In late-June Farmers Club Chairman Anne Chamberlain led a group of over 50 Club members to investigate Ireland’s newly rejuvenated pursuit of overseas markets for its farm produce.
The tour was based at the excellent Lord Bagenal Hotel in Leighlinbridge, a small town of narrow, twisting streets either side of a quaint 14th century bridge swathed in pink valerian flowers, one of Europe’s oldest functioning river crossings.
By contrast Ireland’s Food Harvest 2020 policy is anything but dated. Sponsored by an enthusiastic government in 2010, and continued by a newly elected government in 2015, it has already helped drive a 33% rise in the value of farm outputs. And the dairy sector is well on track to meet its goal of 50% growth by 2020.
Farmers Club Committee member Matt Dempsey, a Co Kildare farmer who is also chairman of the Irish Farmers Journal newspaper, stressed how Ireland’s farmers differ from their UK counterparts. Whilst there were more farmers aged over 80 than under 30, it was also true that total dairy farmer numbers were static, with as many joining the sector as leaving it, and land changing hands very rarely, with less than 1% traded per annum.
The Irish public sees farming as a key industry, with cabinet-level representation in government, and quitting the EU is not even an agenda item. The whole sector works co-operatively to make farming a prime driver of economic recovery, recognising EU support payments for what they are – compensation for lost market support and the delivery of wildlife and environmental benefits to society.
Finally released from the shackles of milk quotas on April 1st the whole industry is determined to make the most of its world-leading ability to produce milk. Farmers are not holding back, weekly milk production already 18.5% up on the previous year. Over 90% of dairy produce is exported, mostly as powder, so protein content is the goal, and milk is priced per kilo of dry matter, with a deduction for volume.
To exploit the ‘wall of milk’ coming towards since quotas ended top processor Glanbia has invested €200M in a brand new processing facilities, with infant formula, nutritional supplements and sports uses chasing added-value sales, explained newly appointed Glanbia chairman Henry Corbally at a special seminar in Kilkenny, involving The Farmers Club group, Glanbia staff and Irish dairy farmers.
But it isn’t milk at all costs. Milk from grass is the key to profit and government sponsored research is helping to deliver that, thanks to Teagasc, Ireland’s vibrant extension service.
To support the drive for added milk output Teagasc’s Greenfield Dairy site at Kilkenny is championing a New Zealand-style low input grass-based system, not just to drive efficiency on existing dairy farms, but to encourage arable farms to switch out of grain and into dairying too.
Key to its success is weekly monitoring of grass growth and detailed grazing plans to optimise usage, explained Teagasc’s Dr Pat French and project manager Abigail Ryan.
For those less eager to embrace an all-grass system hybrid approaches are also finding favour. In the far south-east Mark Murphy explained how he was boosting output from grass using a Keenan feeder wagon, to buffer feed according to a precise nutrition plan. The concept it simple – more milk from grass, without dips in milk quality and volume, and breeding efficiency, when grass runs short. It seems to be working, with milk output up 1000litres/cow.
Teagasc director Prof Gerry Boyle gave the group a fascinating insight into the philosophy of the hugely influential state-supported research and advisory service, which was staging its arable field day during the Club’s visit, providing a great opportunity to see how crop production in a mild, wet, disease-prone climate differs from the UK’s drier conditions.
As well as fascinating farm visits the group enjoyed a fine dinner and traditional Irish entertainment in the Parade Tower of Kilkenny Castle, and on the last day toured Ireland’s fabled National Stud. What a fitting finale to a fabulous tour, which left few participants betting against Ireland’s food sector delivering on its ambitious Harvest 2020 targets – thanks in no small part to a hugely supportive government.