Beef industry's woes should act as a wake-up call for dairy
After three very wet months exceeding 360ml of rain, we are experiencing rapidly deteriorating ground conditions.
Prior to writing this article, I managed to bury the quad in a paddock gateway. It's become an annual occurrence for me and a reminder that conditions here do get mighty challenging.
With the wet conditions in mind, we manage the grazing with a rotation of 35 days to cover around 90pc of the area in October, with an aim to reduce the farm cover to close at around 500-600kgDM/ha.
With limited November grazing - we have only managed to keep stock out in previous seasons until November 7 - cows will finish the year on silage and meal.
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Minimising poaching is a priority as any significant damage in autumn impacts spring growth and makes the ground very tender in the subsequent year.
This is simply the reality of our soil type and rainfall patterns.
Farmers on drier ground can work to a 45-day rotation, finishing up in mid to late November. This is certainly a benefit with regards to milk quality and the cost of production.
Meanwhile, having recently been involved in the Business Brush Up courses offered by Macra Skillnet, profitable dairying has very much been the focus for me this month.
Our system of dairying certainly has significant merits when trying to deliver a profit, but when faced with a year of tough weather like 2018 it's not a given nor a certainty.
The recent Beef Protests highlighted the challenges facing farmers; an industry that seems to be in a deep trough of recession. It's a heartbreaking situation for beef farmers and my gut feeling is that we are not immune to similar issues in dairy.
The industry needs to seriously consider its potential weaknesses when looking at the future of dairying.
So the first point that's quite clear to me is that profitability must be protected.
It's quite scary when you look at comparisons of agricultural produce prices, whether it is meat, milk or cereals, between now and 30 or 40 years ago. They simply haven't inflated per unit price, yet input prices have.
Dairying has maintained its profitability in comparison to beef due to reduced production costs and by adopting seasonal production and grazing systems combined with ever increasing cow numbers.
While the dairy producer is eager to adopt technology to 'work smarter not harder', dairy farmers are working harder with fewer staff per cow.
Statistics show the number of dairy farmers is still declining, while herd sizes are ever increasing.
We are slowly moving away from what can be termed as the family run farm to a model where individual farmers now have multiple staff and even multiple units.
My question is to where we will need to be in another 30-40 years to maintain profitability?
What can be done to protect the price point of milk and the farmer's share?
How can we maintain or further reduce the costs of production. Again we need new technologies and increased adoption of the systems and technology already available.
However, I can only see marginal shavings here rather than dramatic shifts in an industry already based on low cost methodology.
I'm also concerned about the bull calf situation. Many farmers have already reacted this year to industry concerns with a larger proportion of cows put in calf to beef breeds rather than dairy - and Friesian rather than Jersey.
However, with the beef industry in recession, where are these calves going to go, especially if animal rights bodies ramp up protests against live exports?
We desperately need some joined-up thinking and for the beef and dairy industry to work in tandem on developing markets.
Simply increasing the cost of calf rearing within dairying, without any outlet or demand for the product, is just another blow to profit and sustainability in the long-run.
So while I remain optimistic about dairying, it's clear that we need the beef industry to re-establish profitability to enable it absorb an appropriate supply of beef animals from the dairy industry, while we produce replacements that can deliver high-profit milk.
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