Long-term thinking is key when planning a modern dairy farm

Anyone investing in a new dairy farm, needs to plan for what that farm will be like now but also in 15-20 years. It’s a large capital investment so it’s critical to think ahead. “Animal welfare, milk quality and manure handling are amongst the most important aspects when planning a sustainable and modern dairy farm,” says Lior Yaron, VP Large Customer Projects at DeLaval, one of the many experts in the company when it comes to supporting farmers in designing modern farms. We spoke to Lior about how to approach the design of a modern dairy farm.

What is the first thing to consider when planning a dairy farm today?

A dairy farm operation is a mix of animals, people, machines and buildings – everything needs to be designed for today, tomorrow and the future. When we sit down and plan together with our customers, we discuss their goals and here we focus on two main areas: firstly, growing the business. Consolidation of farms is common today, so we plan and prepare for possible expansion. It is important to consider how the farm should be run over the next 20 years, who will manage the farm and later, potentially replace the owner. Secondly, equipment and technology. If the farmer wants to attract a younger generation of farmers, I would say that automation, robotics and modern software systems are needed. Depending on the needs, we decide solutions. 

Why is professional support valuable when designing a new dairy farm?

To plan for all the logistics that is happening on a farm, 24/7, 365 days a year, you need to include many parameters and using only pen and paper is not good enough. By using software and simulation tools, we can optimise the design according to the local site and secure the best operation. We plan for all activities such as feeding, all parts of milking and cooling, manure, cleaning, and securing a proper time budget for the cows. Cows need enough time to drink, eat and rest to stay healthy and produce high quality milk. Therefore, we always start the design from the cow´s perspective!  

When you’re at the drawing table, what is the first thing you do?

You might be surprised, but usually we start with effluent management. This is a hugely important part as a cow produces about 50 litres of waste per day. We need to have good solutions for how to clean, collect, remove, treat, store and reuse the manure. We encourage the reuse of manure as much as possible, as e.g. fertilizers and bedding, depending on local requirements and possibilities.

Our own farm, Hamra Farm, is a perfect example of how we can create this circle in an optimal way. We reuse the dairy farm nutrients on our fields where we grow feed for our dairy cows, and we don´t need to buy fertilizers.

After planning the effluent management, we look at the bedding system, herd size, barn dimensions etc. to secure an optimal use of the cows´ time budget.

What are the most important areas of a modern dairy farm – what should a farmer focus on?

I see three main things; firstly, feed efficiency. Feed is the largest cost on a farm and usually varies between 50-75% of the total cost. Therefore, it is important to plan for feeding already at the design phase and through to implementation.

The second area is cow resilience. Animal welfare is extremely important, including health, comfort and reproduction performances. Cows with better resilience will be the cows of the future ─ we call it more milk per life production (Lifetime Daily Yield, LDY).

Thirdly, transition cow management. Calving cows need special attention (comfort, quality feed, and a stress-free environment) and we need to ensure she gets that to secure a successful lactation.

How can we help to create more sustainable dairy farms by good planning?

In DeLaval, we have a sustainability model focusing on three main perspectives – Environment, Food and Animal Welfare, and Social and Economic. We cover all these areas when planning a farm. However, herd performance and animal welfare are central, and securing a good and stress-free environment for all cows, including enough space for eating, drinking and resting, should be reflected in the planning and design process. It goes all the way from A-Z, from the calf barn design to the milking and dry cow facilities.

We talk about “cows first”, meaning that only “happy” cows are healthy and producing cows. If we don´t take care of the animals, the operation will not be sustainable – it is as simple as that! You can look at a modern farm as a five-star hotel for cows. The farmer is the hotel manager and he or she needs to secure that everything on the farm, including all logistics, are implemented, consistent, and performed on time. It is not free to stay in that hotel but in return the hotel manager gets a high production of high-quality milk. Most successful farms in the world are set up in the same way as any other farm in the same region but the main difference is the implementation and execution of modern farm routines.  

The economic part is of course also very important to be able to run a sustainable dairy farm. The return on investment (ROI) for a new dairy farm is calculated from seven up to 10 years. Therefore, we must consider parameters that influence ROI already in the planning and design phase.  

What does a modern dairy farm look like?

Todays´ dairy farms are high-tech businesses, where animal welfare is, as mentioned many times, very important.

Biosecurity is considered on all parts of the farm and everything should be clean, in order and followed up. The logistics on the farm is very important, especially on large farms. No crossing over of feed and manure, and the milking centre or VMS area and the dairy farm facility design is up to human food production standard.

The solutions are run with modern farm management systems, such as DeLaval Delpro™, to manage and follow up all activities. Small adjustments can increase efficiency greatly. Farmers and their partners (e.g. vets, service technicians, solution providers like ourselves) can remotely check and change settings according to herd performances.

You work with several different markets globally, what are the biggest differences between the markets?

We work with farms all over the world, from Africa, Asia Pacific, Russia, Europe to North and South America. We have local hubs in all our 13 market areas that have local competence and knowhow.

The main differences are the people and cultures. Cows are the same wherever we go, but farmers are different. There are many ways to manage dairy farms (e.g. grazing, free stall, automatic milking systems etc.) and all systems require good management. If managed well, your farming practices will secure your success, and vice versa.

What will a modern dairy farm look like in the next few years?

Farms will be more environmentally friendly by utilising the resources in an optimal way and taking care of the cows. Cow comfort, feeding efficiency and utilising top genetics are still key. On top of that, the goal will be to reduce the carbon footprint as much as possible, e.g. using bio digesters, windmills, solar panels, and maybe most importantly, utilising the effluent nutrients on the fields to grow crops to feed our animals. Creating a closed circle – producing high value nutrient milk with a very low carbon footprint.

Some areas have limited land available. In those areas manure can be turned into compost and used in greenhouses or as a commodity that can be sold for private house usage. This is already the case for example in China.

What do you enjoy the most working in the dairy sector?

I grew up on a farm and have been working with dairy farming, in different places around the world, my whole life. The dairy sector is unique in the way that the people involved are completely passionate about cows, animal welfare and continuously improving what we are doing every day. In DeLaval and with our customers, you’ll find that same spirit – and I am “addicted” to it.