Do we breed cows for a system or design a system to suit the cows?


I heard an interesting debate about the breeding of dairy cows on Radio 4’s Farming Today programme this morning, which examined how breeding for higher milk yields has impacted on the health and wellbeing of modern dairy cows. You can listen to the radio programme here.

Advances in cattle breeding have given farmers the opportunity to carefully select desirable traits in cattle, to improve the performance of their animals. But, we have learnt that too much focus on productivity can be counterproductive in other areas and gains in milk yield, for example, may be offset by a reduction in fertility and longevity. It is more difficult to evaluate the financial benefits of good health and fertility in dairy cows than the simple measure of more litres in the tank. But, I have been putting up figures in front of farming audiences for a number of years to illustrate the value of these other attributes associated with robust cows.

Although some concerns were raised by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) in a report called Opinion on the Welfare of the Dairy Cow, published in 2009, I cannot find any specific guidelines on the ethical breeding of dairy cows. I think it is important we understand our responsibility towards safeguarding the health and wellbeing of cows, not just in terms of how we manage them on a day to day basis but, also, in our selection of genetics and I question whether it is right to breed a cow that can no longer sustain itself at grass in the summer months. We should strive for balance and seek to harness the natural attributes of the bovine species, rather than manipulate it to the point where it loses the capacity to thrive in something akin to its natural environment.

So, what about the question “Do we breed cows for a system or design a system to suit the cows?” Well, I think that we breed cows for a system. During my lifetime, the emphasis has been on pushing for higher output on dairy farms and this has been facilitated largely by advances in ruminant nutrition and genetic selection. The high costs associated with intensive farming mean that greater output is required to cover these costs and leave the operator with a margin. Breeding cows for high milk yields is an important tool in making such a system profitable.  However, some farmers are now going to the other end of the spectrum and selecting genetics from small dairy breeds like the Jersey to develop low cost / low output systems. To my mind, if we are to develop profitable systems that safeguard the health and wellbeing of our cows we need something in the middle. After all, nature is always about keeping things in balance.


One Response to Do we breed cows for a system or design a system to suit the cows?

  • Since the 1970’s the UK dairy industry has promoted and backed a system of dairy farming that has taken our farmers away from the pursuit of what really matters in terms of a better way to farm. Dairy farmers need to challenge the myth that’s high input high output big cow dairy farming as a system and return to the field.
    Large grain eating cows introduced to a grassy Britain have turned the heads of the industry at the expense of more simple, economical and sustainable ways to farm. With lesser yielding dairy cows not regarded as good enough and with the industry advice to produce more and more and more, disillusionment has been the resultant constant companion of many a dairy farmer treading the treadmill dairying path.
    Without doubt, for some, the pursuit of prestige and kudos, of size and scale, and of high yield and high regard has led to some knowledge gained, yet the wisdom of simplification has been lost (on them). Honestly, since I left dairy farming in the early 1980’s, I haven’t see much change for the better, only the further industrialization and enlargement of the business of milking cows.
    If only the practice of high inputs and high yields, permanent housing and designer Holsteins was something we read about that happened somewhere else in the world. Confinement dairying is not needed in the UK.
    They say true wisdom knows what to overlook, but unfortunately in today’s world, it’s those with real wisdom that are overlooked, shame.

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