How Can We Make Dairy Sustainable? Part 2

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant who holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University and Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University. He recently published an article with suggestions on how we can make dairy sustainable. Part 1 addresses the challenge at hand. Here in part 2, Keith offers suggestions on solutions. 

Possible solutions

I am becoming increasingly confident that dairy composting barns can provide a key pathway to pastoral dairy sustainability. Although increasingly common overseas, I have so far only found one farm in New Zealand where the principles are understood and applied successfully. I think there are likely to be up to three more operating successfully, but I have yet to visit them. There is no great secret to it, but it is a different way of thinking. 

The key elements of dairy composting are a moderately high-pitched roof (at least 18 degrees), plus roof venting, at least 600 mm of suitable bedding material, appropriate stocking for the specific environment, and twice daily tilling. Water troughs should be outside the composting area but feed troughs should be inside.   The compost should last for 12 months in the shed and must stay warm and dry. Break the fundamental rules and it will not work.

The key benefits of a composting barn, apart from preventing nitrogen leaching, are better feed utilisation, less damage to pastures, less winter feed required, and considerably higher per head production. The sheds can also provide summer shade. The cows love this system.

With any new system there will be some challenges. Aspects of what Americans and Europeans do with their composting systems will need to be tweaked for New Zealand conditions and there will be variations within different New Zealand environments. So that is where we need an R&D program to monitor and customise the system for New Zealand conditions. Bedding materials and fine tuning of compost management are key ‘work-ons’.

Composting barns are not the only solution and free-stall barns also have their proponents, particularly in the South Island. But for our hybrid New Zealand grazing systems, the compost barns will have lower capital cost while providing superior cow comfort and cleanliness. 

One of the challenges for dairying is that as soon as one issue is addressed, the anti-dairy warriors find other reasons why we should get rid of dairying. Greenhouse gasses (from cows doing what comes naturally to them) is one such issue. And there is also supposedly a looming threat from synthetic milk.

Both greenhouse gas issues and synthetic milk are big issues which are indeed too big to deal with here. They are topics for another day. Suffice to say I don’t think either issue needs to destroy the dairy industry. There are strategies to deal with both. 

Our dairy industry is also genuinely threatened by its failure to get on with the long conversion process required to produce A2 milk that is free of A1 beta-casein. Many of the big farmers with multiple herds are actively converting, but the small farmers, with poorer information sources, are at risk of being blindsided. They have not and will not see the tsunami coming.

A key bottom line of relevance to all New Zealanders is that our agricultural resources favour pastoral farming. It is not by accident that animal farming lies at the heart of New Zealand agriculture, and that agriculture lies at the heart of the New Zealand export economy. There are no easy alternatives. Those who hope for the demise of dairy should think carefully.

In contrast, for most plant-based (and maufacturing) industries, as a small isolated country in the South Pacific, we lack global competitive advantage. We need to keep a focus, but not our only focus, on pastoral farming. But that does not mean that we can prosper by doing things the way we have been doing for the last thirty or so years. As Bob Dylan once wrote and sang, ‘the times they are a-changin’.

This article has been edited from the original. Read the full article here.