Envisioning dairy farming 50 years from now

Carole Curtis
Dairy farming has evolved by leaps and bounds over the past 50 years. Changes on the horizon by 2068 will revolutionize the dairy industry.

FT. ATKINSON - Dairying is in for big changes by the time 2068 rolls around.

Over the next 50 years, climate and populations will shift where farms are located, emerging technologies will involve sensors, robotics and knowledgeable systems, and yields of milk solids will double, Jack Britt, Britt Consulting, said during the March "Hoard's Dairyman" webinar.

Britt's take on the future was drawn from an evolving forecast, introduced in 2015  by his team of twelve national/international experts. The presentation, hosted by Abby Bauer, Hoard's Dairyman, and Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois, was sponsored by DeLaval.

Changes ahead

Britt predicted populations will balloon in Asia and Africa, especially the latter. In fact, 93 percent of the world's growth over the next 50 years will come from these two areas.

Dairy will be an important component in feeding the future population, but prices globally will continue to be volatile. "We think that volatility is really associated with our ability to increase production greatly,  but we don't decrease it very quickly when we need to," he observed.

Climate change also looms large, given temperatures in the U.S. have been trending above average for the past four decades. "This is a consistent trend around the world," Britt noted. "It, certainly, will influence dairy."

Dairy will shift from seven water-stressed  states that currently produce 42 percent of milk to areas with adequate water. This is already happening, he observed, with an increase in the number of cows moving into the Upper Midwest, Great Lakes and Canada, as well as to water-rich areas of Europe and Russia. 

Looking ahead, the milk yield increase slows, but supply bulges. In 2068, cows could yield between 40,000-55,000 lbs. of milk on average, depending on the selection criteria. If the projected 55,000 pounds is achieved, the U. S. will need significantly fewer cows to meet domestic needs, and additional export capacity if the current herd size is maintained.

There is an imbalance between what cows are producing and what Americans are utilizing, which means the composition of milk probably needs to change in the future. "Looking ahead, components will be more important," Britt predicted, noting there is  already a significant difference between cows in terms of the value of the milk they produce.

Dairy herds will continue to scale up in size, not just in the U.S., but across the globe. "It is happening even in countries with completely different production systems," he noted.

Dairy farmer Herb Keeley attaches a surge milking machine to one of his milking cows April 29, 1998 at his Turner Township, MI., dairy farm. Today many farms have opted to use robotic milkers to milk their dairy cows.


The industry will also change dramatically as precision management through the use of sensors, robotics and algorithms takes hold. Britt sees artificial intelligence and integrated sensors tying together information drawn from crops, soils and silos, milking centers, barns and lagoons.

There will even be sensors inside cows in the form of biodegradable units, likely implanted in the mammary gland or liver.

The experts also forecast lateral integration with dairy farmers sharing specialized facilities, starting with maternity/transition barns where cows will receive excellent care and 4X milking. Animals will then move to barns with identical layouts, which will reduce the cost of operation and increase flexibility.

The vision includes shared specialized facilities for calves, heifers, dry cows and dairy beef, as well as shared feed centers for harvest and storage, with driverless vehicles for deliveries.

"We anticipate that common protocols would be adopted so workers could move between these facilities," Britt added.

Absolutely, he forecast, there will be automated rotary parlors and changes in manure management, with waste recycled more efficiently and effectively.

The dairy herd of the future will likely be eating perennial grasses with high sugar and high biomass that need replanting every 20 years. There will also be perennial maize, bred from corn, that is harvested annually with replanting every 3-5 years.

A Holstein cow waits for the gate to open so she can be milked by a Lely Astronaut robotic milking machine at Hemdale Farms and Greenhouses in Seneca Castle. Owner Dale Hemminger has installed 13 of the robotic milkers that handle all 700 milking cows in his herd.


Thanks to genetics, the health and fertility of cows will continue to improve.

Britt believes the cow of 2068 is likely to be gene-based, rather than breed-based. She will be more efficient, have a smaller environmental footprint, and could carry proprietary milk quality genes licensed in embryo.

Today, geneticists say about 19 percent of a cow's performance is genetic, with environment filling out the remainder. The future will emphasize precision management, as the focus shifts to managing the epigenetics, the way the genes operate in the animal.

For example, research shows a 64 percent conception rate for cows that maintain body condition over the first five weeks after calving vs. 25 percent for animals that lost weight. In the future, dairy producers will be selecting for cows that don't lose as much weight and bulls will be indexed on daughters' robustness.

Dairy producers will also manage the  microbes that live within their cows' uterus, mammary glands and rumen. "This is one of the  areas that will grow tremendously over the next 50 years," Britt predicted..

It's possible a culture of beneficial microbes will be used to infuse udders as cows grow dry or in heifers to produce a healthier mammary environment, rather than relying on antibiotics to treat mastitis.

Hopefully, the dairy industry will also work toward understanding what practices, protocols and steps make herds behave and function differently. "I think the U.S. dairy industry needs to have a vision for the future if we're going to be successful," Britt said. "If we can envision the future, we can create it."