New skills are needed for more dairy expansion

Expansion beyond the 1.4 million dairy cows now in Ireland is likely to rely on accessing land through leasing or collaborative models, said Paidi Kelly of Teagasc at Tuesday’s National Dairy Conference in Kilkenny.

Milk production has increased, but more important is the change seen in key factors which drive competitiveness at farm level, said Mr Kelly.

Debt per kilo of milk solids has actually reduced, and production cost has decreased slightly, due to the extra milk production predominantly coming from grazed grass.

“Maintaining a strong focus on producing milk from grazed grass is essential to keep Irish dairying competitive at a global level,” he told the Conference audience.

He said dairy farming on a large scale is relatively new to the industry, with 4,200 farmers milking more than 100 cows in 2016 (average herd size 155 cows), compared to just over 1,000 farmers milking 100 cows or more in 2005.

This trend is one of the key drivers of the dramatic increase in demand for both full and part time employees.

A further increase in cow numbers is likely in 2018, due to the relatively high profitability of dairying leading to continued conversions to dairy farming, and the Government policy of long-term leasing tax incentives encouraging more farmers to consider leasing their land long term.

An increase to 1.6 million cows is predicted by 2025 (there were 1.55 million dairy cows in Ireland in 1984 just before milk quotas were introduced).

To facilitate this expansion, it is projected that over 6,000 people will need to enter Irish dairying, and the re-structuring process must be carefully managed to ensure Irish dairying remains competitive.

Finding land for expansion via collaborative farming models or land purchase requires building effective relationships with land owners, and carefully planning the financial implications of acquiring more land, while relying much more on employees, contractors, or contract heifer rearers. This requires excellent communication and organisational skills, very different to the skills needed to date for dairy expansion.

How expansion is managed has a huge effect on the farmer’s work-life balance, and the time he has for making important management decisions, etc.

Mr Kelly said it could well be argued that there should be no such thing as a ‘one person’ farm, regardless of the number of cows being milked, for the simple reason that every person requires a break.

But, for the owner/operator to take every second weekend off would require at least 1.2 labour units.

The farmer doing most of the work is no longer possible for many; it is crucial to review the system, facilities and work processes, for suitability to the scale of farming.

Labour-efficient farms need simple systems (easily communicated and operated by others); minimum number of enterprises (sell all surplus calves and get replacements contract reared); suitable cow type that requires minimum individual attention; calving dates and stocking rates to minimise supplementary feed; and good grazing and farmyard infrastructure.

Dairy farmers need to think about communication, delegation, organisation, and planning skills, to make their dairy farms enjoyable places to work, so the industry can attract the people it will need.

Mr Kelly noted there are a number of successful examples across the country of people working together in leasing, partnership and share farming arrangements, proving that the person who owns the farm no longer must be the person that farms it.

This can allow a new generation of ambitious, skilled and motivated young people enter dairying.

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