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12th December, 2018

WINTER MILK PRODUCTION – THE POOR RELATION

The hum of milk parlours will gradually cease for 6 to 8 weeks in over 80% of dairy farms in the southern half of Ireland. There is an incessant decrease in winter milk production which is primarily seen as a high cost system with low returns.

There has been a continuous exit from winter milk production over the past 20 years. The explanations for same are driven from 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, fresh cows, milking cows, calves and maiden heifers have to be of a standard to achieve optimal welfare and thereby health and reproductive performance central to optimisation of cost-efficient milk production.

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

Beyond the farm gate lie both the demands of milk processors and supermarkets. Milk processors want specialist winter milk producers where the innate 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 recovering milk from many ‘non-specialist’ winter milk producers. Milk processors have also the opportunity of purchasing milk from the North of Ireland, where there is an inherent winter milk production strategy driven on the back of shorter grass growing seasons, limited grazing platforms and an ever increasing labour shortage during the installation of robotic milking systems. Robotic milking parlour installations are currently in high demand in the North of Ireland, which suits 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 to 4 p/ litre over base price from Northern dairy producers. Dairy farmers in the South of Ireland are not willing to invest their time and monies in a minimalist return strategy for their business.

The supermarkets continue to see an opportunity of using ‘own brand’ low price milk as incentive to increase footfall. This ultimately is the bay to the demise of winter milk production.

Strategies of low cost production within the farm gate will not work. It has been suggested that a UK system of cow kennels and self feeding of silage with targeted costs of £100 per cow to include veterinary , AI and breeding , electricity , water and diesel be used here. This has all the hallmarks 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 harvested from dairy cows within the farm gate. This requires a marketing initiative which will persuade milk consumers to pay a premium for milk with a ‘One Health’ stamp. 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. This is a win win scenario which needs our consumers of milk to recognise.

In conclusion, we need winter milk production to survive in this country centred around a ‘One Health’ philosophy. A small Co-Op called Lee Strand based in Tralee County Kerry needs recognition. Here, farmers have focused on premium brand of milk, which has traditionally been processed daily on a fresh basis. Forward thinking and committed farmers in the Lee Strand Co-Op are pivotal to the implementation of a ‘One Health’ strategy which will avoid factory farming milk production and maintain 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

Article written by Dr. Dan Ryan for the Farming Independent for the 4th of December 2018.