How the industry reacts to the breaches of animal welfare highlighted will define the success or otherwise of the dairy and beef industry in Ireland into the future. Like many crises, the actions of a small few can tarnish the whole industry.
Farmers were not directly in the spotlight of the RTÉ Investigates programme. However, the industry is only as good as the weakest link. We are all in this together, the mart people, the lorry drivers and the drovers, whether we like it or not.
The industry can’t do what it delivers to rural Ireland without all parts of the chain working together. We can’t disown the marts or milk processors when there is a problem or a wrongdoing.
Without them there would be no butter, powders or cheese – ultimately, the precious and quality food that farmers work hard to deliver every day of the year.
Any breach of trust or respect for animals or nature must sound alarm bells, because it’s a slippery slope when the door is opened to wrongdoing.
We’ve seen this play out in other countries and, on Monday night, many of these wrongdoings were repeated on our screens.
Respect for animals, respect for humans, respect for nature are all central to the continued goodwill that non-farmers attribute to food producers to allow them go about their daily tasks.
The manhandling of calves, the breaking of the law on long journey times and the knackeries being used to put down calves have to be condemned because we know it’s not standard practice for the majority.
Blatant breaches of the law must be investigated and appropriate action taken. This is to protect animals but also farmers and the reputation of the majority of farmers.
Hands up, I think we’ve all lost patience at one time or another moving or feeding calves, but there is a right way and wrong way to do most things. Oversight and accountability are important.
As an industry, we are good at adopting solutions but often we can be too slow about making it happen and sometimes we have ourselves to blame. Sexed semen is an obvious example. We stalled its use for years in Ireland hiding behind excuses.
Only 25% of dairy inseminations this year were sexed.
The comparable figure for the UK is 83%. Similarly, our new national genotyping programme to promote traceability and genetic merit, including crucially dairy beef, looks like it will be under-subscribed by dairy farmers in its first year, despite the massive opportunities it provides the industry.
Yet, we absolutely need this if we are to grow dairy beef and encourage more farmers into the business of rearing beef on dairy calves. On this point, it is also noteworthy, I understand that the ongoing funding of the initiative has not yet been finalised.
Our delay in managing some animal health issues again comes to mind.
Real change is to sign up today for the new national genotyping programme
The data flow from farms and appropriate management programmes on farm are not good enough yet for an industry that is so important to farmers and rural Ireland.
We’ve lauded our central database at ICBF for years but we haven’t optimised it enough yet to get to the root of many animal health issues that potentially could have devastating impacts on the industry – much more significant than anything we saw on TV this week.
We can’t have inspectors at every corner of the road. However, as farmers and protectors of our great livestock industry, we need to be mindful of protecting hard-earned reputations.
So we can certainly point the finger of blame at individuals breaking the law from Monday night’s RTÉ documentary. But sometimes we also need to ask ourselves as dairy farmers and as a dairy processing industry, what are we doing to help create the real change that our industry needs, as much of it is within the farm gate.
We need to balance the relatively small costs of change and adoption with the alternatives of more housing, more labour, and more regulations.
Real change is to sign up today for the new national genotyping programme. Closing date for applications is 14 July.