Gerry Boyle: 'The dairy calf-to-beef system should be more profitable than standalone suckler system'

And dairy farms will continue to grow in  size even if a slowdown in the rate of  expansion is inevitable, Teagasc director  Gerry Boyle tells Ann Fitzgerald

Teagasc director Gerry Boyle
Teagasc director Gerry Boyle

The current displacement of suckler cows by dairy cows has been described as a kind of 'back to the future' type of transition by Teagasc director Professor Gerry Boyle.

"The modern suckler herd was really substantially driven by the introduction of the dairy quota way back in 1984. Before that, far more calves we re sourced out of the dairy herd. Now that the shackles have been removed, this is expanding again, and more and more beef animals will be reared from the dairy population," Professor Boyle (pictured) told the Farming Independent.

He concedes the dairy herd of the 1980s was very different to today's, and that there are currently huge problems in terms of the quality of the beef animal coming out of the dairy herd.

"The male calf from the dairy herd is a by-product of the milking activity, and it's very clear that the industry needs to be very careful of producing a calf that has very low or zero value," he says.

"Teagasc is certainly very conscious of that and it is reflected in the advice we are giving in relation to breeding strategy," he asserts, but adds that this message has not got through to everyone.

"It's a complex message because what we have to communicate is that, while the production of quality milk with high fat and protein are clearly your central activity - followed by the need to produce quality replacements - there are also various strategies that you can adopt which will enable you to produce a higher quality beef animal."

He believes that schemes such as the Kepak-Glanbia Twenty20 and a similar programme which Teagasc is working on with Dawn will show a way forward.

"Potentially, the dairy calf-to- beef system should be more profitable than a standalone suckler system."

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But he adds that these initiatives are going to require high quality beef calves, along with rearers who have the skills to bring them on.

He points out that young people coming into agriculture, especially those with a college education, are going to ask themselves what is the potential of the enterprise that they are taking on?

"The national farm survey shows the position clearly - dairy has consistently returned the highest level of income per hectare of any enterprise. For the last couple of years, it has been running at twice the level of the next highest, which is tillage. Unfortunately, coming up at the bottom are beef and sheep."

As to whether there is too much sentiment attached to the suckler cow, he replies: "For as long as I can remember, there has been a recognition that it is very challenging to make a full-time living from beef."

The Teagasc director says there are a multiplicity of factors that account for the low incomes in the beef sector.

"There are very small operations that couldn't ever deliver a full-time income but they suit part-timers.

"There are also a lot of elderly people. Some would have transitioned from dairy. There are others that perhaps don't want to rent their land and if they want to retain their land they want to be doing something with it.

"Certainly as you get older, it's more difficult to change. I might think it's easy to go out and rent my land, but it's not easy for everybody.

"There is a core of suckler farmers who do the job well and I expect they will remain in suckling," he says, but overall he expects that dairy cow numbers will continue to rise and suckler numbers continue to decline.

Professor Boyle describes the changes in dairying in terms of expansion as "extraordinary", not just in terms of cow numbers but in terms of the emergence of the larger herds, which he describes as, "mind-boggling".

Looking down the line, he expects that dairy farms will continue to grow in size, though the pace of growth is likely to slow.

"The continued decline of the suckler herd will create space, but inevitability we will see some slackening in the potential of dairy to grow."

He does not anticipate 100-120 cow dairy farms will be wiped out in this expansion, though he does expect them to fall in number.


He also anticipates the rise of a new trend, which he dubs "farmer-preneurs" involving individuals managing a number of units of around 100-120 cows.

"Things are always evolving, but you have to look to the fundamentals and our fundamental is that we have an extraordinary ability to grow grass," he says.

That said, he maintains that even on dairy farms, we are only producing half of the grass that could be potentially grown

"When people talk about alternatives to dairying, horticulture is not generally an alternative.

"Cereals are certainly not an alternative. Apart from soil suitability, there is the huge challenge around the weather, as well as obviously income."

In time, some other form of processing of this grass could provide an alternative to dairying but he says that, for now, "dairying is at the apex" in terms of capitalising on grass.



And dairy farms will continue to grow in size even if a slowdown in the rate of expansion is inevitable, Teagasc director Gerry Boyle tells Ann Fitzgerald

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