The dairy boom is over — but does that mean you need to reduce cow numbers?

Michael Brady.

Agricultural Consultant and managing director at Brady Group: Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents.

The Lodge, Lee Road, Cork. T23 KW88

1st published in The Farming Independent: 08.11.2023

Should I reduce dairy cow numbers  –  the dreaded question on most dairy farmer minds ?

It’s official the Dairy Boom is over.

It is now over 26 years when in, 2007 the EU announced removal of milk quotas in 2015. The Celtic Tiger building boom had run its course and agriculture, more specifically dairying was the only show in town for Ireland inc.

Our government recognised the fact that we have a climatic advantage which enables us to graze green grass out in the field as good value feed to fuel our dairy cows to produce milk at lower cost than dairy farmers in other countries. This gives us a significant competitive advantage when marketing our dairy products on the global market.

The roadmap for the Dairy Boom was the Food Harvest 2020 Report, where Ireland Inc. planned to increase milk volume produced by 50% by the year 2020, we blew that target out of the water by 2018. In fact, the growth was so strong there was a worry that there would not be enough milk processing capacity in the country to process the extra milk, some processors brought in peak milk volume quotas to control the milk supply. Growth has continued, but it is only a trickle pace compared to the flood of extra milk produced between 2011-2020.

So why is the Dairy Boom over?

  1. Nitrates derogation

Ireland is in its fifth Nitrates Action Programme (2022-2025) where it has a derogation to farm at stocking rates above the 170 kg of Organic Nitrogen per Hectare limit in the EU Nitrates Directive. There are approximately 18,000 dairy farmers in the country and over 7,000 avail of the derogation with another 7,000 exporting slurry to stay within the 170 kg of N limit. The recent mid-term review of the derogation required an improvement to be achieved in Ireland’s water quality for the derogation to continue at the 250 kg of N limit. This did not occur to the desired level, so the limit has been reduced from 250 kgs of N to 220 kgs of N. This has shaken dairy farmers confidence and is forcing many to weigh up renting in more land or reducing livestock numbers. The biggest fear for the industry is whether the derogation will be continued after 2025, if mot this would have devastating consequences for the dairy industry and rural Ireland. The question is whether or not it would actually improve water quality.

  • Climate change

The climate crisis is real and yes, ruminant livestock (beef, diary, sheep and goats) are the major contributor to Irelands greenhouse gas production. Farmers know and accept this fact, even though many question when we will look back in a 100 years time, what relevance will the contribution of Ireland’s ruminant livestock be to global warming or burning as it’s predicted be by then. In any case, the constant blaming of the recent increase in dairy cow numbers to our climate crisis (even though ruminant livestock numbers are actually stable or falling) is also knocking the confidence of existing dairy farmers and certainly discouraging any potential new entrants to milk production.    

  • Water Quality

Water quality in Ireland is good when compared to other countries on a global scale, however in simple terms our pristine waters are disimproving and our poor waters are improving combining to leave the water quality in the country somewhat static. I agree this situation must be improved and the graph placed firmly on an improvement path.

There are many unanswered questions when it comes to water quality, but I have come to realise that agriculture will always be the main influencer of water quality, as every acre of land in the country drains into a waterbody. Run off from fields with no ‘cows’ and no ‘artificial fertiliser’ nor ‘slurry’ will still contain nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

Ireland has 58% of its water in a pristine state, the Netherlands who lost their nitrates derogation have between 1-2% in pristine state. Yes, farmers and in particular dairy farmers are being blamed in both countries, this is ebbing away at farmer confidence causing many to question where all this will end up.     

  • Labour

Our economy effectively has full employment, every sector is finding it difficult to employ staff, dairy farming is no different. This is a major issue for many dairy farmers, especially those with poor people management skill’s or have a reputation of being poor employers. The only alternative for such farmers is to cut the cloth to measure and reduce cow numbers to fit the on-farm family labour available. With herd size now at 100 cows per dairy farm nationally, a number which is widely recognised as the amount of cows for 1 labour unit, then going to the next step in herd size will require employed labour. Many farmers conclude it simply not worth the grief and are staying at the 100 cow mark. 

  • Goals Achieved / Plans Executed

This in my opinion is the main reason why the Dairy Boom is over.

Irish dairy farmers had been farming with ‘the handbrake on’ for the 32 year of EU milk quotas to 2015, then the brakes were off. Most put in place expansion plans for their farm businesses; a lot of money was borrowed, many parlours and dairy sheds were built, extra heifers were reared and many more cows were milked. These business plans have been executed and the goals achieved. Most of these farm businesses are now fully developed, they have most of their bank loans paid down and they are living off the fruits of a decade of hard work and good profits. The ambition and drive not as strong as it was back around 2015, maintaining the status quo is the mantra.

  • Good old Irish begrudgery

It’s been said many times that a fault we have as a nation is that we do not handle success well. In other countries successful sports stars, musicians, artists and businesses are feted and put on a pedestal as an example for others to follow i.e. the American Dream. Yet here we seem to want successful people to fall i.e. ‘so that they don’t get a big head’. Unfortunately, dairy farmers are in the eye of this storm in this country right now. Yes, it will pass but its eating away at the confidence of even the best dairy farmers.

  • Politics

We have an election next year, ministers and TD’s are looking for votes, if dairy farming is in the eye of a public storm then the politicians will veer to the side of public opinion, at this point in time this does not bode well for the dairy industry.

Yes, the Dairy Boom is over, but the question remains, will dairy farmers reduce cow numbers?

I believe science will win in the end. We will find and settle on a system of grass-based production for milk that will be acceptable to public opinion, improve water quality and contribute positively to the climate crisis. The labour issue will ease and those with good people management skills will thrive by providing a good work life balance, including quality houses/accommodation for staff. Dairy farmer longevity has been and will always outlive their political representatives.

So, in summary, the answers is NO, I do not believe dairy farmers will reduce dairy cow numbers. In fact, those who are established will find a way and say ‘Feck the begrudgers’.