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Cows, calves and consumers take centre stage (Jan 24)

TotalDairy Conference 2023 set the scene for the dairy industry as we turn the corner into 2024. Keynote speakers addressed a wide variety of topics linked to the event’s theme: ‘Meeting the needs of producers, consumers and cows’.


There’s plenty for the dairy sector to be optimistic about according to Kantar Worldpanel’s Ian Shipton, who shared the latest data on consumer trends in dairy purchasing with delegates at the two-day TotalDairy Conference, held in November.

Kantar Worldpanel is a shopper and consumer behaviour organisation that utilises UK consumer panels to understand more about the nation’s eating and drinking habits. Its work shows that dairy remains central to shopping baskets. “Despite dairy being one of the highest inflating categories, it remains core to consumers shopping trips,” said Mr Shipton, adding that 91% of the population consume dairy in the average week and 36% of grocery baskets contain milk, butter, cream or cheese. Annual average UK consumption of cheese is 18kg per year.

Data shows that cheese is purchased by 3% more shoppers, more regularly (3%) and in greater volume (3%) compared to 2022. “It’s a really successful category and this is due to perceived value for money by shoppers and also the ‘comfort’ angle,” said Mr Shipton.

Comforting options, be they toast, pasta or baked-potato-based, require cheese and consumption of these meals has increased by 1.1%, 0.4% and 0.5%, respectively, during the past year. Cheese is now central to many meals – not a side option. And it is seen as a cost-effective alternative to other more expensive and less versatile proteins, such as meat,” adds Mr Shipton.

Coffee opportunity

Milk consumption also remains strong and coffee presents an opportunity to increase this even further, from the current annual average of 190 litres of milk per person for the year ending October 2023.

“Data shows an average of 11 ‘cows’ milk occasions’ per week and coffee is important because milk is important – 71% of ‘coffee occasions’ involve cows’ milk,” said Mr Shipton. “And 63% of out-of-home coffee trips are to purchase milky coffee. This represents an opportunity for the industry. There needs to be greater emphasis that milk is the most important component of these coffee drinks.” Only butter has been impacted by rising retail prices, with shoppers buying less volume and on fewer occasions.

“Consumers are moving away from butter and towards margarine, because it’s cheaper. Others also find it more convenient as it’s spreadable. Focusing on butter’s superior taste in marketing promotions, ensuring that consumers have different reasons to buy it versus margarine, will help to win back shoppers. Nothing compares to butter on toast.”

Rapt audience: delegates enjoyed a packed two-day programme of workshops

and presentsations

Humane handling

Delegates also heard more about the development of a cattle handling simulator from University of Wisconsin-Madison’s animal welfare specialist Jennifer Van Os. And she also offered the chance for attendees to have a go with this new app at the conference, prior to its launch in early 2024.

She hit on this novel idea after a series of on-farm visits where US producers were asked about the specific challenges they faced on their units. “A typical request was ‘can you help us train our staff to move and handle our cattle more humanely’,” she said. “I assumed that ‘best practice’ in this area was well established. So this challenge that they cited really surprised me,” she added

Further conversations revealed that, although the knowledge around humane handling is there, the practical application and the ability to practice cattle handling was lacking. “These producers were, typically, managing substantial teams of staff, some of who were inexperienced at cattle handling. ‘Show, don’t tell’ was what they were looking for, particularly because, for many staff, English is not their first language.”

Dr Van Os also led a workshop on why ‘two heads are better than one’ and looked at strategies for successful pairor group-rearing calves. The interactive sessions looked at the benefits of this approach, as well as common challenges and potential solutions.

Social development

“Individual housing has become the norm on many units, predominantly because it’s perceived to allow for easier feeding and monitoring and can aid disease control,” she explained. “But producers know that calves and cows are social animals and, in the US, 93% of units housing individually allow at least visual contact with other calves. US-based producers are interested in ‘social’ housing, and 36% of producers who currently house calves individually want to learn more about social rearing.”

Cattle are a herd species and producers are beginning to understand the importance of social companions for calves. “Calves are able to express ‘play behaviour’ and it also supports crucial social development,” said Dr Van Os. “There’s a wealth of anecdotal evidence from producers, but there’s also solid research, carried out in the US and Europe, that shows that paired or group housing allows calves to learn appropriate social interaction with their herd mates.

“Calves reared in pairs or groups went on to become higher-ranking cows in the milking herd, but not because they were aggressive. They were just better able to communicate with their herd mates.

“Research also shows that calves reared in pairs are more resilient to stress, which is particularly important at weaning and other key milestones during their rearing process. They have improved cognitive and behavioural function, and are more adaptable to new things,” added Dr Van Os. But why does learning matter?

“We ask calves, heifers and cows to learn a lot of new things throughout their lifetime, so it’s vital. “We move them from calf housing to cubicles and we need them to adapt to these different systems. In each new environment, they need to learn where to access feed and water. They’re introduced to new diets and feeds, and social groups. Even milking parlours can change, from conventional two-sided setups and rotaries, to automatic systems.”

Virtual reality: delegates had the chance to experience the latest dairy tech and apps

Group housing

Many producers also report that group or paired housing can increase solid feed intake and, therefore, average daily liveweight gain, which benefits the growing calf and the dairy business. “There’s no data to show that individually-housed calves outperform those that are paired or group housed. So, all things considered, including improved public perception, why wouldn’t producers want to consider this approach?”

Dr Van Os generated discussion about typical challenges faced by producers wanting to make the switch. “It’s easier to group and pair calves if herds are block calved. It’s more difficult in all-year-round calving herds where mixed age groups can increase the management requirement.”

She said that, ideally, the age difference between the oldest and youngest calf in a pair should be no more than 14 days, and for groups of calves this age difference should ideally be no more than seven days.

US-based vet and calf-rearing specialist Bob James also gave presentations and ran workshops, all on calf rearing, across the two-day event. He is also an advocate of group or paired housing, particularly due to their welfare and calf-development benefits. But his real passion is calf nutrition and he told delegates straight that ‘many producers are under feeding milk’.

Automatic systems can avoid ‘limited’ feeding, which Dr James said may encourage rumen development but can come at the expense of early-life growth.

“Intensive management and feeding is better for the calf – it mimics ‘on demand’ feeding from the dam. And it ensures that the calf consumes what it needs while also offering producers greater control and the opportunity to closely monitor intakes and performance.”

He says that more regular feeds, or on-demand systems, mean that calves are also better prepared for life in the milking herd. “If we feed calves twice a day, are we training them to feed twice a day as adult cattle?”

If installing automatic milk feeders is not an option, he says that mob feeders can also work to save on labour: “But you’ll need a ‘traffic cop’, to stop calves from drinking their own milk and then pushing another calf out of the way to drink their ration too.

Sustainable systems

“And, as with all calf-rearing systems, group-housed setups require producers to be on top of their game. Disease prevention is key, so tackle any known issues before making the switch from individual-calf or bucket/bottle feeding systems.”

He also asked delegates whether their calf-rearing programme is sustainable, and urged producers to think about what the future may hold and ‘if they’re ready’?

“A full evaluation of the calf-rearing system is the start point to determine exactly where producers are at in all areas of performance. And ask where do you want it to be – what do you want to achieve? “Then ask ‘how will you get there’ and, at this stage, also ask how important calf rearing is to your herd and dairy business,” said Dr James. “It may identify areas for investment.

“And the system must certainly be economically sustainable, so raise only the number of heifers you need and control disease and mortality. Make sure losses and waste are minimised. My take-home message is to manage calf-rearing systems with the same mindset used to manage the milking herd.”

Focusing on the milking herd, Canada-based vet Laura Solano, a dairy cow comfort and welfare specialist with the country’s leading provider of herd management solutions Lactanet, gave a presentation titled: ‘Beyond lying: how to optimise behaviour through design and management’.

Interactive workshops: audience participation added value to sessions

Lying times

“Making sure cows spend the ideal length of time lying down is key to reducing lameness and optimising health, welfare and milk production. The target lying time for dairy cows is 12 hours a day.

Access to comfortable, clean and dry lying areas is vital because prolonged periods of standing, particularly during the transition phase, can lead to the development of non-infectious hoof lesions. “So enhancing lying times can help prevent lameness. “But lying is a complex behaviour, impacted by many factors. These range from the cow’s stage of lactation, milk yield and health status, as well as housing and management conditions, such as the comfort and suitability of walking and lying surfaces.”

Dr Solano said that lameness adds a ‘layer of complexity’ because herds with a high prevalence of lameness tend to exhibit longer lying times. “So if we only focus on an average lying time without considering the interplay of other factors we could conclude that longer lying times indicate greater cow comfort when, in fact, they may indicate a higher incidence of lameness.”

Observing cows

Dr Solano has recently completed a study recently that showed that waiting times varied widely for cows milked through automatic milking systems. This was similar to herds milked through conventional parlours.

“Hours and hours of video footage made for fascinating watching,” she said. “We observed some cows waiting for as long as five hours to be milked through a robot, predominantly due to more dominant cows ‘jumping the queue’ and facilitated by inadequate cow flow and gating.

“Waiting or standing times are similar across all types of milking system – there’s not a lot of difference. So it’s important not to assume that free-flow systems automatically reduce waiting times. Our work shows that’s not the case.”

Guided-flow cows (milked through conventional parlours twice a day) waited for an average of one hour and 24 minutes per day to be milked. Some cows waited for less than five minutes and some, again, for longer than five hours. Free-flow systems (automated parlours offering multiple milkings) saw cows waiting for an average of one hour and 28 minutes each day. Cows typically visit the robot six times a day.

Watching and monitoring cow flow and behaviour can help to identify pinch points. “It’s important to implement management strategies to optimise the robot area design to reduce ‘competitive’ behaviour, particularly towards fresh-calved heifers, and to reduce standing times.”


Map of Ag is offering CowManagement readers an ‘early bird’ 10% discounted rate on all tickets booked before March 31, 2024, for this year’s TotalDairy Conference, to be held at Crowne Plaza Hotel, in Stratford-upon-Avon, on November 6 & 7. This year’s theme is ‘Building resilience: for cows, for profit, and for the future’.

Visit to secure your place.

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