Irish farmers ready to milk French connection

Crossbreeders cashing in on new wave of Gallic interest in our dairy heifers

Irish cattle exporter David Clarke (right) and breeder Pat Hickey, at Clarke's premises in Loughanavally, Co Westmeath. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Irish cattle exporter David Clarke (right) and breeder Pat Hickey, at Clarke's premises in Loughanavally, Co Westmeath. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

A first for Ireland is taking place this week as a load of high genetic merit dairy heifers travel across the sea to France.

Traditionally, we have been large importers of French genetics, either through bulls from the French Eurogene programme, or high genetic merit Holstein cows. The trade reached a peak during the early Noughties in the aftermath of BSE as farmers looking to restock depopulated herds scoured the continent for what were then seen as the most profitable genetics available.

However, the pioneering work of Teagasc and ICBF over the intervening period has developed a new type of confidence in Irish dairy genetics, especially among those committed to the low-cost, spring-calving system first perfected in New Zealand.

Edern Coadou is set to break the mould in his local region near Brest in France's north-western Brittany. The young man has just bought 45 in-calf crossbred dairy heifers from David Clarke's Mullingar transport and sourcing company. While Mr Clarke's business has grown steadily over the last number of years through the export of high EBI dairy cattle to UK farms, this is the first time he has ever sold stock to France.

"He got in touch with me through the website, which will demonstrate to you the power the internet. But I'm really excited about this since I think these stock are going to be the guinea pigs - if they impress, they could open the flood gates in a region that is expected to increase milk production just as fast as here over the coming decade," said Mr Clarke.


Inspired by his time spent working on dairy farms in New Zealand, Mr Coadou is unencumbered by the traditions dominating most French farms.

"I think there will be a lot of curiosity from my neighbours about these cows and possibly even some of them would like to see me fail. The French farmer believes that a good cow must produce a lot of milk. Some of my neighbours have robots with their cows confined 24 hours a day. I plan to go organic with a low-cost, spring calving set-up."

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Mr Coadou said sourcing spring-calving stock from Ireland was an easier option than France.

"I need a fertile cow that will calve every spring. I could get these cows in France, but I would have to travel far, buying a maximum of three or four cows on each farm," said Mr Coadou.

He veered away from British stock over fears about disease, especially Johnes.

Conventional milk prices in France this year have averaged at 32c/l, but Mr Coadou maintains that even these prices were insufficient to cover the cost of production on many French farms.

For his organic milk, the Frenchman expects a price of 42c/l over the coming months, from organic giant Biolait.

He has been able to buy most of the land for his farm at €2,000-€4,000/ac, which is the going rate for pasture land in the area. However, he has noticed that more and more dairy farmers in the area are beginning to look at the low-cost, spring-calving system.

"It's very like New Zealand and many of the farms I visited were like farms out there in terms of scale," he said after travelling to Ireland.

One of those operations is the one set up by Kilkenny men Pat and John Hickey. They have bought farms in Westmeath and Roscommon and ramped up cow numbers to over 500 in the space of a few years.

"We didn't want to sell our very highest EBI heifers, but we still supplied a good number of crossbred animals with an average EBI of €200 to the group that David Clarke assembled," said Pat Hickey.

The prices paid to the Irish farmer ranged from €1,400-€1,500, according to Mr Clarke who brokered the deal, and it was a level that the Hickeys were happy with. "I'd say that was the top of the market this year. We sold heifers earlier for €1,250," said Mr Hickey.

Despite the bottoming out of milk prices over the last 12 months, the Kilkenny native does not believe his stock values will take a major hit.

"We've stayed crossbreeding, even when the genomics encouraged a lot of lads back to pure black and whites. Even though I'd say 95pc of the rapidly-expanding herds are crossbred, the conventional dairy farmer here is more set against crossbreeding than ever in my opinion. So the pool of good crossbred stock has tightened, even though that seems to be exactly what this export outlet was looking for," said Mr Hickey.

All the heifers had to be IBR free, which is likely to become a bigger issue with any exports to France in the future, said Mr Clarke.

"Ireland really needs to be heading that way since most of France is already IBR free," he said.

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