In the second of our blogs looking at the UK dairy industry over the last 80 years, Bright Maize business manager Charlie Dolphin looks at the remarkable changes in the management of the milking cow: and how this has influenced her performance and her role within the national herd.

We looked in the previous blog at how the creation of the Milk Marketing Board in 1933 helped to stabilise the British dairy industry after a difficult period following the First World War. A guaranteed market for all milk produced at a price most dairy farmers considered fair provided much-needed stability. It also incentivised farmers to invest in expanding milk production and improving the quality and hygiene of their product.

But the existence of the Milk Marketing Board was only one factor driving the enormous transformation of the dairy industry over the years that followed. The average herd size of the 141,000 milk producers registered with the Board in 1933 was about 14 cows, and the milk from these herds often had to sustain more than one family. As recently as 1954 the average dairy herd size was only 16 cows, and one contemporary account tells how a herd this size could comfortably support three families. Milk producer numbers in England and Wales peaked at around 162,000 in 1950.

Farms before the advent of the Milk Marketing Board were often mixed, producing beef as well as milk, rearing cattle with sheep and other livestock, and sometimes growing arable crops for sale as well. Cows were often raised for meat as well as milk, and there was a wide variety of cattle breeds being reared, including Dairy Shorthorn, Ayrshire, Friesian, Jersey, Guernsey, Hereford and Aberdeen Angus.

The red or red-and-white Shorthorn cattle were the dominant breed in Britain in the 19th century, with the hardy Ayrshires common in Scotland, and the Jersey and Guernsey channel island breeds popular for the high fat content of their milk. Even in 1948, Shorthorns constituted the largest number of dairy herds registered with the Milk Marketing Board, although the larger black-and-white Friesians familiar to most of us today were catching up and would very soon overtake the Shorthorns.

The range of breeds in use, small herd size and less specialised and advanced farming techniques meant that the milk yield per cow was much lower than it is now. For the period 1936-9, the average annual milk production per cow was 2,464 litres and the average annual total milk production for England and Wales was 8.1 billion litres. Looking at the figures for 2020 when the average cow was producing about 8,000 litres and total milk production was over 15 billion litres, we can get an idea of just how much has altered.

Compared to her 1930s ancestors, the dairy cow of today is a supercow, producing more than 3 times as much milk! There are several different factors behind this astonishing transformation, with one common theme. The range of knowledge and skills needed to be a successful dairy farmer has constantly increased, and the pressure to perform is much greater now than it was then. Today’s farmer needs at least some of the skills of an animal nutritionist, data scientist, marketing expert, ecologist, businessman and HR manager.

The complexity and sophistication of modern farming techniques have led to great benefits, but some would argue to the detriment of the farmer’s lifestyle and peace of mind, and even to the welfare of his or her livestock. Certainly, dairy cows have a shorter working life now than they did in the 1930s, with the need for high milk yields meaning culling rates have increased considerably.

The arrival of so-called super dairies in more recent years has met with its fair share of critics, yet welfare standards within such systems are often cited as being the highest within the dairy sector. On visiting a super dairy recently, I was struck by the relatively short time cows were waiting to be milked compared to some other systems where animals can be standing around for hours.

One of the biggest factors in the increase in milk yields has been changes in the diet of the dairy cow, and the use of concentrates. In earlier centuries, providing food for cattle in winter was often difficult, and animals sometimes had to be slaughtered and the meat consumed for want of feed. Improvements in hay-making techniques and the use of silage (where grass is ensiled in a clamp and fermented to better preserve nutritional value) were more common by the time of the First World War.

In the 1920s forage crops like mangel wurzels, turnips, fodder beet and the beet tops from the newly-introduced sugar beet started to be added to the winter diet of dairy cows. An important development in the 1960s and 70s was the adoption of maize as a common British fodder crop, which has been aided by new seed varieties well-suited for the British climate and growing conditions. The high starch content of maize makes it an ideal complement to grass silage Where possible, it is widely accepted that maize as a component within the diet improves milk from forage performance – the high starch content of maize making it an ideal complement to grass silage.

Nowadays over 90% of the UK dairy herd is made up of Holstein-Friesians, large black-and-white cows known for their high milk yield. Most of the older British breeds are no longer widely farmed, with the exception of the premium-priced Channel Island breeds and Ayrshires, so the appearance of cows in the field is very different compared to 1933. Holstein-Friesians have been selectively bred to increase their already high milk yield, and this process has been advanced by the introduction of accurate milk records, and the use of Artificial Insemination.

National Milk Recording was introduced by the Milk Marketing Board in 1943, and involved regular visits to farms from a field officer who would record the yield of each cow.  This enabled changes to be made to cows’ diets to maximize milk yield, and provided a phenotypic database of cattle which could be used to improve cattle breeding. Artificial Insemination was very rare in 1933, but was promoted by the Agricultural Insemination Act of 1946. Despite initial scepticism and some mockery, within a short space of time over 2 million inseminations were being carried out each year, and today about 90% of inseminations are by this means. Another technological change from the 1930s has been the adoption of mechanical milking, and now increasingly robotic milking.

All of these factors mean that the average herd size has increased to 216 cows according to the latest figures. Some modern “super dairies” have as many as 8,000 cows. Larger herds of highly-productive cows allow just 7,500 dairy farmers to produce nearly twice as much milk as the 162,000 farmers of 1950 could! That is a stupendous achievement, and whatever the challenges and costs may be, it is hard to see how alternative systems could be viable whilst the big supermarkets hold such a tight rein over milk contracts.


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