Dairy farmers worldwide are facing similar challenges, but many countries are taking a different approach to New Zealand on how they find solutions.
That’s one of Richard McIntyre’s take-home messages from the International Dairy Federation World Dairy Summit, held late in 2023 in Chicago, US.
McIntyre, Federated Farmers dairy chair, says gathering with other dairy sector leaders helped him to see the big picture – and how New Zealand compares.
“We’ve all got the same challenges across the world and farmers everywhere are feeling fatigued. There may be differences in our farming systems, climate, and so on, but the key challenges and opportunities are very similar.
“The question is: what are we going to do about them? And how are we going to be supported within our countries to overcome those challenges and seize those opportunities?”
He says it became apparent that New Zealand’s approach is out of step with many of our competitors.
“In New Zealand, our Government is obviously quite involved in what we do with agriculture, trying to put regulations on us.
“You’ve got a Government looking to tax greenhouse gas emissions on farmers, but no one else is looking to do that. The rest of the world thinks we’re crazy,” he says.
“In America, the Government’s more trying to enable the dairy industry to be more sustainable, which is about removing barriers to the uptake of more sustainable practices or technologies.”
In the US and other countries, change is being driven more by processors than government, he says.
“They’re asking certain questions – such as about animal welfare and sustainability – and the industry’s responding. The processor might say they’re concerned about animal welfare, so the industry sets up a quality assurance programme around it. Or they look to incentivise a certain practice rather than having out-and-out regulation.”
Another theme to emerge from the summit was “the absolute need to bring farmers on the journey”, he says.
“That seems to be something that resonated with everyone. Whether the requirements are coming from quality assurance programmes or governments or whatever, I think they’ve reflected on the fact that they haven’t brought farmers with them enough.”
McIntyre was struck by the fact that, globally, there’s a greater need for changes in dairying to be based on science.
“Yes, we need customers to buy our products and we need consumers to consume them, but it should be science leading everything that we do, whether it’s emissions, water quality or animal welfare. Make that the starting point, rather than what one group or another think is best.”
Visiting a handful of dairy farms in Wisconsin was eye-opening, McIntyre says.
“I knew there were a lot of dairy farms in the US, but I didn’t realise how many of them are small 80- to 150-cow operations. When you talk to these farmers, they’ll introduce themselves by saying, ‘I’m a seventh-generation dairy farmer’. Contrast that with here in New Zealand, where most dairy farmers haven’t held the land for more than a couple of generations.
“These farms are not economic by our standards – they’re not making much money – but there’s this huge feeling like they need to be protected because you don’t want to be that one who lost the farm.”
It helps to explain the US’s protectionist trade stance with regards to dairy, he says.
“These guys are struggling financially because of economies of scale but they’re determined to stay in the game.”
McIntyre says, despite the challenges facing dairying, he came home feeling buoyed that dairy has a bright future.
“We’re providing something the world needs that can’t easily be replicated. Beyond a glass of milk, there are all these things milk is manufactured into that help people to live happy, healthy lives.
“We should be very proud of that. We just need to ensure that we also keep up the sustainability and animal welfare side of things.”
McIntyre attended the summit courtesy of the International Dairy Federation NZ.