Could low-cost grazing really be the future?

Farmers are slow to change. Experience has taught them that.

Every year, there's another 'expert' telling them about the next big thing that they should be turning their land to and the latest technology that will revolutionise the productivity on their farms. A few years later, these same prophets are nowhere to be seen or heard.
The nature of farming also means that once a particular route is chosen, it is very hard to do a u-turn. The seed that is planted in the field or the womb now will only tell its tale over the coming months or even years.
So it's no wonder that dairy farmers I spoke to in Ballyhaise last week were wary of the low-cost grazing systems that were on display. Up to recently, they were encouraged to breed for bigger cows that could produce more milk.
Breed societies were formed on the strength of the idea that the Friesian or Holstein were the obvious choice for the motivated farmer. Feed companies mushroomed on the belief that if the cow could produce more, keep the meal flowing.
Now research is telling farmers that the most profitable systems are those that screw down the use of meal to the bare minimum, graze grass so aggressively that the field looks almost black after the cows are done, and cross breed your cows with Jerseys to produce smaller, hardier cows that will tolerate these tough, competitive regimes from February until November.
Yes, they've been doing it in New Zealand for years, but as anyone who has been to New Zealand will admit, the difference between Cavan and Canterbury is more than just a few syllables.
But presumably the figures don't lie. Teagasc has nothing to gain by promoting a greater use of grass. Now it is showing that it doesn't really matter where you are farming in Ireland; the most profitable way to produce milk is by adopting a New Zealand-style system. Even in a high milk price year like this year.
The Border county farmers that have tried the new concepts have usually surprised themselves. Even the principal of Ballyhaise, Felix McCabe, confided in me his amazement that they were successfully turning out cows in the first week in February.
When pushed to explain why they don't want to make the switch, a common response from a Border county farmer is that "I couldn't look at that type of cow coming into the parlour every morning".
Nobody should make a rushed decision in farming. But the jury is no longer out. The verdict is there for all to see. Surely farmers should pay more attention to how their bank balances look than the asthetics of their cows?


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