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A 100-Year Review: A century of change in temperate grazing dairy systems

A 100-Year Review: A century of change in temperate grazing dairy systems

Journal of Dairy Science 100(12): 10189-10233

ISSN/ISBN: 0022-0302

PMID: 29153162

DOI: 10.3168/jds.2017-13182

From 1917 to 2017, dairy grazing systems have evolved from uncontrolled grazing of unimproved pastures by dual-purpose dairy-beef breeds to an intensive system with a high output per unit of land from a fit-for-purpose cow. The end of World War I signaled significant government investments in agricultural research institutes around the world, which coincided with technological breakthroughs in milk harvesting and a recognition that important traits in both plants and animals could be improved upon relatively rapidly through genetic selection. Uptake of milk recording and herd testing increased rapidly through the 1920s, as did the recognition that pastures that were rested in between grazing events yielded more in a year than those continuously grazed. This, and the invention and refinement of the electric fence, led to the development of "controlled" rotational grazing. This, in itself, facilitated greater stocking rates and a 5 to 10% increase in milk output per hectare but, perhaps more importantly, it allowed a more efficient use of nitrogen fertilizer, further increasing milk output/land area by 20%. Farmer inventions led to the development of the herringbone and rotary milking parlors, which, along with the "unshortable" electric fence and technological breakthroughs in sperm dilution rates, allowed further dairy farm expansion. Simple but effective technological breakthroughs in reproduction ensured that cows were identified in estrus early (a key factor in maintaining the seasonality of milk production) and enabled researchers to quantify the anestrus problem in grazing herds. Genetic improvement of pasture species has lagged its bovine counterpart, but recent developments in multi-trait indices as well as investment in genetic technologies should significantly increase potential milk production per hectare. Decades of research on the use of feeds other than pasture (i.e., supplementary feeds) have provided consistent milk production responses when the reduction in pasture intake associated with the provision of supplementary feed (i.e., substitution rate) is accounted for. A unique feature of grazing systems research over the last 70 yr has been the use of multi-year farm systems experimentation. These studies have allowed the evaluation of strategic changes to a component of the system on all the interacting features of the system. This technique has allowed excellent component research to be "systemized" and is an essential part of the development of the intensive grazing production system that exists today. Future challenges include the provision of skilled labor or specifically designed automation to optimize farm management and both environmental sustainability and animal welfare concerns, particularly relating to the concentration of nitrogen in each urine patch and the associated risk of nitrate leaching, as well as concerns regarding exposure of animals to harsh climatic conditions. These combined challenges could affect farmers' "social license" to farm in the future.

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