Mike Brady: Has fodder crisis highlighted a failing farming model with too many dairy cows?
It is human nature to knock those who appear to be successful in life. We Irish are particularly good at it, the last generation raised us to ensure "we did not get above our station", the last straw was success going to somebody's head.
When the history of Irish agriculture is written, this period in time will be seen as the dairy farming era of success. Gone are the days of restricted milk production. This post-EU milk quota period of rapid dairy cow expansion has ruffled the feathers of beef and arable farmers, but it has also registered with our urban cousins.
Wall-to-wall coverage of the fodder crisis has raised questions about animal welfare, the environment and even farmer mental health.
It has provided the perfect platform for advertising campaigns such as the GoVegan campaign and comments from various other commentators. A recent quote from a national newspaper stated that "the recent fodder crisis proved we have too many cows and that the model of farming was failing farmers, society and the environment".
I asked myself the question, is this true?
The facts show that we now have 1.34 million dairy cows in Ireland, but 40 years ago - before the introduction of milk quotas - we actually had 1.51 million dairy cows.
Dairy cow numbers dropped significantly from a peak of 1.52m in 1984, just after milk quotas were introduced, to just 0.995m in 2005.
The announcement that milk quotas were going in 2017 has seen dairy cow numbers recover to today's level. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that dairy cows are not the cause of the current fodder crisis. In fact, I would argue that there is more than enough fodder in the country to avoid the dramatic imports from abroad, but the farmers with the fodder do not want to sell it to those who have not got enough to feed their livestock. In future, to avoid such negative publicity for the industry, a mandatory national fodder register, completed annually on September 30, would eliminate this now, recurring roadshow.
However, it is true that while the number of dairy cows in each herd is rapidly growing in Ireland, the cows are owned by fewer farmers. There were approximately 144,000 dairy farmers in the state in 1978 with a herd size of 10 cows each, today there are approximately 17,000 farmers with a herd size of approximately 80 cows each, and it is fast approaching 100 cows per dairy farm. Is this a cause for concern for animal welfare?
I don't believe so, in my experience the rare incidences of animal welfare issues on farms are almost entirely on farms where isolated farmers living or running the farm alone encounter mental health issues and are unable to care for their animals.
Today's modern farms have better facilities and knowledge, more people are involved full-time in the management of the farm, thereby reducing the risk of isolated incidents, as described above.
Modern dairy cows are bred for health traits as well as production and fertility traits, it in nobody's interest to breed cows that are not comfortable in the system of production. Farmers often care for the animals better than they care for themselves. The dairy boom is not affecting animal welfare.
Environmental matters are currently a challenge for the industry and the dairy systems of production in this country. Water pollution is no longer the main environmental issue, gone are the days of poor farmyard design and poor fertiliser and animal waste management. The policing and system of compliance applied via the Nitrates Directive has educated and cleaned up most dairy farms and it is difficult to see where further improvements can be made to the system.
The issue of greenhouse gas emission is certainly an issue and is presently very confusing for farmers. The different methods of calculating the carbon footprint for farms, and the fact that it is effectively a national calculation as opposed to an individual farm calculation, has deferred farm-level action plans until the science and research points a clear way forward. I am confident science and research will develop this section of dairying.
Mental health is an area which touches all sections of society, some are more susceptible than others, farming is certainly not immune. However, it is lazy analysis to suggest it is linked to the increase in cow numbers on dairy farms. In fact, I would argue the complete opposite is the true picture on dairy farms.
Farmers who executed well-planned increases in cow numbers on their farms since 2015 have made significantly more profit than those who did not. True, some have borrowed a lot from banks to fund the increases, but the majority are just increasing cow numbers and exploiting the potential of the land they have around the milking parlour called the grazing platform.
Most have been waiting to do so for years but milk quotas prevented them from achieving the dream of developing their farms. Farmers like nothing better than a farm building project, it energises them and exhibits the vast array of skills they possess.
Energised dairy farmers, executing viable business plans, giving their families a better income/standard of living and proud of their achievements are not candidates for mental-health issues.
The majority of farmers are conservative and proud of their land, livestock and farm business, they sensibly avail of opportunities to better their farms and are content with that regardless of weather or economic conditions. Of course, farmers and the system of milk production in this country are not perfect, crossbred male calves, roofless cubicles, farmers with lesser husbandry skills and labour deficits are all areas where obvious improvement can be made.
It is important our industry recognises that systems of milk production continue to evolve and strive to become more robust and resilient, however, I would challenge any commentator to demonstrate a better system of milk production on the planet today than our Irish grass-based system of production.
Mike Brady is Managing Director at Brady Group: Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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