Why we need a rad­i­cal and new ap­proach to win­ter milk

Irish Independent - Farming - - FARM OUR - DAN RYAN

THE HUM of milk­ing par­lours will grad­u­ally cease for the next six to eight weeks on over 80pc of dairy farms in the south of the coun­try.

This is due to the in­creas­ing de­cline in win­ter milk pro­duc­tion which is pri­mar­ily seen as a high cost sys­tem with low re­turns.

There has been an on­go­ing ex­o­dus from win­ter milk pro­duc­tion over the past 20 years due to fac­tors both within and out­side the farm gate. Within the farm gate, skilled labour is a scarce re­source. Farmers psy­cho­log­i­cally want a break from the de­mands of milk­ing cows 24/7. Shorter days cre­ate an in­nate need to take a break and recharge the bat­ter­ies.

Win­ter milk pro­duc­tion to­day is a spe­cial­ist task. Hous­ing fa­cil­i­ties for dry cow, milk­ing cows, calves and maiden heifers have to be of suf­fi­cient stan­dard not only for cost-ef­fi­cient milk pro­duc­tion, but also to meet mod­ern an­i­mal wel­fare re­quire­ments.

The prepa­ra­tion and feed­ing of win­ter milk di­ets is more costly than those cen­tred around grass-based sys­tems. There is a greater in­vest­ment re­quired in ma­chin­ery and labour for feed­ing regimes for the var­i­ous groups of stock in win­ter milk.

Be­yond the farm gate, there are the de­mands of milk pro­ces­sors and su­per­mar­kets. Milk pro­ces­sors want spe­cial­ist win­ter milk pro­duc­ers where the pool of milk supplied has min­i­mal di­lu­tion with milk from late lac­ta­tion or carry over cows from grass-based spring milk pro­duc­tion.

There is a fo­cus on spe­cial­ist dairy units with large milk pools, thus re­duc­ing the trans­port costs of col­lect­ing milk from many ‘non-spe­cial­ist’ win­ter milk pro­duc­ers.

Milk pro­ces­sors have also the op­por­tu­nity of pur­chas­ing milk from the North where there is an in­her­ent win­ter milk pro­duc­tion strat­egy driven on the back of shorter grass grow­ing sea­sons, lim­ited graz­ing plat­forms and re­duced labour re­quire­ments due to the in­stal­la­tion of robotic milk­ing sys­tems.

Robotic milk­ing par­lour in­stal­la­tions are cur­rently in high de­mand in the North be­cause these sys­tems suit their year-round milk pro­duc­tion sys­tems.

Farmers with robotic sys­tems fo­cus on op­ti­mis­ing the litres of milk har­vested per robot thereby re­quir­ing a con­stant in­put of freshly calved cows on a monthly ba­sis.

Milk pro­ces­sors are able to pur­chase milk with a pre­mium of 3-4p/litre over base price from North­ern dairy pro­duc­ers. Dairy farmers in the South are not will­ing to in­vest time and money in a low re­turns strat­egy for their busi­ness.

The su­per­mar­kets con­tinue to see an op­por­tu­nity of us­ing ‘own brand’ low price milk as an in­cen­tive to in­crease foot­fall.

It has been sug­gested that a Bri­tish-style sys­tem of cow ken­nels and self feed­ing of silage with tar­geted costs of £100 per cow — in­clud­ing vet­eri­nary costs, AI and breed­ing, elec­tric­ity , wa­ter and diesel — be used here.

But this smacks of drudgery and can­not be con­sid­ered as an ac­cept­able en­vi­ron­ment for ei­ther man or beast.

There is a need for for­ward think­ing on the part of pro­duc­ers to fo­cus on adding value to fresh milk.

This re­quires a mar­ket­ing ini­tia­tive which will per­suade milk con­sumers to pay a pre­mium for milk pro­duced to the high an­i­mal health and en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards.

Car­bon foot­print

This re­quires farmers to im­ple­ment sci­ence-based prin­ci­ples which re­duce the car­bon foot­print in milk pro­duc­tion.

Farm man­age­ment prac­tices which lend them­selves to op­ti­mi­sa­tion of herd health will drive the key tar­gets for re­pro­duc­tive per­for­mance. This in turn is cen­tral to max­imis­ing the prof­itabil­ity of milk pro­duc­tion.

As farmers and ser­vice providers to the dairy in­dus­try, we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure op­ti­mal health of our eco sys­tem.

A small co-op called Lee Strand based in Tralee is an ex­am­ple of the po­ten­tial way for­ward on win­ter milk pro­duc­tion.

Here, farmers have fo­cused on a pre­mium brand of milk, which has tra­di­tion­ally been pro­cessed daily on a fresh ba­sis.

Lee Strand Co-op mem­bers are com­mit­ted to avoid­ing fac­tory farm­ing milk pro­duc­tion and main­tain­ing the vi­a­bil­ity of the smaller dairy farm en­tity.

A proper price struc­ture which will re­ward these farmers for their hard work 365 days a year is ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary to main­tain this liq­uid milk in­dus­try.

Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine re­pro­duc­tive phys­i­ol­o­gist and can be con­tacted on www.re­prodoc.ie

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