Analysis: Is animal welfare in Irish dairying really as good as we think it is?

What type of dairy production systems will there be in the future?

I have just returned from the first meeting of a focus group, assembled by the European Innovation Partnership, or EIP-Agri, to look at robust and resilient dairy production systems of the future.

The group has 20 members – a mix of farmers, advisers and researchers from across the European Union. EIP-Agri is an EU imitative that aims to speed up the innovation process in the agricultural and forestry sectors by bringing research and practice closer together.

The focus group is just one of the building blocks that will influence policy makers in the EU Commission.


The dairy industry in Ireland is a major part of our national economic and agri-food policy.

The drive to increase milk production by 50pc before 2020 and by 4pc per annum thereafter is well on track. We appear to have a co-ordinated, well-oiled machine starting with the dairy farmer right through to the processor, retailer and ultimately to the consumer.

We are convinced we have the game cracked, the bedrock being our low-cost, grass-based production system enabling us to produce milk powder and butter cheaper that everybody else in the Northern Hemisphere, if not in the world.

But, have we really got it cracked? If we continue the relentless drive to cut production costs at every available opportunity, will it eventually come back and slap us in the face, like the bobby calf issue in New Zealand?



Approximately 80pc of the world dairy cows are in confinement dairy production systems so most of the worlds’ consumers visualise milk being produced from dairy cows in sheds or barns.

Some European processors are paying a premium price for milk produced from cows who spend a minimum period outside on grass .

This means that in Ireland we have the idyllic system, our adverts of cows grazing lush green grass under clear blue sunny skies should give us a clear advantage. Robust and resilient dairy systems of the future encompass many areas such as animal health and welfare, volatility of prices, climate change and social demands. However, animal health and welfare appears to be the number one focus of European dairy farmers. Northern European dairy farmers in particular are acutely aware of animal health and welfare in their herds mainly because their milk is processed all year round into fresh milk products for immediate sale in local markets. Processors demand high standards to minimise or eliminate the risk of bad news welfare story going viral and suddenly collapsing sales.

We are familiar with the advertising campaigns from vegetarian and vegan organisations with little or no supporting evidence, so imagine the damage they would do if they managed to acquire hard video evidence of a welfare misdemeanour from an errant dairy farmer.


So how do we measure animal health and welfare?

We are familiar with recording measures such as mastitis cases, Somatic Cell Count (SCC) and Total Bacterial Count (TBC) in milk quality.

But health traits are still a small part of the EBI breeding index, at just 3pc. In the future, we could be looking at a statutory requirement to record Body Condition Score (BCS), the number of cases of lameness, metabolic diseases, retained cleanings, and so on, to satisfy the demands of a needy consumer.

Precision farming will enable much of this with sensors in animals, in sheds and outdoors to monitor climate, locomotion, rumination, heart rate, green-house gas levels, and a whole host of other health and welfare indicators.

The high input producers of northern Europe see these developments as inevitable while we in Ireland are almost totally focused on profit, betting on the fact that the lowest cost producer will ultimately win the day. In my opinion the high input producers of northern Europe will survive financially, therefore it is imperative that we in Ireland prepare to match our European neighbours when it comes to recording and monitoring animal health and welfare data.


Irish challenges

Our expanding dairy herds will present bigger welfare challenges. For example, cows will walk longer distances to the milking parlour for twice daily milking. This has implications for all the health and welfare indicators mentioned above.

Road surface quality, diet and hoof maintenance will rise-up the priority list. Many new dairy units are erecting roofless cubicles, which are working well in practice. But will the image of a heavily in-calf cow on a cold, wet windy January morning stand up for a discerning consumer when compared against the image of a Northern European or American dairy cow in a snug climate controlled shed or barn?

Will the high protein levels of all grass dairy cow diets be acceptable if nutritional ideals are to be achieved for health and welfare reasons?

These are just some of the questions we will be forced to address for robust and resilient dairy systems of the future. There is no reason why we can cannot continue our low cost grass systems, by incorporating superior health and welfare measures to ensure we stay top of the class when it comes to all aspects of milk production.

We have the research, advisory capacity and motivated, educated farmers to implement such change.

We could then call this a true Irish system of milk production system. It is now time to move on from the old high- versus low-input system debate and focus on the much bigger social licence to produce milk debate.

These social demands for milk production will shape our future dairy farmers and dairy production systems.