Irish agriculture is energised by the prospect of an explosion in milk output once quota is abolished in 2015. Now that world milk prices are rising there is a growing consensus that Irish dairy farming can prosper when freed of the quota shackles. But rapid expansion brings new challenges, including the threat of a superlevy between now and 2015.
Last week the Irish Grassland Association held conferences in Cork and Meath on post-quota challenges.
While milk price will always be crucial, the meetings stressed that the key to long-term wellbeing in Irish dairy farming will be low-cost production off well-managed grass.
Teagasc has bought big-time into grass-based dairying for Ireland. Increasing numbers of farmers are also adopting grass measurement and implementing the Teagasc budgeting blueprint for season long grass management.
But there is still a large group of dairy farmers, including winter milk producers, who consider themselves good users of grass, but for whom milk yield takes priority over grass issues. Many of these herd owners feel that they are restricted by land availability and are stocked too tightly for implementation of the full Teagasc grass package.
Not so, insisted the Teagasc dairy specialists at the Grassland meetings. Joe Patton said that even tightly stocked producers of winter milk should aim to get the cows out to grass in February. Apart from the health and milk constituent benefit arising from grass inclusion in the diet, the February start gives more time for early grass regrowth which leads to a better flow of grass throughout April and May.
Niall O'Loughlin, of Nurney, Co Kildare, with 140 cows of which 50 are autumn calving, told the Meath meeting that the adoption of grass measurement and budgeting has led to a saving of €6,000 on feed and fertiliser.
For the past two years he has put the 50 autumn calvers to grass on the first week of February. His land is free draining but Niall will manage the early grazing to minimise pasture damage. This can mean using an electric fence to provide 12-hour grazing blocks or maybe even shorter grazing spells in wet weather. Later in the season Niall has increased paddock size to allow 36- and 48-hour grazing. He said that this gives heifers a better chance to graze their fill. At all times he has measured the available grass. If supply is short, cow intake is topped up. If grass is in surplus, a paddock or more is cut for big bale silage.
"Grass budgeting gives me the confidence to increase herd size and stocking rate on the milking platform knowing that I'll still have adequate feed for my cows. This opens the door for more profit from my farming," concluded O'Loughlin.
"In the south, farmers should aim to turn cows out to grass on February 1 with the first round completed by April 5.
"Further north, and on wetter farms, turnout to grass, and thus the end of the first rotation may need to be delayed by seven to 10 days," Teagasc specialist Aidan Bugler told the grassland meetings.
He outlined a detailed grazing programme which started with cows getting 1/100th of the grazing platform per day in early February with this gradually increasing to about 1/20th per day by April 5.
"Delayed turnout can result in too much grass on the farm on the first round and a scarcity for the second round. Cow intake post calving is about 10kg/dm/day rising to 17-18 kg/dm/day 10 weeks post calving but common sense is required when changing cows from an indoor to a mainly grass based diet," stressed the Teagasc man.
Managing Milk Quota 2011-15
Official Ireland, as in Food Harvest 2020, has targeted a 50pc increase in milk by 2020. Judging by the lift in dairy heifers on farms, this dairy expansion is underway. In this regard, Cork farmers are leading the field with a 28pc jump in dairy heifers. Next comes Tipperary with at least 12pc. Waterford, Kerry, Limerick, Wexford and Kilkenny are up about 7pc.
Against this background and assuming a continued 1.3pc/year increase in cow yield, Dr Laurence Shalloo from Moorepark warned the grassland meetings that a superlevy fine could be an issue as we approach 2015. He said that the country remains 2-4pc under quota for 2011 despite the above quota position at Glanbia and Dairygold.
Since quota was introduced in 1984 Ireland has had to pay superlevy fine in 14 years, costing a total €117m. 2007/08 was the last year the country was hit with a fine.
The total Irish quota is set to increase by 9.3pc between 2008 and 2013. This will give some room for expansion but an 8-9pc jump in milk output in the current season signals that we are back on track for rapid growth in milk output that was last seen in the 1970s.
Dr Shalloo said the EU is to review the milk quota position again in 2012 but he suggested that too much pressure on the Commission could cause a review of the decision to end quota and that is not in Ireland's interest.
The Moorepark man said that only the most efficient producers can afford the price paid for quota in the south.
Looking at options for farmers already on an expansion path and facing a superlevy fine, Dr Shalloo said that his first choice would be to reduce concentrate feeding. After that he'd look at once-a-day milking and drying the cows off earlier or selling off older cows.
In every year that there was a superlevy fine, the country was already above quota in April-June period. Using this as an indicator, farmers would be well advised to keep a close eye on national milk supplies during this period. You have been warned.