by Sally Colby

At the Dairy Cattle Nutrition Workshop held recently in Harrisburg, PA, Dr. Jack Britt, Jack Britt Consulting, addressed the topic of what the dairy farm will look like in 50 years.

Britt said he looked back 65 years when he was on a farm in Kentucky. The dairy barn was constructed in 1953 and included a four-inline, side open stall DeLeval milking parlor for 45 cows. “We could milk about 18 cows in an hour,” he said. “We used the first stall as a prep stall, then milked in the other three.” One outstanding cow in the herd produced 17,000 pounds above the national average as an eight-year-old.

But things have changed, and 45-cow dairy farms are not the norm. “The most important thing that’s going to happen in the next 50 years is where dairy customers will be,” said Britt. “Those customers will be offshore. If you look at the change in population in the next 50 years, 92 percent of the growth in population is going to be in Asia and Africa. Our traditional, developed dairy countries are going to see no increase in population, and in some cases, decreases in population. The population in Europe is going to go down, and the population in North America could go down. All the growth in population in the last 50 years in North America has been by immigration. If we change our immigration rules, we’ll see a decrease in population in the U.S. All of our consumers, all new business, will be somewhere else.”

With these population shifts, Britt said the way dairy products are produced for the world market will change the concept of what we’re producing 50 years from now, and we should be thinking about products needed in those countries.

When Britt was in dairy meetings in China this year, representatives from New Zealand, Ireland, the E.U. and Australia talked with the Chinese about dairy products China would need in the future. “There was no one there from the U.S. talking about what China needs for the future,” said Britt. “We need to start looking at new products and how we’re going to meet the needs of the world.”

Another factor in the changing dairy landscape is temperature. Britt said over the last four decades, temperatures have become warmer in the U.S. and around the world, mostly in the northern hemisphere. “One of the benefits of climate change we don’t hear much about is that the northern growing season is going to get hotter at higher latitudes,” said Britt, adding that 82 percent of the world population lives north of the equator. “The central prairies of Canada will have a growing season that’s six to eight weeks longer 50 years from now; the same is true for northern China and Russia. There will be farmland available in the future that isn’t available today.”

However, temperature won’t be the biggest factor – availability of water will be more critical. “Availability of water in the U.S. is going to change,” said Britt. “Forty-two percent of milk produced today is produced in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and Kansas, where water availably in 50 years will be limited. We see a great opportunity for those dairies to move to regions of North America that have more water availability.”

Britt predicts increased use of robotics and other automation. “We think about 90 percent of work will be done robotically,” he said. “We’ve already seen that with robotic milkers and equipment. We’re going to have integrated sensors and equipment on the farm. Sensors in the field and soil will ‘talk’ to the sensors in silos that will talk to the bunk that will talk to the cows. We can use big data in the cloud to enhance management.”

The biological capacity of the cow for increased output is still undetermined. Britt explained what may happen: “We show an increase in volume in terms of pounds, and in 50 years, if we stay with the same components, we will be at about 55,000 pounds per cow per year,” he said. “If we reach 50,000 pounds per cow per year, we’ll only need around 4.5 million cows in the U.S. – we have nine million cows now. If we want a big dairy industry in 50 years with nine million cows, we’re going to have to find a market for milk.” Again, that market will be offshore, and products will include what people in other countries want.

In developing countries such as Nigeria, people are moving from rural to urban areas, becoming more educated and have more income. “Dairy consumption increases four- to six-fold when they move from rural to urban areas,” said Britt. “We’re seeing that around the world. There will be more money spent on high quality dairy products.” Britt believes the U.S. flag should be on every dairy product exported to another country because people know and appreciate the quality of our food products, and added that we should be testing products in those countries now to determine what people want.

Britt has observed larger operations with expansion projects are constructing the same building time after time. He compares this to the poultry or swine industries, where the cost of construction is low because buildings are all similar. “As smaller farmers, we want everything a little different,” he said. “If we can figure out how to buy and work together, we can lower the cost of production.”

One concept to enhance small farm viability is working together. Britt described a group of 42 small dairy farms in Israel that use one feed center to produce everything for dairy rations from concentrate to forages. “The reduction in equipment and facilities would be big,” said Britt. “We see opportunities for farms to work together, maybe a common transition barn where cows are milked for three weeks before and three to four weeks after calving; maybe milking four or six times a day then moving to the milk cow herd to be milked by robots.”

The use of genetics is changing rapidly, and Britt predicted cows in the future will be gene-based rather than breed-based. “Breeds are not natural – humans created them, and for some reason, we think those breeds are sacred,” he said. “It’s the genes in cattle that are important, and we need to figure out how to put out the best set of genes for Asia, Africa, southern U.S., northern U.S. and Canada.”

Britt said if we have a vision of dairy farms and dairy cows in 50 years, our vision will get us there. “I hope we can all, whether we’re large or small, work together for a vision of where the U.S will be, and to be the world’s leading dairy provider in 50 years.”