Change… perhaps we are all tired of hearing about all the things around us that are changing. Then again, maybe we don’t object to change itself but rather to our own need to change just to stay current and perhaps take advantage of changes that can benefit us. We, who choose dairy as a focus in our lives, have been part of this whirlwind of change and find ourselves impacted by many more things outside of our control than perhaps we once thought. Producing milk is only a small piece of the “feeding the world puzzle” that we must solve to sustain an expanding global population. Milk production is global with approximately 270 million dairy cows being cared for all around the world. We have come to realize the huge impact the dairy business has on economics, environment, and nutrition, regardless of where the cows are and where dairy products are consumed.
Changing Dairy Farm Technologies
Over time I realized that “typical” covered quite a broad spectrum of differences within those neighboring farms. Today it appears that technology has pushed the upper limit of differences to new heights. In the day-to-day business of providing DHIA Field Services many of us still work with farms that adhere to the traditional and simpler dairy lifestyle of hand milking a small number of animals. We may then turn around and find ourselves at a dairy with many thousands of cows where they have invested in technology that may addresses labor challenges or cow sensor technology to better know what their cows are doing each day. Who knows where this technology will take us? There likely may be trials going on now that address opportunities beyond those we are not yet aware of. I do know that the DHIA service sector is continually being challenged to keep pace with the needs of those members while maintaining the service already developed and in place. To stay relevant change is not an option but a necessity.
There is a lot of competition for the space dedicated to developing tools to improve dairy profitability. Asking the cow how we do as managers of their well-being and productivity has been the area where DHIA has maintained and grown for more than 100 years. New sensors are being put onto farms with the promise that they can take advantage of daily appraisal of cow activity as opposed to getting a snapshot once a month from the DHIA system. Used extensively for changing reproductive management, these devices have helped dairy producers both in and out of the DHIA system change the way they previously observed heat, selected when to breed cows, and hopefully kept cows in herds longer while improving herd productivity with more cows cycling back to peak performance sooner. On the surface it may appear we are in competition with developing technology, but in reality, the challenge may be finding solutions in how to integrate newer technology into the space we currently occupy.
The Impact of Genomics
The impact of some changes appears much more memorable than others. I venture a guess that the adoption of using genomic testing as part of a reproductive management program is one change reshaping the most basic need of a dairy, to plan for the next generation of cows. Genomic testing has had effects that go well beyond supplying a better replacement animal. Dairies large and small are using this technology to select those replacements with a greater chance that they will indeed be better than their predecessors. This has impacted genetic improvement pace for sure, but another part of the dairy farm management system has also been affected. Attention to the number of females raised for replacement is now a priority on farms regardless of size. Obvious is the impact of reduced cost of production caused by not feeding and caring for animals we cannot milk later, but many dairies are also taking advantage of improved marketability of beef and dairy crossbred calves. I hear many stories of straight dairy calves bringing less than the cost of hauling when sent to market leaving dairymen the distasteful choice of loosing money or on-farm disposal of those calve. Like Forrest Gump, that is all I have to say about that.
DHI – The Original “Big Data” for Dairy
The other significant new phrase talked about most often in our business is “Big Data”. I think it is comical that in the people business, Amazon-like companies are using big data to direct how they do business, with stockholders reaping huge profits. If only that could be true in our business, possibly the pioneers in the use of “big data”. One thing that we have in common with others accumulating data is our responsibility to care for and protect that data from being used in ways that may harm us or our businesses. There has always been assumed trust with the data we collect, transfer, and use to create tools for farmers. Much of the traditional business we have done in farming America has been done on the word of two parties or a simple handshake. I am afraid those times have gone by the wayside much like a milk tester using acid and a centrifuge at our farms to determine a cow’s butterfat production. I find it ironic that modernizing tools to make the most out of our DHIA system puts us in jeopardy of having our data accessed and used by others for purposes outside our control. We are taking this responsibility seriously and will do our best to know where that data flows and with whom it is shared.
Obviously, I have chosen to talk about change in this address, and I want to finish by reminding us all that although change may make us uncomfortable, it has a positive impact on our lives if we choose for it to. Dairy farmers as a group are a great example of adaptability to change. There are several tips often cited to manage change; after all better to embrace what we can’t stop. First, farmers keep rolling. Even though the change process is uncomfortable, dairy farmers are positive and look for changes that will have positive impacts on their lives and businesses. Case in point are Voluntary Milking Systems that help change labor needs on dairies. Second, recognize the power of choices we have. The decision to do something differently or to stick with what has become comfortable is a choice. Every choice has potential risk and consequences. Remember when it was a big deal to change to no-tillage for row crops? Third, have the strength to keep going. Change, no matter how necessary, does not happen easily. It requires ongoing effort with successes and failures along the way. I can remember the stress caused by European Union marketing pressures that required most of us to produce milk under 400, 000 SCC and now we average 200, 000 in many leading dairy regions. Fourth and last, remember that change takes time. Our success depends on a process of change and not single events that act independently of each other.
There are many challenges for us to cope with in our own businesses, yet some of us have committed time to help address those challenges for the good of many and not just ourselves. What additional data can unlock the mysteries of profitability on farm? Is it data that comes from new type monitoring sensors or is it data we have had in front of us all this time with just some new applications for it? How will we be sure that any new source of information has enough scrutiny in place to avoid misdirection for those that use it? Are there adequate QC programs in place that we can trust the integrity of how data is collected? How about those meters we use that have basic design principles that are decades old? What can we offer to the next generation of DHIA members that will address our data collecting system that currently has physical constraints, labor inefficiencies, and a widening disparity between system types seen by our employees day to day? Are we at risk of having sexy looking devices churn out data that is so plentiful, detailed, and dense that it downplays the need for accuracy?
Obviously, the list of questions can go on and on without any real answers. Believe me, those answers are there and will eventually be found and used. In the meantime, a great shout of thanks to our staff, board, industry partners and friends who will work tirelessly to find those answers. Most of all, as it always has been, the members are the strength behind the DHIA system and their thoughts and direction remain critical to creating solutions to all these opportunities.
The author is director of DairyOne Field and DHIA Service based in Ithaca, N.Y. This piece is the annual president’s address he delivered to delegates at the Annual Meeting on Mar. 7 in San Diego, California