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Does high input/high output make sense in Irish dairy?

An alternative to dairy farming methods in Ireland is not discussed often enough in my view. In this article, I will compare high input/high output vs low input/low output dairying.

In Ireland, a large percentage of the country’s dairy farmers graze their cows. Let me pose the question: can this be done differently?

Looking at how differently the world dairy farmers work, are we sustainable in Ireland for the litres of milk and kgs of milk solids produced? Do you think the number of dairy cows in the U.S in 1944 increased or decreased?

You may be surprised to discover that dairy cow numbers decreased, but production increased.

In the U.S that same year, the average number of dairy cows was 25.6 million, with 14 billion gallons / 52 billion litres of milk.

Leap forward to 2014, there were only 9.2 million dairy cows in the U.S producing an eye-watering 22 billion gallons/ 83 billion litres of milk.

On the face of the information obtained, they increased their sustainability by reducing their dairy cow numbers and increased their level of output. This would be a rather interesting route Ireland may have to look to for the future.

High input/high output 

The consensus among farmers favours a high-input cow such as the highly-bred Holstein cow, averaging, in excess of 9,000 litres of milk per lactation, with an additional 700kgs milk solids produced.

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These cows would be mostly fed a total mix ration (TMR) while grazing grass in the summer months, as grass alone would not produce the required energy needed, along with in excess of 1.5 tonnes of meal per cow per year.

The average dairy farm in Ireland produces 5,438-litres of milk per cow, according to the Teagasc National Farm Survey 2018. Compare this with the EU average of 7,280 litres of milk per cow.

The pros and cons of a high input/high output system as outlined by Teagasc in its dairy manual:


  • Greater milk solids output per grazing hectare can dilute overhead costs;
  • Increased profit potential at high milk price;
  • Building up stock resources on the farm.


  • Profitability exposed to fluctuating milk and grain prices;
  • Maintaining pasture efficiency while buffer feeding can be difficult;
  • Increased machinery, contractor and labour costs.

A quick calculation on a 100-cow dairy model, based on the high-input system vs the low-input system.

Taking the base price of 0.33c per litre of milk, along with the Irish average of 5,300 litres of milk per cow, and a dairy herd producing 10,000 litres of milk per lactation.

Before the meal is included in the calculations, the income would be as follows:

  • 100 cows x 5,400 L= 540,000 L @ 0.33c = €178,200
  • 100 cows x 10,000 L= 1,000,000 L @ 0.33c= €330,000

Meal is based on €290/T, which is 0.29kg. Approximately 2.2 ton is required per cow producing 10,000 L. A cow producing 5,400 L will approximately require half-a-tonne of meal.

Based on these figures:

It will cost €145 to feed meal to the Irish average cow per year:

  • €145 x 100 cows= €14,500, meal cost
  • €178,200 income – 14, 500 = € 163,700 income after meal

It will cost €638 for 2.2T of meal per cow producing 10,000 L of milk:

  • €638 x 100 cows = € 63,800, meal costs.
  • €330,000 income – €63,800 = € 266,200 after meal costs.
A difference model of production for the future?

So, based on these calculations, there is a considerable €102,500 income difference, in favour of the farm using the high input/high output system.

So, are we better off looking at this model of milk production in Ireland for the future?

I have presented some facts and figures about the high input/ high output system which raises interesting ideas to initiate discussion from both sides of the table about dairy farming going forward.

By John Halton

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