish workers, there would be no dairy industry in the UK today.

More use of sensors which link directly to vets would speed up reporting any health issues.  Also buyers can use this information to check on standards and quality.

In 1975 there were 38,000 dairy farmers.  In 2013, there were 10,000 dairy farmers and half the number of cows.  If the efficiency can be increased to 20,000 litres, per cow, per year, the benefits will be great for the farmers, animals and the consumer.

Written By: Fiona Johnson

March 2014