Analysis: Dairy must address animal welfare critics or consumers could quit milk
It is not so long ago that milking 100 cows was the ultimate goal for the ambitious Irish dairy farmer.
The notion of 'tacking on' an extra 100 cows in a single year was a concept reserved for the likes of the 1,000-cow herds rumoured to exist in places like California and Waikato, New Zealand.
But through my own involvement with the sector and what I hear when I'm down at my local agri-store in Platin, I see herd size galloping along at a rate that has exceeded all the soothsayers' expectations.
Only last week I bumped into a farmer who I knew was milking 300-400 cows a few years ago.
"Ah, we're north of 800 now, with the two lads home full-time too," he said, grinning at how taken aback I was. "But don't forget Darragh - dairying these days is only for the 25-50 year-olds," he quickly added.
"The young fella did 27,000 steps yesterday just getting through the day's work."
The exchange captured a lot of the key forces at play in the sector today. Dairying is physically demanding, but it is so much more profitable than every other farming sector that the rate of expansion is likely to stay at eyebrow-raising levels.
Recent figures from Teagasc bear this out, with an estimated average income on dairy farms of close to €90,000 for 2017 - there is a chasm between it and almost every other farm activity.
That's why there are plenty of young men and women pouring their energy into the job and bustling around every dairy event that is held around the country.
But is there a danger that the sector will be the victim of its own success?
The best example of this was the recent spate of criticism that washed over the National Dairy Council's (NDC) Facebook page. Some of the vegan community decided to systematically dissect the marketing that the NDC were channelling through social media.
Suddenly there were hundreds of detailed comments from articulate and passionate vegans arguing why they felt that dairying is bad for the environment and animal welfare.
None of this surprised me. What did strike me was how quickly the farming community became frustrated and inclined to lash out at vegans for having the temerity to criticise their industry.
Granted, it is difficult for a farmer who has worked all his or her life to build up a herd to step back and appreciate what it looks like from the outside.
But the image of the cute little family operation beside the reality of an 800-cow herd is pretty stark. This is food production on the same industrial scale that requires strict EPA licensing in the pig sector.
There may be family members involved, but these multi-million euro operations also employ a bevy of accountants, contractors, staff and advisors. The cows are not individually loved and pampered - they are units of production in an increasingly unforgiving system.
But this is where farmers need to become better at articulating the cold logic of this system.
Yes, calves are removed at the earliest opportunity, even to the extent that the current advice for minimising Johnes disease is to 'snatch' the calf before the cow can even lick it dry.
Would it be any more humane to leave it with the mother for 24 hours so that a bond is formed before separating them? At the same time, leaving the calf with its mother leaves it exposed to diseases and the vagaries of nature as to whether it will be able to suckle enough milk.
Yes, cows are asked to graze grass down to as little as 4cm from ground level. But if we can't make grass profitable, the alternative is to keep the cow indoors for 12 months of the year - is that better?
Yes, large herds are rarely pure family operations, but it's the involvement of advisors and experts that increases the professionalism these operations. So big herds do pose a big pollution risk if something goes wrong, but is the risk of pollution higher from one professionally run large herd or from 10 small units that may be part-time operations?
As a member of the dairy industry I feel that we have to accept that there are harsh realities to surviving and thriving in this sector. But there is also a good reason for each and every one of them.
Expecting the sector to avoid scrutiny by donning a big Origin Green cloak that has been created by skilled marketeers won't be enough. Without each individual farmer being able to argue the rationale behind every element of the sector, the industry will find that the same consumers that make their sector so profitable will simply walk away from milk.
Dairy won't win this argument by shouting louder than the critics. Rather it needs to be skilled enough to prove to its customers that it really is a business that cares about animal welfare, the environment and the future.
In some ways the addition of 400,000 cows and the sale of extra Irish dairy powder and commodities over the last five years has been the easy bit. Being able to keep consumers' faith while the sector industrialises will be a much bigger ask.
Just look at how much our own families' and neighbours' attitudes are evolving - how many farmers realised 20 years ago that so many of their children would elect to be vegetarians and vegans in their teens and twenties?
The recent Citizens Assembly vote in favour of curbing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is also proof that farmers won't be getting a free ride on this issue just because Ireland is more rural than most.
As we put our feet up this Christmas, Ireland's dairy sector needs think hard about how to keep the good times going.
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