Dan Ryan: 'Why we need a radical and new approach to winter milk'
The hum of milking parlours will gradually cease for the next six to eight weeks on over 80pc of dairy farms in the south of the country.
This is due to the increasing decline in winter milk production which is primarily seen as a high cost system with low returns.
There has been an ongoing exodus from winter milk production over the past 20 years due to factors both within and outside the farm gate. Within the farm gate, skilled labour is a scarce resource. Farmers psychologically want a break from the demands of milking cows 24/7. Shorter days create an innate need to take a break and recharge the batteries.
Winter milk production today is a specialist task. Housing facilities for dry cow, milking cows, calves and maiden heifers have to be of sufficient standard not only for cost-efficient milk production, but also to meet modern animal welfare requirements.
The preparation and feeding of winter milk diets is more costly than those centred around grass-based systems. There is a greater investment required in machinery and labour for feeding regimes for the various groups of stock in winter milk.
Beyond the farm gate, there are the demands of milk processors and supermarkets. Milk processors want specialist winter milk producers where the pool of milk supplied has minimal dilution with milk from late lactation or carry over cows from grass-based spring milk production.
There is a focus on specialist dairy units with large milk pools, thus reducing the transport costs of collecting milk from many 'non-specialist' winter milk producers.
Milk processors have also the opportunity of purchasing milk from the North where there is an inherent winter milk production strategy driven on the back of shorter grass growing seasons, limited grazing platforms and reduced labour requirements due to the installation of robotic milking systems.
Robotic milking parlour installations are currently in high demand in the North because these systems suit their year-round milk production systems.
Farmers with robotic systems focus on optimising the litres of milk harvested per robot thereby requiring a constant input of freshly calved cows on a monthly basis.
Milk processors are able to purchase milk with a premium of 3-4p/litre over base price from Northern dairy producers. Dairy farmers in the South are not willing to invest time and money in a low returns strategy for their business.
The supermarkets continue to see an opportunity of using 'own brand' low price milk as an incentive to increase footfall.
It has been suggested that a British-style system of cow kennels and self feeding of silage with targeted costs of £100 per cow - including veterinary costs, AI and breeding, electricity , water and diesel - be used here.
But this smacks of drudgery and cannot be considered as an acceptable environment for either man or beast.
There is a need for forward thinking on the part of producers to focus on adding value to fresh milk.
This requires a marketing initiative which will persuade milk consumers to pay a premium for milk produced to the high animal health and environmental standards.
This requires farmers to implement science-based principles which reduce the carbon footprint in milk production.
Farm management practices which lend themselves to optimisation of herd health will drive the key targets for reproductive performance. This in turn is central to maximising the profitability of milk production.
As farmers and service providers to the dairy industry, we have a responsibility to ensure optimal health of our eco system.
A small co-op called Lee Strand based in Tralee is an example of the potential way forward on winter milk production.
Here, farmers have focused on a premium brand of milk, which has traditionally been processed daily on a fresh basis.
Lee Strand Co-op members are committed to avoiding factory farming milk production and maintaining the viability of the smaller dairy farm entity.
A proper price structure which will reward these farmers for their hard work 365 days a year is absolutely necessary to maintain this liquid milk industry.
Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted on www.reprodoc.ie
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