Average herd size set to reach 100 cows by 2018

Ireland has always been a significant player in the world dairy scene.

In 1769, the Cork Committee of Merchants set up the Cork Butter Market, it flourished in the 18th and 19th century, establishing itself as an important world commercial center, exporting butter to all four continents.

Today, we are experiencing a similar new era – with the rapid expansion occurring in milk production since the removal of EU milk quotas on April 1, 2015. Milk powders are the new white gold produced on the grass-based Irish dairy farms. What are the numbers for Irish dairying, and what is happening at farm level around the country?


Dairy cow numbers are presently 1.42 million head, which is more or less the same as 40 years ago. Numbers did drop below 1.2 million during the milk quota years but have recovered since the announcement that they would be removed.

This expansion seems set to continue despite recent low milk prices as our well-developed low-cost, grass-based systems of milk production help us win new dairy markets into the future.


Dairy farmer numbers have fallen from 144,000 in 1975 to around 17,000 today. In fact, we do not know exactly how many dairy farmers are in the country today as the Department of Agriculture has no legislative basis to gather supplier details from milk processors since the removal of milk quotas.

There were 17,720 dairy farmers with milk quotas on March 31, 2015 and there were 17,486 dairy farmers paid out in the dairy support package last autumn. The difference is probably explained by dormant suppliers, suppliers with more than one supplier number and new entrants.


Dairy cow numbers have risen and dairy farmer numbers have fallen but the production of milk has more than doubled in the last 40 years from 3.2 billion litres in 1975 to an estimated 6.9 billion litres in 2016. Milk production is forecast to grow by 6-7pc in 2016 but when the dust settles, after the initial exuberance from the removal of milk quotas, it is expected we will grow at a rate of 4pc per annum into the future. Half of this growth will be from increased numbers and the other half from increased productivity.

Herd size

With dairy farmer numbers falling and cow numbers rising, it can only mean that average herd size is increasing on Irish dairy farms.

In fact, the average dairy herd is soon going to break the 100 cow barrier. Some counties have already broken that barrier with Co Dublin at 109 cows per herd taking pole position followed closely by Co Meath at 106 and Co Waterford at 102 cows per herd. The present average is 81 cows per herd and I predict the entire country will have a herd average of over 100 cows by 2018.

County breakdown

Where is the milk produced in Ireland today?

Over 88pc of the cows are in Munster and Leinster – explaining the dominance of Glanbia and Dairygold as milk processors.

Co Cork is the largest county by size, but it far exceeds its relative size when it comes to dairy cows. A whopping 26pc of all the dairy cows in the country are in Cork, the top four counties on cow size – Cork, Tipperary, Limerick and Kerry – are all in Munster and they account for 52pc of all the cows in the country.

The number of dairy farmers in each county follows similar percentages.

The collation and publication of these figures on an annual basis is critical to the future of the dairy industry and rural Ireland.

Increasing cow numbers will have a major effect inside and outside the farm gate. Inside the farm gate, dairy farmers will be investing in livestock, buildings, machinery and land. They will be doing more work and will require more employed labour and local services to manage the additional cow numbers.

Outside the farm gate, there will be more trucks and vans on the roads delivering inputs such as feed and fertiliser and, of course, transporting the ­additional output of milk, calves and cull cows to processors. These very processors are spending millions upgrading their facilities.

There will be pressure on water use and the environment, but, hopefully, it will result in more money in the pockets of people living and working in rural communities. Irish dairy farmers have a reputation of working hard, making money and spending local.