A doubling of the number of dairy heifers that are contract reared is in the offing, with Teagasc aiming to extend its discussion group network nationally.
It is estimated that 17,000 dairy heifers are currently contract reared across the country, which is just a fraction of the roughly 400,000 that come into herd each year as replacements or to cover expansion.
However, Teagasc now aims to target growth in the sector by establishing 16 dedicated discussion groups across the country for farmers involved in contract rearing.
The initiative is being headed up by Teagasc's Tom Curran, who explained that the move was a recognition of the level of farmer interest in the business.
"There are a lot of frustrated drystock farmers who are looking for an enterprise that offers a profitable return," he explained.
Mr Curran pointed out that while the top operators in the suckler-to-weanling business made up to €260/ha, the average return was a €30/ha loss.
He said good farmers could make up to €430/ha out of contract rearing - based on the 2016 profit monitor results.
The new discussion group network aims to offer support to farmers who are already involved in contract-rearing and to encourage more entrants by driving profit through improved management.
Mr Curran said the focus will be on improving grassland management and grass measurement, as well as specific advice on animal husbandry and veterinary matters. The weighing of stock as a management tool will be emphasised since reaching target weights is a key requirement in heifer rearing. Successful breeding management will be another critical element.
It is estimated that up to 200,000 heifers could be available for contract-rearing if the potential of the industry was fully realised. However, establishing the network of both rearers and dairy farmers, and the farm-to-farm connections, has been challenging.
One contract-rearing group which has already proven extremely successful is based in Sligo-Leitrim and is run by local Teagasc advisor Tom Coll.
Mr Coll's group includes 18 farmers who contract reared around 1,500 head in 2018, but this figure is expected to go to 3,300 this year.
Heifers are currently being reared for dairy units in Mayo, Sligo, Longford, Meath and Kilkenny, Mr Coll said.
The contract rearing agreements are legal contracts between the two farmers that cover everything from feeding and performance to veterinary and payment.
The cost of rearing a heifer from birth to calving at two years of age is in the region of €1,550-€1,600, including the calf valued at €350.
Mr Curran said contract rearing offered an opportunity for farmers who wanted to improve their holding's profitability, but didn't want to take on the "daunting" capital investment involved in dairy conversion. For dairy farmers contract rearing frees up more land for cows, reduces the farm's labour requirement, and streamlines the unit's management.