The concept of ‘sustainable livestock production’ has greatly developed over the past decades. Currently, a certain degree of consensus has been reached. The concept comprises four major components: Economics; Ecology; Society; and Ethics. Dairy farmers, especially but not only those with grassland-based production, play a paramount role in this concept. They must provide landscape and water management services, next to healthy and animal-friendly dairy production, as well as food safety. Other stakeholders in the food-production-consumption-chain play a key role too. Therefore, the sustainability concept must be considered at both the structural, technological, and managerial levels. The first addresses the structure of the dairy production chain, from farm to processing to retail to consumption. This chain includes politics, institutions and markets. The second refers to the technology and logistics which are and can be applied in this chain. The third refers to quality assurance throughout this chain, regarding management of vermin, pesticides and diseases, nutrients and water, animal welfare & health, nutrition, public health, waste and animal genetics.
Optimization of managerial domains can contribute to the sustainability of the dairy farm. Improving health and welfare, for example, contributes to efficient use of production factors, and to financial and socio-economic profit for the farmer. Next to smallholder farms there are roughly two types of farms: mega-farms and family-run farms.
Mega-farms with over 2.000 head of cattle, up to 10.000 head of cattle, are run as a business. Often these farms are devised into different smaller units. A farm manager is the responsible person, and he/she has specific personnel for executing the different farm tasks, such as feeding the cows, trimming the hoofs of the cows, milking the cows, taking care of young stock. Their ultimate objective is to make profit. Often these farms are owned by investment groups or a government. Family-run farms have a size of up to 150 head of cattle and the different farm tasks are distributed among family members involved. Farm income is relevant, but farming is also their way of life. On family-run farms the economic margins have decreased over the past decades, leading to further intensification and upscaling trends (Huirne et al., 2002).
The forenamed intensification, upscaling and regional concentration have been accompanied by increasing risks of environmental damage and of human and animal health. The latter has resulted (Steinfeld et al., 2010) in the further development of vaccines, antimicrobials, and new farm technologies such as Total Mixed Ration-systems and automatic milking systems (AMS). Nevertheless, animal diseases are still prevalent, causing economic and genetic losses. Zoonotic diseases on cattle farms are not uncommon neither (Heuvelink et al.,1998; Barten et al., 1998). At the end, the poorest people have no access to appropriate food resources. The agronomic, environmental, and societal performances of current production systems must improve drastically to be able to achieve the increased production demands within the ecological, societal, and ethical constraints.
Qualified, specialized cattle herd veterinarians play a key role on both types of farms. They implement veterinary herd health & productivity programs (Brand et al., 2001; Noordhuizen, 2012) or even quality risk management programs (LIT). On mega-farms they are assisted by other farm-veterinarians who take care of applying vaccination plans, management of calf birth and diagnosing and treating sick animals. Veterinarians can also play a key role in the efforts of the farmer or farm manager to improve sustainability on the farm. The veterinary advisory services named above can contribute by advising farmers or farm managers in their attempts to improve sustainability of their exploitation, and this irrespective of the size of their farm: mega-farms or family-run farms.
The objectives of this paper are to (1) develop and discuss the current concept of sustainable dairy production, and (2) point to the role the specialized cattle herd veterinarian can play in improving sustainable dairy production, focusing on farm management. When addressing sustainability, the principles of ‘functional integrity’ described by Thompson and Nardone (1999) are followed, as well as the concept of finite resources combined with the resulting need for increasing resource use efficiency and recycling.