‘Lack of promotion of dairy farming careers needs to be addressed’

Since the unshackling of milk quotas in 2015, the Irish dairy industry has undergone change. Increases in cow numbers, herd sizes and changes in farm structures are evident across the country.

Speaking at this week’s International Agricultural Workforce Conference, Teagasc’s Dr. Paidi Kelly outlined some of the more noteworthy changes to the 150 delegates in attendance.

The ‘brains and brawn’ behind The People in Dairy Project said: “In 2010, we were just on the cusp of starting to prepare for milk quota removal in 2015 and we had just under 1.1 million dairy cows.

“Fast forward to the end of last year and – on average – there were 1.4 million dairy cows in the country. An extra 300,000 cows have been added to the dairy industry in a seven-year period.”

Importantly, he noted, the expansion has not just been about scale.

Cow numbers increased by 32%, milk production – in terms of litres – improved by 48% and milk solids improved by 53%.

Cow numbers are also expected to rise to 1.6 million by 2025. The national herd is expected to remain relatively stable over the coming years, he added, but there’s the potential to add 150,000 extra cows. However, this is dependent on milk markets, the challenges we face and environmental regulations.

How has the structure of farms changed?

“In 2005, there were about 150,000 cows in herds of 100 cows or more. By 2016, over 600,000 cows – or over half of the national herd – were in herds of 100 cows or greater.

“In 2005, there were only about 1,000 farmers milking 100 cows or more. When we fast forward to 2016, there’s 4,000 farmers milking greater than 100 cows,” he said.

25% of farmers are currently milking 50% of the cows, he said, and this is creating a mismatch in terms of what one person can actually do and the requirement for employed labour on those farms.

“The average herd size of those farms in 2016 was 155 cows; a workload that would be close to requiring two people – depending on how the work was organised on the farm. It also shows that scale is something quite new to a lot of us.”

Labour changes

Citing results from the Central Statistic Office’s (CSO’s) Farm Structure Survey 2010-2016, the Teagasc research officer said: “Interestingly, for the first time since milk quotas were introduced, the number of dairy farmers has actually increased.

“For the last 30 years, dairy farmer numbers had been decreasing every year. In 2016, we had 1,000 extra specialised farmers – as the CSO would define them – than we had in 2010.

We’ve had 1,000 conversions to dairying over that time-frame – from beef, sheep and tillage farming.

“It’s also composed of a definition change whereby the way the CSO looks at specialised dairy farmers as the proportion of dairy stock versus other stock. The expansion of cow numbers has meant that more farmers are now defined as specialised dairy farmers.

“Obviously, over that time-frame, farmers retired out of farming and the fact that we managed to increase dairy farmer numbers by 1,000 is a really great achievement.

“In contrast to that, you’d expect the average age of dairy farmers might be improving because the majority of those conversions would have been by younger farmers.

“If you look at the age structure in 2010, there were 7% of farmers younger than 35. That actually dropped to 5% in 2016.

“If we look at the farmers aged 65 and older, they increased from 13% to 16% and that’s a trend that we are seeing in agricultural industries right across the world.” he said.

However, Kelly also noted that there’s a trend in Irish dairy farming where there’s less family members available to share the workload and, as a result, more employees are required.

Price cuts bonuses

Future requirements

When it comes to managing and operating dairy farms in the future, Kelly noted that approximately 2,300 new employees will be needed to work on larger-scale dairy farmers by 2025.

“Even if herd numbers stayed the exact same over that time period, we will still need about 4,000 future farmers to enter the industry.”

To meet this challenge, a stakeholder group was formed and its number one task is to try and fill the immediate labour shortage in terms of attracting new people to dairy farming.

One of the major challenges posed by recruiting new people into the dairy industry is the overall strength of the economy, which draws potential dairy employees into other sectors.

“The last time the economy was in a positive place, milk quotas were in place, there were no opportunities on dairy farms and cow numbers were going nowhere.

If we contrast that to today: we’ve increased by 300,000 cows; we’ve employment opportunities in the sector; we’ve opportunities for people to actually step in and run their own farming businesses and we’ve multiple examples of that already when milk quotas have just been removed three years.

“That is something that’s a real weapon that we can use in the future to both retain the really good people that we have, but also to allow us to attract people in the future.”

As it stands, Kelly said: “Various different organisations are doing positive things in this space. Teagasc, Agri Aware, the National Dairy Council and other organisations do a bit of promotion.”

But that’s not enough.

“We have a €4 billion export industry; we’ve 1.4 million dairy cows; we’ve serious opportunities in the sector and it’s no one’s job to promote dairy farming careers full-time and that’s something we need to address,” he concluded.