Irish dairy herd growth is starting to slow down and could stall by 2022

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Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

Growth in the dairy herd is forecast to slow significantly this year and could stall by 2022, the latest industry figures indicate.

Although an additional 20,000 cows came into the dairy herd this spring - taking the total number to over 1.5 million - the level of herd expansion is well back on previous years.

And increased beef sire usage by milk suppliers during the recent breeding season is expected to stall herd growth by reducing the number of dairy-bred replacement heifers which will be available to come into the herd in 2022.

Paidí Kelly of Teagasc pointed out that expansion in the dairy herd this year will be around 1-1.5pc depending on culling. "This is back from 3pc in 2018, and the figure would have been closer to 4pc except for heavier than usual culling last year because of the drought," Mr Kelly said.

However, he pointed out that the rate of growth has dropped well back from the 6pc recorded in 2015 and 2016 when over 80,000 additional cows came into the dairy herd each year.

Mr Kelly predicted that the lift in dairy cow numbers will continue at 1pc per year for 2020 and 2021. This will add at least 30,000 cows to the national herd, taking numbers to around 1.5m animals.

"This is still a phenomenal rate of growth," he maintained.

However, Mr Kelly said the increased use of beef sires in the dairy herd during this year's breeding season pointed to a potential stalling in cow numbers from 2022. This would be the first time in almost a decade that cow numbers have not grown.

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"AI beef usage in the dairy herd is reported to be well up this year and so we might see less heifer calves, which will ultimately result in fewer heifers coming into the herd in 2022. So numbers will be fairly finely balanced. But developments such as sexed semen could change things pretty quickly if it came right," Mr Kelly added.

The 1pc growth forecast in cow numbers over the next two years is certain to drive on milk output, which is expected to top 8bn litres this year.

It will also put further pressure on labour requirements.

Cork-based farm consultant, and Farming Independent columnist, Mike Brady, has warned that the shortage of skilled labour in the dairy sector is already constraining expansion for larger operators. The 50 work permits sought by the industry earlier this year for workers from outside the EU have already been filled.

Mr Kelly said the additional 30,000 cows forecast to come into the herd over the next two years would potentially require at least a further 300 full-time employees at one extra worker for every 100 cows.

However, he pointed out that some of these cows will be added to herds that won't require extra hired labour.

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