Moorepark ’19: ‘We need to avoid a high-input system drift’
Thousands of people flocked to Moorepark today, Wednesday, July 3, for the Teagasc National Dairy Open Day – which takes place every two years in Co. Cork.
As we know, the Irish dairy sector has just gone through a very successful period of expansion, with milk output increasing by 64% and dairy farm income increasing by 70%.
Speaking at the event, Teagasc’s Padraig French discussed the progress the dairy industry has made over the last decade, along with some of the challenges the industry faces in terms of profitability and sustainability, along with some of the risks and opportunities associated with continued dairy farm expansion.
“During the period from 2008 to 2010, on average we were selling 20,000kg of milk solids (MS) and last year that increased up to 35,000kg of MS – an increase of 70% over the last 10 years.
“The last three years compared to the previous three years saw a doubling in farm profit – from an average of €35,000 to an average of €70,000.
“So, from that perspective expansion has been very rewarding and profitable,” he explained.
He also noted that the carbon footprint and farm debt per kilogram of milk are both less compared with the period 2007–2009 – from €3/kg of MS to €2.05/kg of MS.
However, he stressed that success in the past doesn’t automatically mean success in the future and outlined some risks the sector faces.
“The biggest risk is a system drift; where farmers have drifted from pasture-based systems into higher input systems – chasing output rather than profit. This is the biggest risk to our industry when it comes to profitability.
“We need to keep our focus on the pasture-based system – growing and utilising more grass,” he added.
“Other risks include our social licence. We want the community as a whole to appreciate that dairy expansion is a good thing.
“To ensure we keep that social licence, environmental compliance will be a challenge, along with animal welfare and people – retaining and attracting the right people onto dairy farms,” Padraig explained.
Touching on sustainability, he explained that the key driver of this is growing and utilising more grass, along with having the right cows with a compact spring-calving system and low replacement rates.
Considerations around expansion
Padraig noted that continued expansion for some farmers is the right thing to do, if they’re already operating at a high level of efficiency, but noted that expansion using extra imported feed will generate a poor return, expose the farm to more risk and increase the environmental footprint.
“There still is significant opportunity on farms – only 20% of Irish land is under dairy production. But, before farmers even consider shifting, they have to look at efficiencies inside the farm gate.
“If you can shift from 8kg of DM/ha utilised to 13kg of DM/ha utilised, that is the equivalent of gaining an extra 20ha of land outside the farm gate for free.
“Farmers need to look inside the farm gate first, focusing on grass and having the appropriate cow. Farmers also need to know when to stop growing. They need to know what is the capacity of the farm to grow grass, the potential sticking rate, and when you reach this, you need to stop growing.
“If you then want to grow the business further, you need to perhaps replicate the system elsewhere, or grow the land base. But don’t buy into the higher-input systems,” he highlighted.
Padraig noted that 2019 can be a year to ‘de-risk’ dairy farming systems and outlined many practices which will help with this.
- Improve soil fertility;
- Build fodder reserves;
- Improve calf-rearing facilities and resources;
- Invest in your own skillset – grass and people management;
- Build cash reserve.
Touching on the reasons why the dairy expansion should continue, he said: “There has been lots of talk about stopping expansion at this stage; but, there are a lot of reasons why we should continue to expand.
“Firstly, it’s profitable; it gives a good return. Secondly, we have increased milk production by three billion litres over the last 10 years and lots of people talk about our carbon footprint.
“But, if that milk was produced somewhere else in the world – there would be four million tonnes of extra carbon dioxide. So, by producing that milk here, we have reduced global carbon emissions by four million tonnes.”
Concluding, he said: “There is a significant market out there for grass-fed milk and we need to stick to grass-based systems.”