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Dairy farming

Dr Marie Dittmann explains how dairy cows are kept today.
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We are here at the Centre for Dairy Research of the University of Reading, which is home to a modern dairy herd of over 500 cows. While a few centuries or even decades ago, it was fairly normal for a farmer to have a small number of cows– maybe some chickens, sheep, and a number of different kinds of crops to support his family and other members of the community– farms nowadays are highly specialised businesses that usually focus on producing one single product, such as milk.
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In developed countries, cows haven’t been milked by hand for a number of decades, but by the aid of milking machines such as this here.
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Today, the average size of a dairy herd in the UK is 120 animals. And some of the big farms have 1,000– maybe even up to 2,000– cows. So you can imagine that in order to ensure profitable milk production, these farms have to be run as very well-managed businesses. And they’re normally run by a small number of very well-trained staff.
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From a number of milk bottles and cheese packaging, you will be familiar with a picture of a cow grazing outside in pastures. But there is an increasing tendency to keep dairy cows indoors, in sheds like this one, for longer periods of time during the day.
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One of the most important aspects of dairy farming– if not the most important aspect– is cow health and well-being. If a cow is unwell, her milk yield can drop within hours or days. And if she needs medical treatment, the milk will have to be discarded for a number of days, which means a financial loss for the farmer. So one important aspect of cow welfare is the access to enough food and water to produce milk. Regardless of the hierarchy within the group, each cow needs to have enough space to take up sufficient food in order to produce large amounts of milk.
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One obvious function of cowsheds is that they protect the animals from the elements, so that the cows have a space where they’re protected from sun, heat, or rain. In the future, it is expected that cows will increasingly suffer from heat stress due to climate change. So they do need to have a space where they’re cool and in the shade. EIT Food is supported by the EIT a body of the European Union Another risk that is likely to arise due to climate change is a new geographical distribution of certain pests and diseases. So with new climatic conditions, these cows here might be exposed to diseases and pests they haven’t been exposed to so far.
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In addition to cow health and welfare, the shed has also been designed to ensure the efficiency of the running of the processes on the farm. For example, the cows have to be in close proximity to the milking parlour.
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Milking generally takes place twice a day, and again, in the milking parlour, hygiene is of utmost importance. This is not only a place of food production, but the cow udder is also a very sensitive organ, which needs cleaning and disinfecting before and after milking.
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The milk of all cows then flows into large tanks, where it’s cooled down immediately in order to avoid bacterial growth. Usually, once a day, a truck comes to the farm, which picks up all the milk and brings it to the next processing plant. Before the milk is processed any further, though, samples are taken and sent off for laboratory analyses, which provide information about milk quality and animal health.

In this video, from the Centre of Dairy Research at the University of Reading, Dr Marie Dittmann explains how dairy cows are kept today.

Cow health and welfare has a big impact on the production of milk. Given the decline in the number of dairy farmers, do you think the welfare of cows and other livestock can be met at scale? Share your thoughts in the comment area below.

Note: This video also features in The Future of Farming: Exploring Climate Smart Agriculture, a free online course from the University of Reading.
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