Organic dairy farmers consider dumping milk due to poor prices

Many organic farmers feel more needs to be done to create organic dairy products with added value such as butter, cheese and baby formula

Organic dairy farmers in the country have been considering drastic action and dumping their milk due to poor milk prices.

In a series of WhatsApp messages from a group of almost all the 80 organic dairy farmers in the country seen by The Irish Times, the farmers consider various options to negotiate higher prices, including dumping their milk.

“Would it be more value to dump a week’s milk into the slurry tank and get your milk price up for the future?” one farmer writes.

“If you produce a quality product and the market decides not to pay for it, don’t give it to them,” another farmer urges.


Despite the general assumption that organic produce comes with a 15 per cent premium, many organic farmers, particularly those in the dairy sector feel that not enough market development has been undertaken to create organic dairy products with added value, such as butter, cheese and baby formula.

Dairy farmers in Ireland receive a price per litre for milk, with almost all non-organic conventional dairy processors providing additional payments for high fats and solids.

The exception is the organic dairy sector where more than 90 per cent of organic processors, including the largest processor Glenisk, pay a flat price.

Glenisk told customers in a post on social network Instagram on December 15th that there was “a severe seasonal shortage” of its organic cow’s milk and that it would not be available for the next few weeks. The company said that the supply of its goat’s milk was also “heavily disrupted”.

According to organic dairy farmers, many of them are not producing milk over winter because they feel winter costs such as organic feed and bedding are too high and that milk price is too low. In their view, it is cheaper to produce milk in the spring and summer when there’s plentiful grass and cows are outside. As a consequence, milk producers are feeling the shortage.

Given how few organic dairy farmers are in the country, many are wary of speaking out publicly against processors. However, one organic dairy farmer Kevin O’Hanlon told The Irish Times that he estimated he lost at least €40,000 this year due to being paid a flat price, rather than one based on fats and solids.

A large part of the problem is seen as a lack of processors adding value to organic milk. While the largest organic processor, Glenisk, makes yoghurt, most processors are only interested in liquid milk, which holds the lowest value. The conventional dairy sector has long been working on adding value to milk with big brand names such as Kerrygold.

The conventional Irish dairy sector also produces 10 per cent of the global infant formula in the world, but if you were to try to buy organic baby formula in Ireland, it would come from French, not Irish cows.

The same goes for butter. While 11 million packs of Kerrygold butter and cheese are sold worldwide each week, the sale of Irish organic butter in Ireland is virtually non-existent outside of a few artisan suppliers.

It has been called a “chicken and egg” situation by Teagasc’s organic dairy specialist Joe Kelleher, who is trying to encourage conventional dairy farmers to switch to organic.

“There is a high level of dissatisfaction among organic dairy farmers with prices,” Mr Kelleher said.

However, he is keen to see the growth of the overall organic milk pool. At the moment he said there is not enough organic milk in the country to turn a conventional dryer that makes baby formula on for even “an hour or two”.

“Maybe we need to try and convince conventional farmers to stay supplying their conventional co-op but convert to organic at the same time because that takes away a lot of fear of markets for them,” he said.

“They will get the benefit of organic payments and the bonus on their fats and solids plus reduced costs when they take away chemical fertiliser.”

It remains to be seen if the 17,500 conventional dairy farmers in the country will sign up to this way of thinking.

However, they were given the opportunity as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Pippa Hackett reopened the organic scheme until recently, with funding for an additional 1,000 farmers.

About 1,200 farmers applied to the latest scheme in the latest application window, which, it is estimated, will bring the total amount of land farmed organically to 180,000 hectares (444,500 acres). The target under the Government’s Climate Action Plan is to reach 445,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) or 10 per cent of all land by 2030.

Farming development agency Teagasc, UCD and the Department of Agriculture have also been given the green light on a €1.3 million research project called Growing Resilient Organic Farming Systems, which aims to develop a sustainable template for organic grass-based sheep and beef production systems – but not dairy.

Currently, just more than 4,000 farmers are either certified organic or going through the mandatory two-year organic certification period. More than 90 per cent of the 4,000 farmers are beef and/or sheep farmers.

This poses a similar range of challenges to those facing organic dairy farmers. While these farmers aren’t paying high prices for chemical fertilisers or pesticides, organic feed prices are double and sometimes triple what conventional farmers pay.

For organic beef farmers, this means that many of them are not interested or able to afford to finish cattle and take them to a meat factory.

As a result, almost 20 per cent of beef weanlings on organic farms are sold to conventional farms because not enough organic beef finishers are available to carry and finish them for the organic market.

Almost all of the organic feed sold by large feed merchants has been imported from other countries, increasing the cost and carbon footprint. There are roughly 70 organic tillage farmers in the country in comparison to 5,000 conventional.

Many organic livestock farmers try to source locally grown organic feed from these 70 farmers. However, not all of them are interested or capable of creating good quality organic feed. For example, Wexford tillage farmer Gavin Tully processes about 10,000 tonnes of organic feed every year in his own small-scale mill and has capacity to process more feed but doesn’t want to be tied up by the additional paperwork that would be required.

For organic dairy farmers, they have grown tired of waiting for support and taken matters into their own hands. They have formed a producer group with the aim of negotiating higher prices from processors, and hopefully never again face the prospect of dumping their milk into a slurry tank.

Analysis: What are the barriers to organic farming?

Organic farming has been earmarked as one of the key methods to help reduce agricultural emissions by 25 per cent by 2030, but farmers still have concerns over market security, feed costs and education.

While the number of organic farmers has doubled since Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Pippa Hackett took up her brief more than three years ago, over 90 per cent of these farmers come from relatively low-emission-intensive sectors such as beef and sheep farming. They could be considered low-hanging fruit in terms of reducing Ireland’s overall emissions profile in comparison to the emission intensive dairy sector.

Hackett has made inroads in establishing an organic stakeholders forum, along with a push to include a 10 per cent quota for organic food in all public procurement from January. Bord Bia has also just launched a €1 million organic marketing campaign, with plans for a bigger European campaign next year.

However, organic farmers still face paying at least double for animal feed. Hackett has stressed that farmers should look to creating or increasing protein-based feeds within their own farmgate but many organic farmers find access to education specifically for organics almost non-existent. The national advisory body, Teagasc, does not have a single organic research farm in the country.

The area of marketing also risks pitting conventional and organic farmers against each other, and while the Irish Farmers’ Association is now publicly in favour of organics, in 2021 its president Tim Cullinan publicly suggested much of the €256 million set aside for organic farming should be diverted into the suckler beef sector. The issue grows even more complicated as suckler beef in Ireland is expected to be awarded a protected geographic indicator status in late December.

Conventional beef farmers expect this to be used by Bord Bia to push market exports. How does the country’s national food board market or differentiate Irish grass fed suckler beef over Irish grass fed organic beef?

While Hackett has maintained that the country is on track to meet a 10 per cent target of land farmed organically by 2030, the question for many farmers remains whether a premium price can be guaranteed to support them.

Organics in a snapshot

Overall Department of Agriculture budget: €256 million over five years

Overall Government target: 10 per cent of farmland organic by 2030

Overall number of farmers in organic scheme: 4,056

90% beef and sheep farmers, 1.2% horticulture, 2.5% tillage, 2.5% dairy, 3.8% mixed farming

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