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Pandemic leads to more volatility in dairy markets

Issue Date: February 24, 2021
By Ching Lee

The role of emerging technological trends that can help dairy farmers better manage their operations and improve animal health, longevity and nutrition was a focus of a panel discussion that also looked at impacts and lessons from the pandemic.

Three dairy experts shared their views during a webinar at the World Ag Expo, which went virtual this month due to COVID-19.

With the pandemic increasing market volatility, Fernanda Ferreira, a specialist in herd health and management at the University of California, Davis, said she thinks dairy farmers have learned they need to be prepared for so-called "black swan" events. Even though overall U.S. dairy consumption has reached its highest level, she said, dairy farmers need to determine how to manage supply and operate in volatile markets. For California, which exports 18% to 20% of its milk production, it remains unclear how these relationships will affect markets in 2021, she added.

One takeaway from the pandemic has been the use of risk-management tools, said Michael Hutjens, professor of animal science at the University of Illinois, noting that dairy farmers have been locking in milk and feed prices, especially with the recent rise in feed costs.

The pandemic has also increased focus on ways to lower production cost and boost efficiency. One way to do that is to improve feed intake, which helps milk production, said Tom Oelberg, a ruminant specialist for Diamond V, an animal nutrition company based in Iowa. He stressed the importance of maintaining consistent feeding times, including when feed is dropped off and pushed up, so cows can have continuous access to feed. Having employees available to do this at all hours can be a challenge, he acknowledged. Some larger dairies use robots, he said, but they're "not quite as effective."

Robots can reduce the need for labor, but Ferreira said that may not be the main reason producers adopt the technology—at least according to those she's asked. She said she was surprised to hear that some of them are choosing robotics to improve cow welfare and to keep their children on the farm.

"I think it's a trend," Ferreira said. "I don't know how fast that's going to happen, but it's happening."

Hutjens encouraged the use of rumen modeling to help optimize diets, fine-tune rations and improve precision feeding.

"It's just amazing what this technology does for metabolizable protein, bioavailability of micronutrients, dry matter adjustments," he said.

Another technology being used is cameras in barns to monitor feed intake and cow behavior, which Oelberg said will help dairy farmers better evaluate and design facilities to maximize cow comfort.

Cameras are also being used for body condition scoring, lameness scoring and to monitor weight changes, Hutjens said. Rather than "standing in the barn for hours and hours" trying to collect this data, he said this information can be captured and summarized via cameras.

Hutjens made the point that cows are still individual animals, but "how do you get your arms around 3,000 cows unless you have some type of assistance? And, of course, that's where the technology and the cameras are going to come into play," he said.

Managing all this data will be key, Oelberg said, as it will help producers make quicker decisions about their dairies. Heat mapping and cow comfort index, for example, can tell producers which pens are having an issue, what day of the month and in which barns.

"Within a few seconds, the dairyman can take a look at this picture and decide what's going on and take appropriate action," he said.

Ferreira said technology can also help producers be more precise about the medications they give their animals. One area she said she's working on is predicting which cows need antibiotics, noting that with some illnesses, cattle can self-cure.

"So how can we go from dealing with a big population (of dairy cows) … and go into these specifics? I think technology is great for that," she said.

Because dairy cows produce more milk after the first lactation, Oelberg said producers are looking at ways to extend the productive life of cows, noting that the most profitable animals are those in their second, third and fourth lactations. Hutjens pointed out that a more-mature cow can produce 20 pounds more milk per day than a first-lactation cow.

"It takes the first lactation for the heifer to recover her replacement costs," Oelberg said. "I think people are going to start looking at those older animals as our real moneymakers."

There's promising research being done in California on feed additives that can reduce methane emissions in dairy cows, Ferreira said.

Because of the additional cost of feed additives, Oelberg said research will be key to help dairy farmers understand what those additives do and what will be their return on investment.

Hutjens said farmers are also looking to different feed crops that will reduce their water use, noting the renewed interest in sorghum as an alternative to corn, because its uses about a third less water.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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