Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Analysis: Dairy sector is on the brink of a serious public relations battle

A 'dairy calf welfare scheme' is already in the pipeline. Stock Image
A 'dairy calf welfare scheme' is already in the pipeline. Stock Image
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Dairy farmers have a major problem, and most don't realise it yet.

Thousands of them will descend on the jewel in Teagasc's crown, Moorepark research centre, today.

The biennial dairy event will be a whirlwind of optimism as farmers bask in kind weather, the rising tide of milk prices and the on-going expansion opportunities. All the talk will be about how to produce more milk, more efficiently, and with less hassle.

But there will be an element of an echo chamber going on because everybody will be singing off the same hymn sheet. The earnest belief among the faithful is that the growth of the dairy industry is great for those involved in the sector, and good for the country by keeping good jobs in rural areas and expanding national exports.

It was the same logic in New Zealand for many years where dairying was also the champion of the rural economy. But the Kiwi dairy farmer is getting worried.

Suddenly there's all kinds of documentaries and Twitter accounts slating the sector for its impact on the environment and cow welfare.

Heavyweights like Greenpeace have also stepped into the fray with slick advertising campaigns that leave the Go Vegan ads seen around these parts in recent times in the ha'penny place.

This isn't just a cheap shot for the day that's in it - I'm invested in dairying too. But I'm convinced we're on the brink of a major war for the hearts and minds of the public over an intensifying dairy sector.

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There's any number of easy targets - rising greenhouse gas emissions from increased cow numbers, despite Minister Creed's claims that we have the most carbon efficient herd "on the planet".

That's a bit like claiming we've the greenest coal mine in the world - it's still a coal mine and an environmental issue.

Water quality that has stayed stubbornly low despite the billions of publicly funded grants for the Farm Waste Management scheme.

Exhausted farmers that are relying on weather events like 2012 to never happen again in order to avoid an animal welfare catastrophe.

But the most obvious target in my mind from a media 'story' viewpoint is the disturbing rise in the numbers of calves registered as dead within 42 days.

Those on the inside know that a chunk of this rise is due to the number of crossbred bull calves being put down or 'disposed of' by farmers and knackeries.

Almost all are Jersey crossbreds, widely regarded as pure useless for beefing, but a necessary evil in the pursuit of Jersey crossbred females that have proven to be more profitable than their purebred equivalents in hardcore grazing systems.

You can see the headlines already: "Profit hungry farmers slaughter helpless baby calves".

The Department of Agriculture and the State bodies like Teagasc know all about this. That's why a 'dairy calf welfare scheme' is already in the pipeline in Kildare Street.

Efficient progeny

What I can't get my head around is why the industry doesn't reach for the obvious answer in this regard - sexed semen.

Yes, it is more expensive and gives lower conception rates. But where there's a will, there's always a way.

Not only would it remove the biological waste that is the crossbred Jersey bull calf, but it could actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 5pc by allowing the dairy farmer to breed up to three quarters of his herd to beef bulls that would result in much more efficient beefing progeny than the 500,000 Friesians that annually struggle their way into an O-grade carcase.

Surely a scheme to subsidise the use of this technology would be money well spent on every level. Or do we just wait around for the inevitable PR storm to engulf the sector?

Indo Farming