What to do if you get a dose of the dairy blues and want to quit milking

1st Published 10/05/2022 in The Farming Independent

Michael Brady.

Agricultural Consultant and managing director at Brady Group: Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents. The Lodge, Lee Road, Cork.

“ I’ve enough hard work done – I’m getting out”

In Brady Group, we have been advising dairy farmers up and down the country for over 27 years. Every spring we get a call from a dairy farmer who has had enough and wants to stop milking cows. In fact, we have given the condition a name, FMA Fever (February-March-April fever). It’s a condition that affects dairy farmers in the middle of the Spring calving season.

The Spring calving season is very labour intensive and stressful for most dairy farmers. Long hours, late nights, and poor weather are a given, but add in cashflow issues, wars and sky rocketing input prices, that extra issue could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Farmers are much more robust and resilient that your average PAYE employee as they have generations of experience in dealing with weather and price crises. However, sometimes it can all become too much and the mind and body are screaming STOP.

What should such a dairy farmer do in such circumstances?

Firstly, pick up the phone and contact a trusted family member, friend or professional to discuss your dilemma. It is important to tease out the root cause for arriving at such a place i.e. question if it is just a short term issue or is it a deeper more serious issue to resolve.

Short-term issues are usually easily resolved, simply talking about the issue often goes a long way to putting the troubled farmer at ease. A cashflow problem is a good example of a short-term problem; e.g. there is not enough space the current account buy fertiliser, the farmer is busy calving and has not got the time to gather all the information the bank is looking for to apply for credit. An experienced consultant/advisor can take the reins here, deflate the immediate pressure and resolve the issue.

Longer – term issues require bigger decisions to be made. The farmer who has been thinking about exiting dairying for a number of years and is forced to consider the issue due an attack of FMA fever needs to take some time to examine the options for consideration. The procedure is the same as outlined for short-term issues; contact a trusted family member, friend or professional to discuss your thoughts and plans. A good example here is a 200 cow+ dairy farmer, with no interested family successors, and having major difficulty getting and/or retaining farm labour.

Here are all the options for this farmer to consider:

Option 1:   Continue Farming – Battle on for another year with 200 cows

This is the path of least resistance and the easiest option to choose. Good weather in June, July and August together with a good milk price are great medicine for a difficult spring. However, it does not resolve the core issue and health will eventually cause the farmer to STOP. In my mind it is better to go at a time of your own choosing.

Option 2:   Continue Farming – Exit dairying and switch enterprise

This is the next path of least resistance and the option chosen when a farmer has to exit cows and has a resistance to leasing out the farm. They normally switch to an arable, beef or sheep enterprise and proceed to lose money over the next few years. In such cases I often suggest contract rearing of dairy heifers as the ex-dairy farmer is skilled in this enterprise, however I often get the reply that they don’t want the responsibility of minding another farmers livestock.

If you still want to farm on, retain a small parcel of land but exit the majority.

Option 3:   Continue Farming –  Partnership

Farming in partnership is not for the majority of farmers who have spent a lifetime making decisions themselves. However, it is a viable option for two or more individuals with the right mindset and should always be considered as a viable option.

Choose your partner carefully.

Option 4:   Continue Farming –  Forestry – Rewilding

I would have been wary as a consultant presenting this option 10 years ago but today and looking into the future this will become an increasingly viable option. In particular, I see it as an option or part option for farms with peat and marginal land.

This is a ‘horses for courses’ option but will be subsidy driven.

Option 5:   Lease out farm

Leasing out the farm is usually a bitter pill for a dairy farmer to swallow. However, in my experience it is the simplest and most effective option for a retiring dairy farmer with no successors. It is time we as an industry get over the negative connotation surrounding a farmer leasing out their land.

Option 6:   Sell the farm

Selling the farm is like ‘pushing the nuclear button’ to most farmers, it simply is not an option farmers consider. This is why the amount of land sold annually in Ireland has fallen from over 70,000 acres per annum to less than 30,000 acres per annum in recent years. Whether this reaction is caused by pride, fear, stigma or a combination of all these emotions is unknown to me but a more objective approach or sociably acceptable incentives are necessary if land ownership is to be more fluid in this country.

In summary, a farmer can stay farming, exit farming or procrastinate. The advice is research your options and make a decision. Life is short, there is absolutely no point running oneself into an early grave carrying out a farming programme that eating into your quality of life and that of those around you.

Make that phone call.