Diversification helps hedge against volatile milk prices

Co. Antrim dairy farmer Gareth Hayes believes that diversification can help dairy farmers cope with the challenge of volatile milk prices.

He has more than halved cow numbers over the past five years, filling the void created with expanded sucker and sheep enterprises. Gareth farms with his father Randal.

He believes that the changes have helped make the family farm business more sustainable, given the continuing fluctuation in milk prices.

“I dropped the dairy herd numbers from 240 head down to 100. This was partly in response to our decision to invest in a robotic milking system. The cows are currently averaging 8,500L.

The departure of the dairy stock allowed me to significantly expand the sheep flock and to maintain a 45-cow suckler beef herd.

“All the dairy cows are now put to a beef bull. Our home-bred dairy calves are sold on and this money is then used to buy in store cattle.

“This means that we now have four enterprises on the farm, across which all the bills can be paid.”

Gareth said that the sheep and livestock enterprises are paying their way at the present time.

“I recently sold 90 spring lambs, averaging £100. They were born in January and went out to the fields with the ewes immediately afterwards.

“We have enjoyed a very good spring in this part of the world, which means that it took very little meal to finish the lambs.”

Gareth admitted that milk prices are pretty acceptable at the present time.

“But that wasn’t the case when dairy markets crashed 18 months ago. Had we been dairy-only at that stage, the prospects for the farm would have been pretty bleak.

“Volatility, certainly within the milk sector, is a reality. Dairy farmers need to receive prices that allow them to cover their costs and provide them with a living. But there is no guarantee that this can be achieved year-in, year-out.

“Sheep, beef and milk prices can fluctuate widely. But it’s very unlikely that all three will be on the floor at the same time.”