Intensive farming: When less means more on dairy farms

Vanishing profit margins in dairy farming are intensifying pressure on the ubiquitous, genetically elite, high-yielding Holstein milk cow. A radical change in strategy is needed — less-intensive agriculture and a reduction in consumer wastage (see could more than compensate for lost production.

The Holstein’s remarkable milk production (up to 10,000 litres a year) is associated with poor condition, fertility and survival (see P. Dillon et alLivestock Sci. 991411582006), and has welfare implications. Its large disease burden demands routine hormone and antibiotic treatment, despite concerns about antimicrobial resistance. During a single lactation, one cow can eat more than its own body weight in cereals, much of which is potential human food and is grown using polluting artificial fertilizer.

An alternative would be to use cattle breeds that are genetically more resilient, less disease-prone and that have male calves suitable for beef production (females are used as milking-herd replacements). Cereal supplementation of feed may be minimized by taking advantage of the ruminant’s ability to digest forage, green waste and fibrous by-products. Such a cow can still produce up to 8,000 litres of milk annually.

As the Pareto principle, or ’80:20 rule’, predicts, that would amount to around 80% of yield for just 20% of the environmental and welfare costs.

Mark C. Eisler, Michael R. F. Lee & Graeme B. Martin

First published in: Nature 512, 371 (28 August 2014) doi:10.1038/512371b
Published online 27 August 2014

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