COLUMNS


Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

By John S. Hibma


Once every 10,000 years or so, a great invention comes along that changes the course of history. Some of those of notable mention are the wheel, the boat, the controlled use of fire for cooking, and the invention of agriculture. In more recent times we figured out electricity, internal combustion engines and airplanes, each of which has changed the way we live. But the one breakthrough that has eclipsed all others throughout the ages is "sliced bread."

I was reading the other day that it was back around 1928 when the first commercial machine to slice bread came along. Women swooned and grown men cried in public - so simple, so basic, so utterly life and culture changing was the invention of sliced bread. Even today, when some cool new gadget or concept comes along we don't say, "This is the greatest thing since potato chips or microprocessors." We say, "This is the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Sliced bread is merely an amusing metaphor for describing efficiencies that represent ways of making improvements in our lives. Our quirky American lexicon requires quick and witty phrases to describe unique things and situations. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that someday our great-grandchildren will be able to say something like, "That's the greatest thing since cows started giving chocolate milk," or some gigantic breakthrough like that. It's going to be really difficult to surpass the amazing, life-altering efficiency that was created by sliced bread.

A few years ago, Dr. Dale Bauman of Cornell University published his findings of how much more efficient the dairy industry has become since the 1940s. He established a benchmark of 1944 when the U.S. dairy herd peaked at over 26 million cows. Average milk production in those days was less than 20 pounds per cow per day. Today there are less than 10 million dairy cows in the U.S., and they average over 60 pounds of milk per day. The U.S. produces more total milk today than it did in 1944 with less than half the cows. This has come about through a combination of improved management, genetics, nutrition and technology. I'd say that's almost as cool as sliced bread.

Much of the nonagricultural public has been misinformed in recent years that dairy cows are being mistreated on modern dairy farms by being forced to produce more milk. On the contrary, only healthy and well-treated cows produce over 20,000 pounds of milk in a single lactation. A more pertinent argument can be made that cows in poorly producing herds might be under more stress due to poor management and nutrition. We have a lot to be proud of with our industry essentially becoming more efficient and sustainable at a time when animal rights issues are increasing.

I've written here more than once that the pursuit of high-producing dairy herds isn't necessarily for everyone. Dairy farming is highly regionalized, and styles of dairying are subjective in this country. The economics of feed and land availability, lifestyle expectations and the proximity to markets are some of the factors dictating whether a dairy farm should be trying to make the big milk or not. From a marketing context, much of the U.S. dairy industry pays according to pounds of fat and pounds of protein produced, so dairy farming today is focused on maximizing milk components as much as it is in total volume.

Today's dairy farmers should be looking at their herds within the context of the larger global picture, recognizing that more milk and components per cow equates to greater efficiency. Modern, 21st century dairy farming has already shown itself to be one industry that can provide superior nutrition to the world's malnourished. Dairy farmers who focus on milking and feeding efficiencies figure prominently in the preservation of resources and environmental sustainability. However, those lofty goals are easily defeated if they are not also economically sustainable.

Large or small, dairy farms must be especially cognizant of feeding efficiencies and how they affect their financial bottom line. Maximizing income over feed cost (IOFC) is a well-established metric for making the most milk for the amount of feed being fed to your cows. A concern that's often raised is that for a milk cow to produce more milk she has to consume more feed per day, costing more money. Does the milk produced pay for the feed consumed? Is it just a wash, or does it really make you more money? In other words, is production efficiency economically viable for the modern dairy farm?

Bauman explains it this way: As milk production increases, the total nutrient requirement also increases. But productive efficiency is improved because the maintenance requirements for the cow are fixed and remain the same. Therefore, the nutrient requirements are diluted out over more units of milk production. The net result is the energy requirement per unit of milk output is reduced, and a unit of milk can be produced using fewer nutrients with less animal waste. (Bauman et al, 1985; Capper et al, 2009). Formulated correctly and paying close attention to other critical management factors such as timely reproduction and cow comfort, diets that support more milk will more than pay for themselves.

Ultimately, dairy farmers must embrace the model of increased milk production per cow, while at the same time improving feeding efficiencies as all agriculture and agribusiness moves forward, hand in hand, in establishing a new paradigm in how we approach feeding a hungry world. An estimate that by 2050 the planet Earth must double its current food production makes agricultural efficiencies and sustainability crucial to adequately feeding 9 million or more people by midcentury without destroying the environment. High-yielding technologies are one way to help meet those growing food needs.

The environmental impact of meeting future food demands depends on how global agriculture improves food production efficiencies. Dairy farming, with its impressive track record of improved efficiencies, stands out as an excellent model for the rest of agriculture to emulate. It may even be the greatest thing since sliced bread.

The author is a dairy nutritional consultant and works for Central Connecticut Farmer's Cooperative in Manchester, Conn.