Italian dairy production is some of the most efficient in Europe but consumers are pushing for less intensive production with a product that delivers nutrition as well as animal welfare. Will farmers be adequately compensated?
With world milk prices stable, and producers now able to pay their bills plus make a small profit, it is timely to consider where the dairy industry might go from here.
In Italy the talk is all about sustainability and animal welfare, with the subject discussed constantly at various forums during the recent dairy expo at Cremona, Lombardy.
The location for the expo was fitting, with the immediate district providing 10 per cent of Italy's milk production and the Lombardy region delivering more than 40 per cent, all of it intensive compared to Australian agriculture.
Farms in this region are twice the size of the Italian average, at 18ha,which is more than a quarter larger than the rest of Europe.
As a result many of the displays promoted equipment to manage bovine waste – either delivering it from the sheds back to the soil or converting it to energy in the form of methane 'biogas'.
Feed management was an important issue, with corn silage and lucerne hay a staple part of cow diet, along with soybean supplement.
Most farms can’t grow all they need so there is a market for feedstock, with corn grown in rotation with lucerne, soy, ryegrass and sorghum. Despite the intensive livestock systems there is very little black fallow in paddocks, with native ground cover ploughed back in before sowing. This ‘biological’ approach was very evident in other regions, like Veneto and Friuli, where cropping elbows for room alongside residential and manufacturing space.
The agro-industrial sector in Lombardy alone is worth 13.8 billion euros (almost 17% of the national total). Italians love to marry art and science to create quality engineering. At the Cremona expo equipment designed to shave portions of ensiled rations and blend that into finely chopped 'unifeed' were prominently displayed, with some selling a product that had been produced for generations – like Sgariboldi from Codogno.
Italian manufacturer Rota Guido, promoted it's concept of an 'ethical stall' where cows had room to rest under cover after eating their fill. Electric fans and water spray cool them in summer with heating maintaining warmth in winter. In an ideal system a biogas plant turns waste into electricity, although the demand for feedstock for these plants sometimes competes directly with milk production.
Rota Guido was keen to promote their ‘zootecni’ products to representatives from India, Turkey, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan and other developing regions, with commercial technical director Guiseppe Volta pointing out that projects involving this 'ideal farm' in Kenya and Cameroon, using both public and private finance, were providing a 'social role' in promoting self reliance in milk production.
For many of the international delegates, who deal with farmers that milk a handful of cows on small acreage, the concept of ultimate indoor dairy was simply not feasible.
But for Italians looking to embrace change, there was more talk of digital technology helping to drive production using cow monitors that brought data to the farmer's phone.
According to the Financial Times, Telecom Italia is in talks with the industry body representing Parmesan cheese makers, Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, about better connectivity and monitoring of cow health and milk production.
Intensive management is, of course, designed to maintain the genetic potential of predominantly Friesan cattle in milking Italian herds, producing beyond 10,000 litres per lactation at 4.5 per cent fat and 3.6 per cent protein. Other breeds typically used in dairy include Jersey, to boost fat and protein along with Red Holstein, Braunvieh and Fleckvieh.
Elephant in the room
Meanwhile, the consumer continues to clamour for biologically produced product with a focus on animal wellbeing and greater nutrition in their milk products.
With intensive production and seasonal requirement demanding cows live under cover, there is call for comfortable stalls but the typical 'unifeed', or blended rations, fails to create milk with the same levels of Omega 3 fats as that coming from mountain reared, pasture fed cows who live a romantic existence in the alpine country bordering France, Switzerland and Austria.
Dr Milena Povolo from Italy’s Council for Agricultural Research and Analysis of Agricultural Economics (CREA) and her colleague Fabio Abeni told an audience at the Cremona dairy expo that the secret to better nutrition and flavour in milk products was not necessarily delivering organic or biologically produced feed, but rather supplying a diversity of pasture grass. One such example is a new variety of clover, Giga, developed by their colleagues at CREA that competes twice as well as the best landrace varieties when grown alongside dominant summer fescues.
Other CREA scientists are working on alternative legumes to provide necessary protein in the unified diet – new varieties of field pea, for instance, that withstand frost for autumn sowing and display reduced lodging, making them easier to harvest with a conventional combine.
The key to better milk nutrition, they say, is to provide a broad spectrum of fatty acids but of course incentive to move this way will depend on the price received by the farmer.
Fair return for the farmer?
All this call for increased productivity with technology and quality through diversity worries those who try to sell milk and cheese. Fusar Poli, president of the dairy co-operative Latteria Soresina, saying farmers and consumers are separated from a strong working relationship by the likes of GDO, La Grande Distribuzione Organizzata, which is creating a 'bottleneck' in marketing, much like Woolworths and Coles in Australia and Walmart in the United States.
"I worry that we ask farmers to push for sustainability and to improve quality but we can't offer them a price increase," he says. "The industry needs to change but the farmer is stuck with the same old price."
Director of united milk co-operative, Confcooperative, Enrico De Corso agrees, saying the consumer wants sustainable milk production and could be willing to pay the price if they received the right education.
Fortunately for Confcoop, which handles 60 per cent of Lombardy's production, there is terrific demand for cheese – Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Taleggio – which consumes half of their production with another third exported out of the area.
Of course, Italians love their food culture and there is much call for niche products created to appeal to the discerning consumer.
Small farmers like the Zanatta family from historic Nervesa Della Battaglia on the alluvial soils of the Piave River near Treviso, find a ready market for their milk in the spreadable cheese market, selling to Nonno Nanni.
Their small herd of 50 cows on 6ha, 20 in lactation at the moment, include a range of breed types including Friesan, Jersey cross, Pezzata Rossa, and Braunvieh which produce an average of 9000l/ lactation at 4.05 per cent milk fat and 3.36 per cent protein. Cell count is 280/ 1000. An individual daily ration includes 15kg corn silage with 4kg grain (corn and soy) before milking.
Buffalo mozzarella enjoys a burgeoning market both domestically and internationally. The Capovilla family from Aviano run 500 Murrah buffalo that produce a whopping 8 per cent milk fat and 4.6 per cent protein, though produce only 15-17l/ day over an eight month lactation totaling an average of 2200 litre per cow during that time. Feed rations are typically 25kg corn silage plus 4kg grain (soy and corn) each day.
The family, which started business in 1990 with a gift of 50 buffalo cows from the Italian government, keen to move the industry out of its stronghold in Campania, impregnates cows using artificial insemination followed by a bull, one for every 14 cows with each herd penned separately under cover. With 120ha – a very large farm by Italian standards – the Capovilla family is able to grow all its feedstock.
Certainly milk production in Italy faces a bright future, in spite of price fluctuations and in defiance of supermarket strongholds. The Italians embrace cheese like they do their wine and so many other agricultural products. Their economy might be on shaky ground, but not so their culture for which food is the engine of sustainability.
- the writer was a guest of the Italian Trade Agency