‘State bodies promoting dairy industry into oblivion’ – Kent

The dairy industry is a “balloon that is ready to burst”, Patrick Kent, the president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA), has stated.

Speaking to AgriLand, Kent stipulated that if the dairy sector continues to expand at its current rate of growth, it could potentially lead to a situation where the beef market “will be saturated” with low-grade burger beef.

Although the Wexford-based farmer was frank in his assertions, he stressed that his words are not an attempt to position one sector against the other.

Rather, he says, his concerns are founded on the “risky direction” which he believes the Government and state agencies are pushing Irish agriculture towards.

In keeping with Government targets, it is expected that cow numbers will increase to 1.7 million by 2025 – with average milk delivered per farm rising to over 570,000L.

Herd sizes are forecast to increase to at least 100 cows on average.

In line with these objectives, Kent fears that smaller dairy herds with between 60 and 80 cows – whom he describes as “pillars of rural society” – will be exploited by larger, more intensive operations with farmers milking up to 1,000 cows.

The dairy situation is gone out of control. It’s all happening on borrowed money. It’s a dairy bubble.

“I have to praise the family farm milking 80 cows or less – in this situation the farmer is happy, the cows are happy, the situation is efficient and the milk is good. It is not factory farming.

“But the New Zealand scenario is a disaster and it should not be replicated here.

“It’s too stressful on the farmer and its too stressful on the herd. They are being glorified in some quarters and its intolerable.

“If we continue to drive numbers we are facing serious animal welfare issues down the line. In some cases cows have to walk an hour to the parlour, wait two hours in collection, and then walk an hour back. That is not acceptable,” Kent stated.

Extreme Weather Variables

Reflecting on the impact of the extreme weather events over the last 12 months – storms, snow, heatwave and drought – Kent outlined his thoughts on the knock-on implications for the beef trade.

He contends that the consequences of the summer drought situation – which has already culminated in the announcement of a €4.25 million Fodder Import Support Measure, flexibility for fodder production under some GLAS options and €2.75 million for a Fodder Production Incentive Measure for tillage farmers – has exposed how in some intensive dairy situations there is no buffer.

“Farmers’ resources have been depleted; whereas traditionally farmers would have had a cash buffer and a fodder buffer.

“Farmers have been lulled into a false sense of security by carbon navigation. Every year farmers are being pushed to get cattle out earlier, but that isn’t happening.

The emphasis of different Government bodies in promoting the dairy industry into oblivion has placed the sector on a precipice and it’s a balloon ready to burst, I will say it publicly.

“We are dumping powder into Africa and there are stacks of it in Europe. It is building, building, building and that is going to plunge the price of milk.

“As soon as they get to the critical mass of 1.7 million dairy cows they won’t be worth milking,” Kent said.

According to Teagasc, in 2010 there was just over one million dairy cows in Ireland; last year, the figure averaged at around 1.4 million cows.

If they continue to pursue that massive expansion of the dairy industry it will be armageddon.

“For beef it means the quality of the market will be saturated with low-grade burger beef,” said Kent.

Cheap loans

Despite calls from other farm lobby groups for the early opening of this year’s new €25 million low-cost agri loan scheme in light of the escalating fodder shortages, Kent argues that cheap loans are “not the answer”.

“Cheap loans mean you will drive the price of land, of commodities and land leasing. The guys that have too much and are too greedy are getting those cheap loans before they even come out.

“If we leave it to the Government we are finished – we can forget it and pack up the tent immediately.

On the €4.25 million fodder import scheme, while we welcome it, the reality is when it comes down to the bottom line farmers are unfortunately on a slippery slope and they have been for the last 20 years.

“There is a lot of very big agri-food corporations that are multi-national and they are very, very powerful. They also have the ability to sequester profits that should be in farmers pockets’ to buffer farmers against the difficulties that we have just gone through.

“Instead of people focusing on Government supports we must focus on the lack of commitment by some corporations to give money back to farmers and keep a sustainable price there,” he said.