In Cainthus, we view cows as a key part of a sustainable global food system. When you grow an acre of wheat, you also get straw at about ~80% of the weight of grain. Humans can’t eat straw, a ruminant converts it to excellent/high class protein as well as making fertiliser in the form of urea and manure that can help mitigate the environmental problems of synthetic fertilisers.
In this article we will attempt to address five significant challenges with dairy cows as we attempt to move towards a more ecological/circular agricultural system.
1. Weight based production systems
While this is arguably a bigger problem for crops, the livestock industry is certainly not helped by much of its value being determined by how many litres of milk and kg of meat are produced. Humans run on nutrients, not weight or calorific value of foods. If our food trade was based on valuing the nutritional value/density of food rather than the weight of it, then this would have powerful downstream effects. In the dairy industry, some countries have quality bonuses for Somatic Cell Count, fat, and protein content. This is the direction to travel in, and countries with quality bonuses are correlated with higher animal and farmer welfare standards. Technology could improve this system further by giving us individual animal feed intake nutrition data that can be correlated to the nutritional quality of their milk.
Manure management remains one of the biggest costs and problems in livestock agriculture and is responsible for 23% of the emissions associated with cows (9.5% directly from manure, 13.5% from applying manure to crops as fertilizer). Additionally, there are social sustainability issues associated with slurry spreading and the manure lagoons common among larger operations draw community complaints related to the odour emitted.
For large scale dairies, anaerobic digesters (“AD”) and solid liquid separators (“SLS”) offer a genuine solution to this problem. Anaerobic digesters and SLS’ eliminate much of the emissions associated with raw manure storage (25% and 46%, respectively), while also providing fertilizer. AD also provides energy, which further reduces net emissions. AD in particular is starting to see heavy adoption in places like California. Indeed, California believes that 30 anaerobic digesters have reduced state Ag emissions by 25% or 2.2m tonnes, the equivalent of taking 460,000 cars off the road.
Manure could potentially be used as a feedstock for insects like black soldier fly, with the insect larvae then fed to fish/poultry/pigs/pets, but this remains early stage with little demonstrations of scalability.
Modern agriculture is a highly specialised system that has extensively leveraged genetic selection to enable us to create more food with less inputs. This has created extreme genetic uniformity that
renders the entire industry highly susceptible to pandemics due to the low level of genetic diversity – a commercial plant or animal is terribly similar no matter where on the planet it may be.
With cows, 14% of our species are “international breeds”. Examples of these in dairy are the Holsteins, Friesians, Jerseys that have become ubiquitous in global dairy. In US dairy, Holstein bull genetics can be traced back to just two bulls, and overall the ~9m US dairy cows have a level of genetic diversity that one would expect from a group of 50 cows. The US also has an 8% inbreeding co-efficient, where 8% of an animal’s genetics are direct copies of its parent’s genes. This is increasing at a rate of .3 to .4% per year. This is an unsustainable situation that needs urgent resolution. Cross breeds are becoming more common in response to this and there are companies attempting to create GMO and CRISPR based applications for cows, but these technologies bring their own issues.
There remains a lot of potential upside in traditional breeding. Currently most genetics are selected based on milk production. What if you started selecting cows on different factors, such as those that demonstrate stronger immune systems? Animals that need less medical attention can create higher
margins for farmers. In 2022, EU countries will no longer be permitted to use human reserve antibiotics in veterinary medicine, nor any unprescribed animal antimicrobials. This follows a general trend of reducing antibiotic use in EU farming. These trends create further opportunity to improve cow genetics to reduce susceptibility to disease. The Roslin institute recently released an atlas of cattle genes to help show what key traits we may leverage.
4. Value/Price of Milk
One of the best ways a consumer can help create a more sustainable dairy industry is to recognise milk for the quality product that is, and consequently pay more for milk that is produced in accordance with consumer values. A more profitable dairy industry is more economically sustainable, enabling it to spend more capital on improving environmental and social sustainability.
Increasingly the consumer is sceptical of BigAg companies (rightly or wrongly) and likes the idea of buying from farmers. There are some wonderful case studies of farmers doing their own branding and bottling (in particular, this Arethusa Farms milk brand from the people behind Manolo Blahnik USA is a great example of what is possible). The dairy machinery company Lely recently released a farm level processing unit, that enables a dairy with as few as 55 cows to process, bottle and brand their own milk. During Covid-19, we have also seen an increase in farms delivering milk direct to the consumer, just like in the old days. Less centralised processing with more automation can also help to improve dairy resilience should another pandemic like Covid-19 occur in the future.
5. Pastoral systems/system variations
The Oxford Martin school believe that we can get to net zero emissions for agriculture and can even start using livestock as a source of global cooling. The logic is based on the fact that methane has a half-life of 10 years vs 1,000 years for carbon (even though it is common to incorrectly treat methane as a carbon co-efficient with a 1,000 year half-life). As cows operate on a biogenic cycle, their net
emissions remain stable while the herd numbers remain stable. If you reduce the global herd numbers, then this has a massive positive impact on total emissions, resulting a net cooling effect:
If you take dairy farming today as a baseline, cows look like part of the problem. If you take dairy farming in 1950 as the baseline, it is apparent that dairy farmers are part of the solution and require our support.
Dairy farmers have demonstrated a remarkable effort in reducing environmental impact and improving standards through what has been a highly volatile operating environment. These farmers deserve our celebration and support. As we enter into a more a digital world, utmost effort must be made to ensure that farmers are given access to the new tools that will enable them to continue to be part of our global efforts to create sustainable abundance for all.
Editor’s note: The author is the co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of the dairy technology firm, Cainthus. More information can be found at cainthus.com