Darragh McCullough: As we hit 'peak-cow' farmers should look at adding value rather than just chasing volume
A decade ago it was 'peak oil'. Now it appears to be 'peak cow'. If we have in fact maxed out cow numbers, maybe now is the time to think differently about how to keep growing incomes on the majority of Irish farms.
That's what got me excited about the winners in the Rising Star section of the recent Zurich Farming Independent Farmer of the Year awards.
At first glance Tom and Norma Dinneen's farm diversification might appear to be an act of madness: setting up a cheddar cheese business in the midst of Brexit and the impending implosion of our largest cheddar market.
But their super-premium Bó Rua cheddar from their 100-cow herd of Montbeliards in east Cork proves that there's a different angle to everything in life.
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Back in 2014 they were dreaming of the same possibilities that consumed the majority of dairy farmers at the time - expansion post-quota.
Plans were already at an advanced stage, with a new parlour installed to allow their herd size to double. Foundations were laid for new sheds to increase winter housing, and the Dinneens were scouring the locality for suitable blocks of land to lease.
But cracks in the plan began to emerge as land around them started hitting €400/acre for long-term leases.
Rather than plough on regardless, the Dinneens pressed pause to look at their options.
Norma enrolled in a speciality food course in Cork city, and conversations over the kitchen table started to circle around the idea of making cheese.
Over the next five years, the couple left no stone unturned, through Nuffield scholarships, extensive product testing and constant questioning.
Last year they completed a €300,000 state-of-the-art cheese plant, with significant help from Leader.
The Dinneens were clear in their objectives when they were sinking the cash into this venture: a relatively short return on investment and a plant that would allow them to scale up to 20 tonnes of product annually.
This is a key point. Many Irish cheese-makers have come and gone over the years. Not because of poor product or lack of demand. On the contrary, Ireland has a deficit of artisan cheese relative to the copious volumes of world-class milk the country produces.
Instead, most Irish cheese makers fade off the stage because their businesses never progress beyond a cottage industry operation.
But the personal satisfaction from producing your own artisan food will only get you so far. It has to be economically sustainable if it is to last.
Many cheese makers have no intention of global domination, and that's okay. But they do need a vision for their businesses to reach a scale where it isn't all dependent on one or two people.
That scenario doesn't lend itself to time off, which in turn makes the business less attractive for the next generation.
But if somebody is prepared to build a business with an eye on export markets, the potential for scale is almost limitless.
With Irish milk being the most competitive and sustainable in the world, surely there is huge potential to develop niche added-value dairy products at farm level all around the country?
In the case of the Dinneens it opens up an alternative way to doubling the farm's revenue without following the pack and doubling up cow numbers.
By side-stepping the race for more cows, they are avoiding all the other headaches that are looming for Irish farmers in the form of tighter pollution controls, additional calf-rearing facilities and of course more emissions.
Naturally dairy co-ops will be reluctant to encourage their suppliers to develop their entrepreneurial urges for fear that they lose milk volumes or spawn competitors for their own products.
But here's the thing. The Dinneens never see themselves competing with Dubliner cheddar - their cost base rules that out straight away.
However, the domestic and international cheddar market totals more than 200,000 tonnes a year. This is more than big enough to absorb an extra 20 tonnes without it even being noticed. Brexit or no Brexit.
"We have a product that tastes so good that even the French have shown an interest!" says Tom, delighted to find that their product can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world in the most discerning cheese market in the world.
The fact that the milk on the Dinneen farm is as sustainable and competitively produced as anywhere in the world won't do them any harm either.
It's only a wonder that we haven't seen more of this before now.
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