Dairy production in Ireland – it’s not all about grazed grass

This week saw both the top prizes on-offer at the Balmoral Winter Dairy Fair head south.

The inter-breed champion is jointly owned by the Jones family from Co Wexford and Donegal man Ray Cromie while the reserve inter-breed title went to Carlow breeder Liam Murphy.

Significantly, both winning cows were Holstein fifth calvers and none of this came about by chance.

Both sets of connections regularly head north for the Winter Fair and, as likely as not, come back with a heap of Sterling in their back pockets.

In fact, southern breeders made up the backbone of the entries at this year’s event, a point made very willingly to me by IHFA’s Donal Carey.

The likelihood of both the aforementioned cows ever seeing a grass field is remote. But should that really matter?

Yes, Ireland has a strong reputation for producing milk from grazed grass and Teagasc refuses to countenance any other form of milk production in an Irish context.

But should this dogmatic approach totally rule out the option of looking at more intensive ways of producing milk in this part of the world?

The initial starting point for me in this debate is to reflect on the track record of both this week’s winning cows: they are both fifth calvers.

This, surely, confirms the reality that Holstein cows do have staying power, provided they are managed properly.

And before people start emailing me to point out that pedigree Holstein cows get molly-coddled from the get-go, I am already very aware of these views.

But, of course, this depends on your interpretation of what is meant by molly-coddling.

Ensuring that a cow has access to sufficient feed trough space and can lie down in a comfortable cubicle when she wants should be pretty much a standard approach on every dairy farm.

It’s also worth pointing out that most pedigree Holstein breeders are now operating with large numbers of cows.

But this is mere detail. The bigger picture, from an Irish milk production perspective, is the reality that the industry does not produce enough winter milk.

Processors have invested millions of euro in additional stainless steel over recent years, a large proportion of which lies idle between October and March.

Surely, it makes sense, from everyone’s point of view, to have this processing capacity more fully utilised.

And for that to happen, in my opinion, means scrapping the existing liquid milk arrangements in Ireland. They are totally out of date and serve no useful purpose, whatsoever.

What is required, though, is a commitment from the co-ops to pay a decent winter milk bonus across the board!