I recently had the opportunity to tour with Tom Cannon, director of Rural Development of the Royal Dublin Society, Dublin, Ireland, and a group of dairymen from Ireland. They visited World Dairy Expo and toured dairies in Wisconsin and Indiana as well as several agribusinesses.
Freedom to farm
Many in the group had an over-riding impression of the freedom to farm without bureaucracy. They said this leads to the ability to develop a massive scale of operations such as the first operation we visited at Fair Oaks Dairy in Indiana. Several Irish dairymen moved to Indiana and are now milking 3,000 cows each on nine nearby farms. By visiting Fair Oaks, the group learned it is possible not only to make money dairying in the U.S. but to keep it. "The farmer we visited with at Fair Oaks said he is getting a 25% rate of return on his investment," says Cannon. "He said top dairies in New Zealand were generating a 10% to 11% rate of return while dairies in Ireland yield at best between 1.5% and 2% annual return on investment."
It was difficult for many in the group to get used to the fact that most cattle in large dairies are totally confined with all feed harvested and fed in the barns. Milk production in Ireland is highly seasonal with 90% of production coming from grazed grass. This
This requires a totally different type of cow. A smaller, hardier animal that can harvest growing grass – Holsteins are very large and highly specialized. While being extremely efficient and suited to maximize use of each stall in a barn they are not the ideal for grazing grass outdoors on a cold, wet sleety March day in Ireland.
The availability of controversial management tools such as synthetic hormones and genetically modified crops was a surprise. "GM corn was something we all envied with no need for herbicide except Roundup," Cannon says. "The clean crops were brilliant. Ireland has a ban on the importation of grain from GM crops, never mind the ban on growing them." Hormones have been banned in Ireland for years and public opinion against them is hostile.
The seemingly casual approach to disease eradication was another surprise. Testing and eradication of TB and Brucellosis has been compulsory and ongoing in Ireland for 40 years. There is a low background level of TB and sporadic outbreaks of Brucellosis. Testing for each is done on an annual basis and many owners have their herds "locked up" (they cannot buy or sell live cattle. All animals can only be sold for slaughter). This is because of "doubtful reactors" appearing in herd tests. The herd is closed until all animals pass the tuberculin test.
The lack of ear tags, animal records and all the attendant bureaucracy was really striking. "In Ireland now we must tag all calves at birth," Cannon explains. "This includes the dead ones." All cases of twin births are verified by a state officer in case fraud is involved. An animal presented for slaughter at a meat packing plant without a tag, without no paper passport or that has not been tuberculin tested in the previous 12 months will be at best sent home and at worst impounded and slaughtered without compensation.
The community spirit was evident from the playground in Milton, the fairgrounds in Janesville where we visited the Jersey auction were a delight to see, Cannon says. "In our area in County Meath there has been an enormous decline in volunteer work in the community due to the enormous time spent in commuting to work. I personally spend four hours per day commuting to work."
The group especially enjoyed the hospitality they received from the Jim O'Leary family in Milton.
Another very interesting comment from the group was the different impressions they now have of American people – about 180-degree change from the ideas presented in the news, TV and entertainment media.
Natzke writes from Bonduel.