What are some of the challenges currently facing the dairy industry?

While the dairy industry has experienced positive growth in recent years, it is not without its challenges.

Some of these challenges were raised during a panel discussion at one of Alltech Ireland’s ‘Pathways to Profit’ seminars in Co. Kilkenny, last week.

Chaired by Teagasc’s George Ramsbottom, the panel featured a number of speakers from the industry in Ireland, as well as New Zealand.

‘Don’t expand numbers beyond the scope of the farm’

The was a statement made by Dr. Sue Mackay, the principal dairy consultant with New Zealand company, Dairy Production Systems Ltd.

She noted that on her visit to Ireland, she has observed “an almost rush to expansion” with a lot of significant investments recently made on farms.

It is important that farmers don’t increase cow numbers beyond the scope of their farm.

“As you increase numbers you become more dependent on staff and you don’t want to create extra ‘down time’ for your cows – which will result in a negative performance,” she explained.

Down time is the amount of time cows spend waiting around; such as standing in the yard – which can become longer when milking time increases due to an increase in cow numbers.

“I think farmers should take care in how they expand and know where they are going. Maybe look at the fact that you may be able to get more out of what you already have. Where in most cases you can,” she added.

Duty of care to all calves

Another challenge put to the panel was around calf welfare – which has come under the radar recently in Ireland.

In New Zealand, according to Sue, calf welfare is hugely important in both heifer and bull calves. For heifers, they have realised that if anything happens to that calf in the first six months of its life, it has lasting affects in later life.

In the case of bull calves, she said: “The auditing of ‘bobby’ calves (bull calves) when they arrive at the slaughter places in New Zealand is more stringent than the auditing of the replacement heifers calves kept on farms. There is pretty strict rules in place at the moment.”

Also involved in the discussion was Dr. Eoin Ryan – who is a lecturer in University College Dublin (UCD). Commenting on the situation in Ireland, he said:

There is no doubt that a share of bull calves in Ireland are not getting enough colostrum and are suffering from disease as a result.

“One of the major risks for the industry are lobby groups; so we need to ensure that all our calves are treated equally,” he added.

Disease pressure from expansion

As dairy cow numbers have increased on farms, so has the risk of disease; particularly around the point of calving.

This, according to Eoin, is heightened if farmers are not organised and do not have significant labour in place to deal with the workload at calving.

He also noted that, due to expansion, a lot farms are tight on calving space and housing which is having a negative effect on some herds.

“It is during the peak calving season when disease can hit these farms the hardest – with things like metabolic diseases. Moreover, it doesn’t take a lot to sort it out; even adequate feed space can really make a big difference,” said Eoin.

New entrant pitfalls

Finally, a challenge for many new entrants, or even for some farmers who have recently expanded, was highlighted by Ifac’s Philip O’ Connor.

He said: “Many new entrants miss the cost of bringing in or rearing a heifer for the system and run into cash-flow problems.

It is not that they aren’t aware of the cost, it’s just that they don’t really factor it in. They can then underestimate the cost of the transition and run into cash-flow problems.

“So, it is important that farmers who are expanding – or new entrants – that they factor in the cost of bringing in that new heifer and be aware that it is into the second lactation before that heifer is returning a positive net cash balance into the farm.”