32 years of milk quotas were a tough fight back for Billy Buckley

Joanne returned from travelling in 2006, and she began the expansion of the Buckley milking yard.
32 years of milk quotas were a tough fight back for Billy Buckley

It’s breakfast time on the Buckley farm near Banteer in North Cork.

Joanne has just finished milking the herd of about 130 Friesian Holsteins and is at the table with her father, Billy.

There is a litre of Kanturk Dairy milk on the table, the contents of which probably originated from this yard. Such is the way of modern farming; you produce, you sell, and buy the finished foodstuff back.

Irish farming though is still very traditional, with family run farms spread out across the country.

Those farms are facing a shake-up, whether it’s the small or big holding.

April 1 sees the abolition of EU milk quotas. When they came into force in 1983, many Irish farms got out of milk production because they couldn’t make ends meet under the system.

For Billy Buckley, it was even tougher. The farm had been hit by brucellosis in 1979, and they were put out of production. This left them without a milk quota.

Like many other farmers in their position, he fought the then EEC, and eventually won back a quota of close to 90% of his 1979 output.

Since then, the Buckleys have been buying quota from other farms in order to grow the herd and expand the milk output — not a cheap exercise, but they now have enough quota to produce an average of 400-500 gallons per day.

They are under licence to produce winter milk for the local North Cork Co-Op, which earns a winter bonus that helps with cash flow.

Growth and quotas have left them in a good position, ready for the unlimited milk production of the post-quota age.

All farms need investment, though. Joanne returned from travelling in 2006 to take over the running of the farm, and she began the expansion of the milking yard. After much research, the Buckleys modernised the farm in 2010.

“We had planned on adding some extra units but we ended up putting in a state-of-the-art parlour, and investing big money,” she says.

They installed a rapid exit and feeders in the milking parlour. Individual milk meters mean they know exactly what each cow produces, and this allows a feed-to-yield regime.

If a cow is putting on condition but not producing extra milk, its feed can be adjusted.

The protein and fat content of the milk produced can be controlled by adding or subtracting to the feed recipe. Nutritionist, and good friend to the Buckleys, Paddy McCarthy, devised a feed that suited the herd. He also advised on amounts used, and on the efficient overall running of the farm. “With blanket feeding, half of them were getting too much, while the others could be getting too little,” says Joanne. “Now we know exactly where we are, thanks to Paddy.”

Another big boon was the building of a dry cow unit. Joanne has complete management of the dry cows, feeding them correctly and readying them for calving. Each cow averages five lactations, and having healthy heifers ready to join the herd ensures a constant supply of milk.

They use sexed semen to boost heifer numbers. but preparing the cow is crucial for a healthy calf.

The computerised feeding system sends a text each day informing Joanne which one is feeding, and the weighing scales tell when the cow is at the desired weight for insemination, vital information for breeding practices.

“That unit was the best thing we ever did,” she says. “The savings and growth in output means it pays for itself in no time.”

It won’t be a simple matter of adding more cows and reaping the benefits when quotas are abolished. The variables of the world dairy market will keep things unpredictable.

A bad season in the Americas can drive feed price up, increasing input costs. A good season in New Zealand can depress prices.

With countries such as China experiencing population growth, there is a demand for milk. But that has slowed, and output from other countries getting into dairy may push the price down.

At home, the fodder crisis of 2012 and the low milk prices of 2009 were recent shocks. If the two had coincided, it could have “killed off” many Irish dairy farmers.

“The farmer has a very short memory,” says Billy with the wisdom of a man who has seen a few troubled years since he took over the farm aged just 17.

Traditional Irish farming is often compared with the bigger business model of New Zealand. A country comparable in size to Ireland, it had a similar milk output in 1983, about 5bn litres.

With no restrictions, they grew to an output today of about 20bn litres. They did this by moving from sheep and beef to dairy, and creating super-farms by amalgamating smaller farms.

The logistics of building a milking unit, and the housing needed for a big herd, are a different challenge in Ireland.

“Irish farming isn’t as business orientated,” says Joanne, “the land has been in families for generations. Partnerships and joining farms together are still rare in Ireland. There’s a lot that we’re not used to.”

Another big challenge is labour availability. “It’s all very well to have the ability, but you also need the flair, that bit extra to run a dairy herd,” says Billy. “And those sort of people can be very hard to find.”

Increasing herd size can also push up costs beyond what the increase in output will generate. There are the problems of wintering a larger herd, such as slurry control, and feed and labour costs.

Joanne sees efficiency as the way forward for Irish dairy farms.

“You can’t just add more cattle and hope for the best,” she says. “It’s all about efficiency, getting the most out of each cow and not just about expansion. We should be getting more from what we have, keep the dairies running at full pelt, we all have to step up and keep them working.”

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