The dairy industry’s four decades of rapid change
The two-year period 1869 to 1870 was a time of remarkable innovation and accomplishment in world transportation technology.
In 1869, the final spike in the U.S. transcontinental railroad was driven into the ground near Promontory Summit, Utah. That same year, work was completed on the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. A year later, the British government finished a network of railways spanning the expansive subcontinent of India.
Against this backdrop, French author Jules Verne penned his famous 1873 classic Around the World in 80 Days. The book’s central figure is Phileas Fogg, a British nobleman who makes a bet with other London aristocrats that he and his valet can complete a trip around the world in less than three months’ time, an undertaking that had seemed all but impossible just a few months before.
The success of Verne’s novel was largely due, of course, to the fact that he was a master at crafting a gripping adventure tale. But the book was also successful because Verne was able to convey to readers that the world as they knew it had dramatically changed over a relatively short span due to technological advances. They were standing on the brink of a new age of marvel, wonder and accomplishment.
New Age of Dairy. Nearly a century later, in the late 1960s, U.S. dairy producers started to get an inkling that they too were standing on the verge of significant technological breakthroughs. A group of forward-thinking dairy farmers and other industry leaders in and around Madison, Wis., latched onto the notion that dairy producers would greatly benefit from an event that brought together the industry’s leading innovators—in science, business, academia and other areas—in a central meeting place. There, they could discuss, showcase and evaluate cutting-edge discoveries, inventions and theories that promised increased efficiency and profitability. World Dairy Expo was born.
In order to get a true appreciation for just how on-target Expo’s founders were, it’s helpful to look at some of the major technological innovations the dairy industry has witnessed since Expo was launched more than four decades ago.
Record Keeping. Consider the field of information management and computerization. In the 1960s, record keeping on most dairy farms was a tedious, inefficient chore. Tools of the day were pretty much limited to a pocket notebook and pen, collections of index cards and, in the more advanced operations, a breeding wheel on the milk room wall.
"Producers were severely limited in the amount of information they could collect and manage," says Steve Eicker of Valley Ag Software in King Ferry, N.Y. "There are only so many tags you can put on a breeding wheel before you run out of space, so many index cards you can put in a file box."
Things started to improve in the 1970s as more dairy farms began using remote terminals linked to mainframe computers managed by organizations like DHIA. But the real breakthrough came in the early 1980s with the arrival of the personal computer (aka microcomputer) on the dairy farm.
"Instead of taking hours to compile a weekly vet checklist for a 1,000-cow dairy, people could now do it in seconds," Eicker says. "The same was true for moving cows from pen to pen, drying off, culling, vaccinating, etc. Computers meant producers could manage by exception. They only needed to locate the cows that required attention."
Looking ahead, Eicker believes handheld radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology will be the next game-changer in dairy information management. "On a large dairy, it takes time to go down a row of headlocks, find and read the ear tag for each cow and record the information on a sheet of paper," he explains. "That’s time employees could be using to do something else. It’s also time the cows could spend lying in the stalls rather than standing in the headlocks. RFID will be accepted because it’s better for the cows and better for the people working with them."
|The Outdoor Trade Mall at World Dairy Expo has grown substantially over the years, evolving from a handful of implement and silo dealers to become the premier dairy equipment display in the world.
Facilities. Dairy facilities offer another example of how much the industry has changed since the launching of Expo. University of Wisconsin agricultural engineer Brian Holmes points out that the first dairy farmers arriving at World Dairy Expo were housing and milking cows in traditional, two-story stanchion barns.
Over the next 40 years, producers experimented with a variety of new housing concepts—mechanically ventilated freestalls, loose-pack housing, naturally ventilated freestalls, compost barns, cross-ventilated buildings and more—in an effort to improve cow comfort and production, increase labor efficiency and reduce capital investment per cow. Cow feeding evolved from hand-feeding with shovel and wheelbarrow to mechanical bunks with stationary total mixed ration (TMR) mixers and mobile TMR mixers, thus mechanizing the process.
During the same time period, producers were moving away from small, square hay bales stored on the second floor of the barn to hay silage stored in traditional tower silos and to bunker/pile silos, silo bags and grains stored in commodity storage sheds. They also started housing calves in individual hutches, constructing separate buildings to shelter special-needs animals and seeking more efficient, environmentally friendly ways to handle dairy manure.
Of all the changes, though, Holmes pegs widespread adoption of milking parlors as the most revolutionary. "Parlors allowed for a high rate of milking speed, which improved overall labor efficiency," he explains. "As those efficiencies began to take hold, they enabled dairy farmers to increase herd size dramatically. Parlors also took a lot of drudgery and physical hardship out of the milking process."
The biggest likely change in dairy facilities in the near future? Holmes expects more U.S. producers to take a closer look at robotic milking systems. Driving this interest will be forecasts of a possible labor shortage in the U.S. within the next decade or so, along with changes in U.S. government immigration policy that will limit the influx of foreign workers interested in milking cows for a living.
"We’ve already seen it happen in Europe," Holmes says. "At a certain point, the question becomes, ‘Who will milk my cows when there aren’t enough people available, willing and able to milk them?’ The most obvious answer is, ‘I’ll turn to a machine to do it.’"
Nutrition. The pace and scope of technological change in dairy cattle nutrition has been no less amazing. Mike Hutjens, professor emeritus of dairy science at the University of Illinois, notes that in the late 1960s, the majority of dairy cattle rations in the U.S. consisted of alfalfa, corn grain and very little else. "Most producers weren’t even feeding corn silage," he says. "They considered it nothing more than straw with ears."
Contrast that to the wide array of byproduct feeds and feed additives that make up the rations on today’s dairy farms. Hutjens believes the introduction of TMR feeding in the 1980s was the pivotal factor. "TMRs allow producers to feed lower-cost byproducts and urea products that otherwise wouldn’t be palatable to the cow," he says. "They also make it possible to feed cows according to production level and stage of lactation."
Advances in computer ration balancing represent the other truly significant change in dairy cattle nutrition in the past four decades, Hutjens says. When he began his professional career at the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s, rations were based on roughly a half dozen nutrients. "Today, with the aid of computer software, producers and nutritionists can balance for somewhere around 40 different nutrients," he says.
Hutjens believes that coupling computerized balancing with recent developments in modeling software (which allow nutritionists to more accurately predict how combinations of nutrients will affect rumen microbes) is bringing another round of revolutionary change to the dairy industry. He predicts that producers will soon be able to balance rations in ways that address the concerns many non-farmers have about the methane, nutrient and phosphorus content of cow manure.
The same technology will also enable producers to feed rations that will lead to the production and
marketing of new milk and dairy products likely to appeal to health-conscious consumers. "We’re just on the verge of all this now," Hutjens says. "These are exciting times to be in the dairy industry."
Genetics and More. Most incredible of all, perhaps, is that these changes only scratch the surface of the technological innovations in the dairy industry over the past 40 years. Equally eye-popping, mind-bending innovations have come in dairy cattle genetics (can you say genomics?), milking equipment, herd health and just about every other segment of the industry.
As you travel around the world of dairy at this year’s Expo, whether it’s for the full five days, just a few hours or some measure of time in between, we invite you to adopt the mindset of Phileas Fogg, the hero of Verne’s novel. Think of yourself as setting off on a great adventure, ready to learn from the amazing cast of innovative characters you’ll meet here, willing to evaluate new concepts, ideas and technologies and eager to enjoy some time spent in the company of your fellow dairy producers. Welcome!