strategy documents 2013

A Strategic Review of UK Dairy Farming’s priorities for R &D and Knowledge Exchange for 2013-2020

The Three Sub-Papers can be downloaded as pdfs below, or the full text is available in the body of the page.

1. Research and Development              pdf version

2. Knowledge Exchange                          pdf version

3. Animal Health and Welfare                 pdf version


Research and Development Sub Group – Terms of Reference: ‘What are the key priorities for R&D and how can R&D funding be better coordinated?’


Research and development has played, and will continue to play, a key role in maintaining a competitive and sustainable UK dairy industry. Over the last twenty years there have been significant changes in funding arrangements for dairy related R and D, with government funding (until recently) focused on more fundamental aspects of research and on environmental issues.  In parallel, funding for applied research from commercial organisations eg ICI, Dalgety etc has contracted and, until recently, even the dairy levy organisations offered limited support for applied R and D.

The net effect of these funding reductions has been a significant contraction in the capacity to undertake applied R and D in dairying within the UK, coupled with a loss of scientific and technical expertise.

All is not lost however, as there are now encouraging developments in relation to increased funding for applied R and D to support the dairy sector (BBSRC, DEFRA, Technology Strategy Board (TSB), Devolved Administrations, Dairy Co, Milk Processors).  The key challenge which the industry now needs to address is how best to achieve effective co-ordination of funding to enable large scale, multidisciplinary, applied dairy research programmes across a number of UK research providers.

Issues for Consideration

(a)    Co-ordination of funding.  Within the UK we have a large number of funding bodies (BBSRC, DEFRA, TSB, Devolved Administrations, levy organisations etc) supporting dairy related R and D.  Furthermore, all of the major research providers participate in EU funded research programmes with a significant applied dairy research component eg SOLID, Animal Change, Robust Cow etc. Historically, there has been a particular disconnect between UK and EU funded research, although this issue appears to have been addressed in the proposed EU Horizon 2020 programme.

Better co-ordination of R and D activity is required to maximise the benefits of research and to ensure that the UK dairy industry remains competitive in the global market.  This could be achieved by a more focused approach to R&D based on fewer, larger programmes rather than the current “project-based” approach. An excellent example of this is the current UK Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Platform – a £12.6m programme funded jointly by Defra and the devolved administrations and involving 16 research providers.

The Dairy Science Forum seeks to take a lead role in bringing together the main funders of dairy R and D to discuss research priorities for the next two decades and to explore opportunities for improved co-ordination.

(b)    Securing greater involvement of food retailers (and milk processors) in funding of dairy related R and D.  Whilst milk processors have shown increasing interest in funding dairy related R and D in recent years, funding from the large retailers (with one or two notable exceptions) has been extremely limited.


The Dairy Science Forum will play a key role in engaging with the large retailers to highlight the benefits and opportunities of participating in applied dairy R and D.

(c)    Gaps in scientific expertise/capacity.  Reductions in funding for applied R and D over the last twenty years have resulted in a loss of scientific and technical expertise in applied dairy research.  A review of scientific and technical capacity across UK research providers is required to identify gaps in expertise and to inform prioritisation of postgraduate training.


The Dairy Science Forum, in conjunction with the British Society of Animal Science, will undertake a review of current scientific and technical capacity within the UK in dairy related R and D, with a view to informing prioritisation of postgraduate training.

(d)    On farm versus research centre based research and development.  Historically applied dairy research in the UK has had a significant research centre focus.  However, the level of data recording and technical expertise on many commercial farms is at least as good, if not better in some cases, than that available in research centres.  Whilst the value of such data sets is recognised by geneticists, there is much greater scope to make use of on farm data in relation to animal health, fertility, animal welfare and nutrition.


The Dairy Science Forum will take the lead in highlighting the value of the “dairy farm database” within the UK and will lobby for more effective co-ordination of farm data at a national level.


Reductions in funding for applied research in the UK in the last two decades have resulted in a contraction in applied dairy R&D and a decline in scientific and technical capacity. A renewed emphasis on the coordination and funding of applied, dairy related R and D, is required if the UK dairy industry is to remain competitive and respond to the new market opportunities for dairy products in the next decade.

The Dairy Science Forum calls for a fundamental review of current scientific and technical capacity in dairy related R&D, followed by an industry wide analysis to consider future research priorities and optimum methods of delivery to the industry.



Dairy Research and Development Priorities

The problematic components of the dairy industry that need further research may be exclusive to the industry (such as milk composition) or of wider interest (such as forage feed value). The priority given to each problem must depend on its current importance, its likely importance in the future and the likelihood of its being solved by research. The Forum considers that the topics below should be considered as key R&D priorities in relation to consumers, environment and animal health and welfare.

Improving forage feed value.  There has been no real improvement in the feed value of grazed grass or grass silage in the last 20 years, and milk production from forage has decreased. In parallel there is the increased requirement for cereals for human consumption, which must result in increased production from forage being a major driver in the years ahead.

Tailoring of milk constituent levels to market demand. There has been no change in milk fat or protein concentration in 15 years and no real response to reflect changing market trends. Milk composition needs to better reflect market demand both in relation to gross composition and component constituents

Reversing the decline in dairy cow fertility.  Internationally, dairy cow fertility is falling at the rate of 1% per annum, and the decline is similar in the UK. Application of genomic selection in dairy cattle breeding offers considerable scope to address this problem.

Improving cow longevity.  The national dairy herd replacement rate currently is estimated at 33%, in other words, the average UK dairy cow survives for only three lactations.  This has a dramatic negative effect on overall industry efficiency while improved longevity would significantly reduce climate change effects per unit of output.

Improving nutrient management.  Compliance with EU Nitrates and Water Framework Directives present a significant management challenge to dairy farmers in many parts of the country. Currently the losses of N and P to watercourses are a major problem. Research and KE is needed on how to improve efficiency of fertiliser use, increase manure storage requirements, process manure prior to application, and advanced spreading methods.

Understanding factors affecting greenhouse gas emissions and air quality.  The livestock sector is a contributor to climate change, mainly through methane and nitrous oxide emissions.  In addition, the livestock sector is a source of ammonia.  Ammonia contributes to atmospheric particulate levels, which are a concern for human health.  In order to comply with EU, UK and Devolved Administration Climate Change Legislation, and any future legislation concerning ammonia emissions, there is a need to better understand the factors influencing emission levels and appropriate mitigation strategies.

Improving animal health.  Excellent animal health is integral to a productive and sustainable industry and also has a direct effect on reducing environmental impact (healthy animals are more productive and so fewer are required).

Specific research priorities for animal health:

·       Strategies for better detection, prevention and control of endemic diseases

·       Development of prevention strategies for exotic diseases

·       Eradication of bovine TB (e.g. by improvement of vaccines)

·       Prevention of lameness


Measuring and assessing animal welfare.  The need to objectively measure and record cattle welfare remains a key issue, particularly across different disease scenarios and management systems. A growing number of very large herds can be expected in the coming years and a study of the management of such systems and in particular the high-yielding ‘housed cow’ will be required.  There is currently little scientific investigation of the effect of herd size on cow health and/or welfare.

         Specific research priorities for animal welfare:

·       Evaluation of health and welfare in large herd systems, combined with

·       Evaluation of indoor housing and automation on cow health and welfare 


Alternative systems of dairy production.  Commercial dairying is moving to a model based on large, housed herds with high inputs     and high yields. In the future, economic or social concerns may render this model unviable, and simpler systems need to be formulated and assessed.


Knowledge Exchange Subgroup - Terms of Reference;- “How to improve uptake of technical and business information through better knowledge exchange” 



Flow of information amongst researchers, advisors, farmers and other professionals has variously been referred to as extension, technology transfer (TT), knowledge transfer (KT), technology interaction (TI) and Knowledge Exchange (KE).   Latterly, KE has become the fashionable term.  Knowledge exchange has always gone on within the farming industry, which to date not been  precious over protecting intellectual property, at least in the ruminant sector. Many of the best developments in R&D originated or were stimulated through interaction with practical farmers. Often researchers further developed, measured and parameterised, before recycling more rounded information back to the industry.  Knowledge is not generated solely through formal research. Farmers learn from other farmers. Individual farmers continually ‘experiment’, and increasingly have the tools to do so.  Neither can the opportunity to build professional advisory expertise, through contact with a diversity of clients and production systems, over an extended period, be underestimated.

KE in practice

Models have been put forward to describe the uptake of new ideas and technologies, for example, by classifying the recipient (innovator, early adopter etc) or as part of a linear process (creating awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, adoption etc). There is often no single best practice KE method.  Increasingly it is recognised that problems are not exclusively related to lack of knowledge. Although better appreciation of business performance does tend to increase receptiveness to technological change, a quick look at any benchmarking data will confirm that financial performance is often not the main motivating factor. Social marketing approaches can be highly effective, for example, the development of the Healthy Feet Project by Bristol University. Appreciation of the context, and the ability to be able to draw from a range of communication channels and approaches, are key elements. More often than not, a range of stakeholders may be involved.

A variety of KE delivery methods and approaches is recognised – demonstration activity, peer to peer mentoring, ‘monitor farms’, regular discussion groups, impact groups, ‘stable schools’ etc. Some have been imported from other countries. Advances in technology also provide a range of tools – interactive media, cost calculators, scenario planners, internet based resources etc, which permit rapid sharing of information, benchmarking etc. The most effective, but resource intensive, form of contact is still one to one, between the farmer and a trusted advisor. Given the volume of information available, a good deal from international sources, the ability to contextualise and apply appropriate to the circumstance becomes even more important.

Understanding client needs is central to the effective provision of any service. Aiming to better target levy payers with its products and services, DairyCo has recently completed a study of 750 dairy farmers. This arrived at a value-based segmentation (Appendix 1) identifying five categories or profile of dairy farmer, based on their objectives and views of the business. Thirty years ago the advisory landscape was based on a national network of advisors, focussed on increasing production, supported by a range of demonstration farms, experimental husbandry farms and dedicated research units. Individual specialisms were well catered for, often providing technical support to more generalist advisors. Many of today’s dairy consultants, are of a certain age. Most began their careers in organisations such as ADAS and SAC, which allowed the time and space to develop whole-systems skills and perspectives.


Sharing knowledge is of limited value, unless practically implemented. The ultimate aim of KE could be to provide a range of opportunities, which allow dairy farmers to access the information, tools, methods and support they feel they require, to meet their business and personal objectives.  Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is as much needed in dairy farming as in any other science and technology based business.

Industry leaders will forge ahead, read and travel widely, and use the best consultants almost as sounding boards. The challenge to the consultant in interacting with this group is to be continually on top of their game.

There is no immediate prospect of a return to a national extension system. It is a question of how the current generation of farmers and advisors, can make better use of resources and the opportunities available.


Appendix 1


·       Ensure better take up and impact by involving the industry in the research process to ensure relevance. This is now standard in ‘applied’ EU projects

·       Create more opportunities for leading farmers to interact more directly with applied researchers and encourage the      concept of CPD.

·       The Dairy Science Forum could lobby for a framework to develop the skills of early career dairy consultants

·       Make greater use of integrated delivery models which use social marketing techniques

·       The Dairy Science Forum could encourage greater sharing of (non competitive) information across the supply chain

·       Encourage international exchange programmes for dairy consultants

·       Network more effectively with research and extension bodies in Europe

·       The Dairy Science Forum could explore opportunities for a greater degree of networking and ‘joined-up-ness’ by those involved in the delivery of advice to dairy farmers (e.g. private consultancies, DairyCo, retailers, universities and colleges, industry bodies, Government, agencies etc )  

Appendix 2

A recent DairyCo segmentation model of the dairy industry, based on personal and commercial goals 


Animal Health and Welfare Subgroup - Terms of Reference;- “How to measure Health and Welfare at both individual and herd level” 



Animal welfare is often cited as being of paramount importance, and we know it is linked to health and productivity. But how do we “measure” welfare, either within a production system, or across production systems, and from whose perspective – that of the cow, the farmer or the consumer? The definition of animal welfare is about the animal first and foremost – so it must be agreed how we assess the animals’ perspective. Similarly, how do we “measure” welfare across different disease scenarios – is having a transient case of acute mastitis worse or better than having a chronic foot ulcer? We believe that objective and comparable measures are needed, and for the purposes of this paper we will consider only the dairy system.

Recent research from the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) published in July 2011 shows that animal welfare is very important to roughly half (48%) of British grocery shoppers when deciding to buy; and the trend towards higher welfare standards has been sustained throughout the economic downturn.  The proportion of shoppers claiming to have specifically bought a product with higher animal welfare credentials has almost doubled over the last four years. Recently, the popular press carried an article ranking the farm assurances schemes according to their perceived welfare credentials, and suggested that food carrying the lowest ranking label should be avoided.

The wider industry accepts the importance of this issue; for example the next generation of Red Tractor farm standards for dairy are going to encapsulate a range of welfare indicators - discussions are taking place to decide what these may cover.

So we believe that there are key questions that need to be clearly answered and that the Dairy Science Forum should take a role in encouraging the resourcing, integration and delivery of this research;-

What is the ultimate measure of welfare?

If welfare is to have any meaning (for the cow), it has to be about the cow’s response to experience, which is difficult to measure, but is likely to be related to her health and to a lesser degree her productivity. Although often cited, we don’t think high yield is the best measure – some cows seem to be programmed to produce milk whatever their experiences. There are currently efforts to put together algorithms that include age, parity, yield, milk constituents, fertility parameters (which ones can be debated), incidence and severity of disease (again which diseases are more important?).  But longevity is also a useful measure, if a cow continues to be productive over 10 years without being culled then her health and care must be ‘acceptable’. Average numbers of lactations in the national herd has started to improve as a result of the adjustments being made in traits related to cow welfare, aiming for better fertility, reducing incidence of lameness, less metabolic stress, etc.  In the future and with biometric sensors (such as variations in body temperature, rumen pH, cudding rates, lying times etc) and more accurate recording of health status (such as immune state, incidence rates, hormone concentrations etc) we should be able to properly define welfare in a variety of ways.

Are some measures of welfare anthropomorphic?

Public perception appears to have been influenced to already conclude, “large is not good”, and this seems to be based on anthropomorphic comparisons with battery hen and intensive pig rearing systems and what the public perceive happens to cows in large herds.  By contrast, the public generally want cheap food, a concept that encourages the development of larger scale units to achieve greater efficiencies.  There is a need for a “big conversation” which highlights the real issues about larger units and the benefits such as: specialisation of staff, (e.g. calf rearers, dedicated calvers, on-farm vets), and specialist facilities (e.g. intensive care and isolation areas) which should improve health management.  There must be discussions about what is “normal” behaviour for a cow, and about what cows will choose to do, or how they will behave depending on the options available and their particular physiological state. But we need to relate our understanding of welfare to the domesticated dairy cow, while appreciating her ancestors as plains, or even forest, living animals.  For example, modern cows may be happier lying dry inside on mattress or sand cubicles with ad-lib bunker feed than grazing on a cold wet Cumbrian hill.  And a dialogue is required about the role, method and reasons for culling cows in the modern dairy system – and how does this interact with welfare, particularly in the public’s mind? Diseases such as lameness will continue to occur, but we must manage the public’s expectation and opinion as much as treating the animals (e.g. don’t send straggling lame cows through the local village). How much is fact and how much is public perception, therefore, becomes an education issue.  Hopefully, we are adding to the facts....but we are not sure if farmers/vets would really like the public to know the real situation on some units!

To what extent can genotype over-ride the environment?

We suspect that many high-genetic merit cows will continue milking until they tip over the edge, and other organs/systems fail, such as the liver, or the reproductive system. This may be a result of previous selection policies aimed primarily at increasing yield that appear to have altered nutrient partitioning in modern cows such that producing milk has a higher metabolic priority than most other functions. This has led to cows producing even more milk when better fed even though they are thin – they partition the available nutrients to milk rather than gaining body fat. The phenomenon of mobilising body fat to support early lactation is common in mammals leading to cyclical changes in fatness. This has been exploited by farmers to produce milk at different times of the year when feed prices are high. However, previous selection policies may have inadvertently pushed fat mobilisation too far, resulting in some fertility and metabolic problems. More recently, these issues have been addressed and fertility is now improving in dairy cattle. Thus, the answer to the paragraph question is ‘yes’ – genotype can override the environment (or perhaps more accurately genotype can limit the influence of the environment)

What welfare issues are of most importance to youngstock?

Again, “normal behaviour” might include seeking shelter from driving rain behind a wall. But a calf is likely to prefer to be in a hutch, and even better in a hutch with a few cohorts.  Albeit they are in a restricted space, they are likely to be dry and comfortable, not hungry or thirsty and able to express most normal behaviours.  Although the most natural normal behaviour is to be suckled by your mother for several months, this can be mimicked by (for example) ad-lib milk feeders, so further work is needed to address whether early weaning is actually a welfare issue from the calf’s perspective.

Are there chemical markers of “stress” – If so what are they?

It is unlikely to be this simple – cortisol and adrenalin are often suggested as measures, but a bit of both of these are good for all mammals!  And it is probably much more complex than this - for example, evidence is available to support the theory that changes at the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis reduce expression of oestrus.  And behavioural changes may be just as significant and measurable stress indicators as chemicals.

Is welfare only associated with stress?

For example, is an apparently healthy animal ‘non-stressed’ and is an animal provided with all food/shelter/etc not under stress?.  Indeed, they may not be displaying ‘normal behaviour’ i.e., most animals would spend the majority of the day looking for food – are they less-stressed if abundance is provided ‘on a plate’....but they are not able to display ‘normal’ behaviour. What is normal behaviour to a domesticated animal and if an animal is unable to display their full behavioural repertoire within a building, does that matter? Thus, we must consider how we utilise behaviour to better understand welfare and choose the right measure in various situations. Altered behaviour may result in better welfare but no longer be typical of the animal (domesticated dogs are a good example). Altered behaviour may be more an ethical rather than a welfare issue.   Cows seem to find group changes very stressful, as evidenced by a drop in milk yield, more metabolic disease, disturbances in parturition, etc. – how can that be assessed and if necessary, avoided?

Pain is usually the primary consideration, but welfare will also be compromised if a cow does not experience the other four Freedoms;- hunger and thirst, discomfort, fear, and to express normal behaviour.

When (if ever) does sub-optimal production become a “stress” or a welfare issue? Is optimal production in itself a “stress” – as in top athletes? Well that depends on the definition of “optimal” and from whose perspective!


For the cow: There is a need for objective definition and measurement methods of welfare and stress in the modern dairy animal, and to provide methods of bench-marking individual farm performance across diseases and across husbandry systems.

For the farmer: There is a need for training to understand that good welfare is not a cost

For the consumer: There is a need for information exchange to alter perceptions that may be based on assumptions and on anthropomorphic comparisons.