Are you just following the herd or is there logic behind your dairy expansion plans?

Joe Kelleher

Joe Kelleher

Last Autumn a client of mine walked into my office and said he intended milking 20 extra cows in 2018.

This man, who is single, was already milking 80 cows and had what I would consider a relatively simple system with a good profit margin and a good work life balance. I asked him why and he couldn't answer me.

This played on my mind for a few days until eventually the answer came to me. This man was surrounded by dairy farmers who had all increased herd size since quotas were abolished and my client was only trying to blend in.

Human nature dictates that most of us want to conform to societal norms and not stand out from the crowd. Farmers are no different. We don't want to be subject of the conversation outside mass on a Sunday or down at the local pub on a Saturday night so we try to blend in. How do we do that? By doing what everyone else is doing.

To illustrate my point, let's look at two different parts of the country.

Moyvane is a small parish in North East Kerry and is home to some of the heavier soil types in the county, ranging from heavy clay to peaty soils.

Despite this, it is also home to a large population of dairy farmers and dairy cows and it is not unusual to come across farmers stocked at well above a cow to the acre on these soils.

The local independent co-op has 80 suppliers delivering 25 million litres of milk annually.

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Contrast this small parish with the county of Roscommon which is home to less than 100 dairy farmers in the entire county and contains some of the most fertile land in the country.

Why is there such a difference? Two reasons: culture and perception.

Aine Macken Walsh is a sociologist with Teagasc who has looked at the reasons behind why farmers make major decisions in their farming careers and her findings showed that the vast majority of us will make decisions based on perception and culture. Perception is how we think others view us, whether it is family members, friends or neighbours, the vast majority of us worry about how those around us perceive us and we tend to make decisions with this at the back of our minds. Culture is the way we do things. In certain farms you can be told "That's the way we do things around here" or "That's the way my father did it and his father before him". Sometimes culture can be extremely embedded and it can be difficult to move away from doing things the way they have always been done.

The co-op in Moyvane is over 100 years old and there is a strong history of dairying n the area.

If your father/mother is a dairy farmer in Moyvane then there is a strong chance that you will carry on that tradition because there is a culture of dairying in the area.

Conversely in Roscommon, the tradition is for drystock or tillage and that is the culture there.

Coupled with this, in our strive to conform, we tend to do what everyone else is doing because we are fearful of the perception others have of us.

So if we want to "blend in" we will milk cows in Moyvane and we will be a drystock/tillage farmer in Roscommon.

Back to my client who was going milking the extra 20 cows because everyone else was doing it. This is not a good enough reason.

I have asked this question of many expanding farmers and some of the responses include:

* My daughter/son is staying at home farming and we have to generate a second income,

* My partner wishes to give up their off-farm job and we need to increase the farm income,

* I have four young children and I need to finance their college education

* I have a lot of off farm loans and need to finance them

* I want to retire at 55 years of age and need to finance my retirement.

The list goes on, but all are valid reasons as to why one might milk extra cows, but doing it because everyone else is doing it is not a valid reason.

There may be financial benefits to milking extra cows, but there are also extra cubicles, extra slurry storage, extra units in the parlour required, not to mention the extra labour required.

These require significant capital investment which needs to be carefully planned to ensure that the expansion makes sense.

If carefully planned, it can make sense, but most importantly, there should be a reason behind why you are expanding.

So if you intend milking extra cows in 2018, make sure you know why you are doing it.

Joe Kelleher is a Teagasc advisor based in Newcastle West, Co Limerick

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