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16th December, 2017

Dairy farming in Switzerland – a model for rural dairy farming in Ireland

Article written by Dr. Dan Ryan in The Farming Independent January 15,2013.

I had previously heard about the unique structure of the dairy industry in Switzerland and wanted to see the implications of state support. I recently got an opportunity to visit dairy farms and a milk processing plant in Switzerland.

The dairy industry in Switzerland was protected from competition by imports up to ten years ago. At that time, dairy farmers got 90 cents per litre. Current milk price is close to 47 cents per litre. However, government supports account for approximately 50pc of dairy farm income. The Swiss government has placed emphasis on self sufficiency in milk products while avoiding rural depopulation by keeping farms on the land. A significant feature encountered was the size of dairy herds. Over 80pc of dairy herds range from ten to fifty cows in size. There are no milk quotas. Dairy herd size has increased over the past ten years. Family run farms are the norm, with an increase in technology to accommodate the management of cow numbers.

There has been a significant uptake in robotic milking when herd size increases above 50 cows. Farmers claim a better lifestyle with robotic milking. The Brown Swiss is the predominant dairy breed, with some Holstein, Jersey and cross-breeding from same.

The dairy herds visited had 305 day rolling herd averages ranging from 7,200 to 9,000 litres. Calving patterns presented a year round calving with a peak in the autumn. A technician lead AI service through Swiss Genetics was the primary method of getting cows in calf.

The winters are long and harsh with cows housed from October to May. The cows are housed in tie-up stall systems. The system is labour intensive. On one herd of 38 cows, a husband and wife team work full-time on the farm. They would not be able to farm except for the government subsidies. The government supporting structure helps keep farming families in rural areas. This helps maintain a rural social fabric integral to their tourist industry.

In Ireland, we have placed an emphasis on a 50pc increase in milk production by 2020. What will this do to small dairy farms based on fragmented holdings? A classical example is the dairy industry on the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry. Many of these dairy farms range from 25 to 60 cows in size. The opportunity and desire to increase herd size is restricted. Farm fragmentation, size and age structure of the farming population dictate little opportunity to expand. Indeed, the wet summer of 2012 dictate that many farmers will reduce rather than increase cow numbers.

Back in Switzerland, I got the opportunity to visit a milk processing plant, Züger®, owned by Christof and Markus Züger. They employ 180 people, process 10,500 tonnes of milk products with a range of 500 food products. The latter is based on added value to mozzarella, feta cheese, mascarpone, grill cheese and lactose free milk products. They source all their milk from Swiss dairy farms and include raw milk from conventional, organic and buffalo dairy herds. This company won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2010 for their level of innovation and added value milk products in generating niche export markets. The Irish dairy processing industry has placed too much emphasis on commodity based milk products, which will, in my opinion cause decimation of the dairy industry on small fragmented farms in rural Ireland post 2015.

We need more than the Kerrygold brand of butter which has triumphed across Europe. We have a green image but need a Züger milk processing mentality to add value to milk products for niche markets.

Finally, Züger® works in an environment where there are no milk quotas. They agree milk price contracts directly with farmers. Milk price is lowest in spring months because of supply and demand curve. Züger® has to increase milk price from May to August as close to 8pc of the dairy herd is moved to the mountains to produce Alpine cheese.

The Swiss government has placed an emphasis on maintaining cottage industries. They have funded the establishment of a processing plant for the hand-made production of Alpine cheese. Farmers currently get €20 per kg for this cheese.

There is a spin-off to the tourist industry as the tourists are drawn to a vibrant active community in the mountainous areas during the summer months. Can we learn from the Swiss government intervention before my farming friends on the Dingle peninsula disappear?

Dr. Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at www.cowsdna.com