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12th December, 2018

SUSTAINABLE FOOD PRODUCTION FROM DAIRY

The past two weeks post the ploughing fiasco has been an Indian summer. This has resulted in excellent grass growth rates, conservation of late cuts of silage, reseeding, application of slurry and a significant improvement in the psychological well-bring of farmers.

This past year has been extremely mentally testing primarily for farmers in our industry. It is now time for a radical evaluation of the sustainability of expansion in grass based dairy systems in Ireland. In excess of 90% of milk based produce is exported from this country. The marketing campaign for this produce centre around healthy food harvested from healthy animals managed in a healthy ecosystem.

We cannot allow our industry to succumb to the needs of a minority of individuals who wish to expand at the expense of the animals, the ecosystem and those stockmen given the responsibility for welfare of livestock in the production system. The seal of expansion in the past 10 years has not been mirrored by an added value to the basket of milk products exported internationally. Milk price inside the farm gate in Ireland currently lags behind other European countries where “One Health” flagship does not pertain.

Expansion is currently not on the agenda having surveyed 100 of our dairy clients in Ireland. Will this change when the farm next door comes up to lease? I would hope from a “One Health” perspective that the answer will be “no”. In a survey of 28 dairy farmers on the Dingle peninsula, only 2 successors will continue in dairy. How can we allow vibrant rural communities be decimated. Farmers take on the role of guardians of the environment. How can we have a vibrant tourist industry when you rob the environment of its rural infrastructure centred around agriculture?

The picture I paint need not be doom and gloom. The primary seeds of our dairy industry are the stockmen that we have genetically in abundance. However, we have created an environment where the interest and survival rate of new entrants to the industry is poor. We have to make the business attractive for new entrants to have a balanced lifestyle, financial reward for added value milk and job satisfaction.

New entrants will not learn the art of dairy sitting on tractors. The future seeds need to be germinated slowly where stockmanship skills are the kernel to healthy dairy cattle at all stages of their production cycle. Our agricultural training colleges are faced with too many students who pass through to avail of tax exemptions and grant aid for farm investment. Unfortunately, these seeds will not germinate stockmen that will survive.

A radical re-sharing of our dairy industry is essential. The “One Health” philosophy centred around healthy animals, healthy ecosystem and healthy food is an end goal which can only be achieved if the core requirements within the farm gate of a healthy ecosystem and healthy animals are garnered. If we are serious about having true “add value” to our dairy exports, this will be achieved by non-subjective science based monitoring of farming practices. Initially, this will restrict non-sustainable expansion in our dairy. New entrants to dairy will be rewarded on the basis of achieving a science based “One Health” status.

Our ecosystem made up of animals, plants, and bacteria interrelated together with its physical and chemical environment has to be paramount in producing healthy food. There is a fear factor that a focus on healthy food may create a backlash associated with “unhealthy food” entering the food chain. Further refinement of milk pricing structure can be achieved using science based non-subjective assessment of the ecosystem. This will drive financial rewards for “One Health” philosophy.

Science based non-subjective assessment of our dairy ecosystem has to include soil health, soil worm population, water quantity and quality, non-subjective assessment of herd health and reproductive performance using SmartScan Technology of the reproductive tract as a biomarker for production of herd health and reproductive performance.

In conclusion, Ireland has a unique position in Western Europe to add value to grass-based milk production systems. Sustainability of the industry will in future depend on incentivising inherently gifted stockmen to enter and survive the industry in an environment where they want to be and are driven financially to become a partner in “One Health” centred around healthy animals, ecosystem and food.

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

Article written by Dr. Dan Ryan for the Farming Independent for the 0th of October 2018.