The spirit of innovation and continuous improvement powering more successful and sustainable dairy farms
How can we ensure safe, reliable and nutritious food for a growing world population with as little environmental impact as possible? Among the many sustainability challenges facing humankind today, this is certainly one of the bigger ones. And when it comes to sustainable food systems, the humble dairy cow plays an outsized role. She has done it for centuries: transform grass into extremely valuable fat and protein for human consumption. But this highly valuable service is in demand more than ever today. And more than ever, we need dairy farmers to succeed in becoming as efficient, productive and sustainable as possible.
This is no easy task. Milk demand is high and is rising globally, but margins remain tight. With herd sizes growing, dairy operations are becoming more complex. Farmers also face increased scrutiny on a wide range of environmental and cow welfare issues: water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, the use of antibiotics, to name a few. Today’s dairy landscape is challenging on a whole new level, demanding new skills and new levels of efficiency.
The mission at GEA is to help dairy farmers rise to these modern-day challenges – to empower them to optimize their operations towards greater profitability and sustainability. GEA is known for its dairy farming technologies, such as state-of-the-art milking and feeding systems, cow monitoring devices, modern herd and manure management solutions – all of which boast a strong track record of increasing the yield and operational efficiency of dairy farms. We spoke with several GEA engineers and experts for a behind-the-scenes look at how these technologies are developed, how they contribute to more sustainable dairy farms, and how farmers can maximize their benefits. Along the way, we uncovered a number of sustainability “keys” – and a dairy farming industry which is surprisingly dynamic.
Key #1: Keep innovating
Henrik Böttner is responsible for product development for milking and feeding systems at GEA. When he looks out over the dairy landscape, he sees a highly dynamic industry open and ready for innovation. “This is an exciting time,” says Böttner. “The power of data, digitalization and automation is unlocking so much additional potential in dairy farms.” He points to a trend towards more condensed operations: farmers having to increase milk yield with the same amount of space, same number of cows and employees. “Sustainability in dairy farming depends on achieving new levels of efficiency,” he says. “Data is critical to this so that farmers can anticipate more – analyze and establish links to feed types and yield, for example, or intervene early to prevent cows from getting sick.” For Böttner, GEA’s role is to support farmers move towards more “predictive” farming.
Böttner’s colleague Michael Strotmann, Product Manager for Conventional Milking Systems at GEA, also sees a future full of possibility for dairy. “Herd sizes are increasing in many cases to achieve economies of scale, but I think we will also see small farms specializing in niche areas – producing not only milk, but also a number of other ecosystem relevant services, such as carbon capturing, manure processing to close nutrient cycles, or grazing services to keep the landscape open.” Along these lines, Strotmann talks about dairy farms evolving their business models – away from traditional linear growth and towards more cyclical models where farms provide services beyond milk and meat production. "The cyclic models inherit the ability to regenerate with each cycle, to recover from stress and learn,” explains Strotmann. “This leads to a more conscious striving towards greater knowledge and efficiency – and the power of data and digitalization will help us define the successful patterns.”
Before we even breach the topic of GEA products, Böttner and Strotmann have both conveyed what seems to be the first key to sustainable dairy: the industry’s ability to innovate and adapt.
Key #2: Keep collaborating
“It’s critical in our job to be tuned in to future trends and opportunities,” says Strotmann, “but our immediate focus is helping farmers get the most out of their operations today – to build their sustainability foundation.” The key to this, according to Strotmann, is constant dialogue with GEA customers, dealers and the wider research community. In other words: developing products that truly support sustainable dairy farming is a collaborative process. “Whether we are developing a new product or enhancing an existing one, the work of our project team starts with harvesting all of the great input and ideas from our customers – their specific requirements as well as their thoughts on how to save time, resources, energy, and how to be more efficient,” says Strotmann. He describes a highly interactive product development process, which keeps GEA engineers, salespeople, dealers and customers pulling in the same direction. “This helps us avoid wasting time and resources – a core aspect of what we call sustainable product development.”
For Böttner, the constant interaction with stakeholders is the key to staying flexible and adaptable. “The ‘Agile’ buzzword certainly applies to the dairy industry, too!” he says. “We make sure to present concepts to the market at a very early stage so we can verify that they’re aligned with market requirements and those of our customers and dealers. It’s a fail fast, fail early approach, using the swift responses from the market to make sure we continue developing in the right direction.”
Within the agile framework, rapid prototyping helps the engineers stay adaptable… and sustainable. Thanks to 3D printing for example, plastic parts that previously required resource-intensive tooling can be prepared immediately, allowing Böttner and his team to conduct form, fit and function tests easily and on short notice – a huge savings of time and resources. “Rapid prototyping is about rapid learning,” says Böttner. “If we have a bright idea, we can design it and print it and the next morning it’s available for testing to see if it provides the expected benefit. This not only speeds up the process, but also promotes a lot more creativity and learning.”
Key #3: Keep improving
When it comes to automated milking systems, GEA solutions – whether robotic rotary systems like the GEA DairyProQ or box-style systems like the GEA DairyRobot R9500 – have a proven track record of increasing milking frequency and milk yield, and freeing up farm staff to focus their energy on more proactive farm management. “As engineers, we look at the results and say: OK, that’s great, but how can we make our DairyRobot even more efficient and cow-friendly for even better results?” says Strotmann.
One of GEA’s recent projects was to optimize the milk rack on the automatic milking systems, the part of the milking robot with the most frequent contact with cows. “We wanted it to do a better job of accommodating different cow udder geometries and leg heights to ensure optimal individual milking for each cow,” says Strotmann, explaining that udder geometry undergoes changes throughout lactation and the life of a cow. “The improved milk rack is very adaptive and flexible, which means a more comfortable experience for the cow and ultimately greater yield.” An added sustainability bonus: the rack is powered by high performance, energy-efficient electric motors so it can be placed under the cow very precisely and quiet with minimum power consumption – time and energy savings that add up over time. And this also sets the stress level for the cows to a minimum.
Machine usability and lifespan is another GEA focus area. “We’re always trying to make our machines easier to use and maintain, and more durable,” explains Strotmann. “You can’t underestimate how much ease-of-use and minimum down times contribute to sustainable operations on the farm.” For the milk rack, GEA overhauled the design of a segment that aligns the milk cups in the attachment process. The part is subject to extreme stress – from kicking cows, to cleaning chemicals, to manure and ammonia. “This part in particular is regularly serviced on our robots, so we wanted to prolong its lifetime, to minimize service and down-time requirements,” says Böttner, whose team used rapid prototyping to quickly design and test new material and geometry combinations. The new part has allowed GEA to extend the service interval.
In the end, the milk rack upgrade resulted in a long list of economic and environmental sustainability gains: a more comfortable (and productive) experience for cows, reduced energy consumption, lower maintenance costs, reduced down time, and fewer resources spent on wear parts – a good example of a highly efficient development process leading to more sustainable machine performance and more sustainable farm operations.
And there’s more where that came from! Tune in again on November 22 on gea.com for more on how GEA’s continuous improvement drive is pushing Böttner, Strotmann and their colleagues to new levels of sustainability in dairy. We’ll introduce you to two more GEA experts, and two more keys to sustainable dairy farming (we’ve covered innovation, collaboration, continuous improvement so far; the next two might surprise!).