Where are Ireland’s 350,000 extra dairy cows?

Since the shackles of milk quotas were cast to one side, the Irish dairy herd has increased significantly.

“In 2010, we had just over one million dairy cows in Ireland and in 2017 – seven years later – we’ll average about 1.4 million cows,” Teagasc’s Paidi Kelly told delegates at today’s (November 29) National Dairy Conference.

Continuing, he said: “That’s an increase of 350,000 cows over a short period of time; most of this rise took place between 2012 and 2016.

Over this expansion period, we’ve seen cow numbers increase – along with extra performance and milk solids production per cow. We’re not just getting bigger; it looks like we are doing a slightly better job as well.

Ireland’s milk production has increased rapidly for the first time since 1984. 6.7 billion litres of milk were produced in 2016 – a 35% increase on the 2007-2009 base level of production used to set the Food Harvest 2020 target of 50% extra milk.

Record levels of milk are being produced again in 2017, so the 50% target looks like it will be achieved well ahead of 2020.

In terms of the national dairy herd today, the Teagasc research officer said: “There’s more in-calf heifers in Ireland than there has been in any time in the past. It basically means that we are going to have an increase in cow numbers again next year.”

Where are these extra cows?

Touching on where these extra cows are located, Kelly said: “In terms of the volume of cows, Co. Cork has expanded to the greatest extent over the past seven years; it has 77,000 cows above the 2010 level.

To put Co. Cork’s increase into perspective, there’s only six counties in Ireland that have 77,000 cows or more; it’s very much the dairy capital of Ireland.

Despite the substantial increase in cow numbers in the ‘rebel county’, the Teagasc representative said it didn’t have the highest percentage increase.

“We’ve seen huge percentage increases in the counties of Laois, Westmeath and Offaly – an increase of 40% in percentage terms.”

Kelly added: “There’s about 190,000 extra cows in Munster – a 29% increase on where it was before; there’s over 100,000 extra cows in Leinster; 16,000 extra cows in Connacht; and in the three counties of Ulster, cow numbers have increased by 19,000.”

What does the future hold?

Speaking on milk supply surveys undertaken by processors, Kelly said: “Many are seeing that there are less farmers planning to expand than the numbers that have expanded over the past five years.”

However, he said: “There’s still a lot of people planning to significantly increase cow numbers.”

Over the next number of years – up until 2025 – he expects the national dairy herd to increase by 2% each year to reach 1.6 million cows.

“I looked at cow numbers over the past 30 years in Ireland. When milk quotas came into play in 1984, there were 1.55 million cows in Ireland; so, 1.6 million cows seems like a realistic target,” he concluded.

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