Effects of Drought on the Cost of Milk Production and Responsive Strategies

3491 words (14 pages) Essay in Environmental Studies

08/02/20 Environmental Studies Reference this

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The Effects of Drought on the Cost of Milk Production and Responsive Strategies undertaken by Farmers


Irish farmers faced one of the worst droughts on record in 2018 with temperatures reaching highs of 30 degrees and no rainfall for over a month in some regions. Farmers, animals, crops and grass suffered greatly as a result. Dairy farming is the most popular type of agricultural production system in Ireland, as it is the most profitable. However profitability depends on factors such as days at grass, milk prices, concentrate prices ect.. The majority of dairy farms across the country are grass based production systems. Ireland portrays an image of cows grazing outdoors on fields of lush green grass for the majority of the year. This is due to Irelands temperate climate and frequent rainfall. However with temperatures set to rise into the future this may not be the case. This will have a negative impact on Irelands competitive advantage i.e. the ability to grow large quantities of grass compared to other European countries. This year dairy farmers feed bills (forage and concentrates) doubled as grass shortages had to be supplemented. Grass is the cheapest form of feed but when it has to be supplemented with forage and concentrates, it’s expensive. Farmers across the country were having to buy in extra silage and meal for their animals. In some areas, farmers were opening their winter forage (bales and first cut silage pits). As animals tend to have reduced appetites in warmer weather the demand for water increases. Water shortages were a concern in some regions, with wells drying up. Water is critical for the animal’s health and welfare, especially when temperatures are high. Cows can become very stressed if there is no water available to them. Animals health and production suffered greatly as a result of the high temperatures. Milk production and reproductive performance were affected as a result of heat stress in animals. Very few studies are available for quantifying the effects of drought on Irish dairy farms. This paper reviews literature relevant to the impacts that drought conditions have on world agricultural productivity and responsive strategies undertaken by dairy farmers to overcome drought conditions. As a result of global warming drier and hotter summers are on the horizon for central Europe thus, determining mitigation and coping strategies covering apparatuses from management,…. to adapt to the future risks associated with climate changes is crucial (Gauly et al., 2012).

Rising Temperatures and Agriculture


Ireland is a mid-latitude country and can expect temperature changes quiet similar to the rest of the world. Estimates of the change in the worlds temperature by the end of the twenty first century is currently in the region of 1.8-4.0°C. Irelands average temperatures have risen by 0.7°C in the last century (Sweeney et al., 2008). Records from meteorological stations suggested that heatwaves became more persistent over the twentieth century. During the summer of 2003 Europe experienced mean temperatures 6°C above normal and rainfall deficits of up to 300mm. This estimated that high summer temperatures in Europe have a 50 per cent more chance of occurring as a result of anthropogenic climate change (Gornall et al., 2010). According to (Sweeney et al., 2003) expected climate changes will have a major affect on Irish Agriculture with the expectation of more summer droughts meaning supplementation of grazed grass. This is a huge concern for Irish farmers as grass is the cheapest source of feed for animals. Agriculture is one of the most exposed areas to drought, as it can affect crops through several direct and indirect ways. Agriculture is an important sector as food supply relies on it (Musolino et al., 2018). Changes in climate may require alterations in current practices in order to maintain productivity (Gornall et al., 2010). Higher temperatures can have powerful impacts on farm productivity, incomes and food security (Battisti et al., 2009). The intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has associated the increase in temperatures over the last century to anthropogenic activities i.e. human activities that cause damage to the environment such as green house gas (GHG) emissions, these include, carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄) and nitrous oxide (N₂O) (Rosenzweig and Tubiello., 2007). Irelands agricultural sector is responsible for 29.7% of GHG emissions  (Duffy et al., 2012). A lot of research has been done in identifying the sources of GHG emissions in agriculture, this research is been used to identify practices which can be implemented at farm level to help mitigate GHG emissions (Murphy et al., 2013).

Cost of production


Cost of producing a litre of milk can be associated with a wide range of factors such as costs of inputs, land quality and system operated, weather conditions and milk price (Hanrahan et al., 2018). This year the main concern for dairy farmers was the costs of inputs, land quality and weather conditions. Reducing the amount of grazed grass with silage and concentrates reduces the economic competitiveness of Irish grass based dairy systems (Chen and Holden., 2018). Grass is the main and the most significant agricultural crop in Ireland. It is the main source of feed for the livestock industry (Holden et al., 2002). Research done by (Holden et al., 2002) examined the impact of drought on the production of grass in Ireland over the 21st century. They found that grass production would decrease in the East of Ireland and may need irrigation in order to thrive, while in the South West of the country grass production was expected to increase. Summer 2018 saw grass production decrease due to the lack of rainfall in the South East. There was an increase in grass production in the South West due to mild temperatures and summer precipitation.

Soil moisture deficits

Soil moisture conditions are extremely important on Irish dairy farms as most dairy farms are grass based production systems. Soil moisture conditions have an impact on grass growth rates, duration of the grazing period, nutrient uptake and loss (Schulte et al., 2005). The moisture content of the soil refers to the amount of water soil can hold and is affected by extreme weather events such as, drought (Dwyer et al., 201?).The moisture conditions are determined by the soil moisture deficit (SMD) (Schulte et al., 2005). Since the 1980’s Met Éireann has calculated daily soil moisture defects.

Responsive strategies for dealing with the effects of drought on grassland production

The use of deep rooting legume species that can penetrate down to reach water that is otherwise unavailable (Gauly et al., 2013). Management factors such as length of grazing, timing of cutting and rates of fertilizer application to changes in growth and quality of the grass are strategies which farmers can implement in response to dealing with high temperatures (Gauly et al., 2013).

Animal production and health

Climate change will have both direct effects and indirect effects on livestock performance and welfare (Gauly et al., 2013). Rising temperatures and droughts are the main direct consequences that has negative effects on animal production, health and welfare (Gauly et al., 2013). High temperatures are linked with heat stress in livestock which can have negative effects on milk yield, animal health and fertility and in extreme cases, mortality. ‘Heat stress is defined as the sum of external forces acting on an animal that causes an increase in body temperature and evokes a physiological response’ (Polsky et al., 2017). Heat stress arises when cows experience conditions over their thermal comfort zone and are unable to maintain their thermal balance (Hill et al., 2014). Most research on heat stress in dairy cows focuses on temperature and relative air humidity (Joksimović-Todorović et al., 2011). Heat stress has unfavourable effects on dairy cows through decreased milk production and reduced reproductive performance (Polsky et al.,  2017). The temperature humidity index (THI) is used in cows to estimate the environmental temperature with relative humidity (Polsky et al., 2017; Temple et al., 2015). The THI is branched into groups that indicate the level of heat stress (Polsky et al., 2017). According to (Gantner et al., 2011) when the THI exceeds 72 milk production is affected and feed intake is reduced.

Impact of heat stress on milk production

Dairy cows function best when temperatures are in the region of 5 to 15°C. Dairy cows start to sweat at temperatures above 15°C but they are still able to sustain the equilibrium between heat production and heat dissipation. Once the cows temperature hits 25°C she is no longer able to maintain the heat balance and enters heat stress (Savsani et al., 2015). Animals that are affected by heat stress show a decrease in feed intake and milk yield, which in turn reduces their milk production performance (Pragna et al., 2017). Panting, sweating, reduced milk yield and reduced reproductive performance are the physiological coping strategies undertaken by cows. Increased water consumption, change of feed times to cooler periods of the day (night time), looking for shade, and decreased activity and movement, are behavioural coping strategies undertaken by dairy cows (Polsky et al., 2017). High temperatures in dairy cows also affects milk quality (Das et al., 2016). An increase in body temperature along with a decrease in feed intake and a shift in physiological activities can negatively affect the protein, fat, and solids content of milk (Pragna et al., 2017). In hot conditions animals have demonstrated to reduce feed intake by 9-13%. Cows panting and standing in the shade reduces feed intake. Cud chewing is reduced from panting and grazing time is reduced from standing in the shade (Savsani et al., 2015). The less feed a cow intakes the poorer its nutrient supply is which in turn effects milk production and milk quality (Savsani et al., 2015). Dairy cows depend on nutrients for provision of biological processes, lactation and reproduction (Kadzere et al., 2002). High yielding and early lactation cows are more at risk of heat stress than non lactating cows (Polsky et al., 2017). As milk production increases, metabolic heat production

Heat that is produced through the process of milk production can go beyond 50% of the overall heat generation in high yielding cows (Gauly et al., 2013). Lactating cows favour temperatures between 5-25°C, the ‘thermoneutral’ zone (Kadzere et al., 2002). At temperatures above 26°C the cow enters heat stress and she is no longer able to cool herself down (Kadzere et al., 2002).

Heat stress decreases reproduction performance

Cows that are heat stressed tend to show little or no signs of heat. Conception rates can decrease by 20-30% in months with high temperatures, lower conception rates are frequently observed in warm summer months compared to winter months (De Rensis et al., 2003).

Water shortages

Water shortages were a huge concern for dairy farmers across the country in 2018. Lactating  animals have the potential to drink >100 litres of water a day in hot weather (Savsani et al., 2015). This summer wells ran dry in some regions as result of the increase in water consumption. The water budget is critical for exchange cycles within the earth-atmosphere system (Mills., 2009). 

Responsive strategies for water shortages

The implementation of irrigation systems has been the responsive strategy to water shortages in many countries. Irrigation has the potential for yield increases under drought conditions, however it is an expensive approach, the gains would hardly cover the additional cost (Gauly et al., 2013). 

Carbon Navigator – a decision support tool for farmers

‘The Carbon Navigator is introduced as a potential aid to achieving improved adoption of emission-reducing technologies and practices at farm level’ (Murphy et al., 2013). The aim of this tool is to increase efficiency and income while also reducing GHG emissions (Murphy et al., 2013). A report by the EU commission (Leip et al., 2010) reported that Irish milk is the most carbon efficient in the EU. This efficiency is due to Ireland’s grass based production systems. After the abolition of milk quotas in 2015 ‘Food Harvest 2020’ (Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, 2010) has set out growth targets for the dairy sector (Murphy et al., 2013). As Ireland is an important exporter of agricultural products, it must follow requirements of international markets that require foods to produced in a sustainable manner, carbon footprint is a key measure of this (Murphy et al., 2013).


Effect of drought on farmers mental health

Drought causes a major stress on farmers and can have negative effects on their mental health. Farmers often work for long hours on their own. Their livelihoods are dependent on weather conditions. Farming is listed as one of the ten most stressful occupations in the world, researchers in Europe, Australia and the USA determined that farmers who were experiencing a high work demand combined with low social support were more likely to develop stress, mental health problems and depression (Kolstrup et al., 2013).

Project plan


Section 1:

I will carry out a survey consisting of 10 – 15 questions on 30-40 farmers. These will be yes/no answer questions. These will be handed out to local discussion groups. Examples of questions include:

      Did you have to buy in extra feed?

      Did you have to cull cows as a result of fodder shortages?

      Did the drought conditions affect you mentally?

Section 2:

I will carry out an in depth questionnaire/interview with four dairy farmers. Two farms will be based in the midlands (Offaly) and the other two will be based in the South West (Kerry).  I will get an overview of each of these farms:

  • Number of cows.
  • Calving rate.
  • Spring/winter milking herd.
  • Housing.
  • Turn out dates.

I will ask each of the dairy farmers for their end of the year co-op performance reports for 2017/2018. I will then compare these reports.

I will compare how much it cost a farmer to produce a litre of milk in 2017 verse 2018.

Feed budgeting – I will ask the farmers for their concentrate bills and compare 2017 verse 2018.

I will be asking farmers about animal health and milk production.

      Was milk solids affected as a result of the weather?

      Was reproductive performance affected as a result of the weather?

I will be looking at the farmers culling rates.



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