Report Synopsis

Does the family dairy farm have a future?

Trevor Alcorn

Northern Ireland (N.I.) is part of the United Kingdom, but it is unique in many respects, not least in terms of its small, fragmented family farm structure and the ‘conacre’ system. Over this last decade there has been a 17% decline in the number of dairy farms while milk output has increased by 40%. While some of this increase is due to improved genetics, it is largely due to an increase in dairy herd size.

In comparison to the UK, N.I. is very dependent on exports with approximately 85% of its dairy production being exported. The result of this is volatile milk prices, which both farmers and the industry find difficult to manage. As a result of lower profitability, the more progressive producers have expanded their businesses to maintain or improve the economies of scale. However, the family dairy farms which have not progressed or expanded the business are gradually ceasing milk production; at one time these would have been viable family farm businesses.

The purpose of my study tour was to identify if family dairy farms were declining in other countries and if so, how they were dealing with this and the transition to the larger scale dairy businesses. I also wanted to investigate different management practices in the various countries, that may potentially improve efficiencies and profitability on N.I. dairy farms, thus helping their future viability. Or are there other diversification opportunities?

As part of my study I visited and met with farmers, industry experts and learning institutions from Germany, Denmark, Co Cork, Ireland, USA, China and France. I selected these countries due to their various expertise within the dairy industry such as: technical and labour efficiency, scale of production, collaboration, forage utilisation - and China because of its developing dairy industry.

The decline in the number of family dairy farms is occurring across the globe, not just in Northern Ireland. These farms are declining due to a number of factors such as: lack of profitability, access to land, government policy, succession and lack of investment. They are being replaced by fewer, larger corporate-type dairy businesses that are managed to a high level of technical efficiency and in many cases are still family owned and managed, but on a much larger scale.

There is a future for many family dairy farms in N.I, but not for all. This cannot be taken as granted.

Family dairy farms must be prepared to: improve efficiencies, expand or diversify - but key to this survival is the farmer and/or family members. They must have the business skills, knowledge and ambition in order to survive and progress the business. Standing still is going backwards.

A family dairy farm managed in an efficient and competitive way, with compassion for its livestock and farm land, has still a lot to offer. While the numbers may be declining, it will still form the backbone of the rural community and in the longer term may prove much more resilient than the large scale, profit driven, corporate type farms.

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