Farm Ireland

Friday 22 March 2019

Analysis: Why dairying can't prosper in isolation from other farming enterprises

Richard Hackett

This spring has focused attention on the growing dairy industry and the ability of a grass-based model to weather the storms - in some cases literally

The response of farming commentators has been predicable at best.

Those against the expansion in milk production jumped on the difficulties as proof positive that grass-based systems don't work and are unsustainable.

The comments from those in favour of expanding milk production brought to mind the comment made by the Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith: "In the choice between changing one's mind and proving there's no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof."

Like everything, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

We are located on a rock in the middle of the North Atlantic. We exist here because of the Gulf Stream ocean current, which ensures we enjoy a relatively benign climate despite our northerly latitude.

Sometimes the Gulf Stream is compliant and allows good growing conditions for 10 months, even 12 months of the year.

Sometime it doesn't, and Ireland is then a wet, miserable place to be a farmer.

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The last few years have lulled us into a sense of expectation about what we can achieve.

When the Gulf Stream plays ball, we can grow lots of grass, we can sow lots of grain, we can cut our costs, we can expand at will.

Then we get a year like this and our targets are decimated.

The end of EU milk quotas was accompanied by largely favourable weather conditions, so you could argue that the rapid expansion of the dairy herd happened under conditions unlikely to consistently prevail in the future.

What we have to do now is plan for the future.

A future where we could possibly have great growing seasons like 2015 and '16. But also a future where we will also have the supposedly 'freak' weather that we suffered in '08, '09, '10, '12 and, so far, '18.

The headlong rush into dairying, at the expense of other farming enterprises, cannot continue unabated.

It is disingenuous in the extreme to compare the current national dairy herd with the national herd of the '70s or '80s.

One thousand cows milking 400 gallons each on 100 farms spread evenly across a region is a completely different prospect to 1000 cows milking 1200 gallons each on three farms down the one lane.

It is also disingenuous to compare our national stocking rate with that in other countries.

Most of the livestock in this country are extensively stocked beef located generally in the west and midlands.

Dairy cows can't be packed like sardines in Cork, Wexford and Tipperary just because suckler farmers in Leitrim work to their own limits.

For a start, water quality management issues don't work to those parameters.

Other sectors will have to be retained, at the very least to 'dilute' the effects of large-scale, intensive grass-based dairying.

At one level, cropping can aid the development of intensive dairying.

Crops can mop up nutrients, provide an outlet for manures, deplete excess soil reserves, provide bedding material and provide concentrate feeds.

However, when the inevitable dip occurs in the fortunes of dairy and/or when the eventual upswing in the fortunes of grain occurs, we might need a few more irons in the fire.

While the spotlight shines undimmed on the dairy sector, other sectors are working away and becoming very viable.

Take sheep for instance. Scoffed at for so long by some commentators, sheep farming is now a steady earner for those well set up and prepared to put in the effort.

Sheep farmers get most Sundays off - and they can even take a holiday that isn't planned two years in advance.

The last few years have seen a split develop between the milk and non-milk sectors. For a small island with so much potential to produce any type of produce we choose, this split is a complete waste of energy and resources.

Since the development of the Norfolk 4 rotation in the 17th century, agriculture has thrived on the synergy that exists between livestock and crop production.

Modern agriculture has temporarily diminished the strength of this synergy.

However, the only sustainable way we can all get a long-term living from farming is by reigniting and nurturing this synergy.


Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA

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