The country’s 18,000 dairy farmers are waking up to a new dawn this morning following the abolition of milk quotas at midnight.
Today marks the first time in 31 years that farmers have not had a restriction placed on how much milk they can supply. Milk supply is expected to increase by 50 per cent by 2020, and the dairy herd to increase by about 300,000 cows. It has also been estimated that at least 10,000 jobs could be generated on farm and in businesses working with farmers.
IFA president Eddie Downey has said dairy farmers are right to be optimistic about the opportunities. The IFA's dairy committee met at the farm of the Dwan family near Thurles yesterday and threw all caution to the wind by producing a mammoth cake to mark the occasion.
Three cows frolicked on top of the cake on a bed of green grass icing. One cow looked a bit lopsided, having lost her horn when the cake was carried to the farm yard.
The Dwans’ 110-cow herd ate real grass behind the fence, oblivious to the fact they were about to be milked under the quota regime for the last time.
IFA dairy chairman Seán O’Leary encouraged the farmers to tuck into the cake saying: “You always wondered what grass tastes like. Now’s your chance.”
He said it was important to mark the end of the quota. “It’s the last day of the old regime, and we’re heading into the new. There’s going to be a fine herd of cows here milked to their potential tomorrow morning.”
He said there were plenty of challenges ahead as prices would be volatile. “But it’s going to be a big opportunity for dairy farmers to realise the potential of what is a great industry.”
Contrary to the talk of a “milk bubble” in the media there was evidence Irish dairy farmers would proceed cautiously. Research had found that the average level of indebtedness of Irish dairy farms was €62,000, compared with more than €800,000 on the average Dutch farm and €1.4 million in Denmark.
“The same study suggests that 63 per cent of Irish dairy farmers are planning to grow their milk output by 2020, but of these, only 8 per cent will increase production by more than a third,” Mr O’Leary said. “Hence, most farmers who plan to expand will proceed with moderate, cautious and sustainable growth.”
This was echoed by Edmond Dwan who farms at Bohernamona with his wife Anne and son Thomas (27). "I saw quotas coming in and I'm going to see them going out.I don't think people are going to go mad expanding." His son said he'd like to increase the herd by 20 or 30 cows in the next two years. "We have potential to grow a bit but not too much," he said.
Farther south in Tipperary, a group of farmers were preparing for their own celebration to mark the end of quotas, at Grangemockler Community Hall. Walter Power and friends had commissioned local musician John Bermingham to write a song about the end of quotas and a cow was being symbolically milked before and after midnight to mark the event.