Dairy farming has been a god send for medium-sized Irish farms, according to Teagasc Director Gerry Boyle.

Speaking to Agriland this week, he said the best option for any medium-sized farm in Ireland is dairying. “The core issue is sustainability, in the broader sense of the term. There has to be an income for farms and well-managed dairy farms can return an income. Dairying is the best option for medium-sized farms, no question about it.”

He said that where motivation is there, for a person with a young family, dairying presents the best option, even with price volatility. However, he said dairy farms still have to be managed efficiently and the best one-person operation is an 85-cow herd. “It’s not an easy life and you’d need milking relief, but it is sustainable as a one-person operation.”

Once operations go above the 120-cow mark, he said, the issues change from being technical to management. However, he said this will lead to greater specialisation which is an ‘exciting prospect’. “In the medium-to-longer term there are huge opportunities for dry stock farmers to take on contract heifer rearing.”

Beef farming, on the other hand, he said has always been a difficult sector. Pointing back as far as 1974, he said the sector has always been cyclical and is a challenging sector all over the world – not just in Ireland. “It’s a low margin business and you have people involved in beef for a variety of reasons.” For some, he said, it’s a transition from other enterprises, many dairy farmers have been involved in beef as they may have had spare land. However, he said it’s very difficult to make simple comparisons between beef and dairy farms.

“Without the Single Farm Payment (SFP) or the part-time job, there is a better work-life balance in beef than in dairying the investment is less. But to make an income you need to be as efficient an operator as a dairy farm and have a very large farm size. If you don’t have those you will need an off farm job to supplement your income and you will be reliant on the SFP.”

Apart form a very small group of people, around 10% of beef farmers, it has been a marginal activity, he says.

“Our message inside the farm gate is to push efficiency. “Even with a reasonably sized farm, 40-50ha at the moment, with current prices and top efficiency, the income level is about €12,000, before a SFP.

“Clearly if you were taking a rational decision you might say ‘why am I doing this?’, but if you can achieve this outcome, or close to it, with an off-farm job,then that’s a different proposition altogether.”