We recently visited Henning Lefert in Ahaus, Germany, who, by European standards, runs a medium-sized dairy farm with 120 contented cows. To do this efficiently and in a way that promotes animal welfare, he uses state-of-the-art technology from GEA. With automation and digitalization, he has made the leap to profitability. However, keeping it that way and ensuring we can all continue to enjoy milk in the future involves overcoming a number of hurdles.
Dairy farmers facing tough choices
Six years ago, Lefert, an agricultural economist, was faced with making a decision about his future: should he continue to run his father's dairy farm or pack it in? Guided by his love of farming, he decided to maintain the livestock on the farm where he had grown up.
At that time, the herd included about 50 cows and he was using an outdated conventional milking parlor; both were undersized if he wanted to become profitable. Choosing the growth option, Lefert believes that, as a farmer, he makes an important contribution to society by producing valuable food while ensuring his land and the environment are treated in a sustainable manner.
During his research, he realized that he needed state-of-the-art technology to achieve his goals, one of which was to manage the business as independently as possible. Accepting the potential risk, he secured a bank loan to increase the herd size and make investments in a larger, more modern dairy barn, robotic milking technology and complementary digital solutions. GEA worked closely with Lefert to provide a solution that matched his plans and vision.
Automation and digitization point to the future
Today, Lefert operates two GEA DairyRobot R9500 milking robots and uses GEA CowScout to monitor the health of his 120 cows and their calves. The digital herd management system allows him to maintain a watchful eye on the animals and provide them with the best possible care. An automatic feed pusher and manure scraper robot ensure constant feed availability and cleanliness in the barn.
Both quietly make their rounds while the cows do what they love: being cows. Every now and then, one heads over for a relaxing massage from the cow brush and, of course, there is always sufficient water and feed available. The spacious barn affords plenty of fresh air and light, with views of the surrounding grasslands and cornfields. Lefert produces most of the feed for the animals himself, using the farm’s manure as fertilizer. The calves and the pregnant cows each have their own barn and are allowed to spend time together as a group; additionally, the cows have access to pastureland.
That Lefert knows what is good for his “ladies” — each of which has her own first and last name — is clearly visible. The "Lefert cow hotel" leaves its guests wanting for nothing. His circular economy strategy is well thought out and sustainable. The new GEA technology ensures that his cows are healthy and maintain high rates of good-quality milk production. As a result, veterinary costs are down and the use of medicines has been kept to a minimum. A great example of "engineering for a better world."
Not the end of the story: climate change and rising costs
Unfortunately, Lefert is unable to rest on his hard-won laurels. The reality is that dairy farmers must contend with several other challenges on a daily basis. These include climate change, unpredictable weather and fluctuating milk prices. Rising energy and feed costs and increasing environmental regulations add further pressure. Agriculture and, in particular, animal husbandry, has become a hot topic of public discussion. Whether at his local pub or at larger events, he has never felt so defensive when it comes to his work as a livestock farmer in Germany as he does today. In addition, the labor market situation with regard to finding skilled workers interested in the agricultural sector is grim and getting worse.
Lefert is not alone in facing these challenges; many farmers, especially those with small herds of 50 or fewer cows, are asking themselves the same question he did: grow or quit? Owing to the ever-increasing risks, the decision is more often than not made to quit. According to the Federal Institute for Agriculture and Food, the number of dairy farms in Germany fell to 52,900 at the end of 2022 — 1900 fewer than the previous year. In 2000, there were as many as 138,500 farms. In Sweden, more than 90% of dairy farms have given up. A look at other European countries paints a similar picture.
Demand for milk and dairy products on the rise
Despite the challenges faced by dairy farmers, demand for milk and dairy products remains high. As the world's population increases, so does milk consumption, particularly in developing countries. In 2022, 544 million tons of milk were produced worldwide, with 144 million tons contributed by the European Union. Other countries leading in milk production include India, the US and China. The international expert network, IFCN, predicts that the dairy market will grow by more than 20% by 2030. This would tend to reinforce the global trend towards larger farms to ensure that milk will be available and producers will remain profitable.
Reducing the CO2 footprint of dairy farming
Thanks to new breeding and efficient feeding strategies, today’s dairy cow produces significantly more milk than in the past. Therefore, although the number of animals worldwide has gone down considerably, the amount of milk produced has been maintained owing to the higher output per cow. It has now been scientifically proven; if cows produce more milk, then their methane emissions go down. As a cow ages, it also emits less methane. And the healthier and more content a cow is, the longer she will produce milk, which means fewer cows are required to meet milk demand. This has an overall positive effect on the amount of CO2 emissions derived from milk production.
Dairy farmers need sustainable solutions to thrive and secure world milk supply
But this is only one aspect of the larger picture. For milk and dairy products to be produced more sustainably in the future and for farms to remain profitable, we also need efficient, forward-looking technology; and for this, we also need smart minds to develop these technologies for farmers around the world.
According to statistics, the demand for automated solutions worldwide will increase by more than two-thirds by 2030. Robots, digital solutions and artificial intelligence will play a key role in further reducing the CO2 footprint of milk and promoting circular farming. Especially on farms with larger herds, these tools help to ensure optimal animal welfare and health.
Forward-looking technology is like an excellent employee
In Ahaus, meanwhile, there is also the question of the current milk price; it’s currently far too low, says Lefert, which means that he’s actually making a loss at the moment. He hopes for better times in the coming months: stable weather, a good harvest and consumers who are willing to pay a fair price for high-quality foods such as milk.
This all means that it’s even more important that he can rely on his investment in technology. It must be robust, effective, fast, intelligent and smart. Collectively, it has to look after each cow and ensure its well-being, so that each member of the herd consistently produces a high level of milk.
What's more, every drop of water and every kilowatt hour of electricity that Lefert can save during milk production benefits everyone in the supply chain: himself in terms of costs, the environment and, ultimately, consumers. Here GEA has reached an important milestone for dairy farmers with its new generation of milking robots; the GEA DairyRobot R9500 has been proven to consume significantly less electricity and water than its predecessor. As a particularly resource-saving solution, the milking robot recently received GEA's new "AddBetter" eco-label. Additional solutions from GEA Farm Technologies are already in the pipeline for validation and will also carry this seal. With these systems, GEA is supporting farmers on their journey to next generation farming.