My future in dairy farming: ‘I’m not going to get carried away’

Pat McCormack of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association is worried about colleagues’ financial problems

Milk quotas are to be abolished from April for the first time since 1984. We spoke to people in the Aurivo plant in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon for their thoughts and how it may affect the community.

 

The builders’ cranes were rising into the Dublin skyline when Pat McCormack left school, in 1995. Everyone was talking about construction work, but it didn’t sway his head – or, indeed, the heads of the three classmates who opted to go to Rockwell agricultural college with him.

“It was highly unusual for four of us to do that in 1995, because the Celtic Tiger was beginning to be a major lure, and there was a lot of money to be made elsewhere,” he says.

But McCormack – now 37 and chairman of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association – was never going to do anything else. In his yard, in the heart of the Golden Vale, near Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary, a row of Holstein Friesian cows are chewing silage in the morning sunshine.

When he took over the farm from his father, Tom, he was milking 35 cows. Today he is milking 90. By October 25th, 2014, his milk quota for the year that ends on March 31st was full, and he had to stop. If he did not have the limit of a milk quota he could probably have produced from 50,000 to 100,000 litres more, which would have increased his income by about €20,000.

Yet he says he will not throw caution to the wind when the quota regime ends. “I’m not going to get carried away and make a significant jump. If there is an opportunity to expand I’m prepared to take that step. Obviously, if milk prices recover I’ll be in a position to produce significantly more milk in the autumn,” he says.

He would like to be producing up to 20 per cent more milk from the same number of cows within a few years through “better breeding, feeding and reseeding”.

He is worried for farmers who were already facing financial problems before the milk price started to fall last year. He says those debts were incurred when farmers were receiving up to 39c for a litre of milk. “If that guy was struggling to pay his contractor in 2013 and 2014, how will he pay in 2015, when you’re talking about 30c a litre? For a guy milking 60 cows that could be a drop of €27,000.”

He says this is the year to batten down the hatches. But not all farmers are as cautious. He has heard of people spending up to €400,000 on robotic milking equipment for small herds. He says there was a belief that milk was “white gold”, but now he expects prices to be very volatile until at least 2017.

McCormack has met his European counterparts, and it confirms his belief that Irish farmers have a clear advantage. Our cows are outside for most of the year, eating grass, whereas many others spend long periods in sheds. He recalls one German farmer telling him that once a heifer went into calf she was on grass for no more than three months and was in the shed after that.

“It’s the intensive system they were brought up with. Obviously, their feed costs are significantly higher. Teagasc has spent the past 30 years researching how to best grow and utilise grass, and Irish farmers have that pretty much perfected.”

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