Hooray – Irish milk and butter is in high demand around the world for its exceptional flavour, quality and nutrient value. Could the fact that Irish butter is now readily available to buy in the UAE be a panacea for Brexit?
Maybe. But how does the dairy industry meet this growing global demand for our milk? After all, we are a nation with an increasing population. All available land is reviewed as either a place to build houses, build industries or build farms. The competition is tough and presents the farming industry with two indisputable facts. 1, the amount of land we have is finite; 2, if you can’t grow out, you must grow up.
Growing up in dairying terms means increasing production on the same amount of land. How to achieve this has led to interesting developments in dairying in terms of herd and land management, the current wunderkind of which is a system called Zero Grazing (ZG) – the ability for farmers to graze their cattle on fresh pasture, just not in a field.
How does Zero Grazing work?
The argument goes that in countries like Ireland where we have a temperate but volatile climate, the grass yield in a field used for grazing dairy cattle has a high degree of fluctuation. Cold spells, wet weather and drought all contribute to a varying rate of grass growth. Add to that the prospect of a herd of 50 cattle living in that field during a grazing period, the yield can reduce even further as the ground is churned by hoofs.
From an animal welfare point of view, it is argued that herds travelling from field to field on foot, necessary for grazing rotation, can produce lameness in the animal as can too soft ground from rain or too hard ground from drought. The stress of moving an animal from field to field is also noted.
From a farmers’ point of view, herd and land management takes considerable amount of time and labour cost that could be directed into other areas of farm management.
Zero Grazing (ZG) works by bringing the herd indoors and turning over fields to growing grass more intensively and with better yield. Regular grass cutting cycles and cutting only what is needed to feed the herd fresh grass daily aims to ensure that the cattle are getting the very best quality of grass each day. Better quality grass, and more of it in turn produces greater milk yield and, most importantly, maintains the high level of solids present in the milk.
Solids in milk fluctuate with the seasons depending on grass growing cycles, the weather and the calving seasons in a particular herd – spring or autumn. More solids in the milk indicate a better quality product for which the farmer can obtain better price per litre.
In Ireland, cattle herds graze on pastures outside for approximately 10 months of the year, only being kept inside for the harshest months. This of course can vary depending on whether we experience a milder winter or a colder spring. The diet of pasture grazing herds in the more frugal months of the year is supplemented by silage, grass grown in the abundant summer months, fermented and preserved.
The natural cycle of changing seasons and diet is nothing new to dairy farmers. It has always been there, and we, as consumers, have always accepted it. The more astute amongst us can taste the difference in the milk and butter as the year cycles through, but for the most of us we probably don’t give it a second thought.
The Price of Butter
In 2017, the price of butter in Ireland shot up by 160% to just under €6,000/t due to a drop in production and increased demand. In many respects, this can be linked back to the health revelation in 2016 that sugar and not fat was the real cause behind the obesity epidemic in the Western Diet, the vilification of ultra-processed fats such as margarine, and a switch by food manufacturers to whole dairy fats in products away from both sugar and cheaper industrialised fats (i.e. cream in ice cream, milk and cheese).
Alongside this are also the effects of a sustained campaign by Bord Bia in promoting the Irish dairy industry and its products, chief among them butter, to new overseas markets as they work to establish new customers for Irish food products ahead of the ticking time bomb in the AgriFood sector for Ireland that is Brexit.
This is in effect a good news story: everyone wants what our dairy industry is selling and we can’t make enough of it so prices go up.
Against this backdrop then is the pressure on farmers to up their ante and find sustainable ways to produce more.
Teagasc, the government body for agricultural sciences, have been working away over the last number of years in partnership with academia and farming bodies to find a way forward using the latest innovations in farming and machine technology. From amongst the many, one innovation seems to be sticking and gaining ground: zero grazing.
The first thing to note about Zero Grazing is that it is a system. For a system to be successful, implementation of it fully is a non-negotiable. To be able to achieve the coveted yields in grass and milk, it is not simply enough to pack a herd into a cow-shed year long, grow and cut the grass and take the milk. At least, this is what Zero Grazer advises.
Zero Grazer is a trademarked system and, according to its green-emblazoned website, is a family owned company based in Co Meath. Niall is your go-to guy to find out about how Zero Grazer and the ZG method can be of benefit to your farm. The system on offer is machinery specifically designed to cut, collect and deliver your fresh green grass to your cow-shed bound herd.
One of the main issues about this type of grazing is the effect of heat on the grass. Whether that’s climactic or from the amount of time the grass is left idle post cutting or compacting, heat is the natural enemy of grass as it immediately begins to break down altering the taste which can be unpalatable to cows. Incorrectly cut grass and delayed delivery resulting in the dish effectively being sent back to the kitchen by the cows is a complete waste of money, time and effort.
The Zero Grazing system integrates two primary functions: a mower that cuts grass in a particular way and a feed conveyor that deposits grass to the cattle with minimal damage to it. There are a bunch of other features too: wheels, cameras, controls, latch bars and so forth; although whether wheels can be strictly termed a feature in machinery that won’t work without them is debatable.
One other thing to note. Zero Grazer is a proprietary system with “all maintenance and parts department operating under strict controls”. This is vague enough to not give anything away, but is also another way of saying you can only buy Zero Grazer approved replacement parts or have your machinery serviced by someone approved by Zero Grazer. The subtext to this of course is that if you don’t, whatever warranty is on these undoubtedly hugely expensive machines will be rendered null and void. Not always, but usually when this is part of the deal, the maintenance aspects of any such an agreement can be prohibitively costly.
At what cost?
Unfortunately, prices for either the machines, parts or the servicing aspect of the system are not publicly available on the website; but it is a fair assumption to make that a significant investment would be required by a farmer to obtain the machinery for the Zero Grazer system.
Of course, what isn’t alluded to is the other peripheral costs as farmer needs to stump up for. Remember, Zero Grazer is a system – the machinery is one part of that system. The farmer will also need to consider:
- Cow Sheds: Are they up to a standard to house cattle for extended periods of time?
This should include areas of softer ground to reduce the possibility of lameness and also for bedding down. Depending on the set up of your cow shed, is there sufficient access to fresh air and space to roam. Renovations, including extension of any existing buildings, may need to be considered.
- Slurry Pits: Keeping cattle in cow sheds day and night for extended periods of time means that the farmer must have sufficient capacity to deal with the additional slurry that will be produced by the cattle. Pits, tanks and pumping units will all need to be considered and if necessary, updated.
- Tractor: In order for your tractor to have the capacity to pull the machinery, Zero Grazer recommends that your tractor should have a minimum of 80bhp if your growing land is dry and flat, and this plus 4WD capability if your land is hilly and sloping.
- Increased Fuel Costs: what the farmer may save in time walking his cattle from field to field will be made up in increased fuel costs for operating Zero Grazer machinery on a daily basis.
- Maintenance: Every aspect of the system, mechanical and structural, must be working perfectly in order to obtain those all-important yields – vital to offset the cost of incorporating the system in the first place.
For the most part in Ireland, farms are small in scale. Family businesses passed from generation to generation, with large farms typically the exception to the rule. They are the architects of our rural places and spaces. But whereas there has always been pressure to make a decent living from farming for these small enterprises, of late that pressure has been increased ten-fold.
When we dissect the good news story for Dairy above and set it in the context of a small rural farm, you can start to see how things start to alter rapidly.
Small farms will struggle to tap into the potential being opened up by new and emerging markets abroad. Buying into a system such as Zero Grazer or adopting the zero grazing methodology to the extent that financial benefits are rapidly realised are not an option for the vast majority. So what are their options?
Some small farmers will see this as an opportunity not to join in, but to opt out. In the face of increasing financial pressure and a limited ability to increase production some may simply sell their land to a farmer or farming conglomerate who is looking to tap into the opportunity by acquiring more land.
Other farmers may sell their land and lease it back from the new owner and carry on for as long as they can.
Stick to tradition?
Some farmers have a distrust for the direction that farming innovation is taking. For a few, keeping the traditional way of farming alive will be more important than chasing a pot of gold. There is huge sense in leaving the larger farms and co-operatives to go for the overseas market share and allowing the smaller farms to continue to provide the domestic market with their offering, but this largely depends on the appetite of the Irish consumer who, despite the efforts of so many to alter people’s attitudes to quality over quantity, largely still buy on the basis of price sensitivity.
Intensive Farming by any other name…
Stripping it all back, what is ZG if not intensive farming?
For those amongst us who strive to incorporate animal welfare into the consideration of any product we buy; the strides made against intensive egg production, chicken production and latterly the spotlight on the horrific conditions that pigs are subjected to for the intensive production of pork, why are we running headlong and with open arms into the same issues with dairy and beef production?
I have long understood that the practice of ZG is a half-step away from the feedlot production methods incorporated in the USA where cattle never see a blade of grass, crammed into dusty lots and fed on a diet of genetically modified grains, soya and antibiotics for speedy growth, high yield and better prices, and all at the say so of the giant manufacturing and meat packing corporations.
The only difference between beef feed lots and dairy ZG is the colour green.
Do not be fooled that ZG isn’t one step away from dictating to the farmers the type of grass that is grown. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to think that just maybe, alongside the development of the machines to harvest the grass is a team developing the right kind of grass seed that can survive climactic change, grow faster and incorporate additional nutrients (synthetic or otherwise) that will directly impact the milk yield and those all-important solids.
Ireland is already a grass desert – imagine if that grass is grown as a mono-culture commodity crop, just like corn and soya in the USA.
So what’s the answer?
There never is a straight forward answer, but the fact is that there probably is a place for ZG in Ireland – it’s the implementation of it that needs to be viewed differently.
The option to use ZG as an effective finishing feed is a practical one. At certain times, cows will be housed in closer confinement. During these times, and at a point where the utilisation of the system can have a benefit to the health of the animal, their product and the farmer makes absolute sense.
Greed is not good
I’m not saying that people should suffer for their art at all, but greed has no place in the world of food production. A radical idea it may be, but farms working together co-operatively rather than growing through acquisition is surely better?
Zero Grazer even acknowledges that ZG is not suitable for all, and that some small farms share the use of their system, but it requires farmers working together to figure out when the machinery will be needed on each respective farm. It also allows for a good mix between traditional farming practice and innovation that allows for sustainability and good yield.
World vs Domestic Markets
Finally, and going back to a point I made earlier, allow individual farmers to choose.
If they wish to go for large scale farming, make the investments and hopefully see returns, clear the way for them to service the global market space for Irish products overseas. However, if a farmer wishes to maintain their small family farm and work in traditional ways, clear the way for their product to service the domestic market for Irish produce.
There is a space for everyone, and no-one should be squeezed out or forced to adopt changes, systems and innovations that are not in line with their core beliefs and values. Neither should anyone be punished for doing so by being offered a less fair price at the farm gate for their product.
For the most part, Johnny and Jenny Consumer are not aware of these innovations and challenges – least of all are they interested in the vagaries of the global dairy market. But what can be done by all is to admit that our much vaunted transparency around the dairy industry is at best opaque. A consumer is free to make their decisions howsoever they wish, but it is the responsibility of everyone who can objectively inform to do so. Having a choice is smart, but making an informed choice is much, much smarter.