Dairying in 2069

Maureen Hanson

What will the U.S. dairy industry look like 50 years from now? Not much like today, according to international dairy consultant and researcher Jack Britt.

Britt, who previously has served as a dairy science faculty member and researcher at Michigan State University, North Carolina State University, and the University of Tennessee, shared his predictions on the future of dairying at a recent meeting of the Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding. He said current and future U.S. dairy producers should prepare for:

A larger off-shore customer base – While the populations of Europe and North America will likely be stagnant or shrinking, Africa and Asia will be booming. By 2069, 93% of the world’s population growth will stem from those two continents, with 82% of the grown coming from Africa alone. Britt said dairy product consumption has the potential to increase 4- to 6-fold when people in countries like Nigeria become more highly educated and move from rural to urban areas. To capitalize on this potential, Britt believes every U.S. dairy product should be labeled with an American flag to identify and underscore the high quality of U.S. dairy products.

Greater production collaboration – Contract heifer growers already are onto this concept. While the dairy operations of the future won’t necessarily have to get larger, Britt does foresee more shared services among dairy operations in close proximity of one another. Examples include common feed mills/centers, transition facilities, dry-cow facilities and calving centers. Such collaboration would allow for more specialized labor skills and animal care, while diluting equipment investment capital and overall fixed cost per pound of milk produced.

Technology will rule – Automated calf feeders and robotic milkers probably are only the beginning of the technology revolution in dairying. Britt predicts that by 2069, about 90% of the work on dairies will be done automatically. Using cloud-based data management, electronic sensors will continuously “talk” to one another, integrating virtually every aspect of the dairy farm management, from the soil to the silo bunker to the bulk tank to the cow herself.

Water availability will dictate production – Right now, U.S. dairy production is highly concentrated in the southwestern United States, with about 35-40% of the total milk supply produced in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and Kansas. Britt predicts water availability in that region will become more limited in the next 50 years, and production will subsequently shift to regions with greater access to water.

A changing climate – An aspect of global warming that is not often considered is the impact it will have on crop production potential. In 50 years, Britt said Edmonton, Alberta will likely have the climate of today’s St. Cloud, Minn.; and Fresno, Calif. will feel like Tijuana, Mexico. This indicates a longer growing season for vast regions of Canada, China and Russia.

Less focus on breeds, more on genetic lines – Britt predicts the cows of the future will be gene-based versus breed-based. Using genomic technology, he suggested the development of four composite genetic lines would be likely – each suited for the respective climate in which the cattle would be raised. They include Tropical, Dry/Desert, Temperate and Cold.

Continued price volatility – One thing that likely won’t change is the milk price volatility we’ve experienced in recent years. For example, Britt noted that the U.S. inflation-adjusted mailbox milk price swung by 70% in the brief, 5-year period between 2009 and 2014. That unstable environment will not go away, he predicted, and will be especially susceptible to trade and export market demand.

Ongoing supply-demand pressure – Britt noted that, from 1995 to 2017, the U.S. population increased 22%, while U.S. milk production went up 146%. Given future U.S. population predictions coupled with the potential for even greater production per cow, Britt predicts only about half of today’s U.S. dairy cow population, or about 4.5 million cows, will be needed in 2069.

“If we intend to keep 9 million dairy cows around, we’re going to have to develop new markets for their milk,” Britt declared.