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Luck of the Irish spills into dairy industry

A Holstein cow makes her presence known at feeding time on Bill O'Keeffe's dairy in County Cork, Ireland. (Journal photo by Lacey Newlin).

By Lacey Newlin

It can be summed up in three words—castles, clovers and cows. For Irish dairy farmer Bill O’Keeffe, it’s the cows that matter most.

O’Keeffe’s dairy is home to 260 Jersey-Holstein-Fresian cross cows. Located in County Cork, Ireland, O’Keeffe dairy is a sixth generation operation. The farm encompasses 460 acres of land with 95 percent being permanent grasslands.

“We stock our milking platform at 3.4 cows per 2-and-a-half acres and our overall stocking rate it 2.6 livestock units per 2-and-a-half acres,” O’Keeffe said.

According to O’Keeffe, most Irish dairies calve seasonally in spring and operate off grasslands.

“We house our cows over the winter and feed them on grass silage that would have been made the previous summer,” he said. “We target 1,200 gallons per cow with only 500 kilograms of supplementation being fed per cow.”

Along with his wife, Audrey, the O’Keeffes cherish the time the dairy business gives them with their family and enjoy getting to employ others. The European Commission estimates a family farm in Ireland to be about 79 acres in size. The Irish Food Board approximates the number of family farms on the isle to be 139,900.

Much like cooperatives in the U.S., Ireland processing companies collect much of the milk sold and exported from the country. Most of these are cooperatives owned by farmers and includes: Lakeland, Dairygold, Tipperary and Kerry Group among others. O’Keeffe belongs to Glanbia, one of the largest processors.

“It is excellent that it’s delivering returns to its shareholders, one of which is the farmer’s co-op,” O’Keeffe said. “There is a comfort in knowing that you will be paid for the milk you supply.”

Graduating from Kildalton Agricultural College in Kilkenny County, Ireland, in 1998, O’Keeffe earned a certificate of agriculture. He was a 2010 Nufflield Ireland Scholar, which is a prominent farming scholarship awarded in Ireland. Currently he serves as chairman for the scholarship board.

O’Keeffe is no stranger to international travel. In order to learn more about the dairy industry in different areas of the world, he has traveled to operations in Iowa, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Florida and even made a trip to Washington D.C. to discover more about U.S. agriculture.

“I was very impressed with U.S. agriculture,” O’Keeffe said. “Agriculture in the U.S. has a lot of the same challenges as we do here in Ireland with managing the environment, climate and economic.”

No drought here

Speaking of environment, the Irish rainfall is quite opposite of many areas in the U.S. O’Keeffe estimates an average of 45 inches of rainfall yearly where he lives.

“Rain is our natural advantage,” O’Keeffe pointed out. “Even though it might not seem like it today because it has been raining for the last 10 weeks every day and has added a lot of pressure to our farming operation this spring.”

It’s not only rainfall that differs between the U.S. and Ireland. O’Keeffe surmised that the biggest difference between Irish and American dairies is the scale of the operations. According to O’Keeffe, the average Irish farmer has about 80 cows compared to the Purdue University U.S. herd estimate of 135 cows.

Also different from the U.S. is the European Union’s management. Ireland joined the EU in 1973; this union meant quotas and subsidies for the Irish. The limited size of most dairies is due to such quotas, which limit the amount of milk that can be produced.

“Subsidies have had a negative effect on Irish agriculture progress over the last 30 years,” O’Keeffe says, “but it delivers its objective of reducing food production and keeping many small-scale farms as small as possible and producing food.”

The Irish Cooperative Organization Society indicates that the EU milk quotas limit volume sold and stabilize the market, setting a minimum price for milk. Price security is a great relief to many dairies, but the quota system has also weeded out many operations.

“It has been very good for our rural communities,” O’Keeffe adds, “but very bad for our farmers that are going to be competing on the global market place because pace of adaption of modern science and technology reduced.”

According to the ICOS, since milk quotas were enforced in 1983, the number of Irish dairies has plummeted from 65,000 to a little more than 18,000 today. Incidentally, the ICOS claims that milk quotas will be abolished in 2015 so the Irish dairy industry may go through some drastic changes in the next few years.

Economic woes

Starting in 2008, Ireland’s economy fell into a major recession, a first since the 1980s. Since then the economy has been slowly climbing out of the crisis in large part due to the agriculture industry.

“The economics are improving but we have a lot of tough years ahead and we need good leadership in the government to ensure the decisions are made to help our recovery,” O’Keeffe said. “We are fortunate that agriculture is at the center of the Irish economy.”

O’Keeffe says he is excited see the implementation of the Ireland agriculture plans for 2020.

“We are very lucky to have everybody pulling in the same direction for Irish agriculture,” O’Keeffe said.

Dairy operations in particular have played a pivotal role in the recuperation of the Irish economy.

“Dairy is Ireland’s major agricultural sector,” O’Keeffe said. “As part of Ireland agriculture’s plan for the future, Irish agriculture has set a target of increasing our dairy output by 50 percent from 2015 to 2020, which I believe we can comfortably achieve.”

The total milk output for Ireland in 2012 was 1,487,000,000 gallons, according to the Irish Food Board. To support those statistics, Ireland rates 10th in dairy exportation in the world. O’Keeffe indicates almost all of the produce in Ireland is exported. However, milk produced is not the only concern for farmers like O’Keeffe.

“Our national herd is going to increase rapidly in the next five years. One of our main challenges is to get more young farmers into the industry. Even though agriculture in Ireland is very much the ‘in’ thing to do with a number of young farmers applying to colleges, farmers can find it hard to get access to land to farm in their own right.”

Milk in demand

In 2008, an unfortunate food security oversight involving milk and infant formula took place in China. An estimated 300,000 people were sickened by tainted dairy products. Tragically, six infants died as a result from kidney complications. A chemical called melamine had been added to the milk products to beef up the protein content, but instead it caused an enormous food safety scandal.

“This benefited Irish dairy farmers, as the Asian market now wants to reduce their risk of this happening again,” O’Keeffe explained. “Ireland would be viewed as a way of de-risking while still getting baby formula off grass-fed cows.”

Since then, the EU has issued a ban on baby food containing Chinese dairy products, and much of Asia has stopped buying Chinese milk altogether. Because Ireland is known for having a safe and natural food supply, dairy farmers have received much of the demand from Asia.

Simon Coveney, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine for Ireland, stated that the Emerald Isle produces 10 percent of the world’s infant formula.

“I’m sure we are the largest producer of infant formula in the world,” O’Keeffe said. “Since the scandal, Ireland has had a major jump in the number of clients coming from Asia to see how we do things.”

As for O’Keeffe, he merely wants others to realize the impact agriculture has on the world.

“I am very proud that farmers are food producers but we do not get the recognition we deserve,” O’Keeffe said.

Providing dairy products for a separate continent sounds like a lot of work, but with some good old-fashioned Irish work ethic it could happen in the blink of an eye. As the old folklore says, “God invented whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached by phone at 620-227-1858 or by email at

Date: 3/17/2014


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