We should all strive to keep Irish dairying at No 1 — it will benefit every farming sector

Michael Brady.

Agricultural Consultant and managing director at Brady Group: Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents. The Lodge, Lee Road, Cork. Tel: 021- 45 45 120     email: mike@bradygroup.ie

1st published in the Farming Independent 01/12/2020

The Republic of Ireland soccer team is presently ranked number 37 out of 55 teams in the latest UEFA rankings (Union of European Football Associations).

Our dairy farmers have no such inferiority issues, they are ranked as number 1 across all the main milk processing nations in Europe, in a recently published report. 

This report is titled ‘An analysis of the Irish dairy sector post quota’, it makes for some interesting reading. The report is a joint collaboration between Teagasc, Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and University College Cork (UCC). The report compares Irish dairy farmers net profit margins (before family labour) across all the main milk producing nations in Europe. The findings in the report are summarised as follows:

Irish dairy farmers;

  1. Enjoy the best net profit margins (+43%).
  2. Have the lowest costs of production.
  3. Get the lowest milk price in Europe.

It’s an unfortunate Irish trait that we tend to knock those who are most successful in our society, and true to form our largest farming organisation reacted to this report by stating;

 ‘Let’s be crystal clear on this, Irish dairy farmers are under significant financial pressure and are working harder than they ever have before, this race to the bottom must stop’.

Well I beg to differ, I see this report as a reason to celebrate the excellent work done by our dairy farmers and the associated industry since the removal of milk quotas on the 31st of March 2015.

The government plan of expanding 2011 milk production by 50% before the year 2020 has been executed ahead of schedule and more importantly it had been executed in a profitable manner. How many government plans (promises) are delivered with such precision? Let there be no doubt this is an industry that delivers.

Imagine if our soccer team won the European Championship as opposed to constantly struggling to qualify. If our soccer team was ranked number 1 in Europe people would be out dancing in the streets, yet all our dairy farmers get is grief from both from inside and outside the industry.

To borrow an overused soccer cliché the Irish dairy Industry is genuinely, world class. The challenge now is to keep Irish dairying’s ranked at number 1 and take the industry from being world class to legendary status.

To keep Irish dairying at number 1 we all need to be onboard and put our shoulder to the wheel. Just as in sport everybody has their core creed i.e. GAA, rugby, soccer, horse racing, hockey, athletics, boxing etc but when it comes to supporting the nation, true sportsmen and women pull on the green jersey and support whatever code needs the support. All support helps, as wining and staying at the top is just a collection of marginal gains.

So, what can we do to stay at the top of the dairying league of nations?

Clearly, implementing climate change measures to achieve carbon zero dairy farms is the next plan for the dairy industry to execute.

To me dairy farmers are part of the solution rather than being the problem in the whole agri-emissions debate. All farmers and in particular dairy farmers have a great track record of delivery when it comes to implementing change.

Look at the massive improvement in farmyards and livestock wintering facilities in the last 30 years, pollution from farmyards has more or less been eliminated. The huge change of emphasis and advances in animal breeding in the national herds of dairy cows, beef and pigs is another example of embracing change, when it may not always have been popular to do so. These examples show farmers can adapt, so when the science provides the solution, I have no doubt dairy farmers will implement the plan and solve the green-house gas issue.

We have scope to pay a better milk price to our dairy farmers is another learning form the Teagasc/CIT/UCC report. Our milk price is lower than that of all of our European neighbours because of the seasonality of production, the cost of expansion and the production of commodities rather than value added products. I believe we will catch up here over time and as most of our milk is processed in farmer owned processing facilities. This is an example of everybody putting their shoulder to the wheel for the benefit of all, and improvement in milk price is clearly an area that will keep Irish dairying at number 1. However, we must remember turnover is vanity and profit margins are sanity.             

Finally, our dairy farmers need a reliable source of labour. If dairying is to continue to expand in the coming decades a reliable source of labour is vital to the industry. The Polish and their Eastern European neighbours have gone back home to milk cows in their own countries, clearly influenced by the success here. COVID19 has provided an unexpected temporary source of labour, but I expect this will dry up quickly in 2021as soon as the world finds the ‘new normal’ with the rollout of a vaccine for the virus. Government need to work with the EU to allow Non-EU workers access to Irish dairy farms. A reliable value for money source of labour will keep Irish dairying at number 1.   

In summary, the Teagasc/CIT/UCC Report clearly show how good our dairy farmers are, let’s be proud and celebrate their achievements to date in the post quota era. We all should endeavour to do what we can to help keep them at number 1 in the nations league of dairying, it will benefit all.