Darragh McCullough: Greenfield experience raises big questions about rapid dairy expansion

Snow being cleared during Storm Emma
Snow being cleared during Storm Emma
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Is the recent review into the aftermath of Storm Emma on the Greenfield demonstration farm a complete account of the horrible season that the operation has endured?

That was the question in my head when I read its conclusions that management and staff were not adequately prepared for the storm that left two dead cows and four dead calves in its wake on the high-profile Kilkenny dairy farm. It's obviously an attempt to minimise further criticism of a project that often serves as a punchbag for wider issues in the dairy sector.

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It's a great shame, because the true value of Greenfield is not to be a model that everyone aspires to, but one that highlights the risks and vulnerabilities of dairy farms when they are pushed to their max.

That is an uncomfortable place for all those involved in the project to be.

And of course there are many farmers that are adamant that the ultra low-cost system being showcased on the former tillage operation has flaws.

Among the observations are: that the conditions with minimal buildings are too harsh on both man and beast; that the former tillage land with low organic matter content is too heavily stocked to cope; and the mortality rates are too high.

Let's address these assertions one by one.

The stocking rates both last year and this year will be less than 1.1 cows to the acre, which is a level that many of the top dairy farms are comfortable at.

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The land is owned and rented to the Greenfield project by the Phelans, who also contract rear the calves. As one of the three investors in the unit with The Agricultural Trust and Glanbia, the Phelans also get an 8pc dividend from their share of an initial €117,000 investment in setting up the farm.

Storm Emma

Yes, the buildings are minimal, as was planned from the get-go on the basis that the other two shareholders would walk away from the farm after 15 years, leaving all the facilities reverting back to the Phelan family.

When Storm Emma dumped nearly a foot of snow on the farm and drifts of up to 1.5m in places, it exposed the weaknesses of this investment approach that relies on roofless cubicles and open-sided parlours.

But there are roofless cubicle set-ups just down the road from Greenfield and elsewhere around the country where cows did fine during the same storms.

Despite the deaths during the storm on the Greenfield farm, the levels of mortality didn't jump off the page at me.

Cow mortality rates at Greenfield are almost half the national average, and while calf mortality rates are slightly higher than national averages, the suspicion is that national statistics under-report calf mortality because many farmers don't record stillbirths as on-farm deaths. It's also worth noting here that one of the other regular comments about the unit is that it has access to all the best technical knowledge and advice in the country. The implied criticism is that if it can't make a profit, how can any dairy farm make a profit?

That's a key point in 2018 when Greenfield is expected to record losses of close to €200,000, wiping out all the cash reserves that the farm had built up over the previous eight years.

Part of the reason for this massive loss was that key tasks were not being carried out on the farm the way they needed to be.

For example, the farm was forced to buy in additional silage in a hurry last winter when it was discovered that the herd was munching its way through the pit at an alarming rate.

Lost opportunity

Secondary issues in relation to lameness and mastitis and empty cows continued to emerge in the months after Storm Emma. Indeed, 50 empty cows were carried into the winter.

Would any farmer who went to the trouble of reading the official review of Greenfield or the media reports that quickly followed have got a sense of these issues?

This is a real lost opportunity because this is where the Greenfield project can come into its own in terms of helping the Irish dairy industry.

Difficult episodes like 2018 highlight how easily welfare disasters can develop and escalate on Irish dairy farms that are pushing profitability to the max.

This has huge implications for an industry looking to safeguard its future in terms of profitability and public perception.

It proves beyond any doubt that if ambitious dairy farmers dream of setting up satellite units that rely entirely on hired labour, they need to be blessed with serious skills in terms of managing, measuring and implementing.

Courage and vision

More importantly, it confirms the absolute necessity for every stakeholder in farming projects to be singing off the same hymn sheet. And like any marriage, they have to be able to get on with it, even when they disagree. Otherwise it ends in divorce.

It took a lot of courage and vision from the three stakeholders to put their money, time and expertise into showcasing what the best advice could achieve on a greenfield site dedicated to low-cost dairy production.

So I sincerely hope that the project won't fall apart from here on, even though it's a very uncomfortable place to be at times like this. Because it's at times like this that it has the scope to teach farmers and the dairy industry its most important lessons.

It highlights the risks and vulnerabilities of dairy farms when they are pushed to their max

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