Farm Ireland

Monday 20 November 2017

Analysis: Should we put all our eggs in one basket - or in one system of milk production?


Agricultural consultant, Mike Brady.
Agricultural consultant, Mike Brady.
Mike Brady

Mike Brady

The Teagasc Moorepark Open Day has become a showcase event for Irish dairying.

The research and advice from the team at Moorepark particularly in the last 15 years have shaped a world-class, grass-based, spring calving dairying industry for this country.

Our industry is now the envy of many countries and Irish dairying events and conferences are now regularly attended by international visitors from other dairying nations with potential for grass-based systems, such as the United Kingdom, France, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and, of course, the New Zealanders, who keep a close eye on dairy matters in this country.

The successful dairy production system developed in Moorepark is a grass-based, low-cost, sustainable system of milk production, matching milk production to the grass production curve by targeting calving 90pc of cows in a six-week period in early spring; concentrate feed is kept to a minimum.

The principles of the system were imported from New Zealand in the early 2000s and adapted to suit our climate. Initially, there was resistance from dairy farmers, in particular higher-yielding less fertile herds of Holstein/Friesian-type cows, but a clear focus on a single production system approach from Teagasc Moorepark and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) has ploughed a furrow for the success of the system.

The marketing mantra for the system - 'Do not confuse the message' - has worked well to date; even the most diehard type and yield-focused Holstein breeders are now examining the milk and fertility indices of the Economic Breeding Index (EBI). The question is: should this continue to be the sole dairy production system of choice for this country into the future?

I calculate if our dairy industry grows at the same rate as the New Zealanders from 1979-2015, by 2055 we will grow from 1.24 million dairy cows to over 3 million dairy cows, and milk production will increase from 6.4 billion litres to 22.6 billion litres.

This successful result of the research into dairying will threaten the future of beef, sheep and arable enterprises in this country, as profitability can be up to 10 times greater per hectare in dairying. Without doubt, there will be a swing from these enterprises into dairying, but again should all our eggs be in the one basket and, more particularly, one system of milk production?

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In Ireland, milk processors have to accept the seasonality of our milk production, as 90pc of the national herd calves down in the springtime - therefore our milk is processed primarily into the commodities of milk powder, cheese and butter for shipping all over the globe.

In the UK, for example, only 5pc of the dairy farmers are spring producers because the processors determine when dairy farmers calve their cows, hence the proliferation of all-year-round calving patterns: this allows for the flexibility of making higher- value-added, more perishable products from milk.

This is the historical pattern of milk production throughout Europe in countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain and Italy.

Locally produced cheeses, yoghurts, ice-creams and butters command premium prices in local markets, which filters back into higher prices paid to dairy farmers for their milk.

Groupe Lactalis are willing to pay 45c per litre to French dairy farmers to produce organic milk - I have seen evidence of similar prices paid to English farmers for organic milk contracts.

At some point in time, our clean, green image will transform into a demand for milk to be processed into higher-value-added products: imagine the brand marketing success of Kerrygold butter rolled out into soft cheeses, yoghurts, baby powders, ice-creams, fresh milk, etc.

The demand for milk in this country would dramatically change from a seasonal production pattern to an all-year-round production pattern. Are we preparing for this possibility?

The systems research herd at UCD Lyons Estate is a positive step in this direction. They are looking at the potential of a higher- input/output cow and how it fits into a spring calving system where grass is again maximised but these cows have the genetic potential to milk more than what grass can support; therefore, additional concentrate is fed to express this yield potential.

This is only year two of a three-year trial, but if the fertility targets are met, this cow type would be ideally suited to block autumn calving to help flatten out the national milk production curve, should the need arise at some point in the future. Could we see the day when 50pc of our cows are calved in August/September/October and the other 50pc in February/March/April?

In summary, while it is important we produce milk cheaper than anybody else in the northern hemisphere, it is not the only factor in determining a successful dairy industry.

We must prepare by researching other systems of milk production which give us the flexibility to produce milk for high-value-added products all year round.

If we can win markets for high-value-added dairy products, retain our low cost of production while commanding top prices for milk, and retain national or farmer ownership of these branded products like Kerrygold, we can then truly call our dairy industry the best on the planet.

In the meantime, it important that we do not get ahead of our station - we are only at the beginning of this journey.

Mike Brady is an agricultural consultant and land agent based in Cork. Email:

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