The EU-27 reduced its dairy cow numbers by about 25% since 2001.
This is likely to have reduced methane emissions from dairy cows by 20%, thus contributing to global cooling.
Rising yields per cow went hand in hand across the EU with reducing cow numbers.
The average yield of the EU dairy cow increased so much that total EU milk production went up, even as cow numbers went down.
Dairy farms still generated about 15% of the EU’s agricultural production.
And the EU remained the number one milk producer in the world, with about 12% of its production for export outside the EU, making it the top global exporter of many dairy products, such as cheeses, skimmed milk powder, and whey powders.
It is therefore a successful industry that has increased its sustainability.
But the latest statistics from the European Commission’s MMO milk market observatory show how the situation has varied from EU member state to member state, and goes some way to explain why climate action activists want to reduce the dairy industry, particularly in Ireland.
The MMO figures look at EU dairy farming since 2003 in some detail, revealing that the number of EU-27 dairy cows has fallen from 23.9m in 2003 to 20.3m in 2020.
But they rose in Ireland, during the same period, from 1,136,000 to 1,456,000.
Surprisingly, the Netherlands is one of the few other member states where cow numbers have risen in that period. They increased from 1,551,000 to 1,569,000, despite Dutch farmers being forced by the EU to get rid of 190,000 dairy cows (11% of the national herd) in 2017 and 2018, because of their phosphorus fertiliser pollution from livestock manure.
The only other E-27 countries where cow numbers have risen are in Cyprus, from 27,000 to 37,000, and Luxembourg, from 41,000 to 54,000.
All four countries are targeted by climate action activists for increasing dairy cows, with Ireland their enemy No 1 for adding 300,000 extra cows.
So why don’t the activists emphasise the obvious point, that Irish dairy farmers could cut their dairy herds at least 40%, by increasing milk yield? The MMO has also recently published figures that show Irish cows have the fifth-lowest milk yield in the EU-27.
These 2019 figures show that only the cows in Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, and Romania were less productive. Ireland’s 5.8 tonnes per cow sits in a range from 3.2t in Romania to 10t in Denmark.
Obviously, Ireland could cut its cow numbers 42% and still produce the same amount of milk, if it had Danish cows, based on the 2019 figures. This can be a source of solace to our dairy farmers, that they have an obvious option, which is to increase yields, if climate action pressure gets too much for them.
After all, they were able to transform their herds over the past 20 years, along lines recommended by Teagasc and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation. If necessary, they can change course again
Previously, the Irish dairy herd, of mostly American-Holstein ancestry, delivered milk at the expense of reproductive efficiency.
The reduced breeding efficiency was unsuitable for our specialised grazing systems, which require cows to go in calf promptly so they calve in time for spring grass feeding.
An Economic Breeding Index figure was developed for each cow, along genetic lines to improve milk production alongside improving reproductive performance, a genetically challenging task because higher milk production usually meant reduced fertility.
However, farmers responded well, achieving annual genetic gain in the EBI of €10.71.
Additional economically important traits relevant to the Irish production system were built into the EBI (calculated to reflect 18 genetic traits), some emphasised more than others.
But we turned away somewhat from high output per cow, and our dairy industry went towards producing as much milk as possible per hectare from the relatively low-cost large quantities of highly digestible perennial ryegrass we can grow.
High levels of profitability were made possible, despite Ireland’s relatively low milk price, through cost control and comparatively high stocking rates.
Meanwhile, the world changed, with rising concerns about increasing dairy cow numbers and environmental emissions.
However, environmental footprint is poorly represented in the EBI.
It was less of an issue around the turn of the millennium, when the EBI was introduced here.
Now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says animal agriculture is responsible for up to 10.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
And a complete lifecycle analysis, including all inputs such as animal feed for animal agriculture, as well as change in land use, may bring animal agriculture emissions up to 18%.
So maybe our dairy breeding and management should change again, to accommodate higher output systems, with fewer cows, which can still be built around spring calving and grazing.
With our current lower output per cow systems, farmers need extra land, extra cows, extra labour, and extra facilities, and many of them depend for their living on continued allowance of high stocking rate systems within the EU nitrates directive derogation.
These challenges would be eased, and concerns about increasing cow numbers and environmental emissions would be addressed, by moving to high output per cow nationally.
Many of our dairy farmers still aim for high output per cow, often based on Holstein breeding. However, converting to Danish-style dairy farming, which is mostly indoors, would not please those interested in animal welfare.
And Ireland’s marketing image of dairy production based on grazing could suffer. But the necessary methods for higher yields from grazing-based production are well known from, for example, the Lyons Systems Research Herd on the UCD farm in Co Kildare, near Newcastle.
There, 60 cows average 625kg of milk solids each, which is about 46% higher than the national average figure of approximately 427kg of milk solids per cow.
It has been found with the Lyons herd that high levels of milk and milk solids output per cow and per hectare are achievable from moderate concentrate feeding in a grazing system, with cows that score highly for fertility in their genetics.
Along with good levels of profitability, the system has enhanced environmental sustainability.
Could the Lyons herd become the template for an Irish dairy with a much reduced carbon footprint?