Dairy farmers may face dumping milk on their farms as processors warn they may not have the capacity to cope if coronavirus affects shut down processing during the peak milk season.
The Irish Independent understands intense discussions will take place between processors and farm organisations in a bid to stave off what has been described as a possible catastrophic failure of the dairy supply chain.
With the majority of Irish dairy farmers now calving their cows in early spring, the approaching peak production month of May is occupying the minds of the industry as it battles the implications of Covid-19 while keeping milk processed.
The processing capacity in Ireland is extremely tight, and the loss of any plant due to loss of key staff from Covid-19 or mechanical failure has the potential to be catastrophic for farmers and the co-operative system alike.
Commenting on the scale of the challenge, Dairy Industry Ireland (DII) director Conor Mulvihill said this is a national issue – not confined to any one processor.
“We estimate spare processing capacity could be as low as 1pc to 2pc at May peak.
“There is a huge danger if anything goes wrong – not to mind the Covid challenge.
“Our production managers are estimating that 2020 peak supply could be as high as an unprecedented 250 million litres per week.
Put simply, if one processor goes down, the knock-on consequences would be unimaginable for the entire industry.”
Mr Mulvihill said as this crisis develops and deepens, processors are concerned that potential employee Covid-19 positive cases in processing sites may cause a production line or even a full factory to go down.
“This is something that we cannot afford and would have serious consequences for farmers and companies alike.
“We have seen processing difficulties reported with our colleagues in Italy, Croatia and France.
“We are actively working with our regulatory authorities to guide us on what we can do in the event that we cannot collect or process milk.
“There has been massive industry collaboration across processors, government and farmers as we fight to keep milk collected and processed,” he said.
President of Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA) and Tipperary dairy farmer Pat McCormack said it is important that people remain calm, and plan for every eventuality in the event of an issue arising.
“It is essential for the processors to be ready to co-operate in every way possible, including processing milk for each other, sharing milk collection routes or indeed sharing skilled staff if required.
“Regulatory authorities must also assist this level of co-operation by not placing any unnecessary barriers to co-operation,” he said.