Having grown up on a dairy farm, I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to dairy.
Allegations that dairy farming is damaging the fundamentals of Ireland’s farming sector dismissed as extremist nonsense.
So it was an eye opener when I was told at Teagasc’s Moorepark center that dairy farming has indeed eroded the profitability of cattle ranchers.
On the production side, the milkman has flooded the market with cheap calves that have essentially diluted the value of the mother calf. And at the other end, the dairy farmer has pushed up the cost of the most basic inputs in land values and rent.
The fact that milk revenues were many times that of the beef sector rubs salt in the wound.
And that economic gap is only going to get worse this year.
Milk prices have increased by about 50 cents in the last year, from about 35 cents a liter a year ago to almost 50 cents a liter now.
Beef prices are also at record highs, but the relative increase is much smaller, approaching a 25 percent increase from this point last year.
Input costs have risen by the same amount in both systems, but it is the dairy farmer who will emerge best from this period of extraordinary price inflation.
This will only widen the divide between the haves and have-nots in agriculture and fuel resentment against the dominant sector.
A similar dynamic fueled anti-dairy campaigns in New Zealand. Fearing threats and fears that an ever-expanding dairy sector would put them out of business, the Dirty Dairy campaign found some of its staunchest supporters among beef farmers.
We have many examples of similar feelings here. A recent headline proclaimed EU warnings that “Ireland’s milk growth threatens farm payments”.
This is despite the fact that dairy is just one of several issues the EU has with Ireland’s environmental ambitions for the farming sector.
But there are signs that the dairy sector is finally trying to address the festering divide its success has created.
The Dairy Beef Index (DBI) may be a day late and a dollar short, but it’s just part of a fairly monumental shift happening in the dairy sector.
Any sexed seed that has been available in the country for this growing season has completely sold out and demand is expected to double again next year to the point where we will draw level with the UK where more than two thirds All AI in the dairy herd use sexed semen.
That’s a phenomenal increase for a product that was new five years ago.
This means dairy farmers can breed calves specifically for the cattle breeder after the first 25 heads of the herd have been inseminated with female milk straw to meet all replacement needs.
The DBI plays to its strengths because it guarantees the two most important properties for both sides: easy calving for the dairy farmer and a calf worthy of fattening for the cattle farmer.
One of the challenges, however, is to change the reputation that dairy cows enjoy among cattle farmers.
After botching hundreds of thousands of useless Jersey crossbreeds and extreme Holstein calves over the past 20 years, it will take time to convince cattle breeders that there’s more to the milkman than a bag of bones.
Therefore, the news that Teagasc has secured a 15-year lease on a 280-acre farm to demonstrate the viability of a dairy calf-to-beef system is an important initiative.
The reality is that the vast majority of Irish beef calves will be raised from the dairy herd from now on.
But while the dairy farmer controls the genetics, they are increasingly dependent on a guaranteed sale for that calf. We’re a hair’s breadth from a crisis in this regard when the live export pressure valve is removed.
However, the basics are there. Teagasc knows that in a dairy calf-to-beef system, a net margin of €500/ha is achievable. The dairy farmer now has the breeding tools to produce good quality beef calves.
And the dairy sector finally seems to be acknowledging how vulnerable they really are when they don’t have a viable beef sector working alongside them.
Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farming business in Meath, elmgrovefarm.ie
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/comment/darragh-mccullough-why-dairy-and-beef-sectors-need-to-stop-fighting-and-accept-they-need-each-other-41608169.html Darragh McCullough: Why the dairy and beef sectors need to stop bickering and accept they need each other