So-called “peak cow” has been reached but LIC bosses think herd improvement and technology will continue to keep the dairy industry evolving.
If the country wanted to continue its competitive milk production, it would need to continue to improve its herds, said Malcolm Ellis, general manager of New Zealand markets for the farmer-owned co-operative LIC.
Cow numbers have come under pressure as a result of tighter regulations and a cultural shift by farmers towards being environmentally sustainable.
They are unlikely to grow and dairy conversion have probably reached their cap so gains were likely to come from genetically better cows.
READ MORE: Dairy cattle numbers fall by 100,000 over past year
“In reality the cows we milk today – it’s just phenomenal to see how cows respond the way they do,” Ellis said.
Fonterra forecast for the first time this year that milk supply was going to be down three to four per cent. Ellis said this was a significant forecast because of the climatically challenging year and slower cow population growth.
For 23 years cow numbers grew by 100,000 cows a year, he said. However, that has now halted, so a new approach was needed to continue success in the industry.
Ellis said the way forward for the industry was through genetic gain.
“I have always challenged the 90 per cent feeding 10 per cent breeding idea.”
While feeding and nutrition was critical to the success of a cow, there was more genetic potential that could be extracted from cows, he said.
Ellis said pasture utilisation was unlikely to make up 13 per cent of the country’s milk produced from palm kernel extract (PKE) when crackdowns on how much it would be allowed to be fed to cows come to play.
He saw the huge variations in milk solids production between cows when previously working in the breeding scheme.
During the dairy boom when cow numbers were growing, their genetic potential was not the main concern of farmers and nor was their track record of production, he said.
Instead, farmers were more concerned about getting the numbers and how much they wanted to grow. It did not matter what cows were producing, it mattered more that they were producing, he said.
Ellis said it was important for the future of the industry to ensure poorly producing cows were removed from the genetic pool to improve future lost potential milk production.
“What we’ve got here now is a level of inefficiency in some of the cows we milk.”
Ellis said he did not see that there would be a huge drop in dairy farms or cow numbers in the immediate future with 39.6 billion of debt in the dairy sector. Who was going to own the farms would be interesting, he said.
It was unlikely the North-American style of farming systems with indoor feeding schemes would work for New Zealand, it would need to continue to be largely pasture-based, he said.
“I just don’t think that the model of New Zealand dairy can afford to be doing anything else than milking very good quality cows, very responsibly but having outstanding conversion of grass to milk. That is really the answer to correct the $39.6b issue.”
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