We are close to endgame for dairy expansion without some radical compromises on current farm policies
There’s an old rule in PR that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. By this measure, the dairy sector has been losing for some time. Farmers have themselves and their leaders to blame for this.
There has often been an attitude of total denial about accepting the impact of dairying on the environment.
The latest example was the IFA’s dismissal of suggestions that large dairy farms should be subjected to the same licensing that pig farms have worked with for decades.
Remember when pig farming had a terrible reputation for polluting lakes and waterways? Not if you’re under 30 you won’t, because the EPA licencing regime tightened up everybody’s act in the sector. All the messers were identified and faced an ultimatum: fix it or pack it in.
It’s only 20 years ago when the average dairy farm was 44 cows. Today it’s double that and the average is heading north of 100 cows.
Herds of 300, 400 and 500 cows aren’t that unusual anymore. These units generate a concentrated nutrient load that will wreck any local environment if managed incorrectly.
The IFA’s stance on licensing is just one example of the poor leadership that is leaving dairy farming wide open for an onslaught of criticism and abuse.
The next thorny issue to be addressed is whether the sector should be limited in its future growth.
The answer is an unequivocal yes, for a whole host of reasons.
Water quality is the most black and white issue. We can’t keep concentrating tens of thousands of cows into regions suited to intensive grazing and expect no negative impact on the environment.
The evidence is already piling up on this from both Irish and New Zealand research. Even when a farm is stocked at a ‘reasonable’ 2.5 cows per hectare, management and facilities need to be very good. Constant run-off from a dirty lane or yard is all it takes for a stream to become heavily polluted.
That’s going to be the first limit that hits dairy expansion here.
The next layer of restrictions will be our national targets to cut greenhouse gas emission (GHG).
The only hope for those still aspiring to develop dairy herds over the coming decade is that beef herd numbers decline.
But a lot of beef farming is more of a hobby than a business these days. That will delay any decline in the beef herd, which in turn will limit scope for more growth in the dairy herd.
However, never under-estimate the power of money to move the goalposts on this.
As galling as it might be for a beef farmer to look out their window at a shed full of dairy stock, the blow would be softened significantly if a dairy farmer was paying them handsomely for the privilege.
Could it also be possible that some of the exchequer millions that are currently used to subsidise the 800,000 suckler cows be reassigned to allow these farmers to switch to dairy stock?
There is one undeniable fact about the explosion of Ireland’s dairy output in the last decade.
The 60pc increase in milk output has probably been the biggest source of economic growth in rural Ireland in recent times.
There is no other farm enterprise that will generate the same level of profitability for so many.
Pigs, poultry, and some horticulture operations might have made as much or more, but dairying has done it on nearly 18,000 individual farms, and on more marginal land. Contrast that with the 300 pig farms that remain, the 34 mushroom farms, or handful of lettuce growers left in the horticultural sector.
Milk’s basic profitability is the second half of the sustainability story. It’s no good having a sector with zero emissions and zero profit.
So we have to figure out a way to make dairying work for both profit and for the environment.
The good news is that Ireland can produce milk as sustainably — from both an environmental and profit point of view — as anywhere on the planet.
But farmers will also have to accept that they do not have an automatic licence to milk as many cows as they like.
You won’t hear this from a farm leader, so it’s going to be up to farmers themselves to speak up. The alternative is that they spend the rest of their working days explaining and losing.