Is Switzerland's dairy farming system a model for Irish regions?
Switzerland has a unique structure in its dairy industry due to state supports. So I was delighted when I got the opportunity to see it firsthand recently.
Their dairy industry was protected from competition by imports up to 10 years ago. At that time, dairy farmers got 90 cent per litre (cpl). Current milk price is closer to 47cpl. However, government supports account for approximately 50pc of dairy farm income.
The Swiss government has placed emphasis on self-sufficiency in milk products to avoid rural depopulation by keeping small farms viable.
A significant feature encountered was the size of dairy herds. Over 80pc of dairy herds range from 10 to 50 cows in size, despite the fact that there are no milk quotas. Herd size has increased over the past 10 years however.
Family-run farms are the norm, and the use of technology is increasing all the time to accommodate the management of cow numbers.
There has been a significant uptake in robotic milking systems in herds above 50 cows. Farmers claim a better lifestyle with robotic milking. The Brown Swiss is the predominant dairy breed, with some Holstein, Jersey and cross-breeding from the same.
The dairy herds visited had 305-day rolling herd averages ranging from 7,200 to 9,000 litres. Calving patterns were year round affairs with a peak in the autumn. A technician-led AI service through Swiss Genetics was the primary method of getting cows in calf.
The winters are long and harsh with cows housed from October to May. Often the cows are housed in tie-up stall systems. The system is labour intensive. On one herd of 38 cows, a husband and wife team work full-time on the farm.