An Irish man with a plan

Irish farm consultant Mike Brady says a dairy industry plan transformed Ireland’s industry.

A visiting Irish agricultural consultant says Australian dairy farmers could benefit from a government-backed dairy industry plan.

Mike Brady told WestVic Dairy’s `From Idea to Innovation’ free forum at Deakin University in Warrnambool on February 21 that a similar plan in Ireland had helped the country to add more than 50 per cent to its dairy production in less than 10 years.

“A government-backed ‘dairy industry plan’ with buy-in from all stakeholders, is a good template to follow at state or federal government level for the Australian dairy industry,” Mr Brady said.

“Good ideas lead to innovation and can transform a farm business or an entire industry,” he told the forum.

Mr Brady described the Irish Industry Dairy Industry Planned Expansion 2011-2020 as an example of an innovative idea that transformed the industry.

“There were regular stakeholder meetings with reporting back to government and every idea was researched,” he said.

“There were good ideas and bad ideas but the fact that the industry was joined up meant that every idea was researched and assessed as to whether it would fit the aims of industry.

“The target was to increase dairy production by 50 per cent and that was surpassed by 2018.

“Our dairy farmers have done very well and have been very prosperous in the past 10 years.”

The growth has continued into this decade. Mr Brady cited an Irish Times article highlighting the role of innovative products and ingredients in pushing a 30 per cent rise from pre-pandemic levels in food and drink exports.

“The expansion has come from inside the farm gate,” he added.

Mike Brady speaking at WestVic Dairy’s 'From Idea to Innovation' forum in Warrnambool.

Ireland has 18,000 dairy farmers compared to Australia’s 5213, average herd size is 84 compared to 276, while milk production is 8.8 billion litres compared to 8.2 billion in Australia.

Ireland has 1.51 million cows compared to Australia’s 1.44 million while milk yield per cow is 5629 litres compared to Australia’s slightly higher 5665 litres. In 2022 Ireland produced a record 8,830,000 litres of milk.

Mr Brady said Brexit had made Irish dairy stronger.

“A third of our exports go to the UK and exports have increased since Brexit when everyone predicted the opposite.”

He added that Ireland had largely moved past challenges faced by Australia’s dairy industry like the demise of Murray Goulburn, labour, water and succession, but it still had issues to consider.

“The EU’s Farm to Fork strategy for an environmentally-friendly food system has led to protests and there’s Ireland’s Food Vision 2030 looking at water quality, biodiversity, greenhouse gases.

“I’m not saying these are poor ideas but I think the EU has gone too quickly with this. They came up with ideas we will need to embrace, but if you get them wrong there will be protests.”

Mr Brady said it was “only a matter of time” before the Australian government demanded sustainable farming.

“The advantage you have is that dairy is farther down the list for the government. Our problem in Ireland is that 40 per cent of greenhouse gases are from ruminant animals and dairying has recently increased so they are being looked at.”

He said the UK had struggled after its dairy advisory service had been privatised and then sold.

“To me, Great Britain was rudderless from a research point of view since that period. It made room for private consultants but you won’t know for 30 years whether you have wrecked the industry or been really good for it.

“That’s why I think it’s important to have a levy-based independent organisation that can assess ideas. I think for the industry here it is a good idea to join together to form a stakeholder group.

“From what I can see, there are lots of opportunities in Australia.”

One factor critical to the success of Irish farms is specialisation, according to Mr Brady.

“Some farmers here like other enterprises to try to cover a bad year, but I don’t think you can be good at all the enterprises.

“Specialise in your enterprise and become as good as you possibly can.”

In Ireland there has been a move in the north towards confinement dairying but southern areas mostly remain grass-based.

Factoring the cost of land into a dairy business isn’t needed in Ireland because so little comes up for sale.

“If you want to become a profitable dairy farmer in Ireland, your most important attribute is that you choose your parents very carefully,” he said.

“Land price is not connected to our dairy profitability.”

Sharefarming is also rare because the farms are too small to split the profit.

“Our landowners don’t want to do sharefarming — it’s too complicated,” he said.

“The only opportunity for non-dairy farmers to come in and have a career in the industry is because there’s no labour.

“If they work on a farm, and none of the farmer’s kids are interested in dairying, the young worker might buy some cows and lease them back to the farmer and if he’s successful he will end up owning all the cows and leasing them to the farmer.

“But there are not a lot of full-grown partnerships.”

Crossbreeding is another system largely ignored by Irish farmers.

“It was recommended by our state advisory service but farmers resisted it and only six per cent of our cows are crossbred.

“You never know what are good ideas. They say listen to the consumer but in that case, we had to listen more to the farmer.”

Mr Brady is an agricultural consultant and land agent. He started his career as a dairy husbandry adviser with the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, later returning to Ireland in 1989 to work in the private sector. In 1995, he founded Brady Group, becoming a leading figure in agricultural advisory services.