Over the last few weeks, over 1,000 farmers attended the Irish Farmers Journal series of nitrates information meetings in Cork, Laois and Cavan. The impact of banding and the reduction in stocking rate allowed from 250kg organic nitrogen per hectare to 220kg N/ha were the main talking points at all meetings.

Chief economist with the IFA Tadhg Buckley said half of the 6,800 farmers who were in derogation in 2022 would need to either get more land or reduce cow numbers to comply with the new measures.

An extra 28,000ha would be required, which is equal to half the size of Co Louth. Alternatively, 52,000 cows would need to be removed resulting in a loss of 100,000l of milk per farm.

Real figures

These are real figures based on real data – not a “what happens if” type scenario.

It was made clear at the meetings that all the land required won’t be available for derogation farmers to take and that a cut in cow numbers is a very real prospect for thousands of dairy farmers, particularly smaller farmers who are disproportionately affected by banding and can’t compete with larger dairy farmers in the land rental market.

Demand for land

Demand for land is already increasing under the Government’s Climate Action Plan:

  • An extra 115,000ha of land is needed to feed the 200 proposed large anaerobic digestion plants by 2030.
  • The Government wants to convert an additional 51,500ha of grassland into tillage.
  • Government policy is for 80,000ha of drained peat grassland to be re-wetted or farmed less intensively.
  • Government policy is for an additional 68,000ha of mineral soils to be converted to forestry by 2030 and then there is the target of 450,000ha of land to be in organics by 2030.
  • Each of the above measures have one thing in common – if implemented, they will result in a reduction in animal numbers.

    The changes as a result of the Nitrates Action Programme need to be looked at in the same context.

    Even though the Government says it won’t enforce a mandatory cull of the dairy or beef herd, each of these policy measures, but most especially the new nitrates rules, will force a reduction in the dairy herd. Here’s what needs to happen next.

    1 Go back to Brussels

    The Irish nitrates delegation, made up of representatives from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Housing and Local Government need to go back to the European Commission and look for a better deal for Ireland.

    They should argue that we need more time for the other measures that are being introduced to work before a reduction in stocking rate is enforced.

    The mid-term review of water quality, after which the derogation will be cut, won’t show any of the benefits accruing from banding, the fertiliser register or the reduction in chemical nitrogen spreading rates.

    This is because it is only comparing water quality in 2022 with water quality in 2021.

    A whole raft of new measures are being introduced in 2023 which won’t be reflected in the water quality analysis at the mid-term review.

    The timeframes involved are too short.

    The EPA measures water quality in three-year cycles to ride out year-to-year inconsistencies in data and because some testing is only carried out every three years.

    Teagasc says at least four years is needed before the effects of a new measure can be adequately assessed in terms of water quality.

    Now we have a scenario where the Government has agreed to something that is contrary to its own policies.

    Also, even if water quality doesn’t change between 2022 and 2021 the derogation will still be reduced. It is an appalling deal and one which should never have been agreed to by Ireland.

    2 More compliance

    At each meeting, it was highlighted that a lack of compliance with existing rules is the reason for poor water quality in some areas.

    We already know that the costs of losing some or all of the derogation will be catastrophic for dairy farmers.

    For most farmers, the additional costs of compliance is insignificant in comparison.

    In many cases a business case can be made for additional slurry storage if it means better use can be made of slurry such as targeting it for spreading later in spring or in areas that need it most and thereby saving on chemical fertilisers.

    Accelerated capital allowances are available which will write off capital expenditure over two years.

    While TAMS grants are not available if the purpose is to comply with existing rules, in many cases farmers do have enough storage on paper but not enough in practice.

    Some farmers with inadequate storage lease a slurry store/tank to ensure they comply and then apply for TAMS. Spreading slurry in the closed period is not only foolish but is a threat to all farm businesses and should be stamped out. Adhering to buffer zones is another simple but important measure.

    3 More education

    Last October, the Irish Farmers Journal met with European Commission officials who deal with the Nitrates Directive.

    Their lack of understanding of the system of milk production in Ireland was alarming.

    Dairying in Ireland is completely different to dairying in Holland, Germany or Denmark.

    Ireland’s grass-based system of milk production is unique and very different to confinement-based dairying where feed is trucked in and slurry is trucked out.

    Most of the land area is growing crops such as maize, beet and cereals, with all of this area lying fallow over the winter and losing nitrogen.

    It may make sense to reduce the derogation in these countries because of the environmental risk but it doesn’t make sense on a grass-based system. Under the new rules, farmers in even the middle band will be prohibited from stocking the farm at one cow/acre and this presents a very real risk of system drift towards higher input systems with greater environmental risk.

    Furthermore, the science does not support such a move to cut stocking rate, with Teagasc reports suggesting that cutting stocking rate has only a small impact on water quality, with other measures having a far greater impact. Remember, cows don’t produce nitrogen, they just recycle it from the feed that they eat.

    The derogation is of vital importance to Ireland’s grass-based system.

    Those setting the rules in the European Commission should be invited to Ireland to see and learn for themselves why grass-based systems are different.

    While they are here, they should also visit some of the 32 towns and villages where raw sewage is currently being piped directly into rivers. Watch back: Irish Farmers Journal nitrates meeting.

    Hundreds of farmers attended information meetings hosted by the Irish Farmers Journal which featured speakers from the Department of Agriculture, the Local Authority Waters Programme (LAWPRO) and the IFA.

    Here’s a chance to catch up with what was heard and seen at the meetings.