Be cautious about jumping on the golden dairying bandwagon

As Irish milk becomes increasingly exposed to global dairy markets, farmers here are looking to New Zealand's dairy industry for benchmarking purposes
As Irish milk becomes increasingly exposed to global dairy markets, farmers here are looking to New Zealand's dairy industry for benchmarking purposes
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

We are traditional beef farmers. We are proud of what we do and, while there is always room for improvement, would like to think we do it pretty well.

We try to run a tight ship and use well-muscled bulls and cross them with cows that have enough milk to produce offspring with a high meat yield. But we can't turn anywhere these days without being told that we are a dying breed and that most Irish beef will soon be coming from the dairy herd.

Milk quotas will be gone in just over a year's time. This will open the door for an explosion in supplies. Plenty of farmers have been gearing up for the new dawn for several years. It's not surprising.

Having been shackled by quotas for so long, a whole generation of exuberant dairy farmers are bursting to break out the doors and swing into action.

It seems that you're nobody these days unless you are expanding a dairy enterprise or switching to dairying.

But while it's not quite a case of having the neighbours looking in over the hedge planning what they would do with a grazing platform like the beef farm next door, there is a sense that we are just standing in the way of progress.

How quickly we forget. About seven years ago, someone in a group visiting our farm asked Robin about what was in his property portfolio? Robin looked blank for a moment and then pointed to the cattle shed we had built a few years before. At the time nobody saw the bust coming but it wasn't far away.

In predicting what is coming down the tracks for Irish dairying, nobody seems to look at any country except New Zealand, as if it were some kind of Utopia. New Zealand began deregulating its dairy industry 30 years ago and some of their production figures are unquestionably staggering.

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But, dig a little and you may find that everything is not quite so rosy in the Kiwi garden.

Higher and higher production does not equate to more and more profit. While gross farm income has been increasing, family income has remained relatively constant and the key to profit is high pasture utilisation.

One of the more unsavoury issues for New Zealand has been the bobby calves produced in the dairy herd. These very young bulls, which are effectively treated as a waste product, are collected from the farm when they are a few days old and slaughtered. In 2012, there were more than 1.5m bobbies born on New Zealand dairy farms.

Perhaps the developments in sexed semen will mean the EU can avoid this contentious and highly emotive consequence of increased dairy production?


New Zealand is also now having to face up to the environmental cost of increased production, with "dirty dairying" being blamed for deterioration in water quality.

Here in Ireland, more than 20pc of soils are characterised as gley, meaning they have drainage issues. There is often a good practical reason why this land was not previously in dairying, ie, because it was not suitable.

There is no doubt that a major change is under way in Irish dairy farming. (Outside of Ireland, most other countries in the EU are not expecting a jump in production but we are also the most peripheral and most susceptible to the vagaries of the world market.)

This change is a good thing for many farmers and I'm not trying to put a dampener on things but I would urge people not to get swept up in the stampede.

I have no proof that dairying in the future will be anything but brilliant, except to suggest that if something sounds too good to be true then maybe it is.

World milk prices are strong and the forecasts are also favourable; so the Government sees increased dairying output as generating more revenue through exports. But who will be the winners here? Is it the dairy industry, the farmers, the national economy? How about environment and broader rural society? Can they all win?

One concern I have is about people over-extending themselves. For example, if I have 70 cows and I am able to work that on my own, how much bigger do I have to get to be better off? Would 20 cows more do, or do I need to double numbers and is that realistic?

Do I have the required business and farm management skills? Where does the nitrates directive fit into this scenario? And if moving into dairying from another enterprise, do I have the requisite skill set?

I know of a young beef farmer who would be in a reasonable position to go to dairying but has decided to sit on it for at least a couple of years to see what happens. He is cautious about jumping on the same ship as everyone else, especially when he's not quite sure where it's going.

And where is the wriggle room? Push stocking limits and you are invariably going to come up short at some stage due to the vagaries of the weather. Some dairy farmers still have fodder bills from last year.

But, in the drive to move forward, we can be blinkered. The message that people are picking up is, go into dairying and you are home and hosed.

True, no other sector in farming currently has anything like the earning potential. But, while money is a good reason to do things, it is not the only reason.

What happens if you do it solely for the money and you find out in a couple of year's time, after investing heavily, that you don't like working with cows?

There are interesting times ahead.

Contact Ann Fitzgerald at


New Zealand

* Volume of milk produced has gone from 7,000m litres in 1984/5 to almost 19,000m litres

* Value of export dairy industry is NZ$14bn

* Number of dairy cattle has doubled to over 6m in less than 30 years

* Number of herds (2012) is 11,891

* Average dairy herd size (2012): 402

 * 11pc of herds have more than 700 cows

* 12 herds have under 50 cows

* Stocking rate 2.55lu/ha

*  65pc of the beef produced in New Zealand comes from the dairy herd

Irish Independent