When John Penno left Dexcel to devote his energy to Synlait, he said something that’s become my favourite quote: “Most people overestimate what they can achieve in one year, but underestimate what they can do in a decade.”
Google attributes this quote to many people, including Bill Gates and Tony Robbins, but I’m not worried about who said it first. The achievements of Bill, Tony and John all point to it being true.
Similarly, there’s been huge progress made in dairy science over the past decade. Collectively, we’ve applied focus, effort and your levy towards this clear, long-term goal. So, how are we tracking?
Lowering our footprint
We’ve made great strides in reducing our footprint. The Pastoral 21 programme showed that, by reducing nitrogen surplus and using off-pasture infrastructure at key times, we can lower nitrate leaching by 30 to 40 percent in all New Zealand regions.
The Forages for Reduce Nitrate Leaching (FRNL) programme has given us more options. Plantain, fodder beet and cover crops all show ability to reduce nitrate loss within an outdoor grazing system.
Footprint isn’t just nitrogen though – research into winter cropping has proved the management practices that can substantially reduce sediment and phosphorus loss.
The last decade of methane research has re-written our understanding of rumen microbes. Right now, there are feed additives in final trials overseas that are credibly claiming to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent in feedlot dairy systems.
In New Zealand, the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGgRc) is leading the way in methane research for pastoral systems, with unique feed additives, vaccines and genetic solutions.
AgResearch has developed a genetically modified ryegrass that, as well as having improved photosynthesis, has higher lipid levels that might reduce methane production from cows. It’s big news all of a sudden, but this is the result of 20 years’ research.
Increasing our profit
Our 2010 target wasn’t just about reducing footprint – the aim was to increase profit at the same time. Research farm results show that these large footprint gains often come at some cost to profitability. We don’t yet have the win-win technologies and systems required, or the price premiums for low-footprint milk, to hit that 2010 target.
To increase potential profits from our pastoral systems, research has aimed to increase homegrown feed (the major source of profit) or feed conversion efficiency.
With pastures, the picture was cloudy back in 2010. DairyNZ and the seed companies went back to square one and built the Forage Value Index (FVI) system, which gives guidance to plant breeders and independent information to farmers. We’re currently testing the FVI’s accuracy in a farmlet experiment.
The rate of gain in plant breeding (measured by FVI) will be enhanced by new technologies that were still in development 10 years ago. The work of Pastoral Genomics means local seed companies will soon be using genomic selection in ryegrass to accelerate genetic gain. New hybrid ryegrass technologies developed by DairyBio in Australia (and with the DairyNZ Levy) are now in field trials. These technologies will be in your hands over the next decade.
With feed conversion efficiency, a major driver is the ongoing increase in cow genetic merit. While we are confident in the production gains, cow fertility has remained a weak link. The Pillars programme has shown the importance of genetic control of fertility. Now we’re building this new understanding into animal evaluation, so Breeding Worth gives you a more accurate estimate of fertility – and more fertile cows.
Improved forage production risks increasing methane output and N leaching. New research will need to bring better forages, cows and technology together in farm systems that meet all the goals of Dairy Tomorrow, our current sector strategy.
Not all our gains have been strategy-led. Farmers have innovated and demanded research to support their system changes. Fodder beet is a great example of rapid farmer-driven change – with science struggling to keep up. We now have clear guidelines for cow feeding and transition, and mineral requirements. We’re working with Overseer to include the nitrogen-cycling benefits of fodder beet.
Leveraging your levy
All these important research topics are being tackled by combinations of government funding, commercial investment, and your levy. For every $1 of your levy we invest in research, I estimate we see a further $3 of other investment into joint projects, with even greater investment by others into the fundamental, long-term science.
A new decade
All New Zealanders will have to make changes to meet Zero Carbon Bill and Essential Freshwater targets. The Primary Sector Council’s vision, ‘Fit for A Better World’, aims to provide the world’s most discerning consumers with outstanding, ethically produced food. That’s all core business for dairy farming in Dairy Tomorrow – which also includes world leading animal care and workplaces, along with resilient farm businesses and communities.
The progress we’ve made gives me confidence that, if we tackle the next 10 years with the same focus, innovation and collective effort, we’ll be amazed at what we’ve achieved by 2030.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy February 2020