After three and a half years working in Ireland, Kiwi Mark Ryder reflects on learning the intricacies of a dairy industry that is primarily quite similar to New Zealand yet quite different.

The similarities centre around both countries’ ability to grow grass and maintain a fairly low-cost structure. The diversion comes in the form of scale and quota.

I have met many farmers in Ireland who have spent the best years of their farming careers with their hands tied by quota restrictions, this and the fact that blocks of land are in small parcels with owners very reluctant to trade or share, have seen the two industries head in different directions. But, this is all about to change with the quota system coming to an end in 2015 and there are exciting times ahead for Ireland’s dairy industry and Irish farmers alike.

The targets of Food Harvest 2020 will bring Ireland more into line with what has driven New Zealand farmers since the 1980s when both industries were extremely similar.

Irish farmers, like their New Zealand counterparts, come in all shapes and sizes, there are good and not so good in both. Irish farmers and rural professionals receive world class support through Teagasc and Moorepark and this support is vital now as farmers make decisions to drive for profitable expansion post quota, while the extension through discussion groups is very effective.

With the reluctance of Irish landowners to trade land there is a need to get innovative around utilising this land for win win partnerships that don’t rely on changing the ownership of land. These initiatives will come in various shapes and sizes, some similar to the New Zealand share milking systems and some similar to those already established by Pat Ryan and John Condons Captial Farms. One thing is for certain and that is the younger generation of farmers need to be given avenues into the industry and there are some good initiatives underway to achieve this.

It is very satisfying for our growing LIC team in Ireland to see the value our genetics have added on farm in, there is no disputing facts like: that over 50% of the top 2000 EBI cows in Ireland are LIC bred (achieved in spite of only being responsible for ~10-15% of all matings) and having ~80% of sires on the Active list coming directly from LIC genetics.

The team often wonder how these same genetics can be used over the much smaller milk recorded national herd in Ireland and produce much higher genomic EBIs than can be achieved by using them over the elite cows from a pool of 3.6 million milk recorded animals in New Zealand. The main contributor to this anomaly is that in New Zealand  we use different data to calculate fertility and the onus is on LIC  scientists to submit relevant data to Interbull to enable ICBF to get better correlations for our sires.

One thing I would be very concerned about is the way genomics are being used in Ireland. At this point, the only work done is to prove that it works better than parent average, if it is working we should be seeing some decent daughter proven bulls resulting but they certainly aren’t there at this stage.

The massive gains on genomic fertility dont seem possible from the base they are coming from. Some suggest that due to several thousand bull calves being genotyped these results in genetic gain are possible. From our experience this is not likely to be the case. Take the Jersey population in New Zealand as an example, there is about 600k milk recorded cows similar number to the total cows milk recorded in Ireland, ideally you want to breed from the very elite, the top 1-2% but with that pool of animals it does not generate the number of sires required.

So, we then extended the dam pool to the top 5%, this gave enough sires and some very impressive Genomic Breeding Worths came from those in the top 3-5%, unfortunately they didn’t eventuate into good Daughter Proofs. I believe exactly the same thing is happening here with the way genomics is being used. Genomic sires are breeding genomic sires and due to only 10% of their proof coming from DNA the rest is parent average they have massive EBI’s by default and this is compounding the problem.

I totally believe in EBI and think it is the right index for Ireland, but I do wonder how effective it will become in improving the national herd as more traits get added in as weighting will have to be moved from those important traits already included.

I also wonder if some farmers are sitting back blaming the AI companies for their fertility issues when there are some of the basics not getting done right on the farm.

Recent work by DairyNZ has highlighted some areas where a number of New Zealand farmers are dropping the ball, I know it is no different here in Ireland. Things like rearing of young stock and heifer management, heat detection and insufficient or faulty stock bulls are some of the basics where easy fertility gains can be made and much quicker than waiting for an AI company to do it.

One thing I think Irish farmers can be certain of is that as they move from a quota situation there will be real volatility in milk price and the key will be to maintain a cost structure that allows profit when the price is at its lowest.

We see this regularly in New Zealand, right now coming off some great payouts farmers have let costs creep in to their systems mostly around imported feed with the justification that it stacks up at high milk price, unfortunately these added extras aren’t as easy to remove as they are to introduce.


Mark Ryder has worked with the Livestock Improvement Company (LIC) for the past three years in Ireland.