The latest political response to the derogation crisis by the Government was for the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue to have a video call with the Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius early last week.
Neither the Taoiseach nor the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs intervened at EU Council or European Commission level.
The Minister for Housing, whose department is responsible for the implementation of the Nitrates Directive did not intervene.
The politicians can point to the fact that they had instructed Department of Agriculture officials to have discussions with the European Commission about the derogation.
This means that the same officials who accepted the conditions when the derogation was granted in March 2022 – namely the flawed terms of the midterm review – were sent back to re-negotiate these conditions. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t succeed. They didn’t even succeed in getting more time for farmers to prepare before the derogation cut is introduced in January.
The threat to the Irish grass-based system is existential because the precedent is now set that the policy response to stable, not even worsening water quality, is to cut the derogation.
Without the derogation, the trend is likely to be for farmers in Ireland to house cows for most or all of the year and bring in feed such as maize, silage and beet that is grown on other parts of the farm. This is what happens right across Europe.
This will create additional environmental pressures such as increased carbon dioxide emissions, increased ammonia emissions and lower carbon sequestration as permanent grassland is ploughed up.
Water quality is likely to significantly worsen if permanent grassland is ploughed. It will make farms substantially less profitable. Our dairy products will no longer be grass-fed.
We will lose our comparative advantage. This is the reality facing the sector if the derogation goes.
How many countries in Europe can comfortably grow over 14t DM/ha pasture per year with say 180kg N/ha of chemical nitrogen?
This level of performance is being achieved on dairy farms across the country.
A baseline stocking rate of 170kg N/ha may well be the right baseline for Italy, Spain and most of continental Europe because they have a short growing season with cold winters and hot summers.
Why can’t Irish farmers stock their farms relative to what pasture they can grow because of our temperate climate? Not utilising this pasture presents a greater risk to water quality than converting it to meat and milk.
The minister is on the record as saying that Ireland’s derogation is granted at the behest of other member states, which makes it sound as though there is a huge diplomatic effort required to secure a derogation.
However, in reality, it is officials from the European Commission who decide if a member state warrants a derogation or not and this decision is then ratified by the nitrates committee which is made up of officials, not politicians, from each member state.
Another misnomer is that reducing the derogation will improve water quality.
Nitrates leaching is a biological process and there is no certainty that if you change one thing, it will have a positive impact on another
Water quality may very well improve over the next number of years, but according to Teagasc research, other new measures which have just been introduced will be three times more effective at reducing nitrate leaching than cutting the derogation.
There are lots of factors that impact on nitrates levels in rivers, the main one being the weather. The EPA itself now attributes the deterioration in water quality in 2018-19 to the drought.
It is very simplistic of the Taoiseach and other politicians to say that farmers need to work harder to improve water quality if we are to preserve the derogation at 220kg N/ha.
Nitrates leaching is a biological process and there is no certainty that if you change one thing, it will have a positive impact on another. Nobody can guarantee that practice change or huge effort will yield positive results within the desired time frame.
This is important because in coming to this decision, the Commission asked that Ireland to compare water quality in 2022 with water quality in 2021.
Water quality experts say this is too short a timeframe for a trend to emerge.
Who is to say that in order to grant a derogation in 2026, the Commission may seek to compare water quality in 2024 with water quality in 2023.
The Irish Government accepted this flawed process this time. Will it accept it again the next time and what will the consequences be then?
It is still unclear as to whether parts or all of the country will be affected by the 220kg limit.
The Commission has stated that they are open to minor changes to the map which was published in July showing the affected areas. It is up to the Government to ensure that as few farmers as possible are impacted by this flawed decision.
After so many policy failures, it is the least Irish farmers deserve.
UCD Systems Herd, Kildare
The high-yielding, higher-input and higher-output systems herd at UCD Lyons Estate has already had to slightly reduce cow numbers from 60 to 57 to comply with banding and is now stocked at 2.33 cows/ha.
The reduction in the derogation from 250kg to 220kg N/ha will mean a further six cows, or 10.5% of the herd will have to go.
Alternatively, the farm would have to source an additional 3.03ha or export 61,000 gallons of slurry off the farm, which is effectively almost all of the slurry produced by the herd.
If the herd was in the middle band for nitrates, it would come in at 214kg N/ha and so would not need to cut cow numbers.
Signpost Dairy Farms
There are over 50 dairy farms in the Teagasc Signpost programme – the flagship sustainability programme.
Based on 2021 data, the average farm within this project has a milking platform stocking rate of 3.64 cows/ha and an overall stocking rate of 2.25 livestock units/ha and is in the middle band for nitrates. Based on this, the average Signpost dairy farmer will not need to adjust cow numbers or land area to comply with the new rules.
Curtin’s Farm, Moorepark
The Curtin’s systems research farm at Moorepark has 150 cows on 60ha, which is a stocking rate of 2.5 cows/ha and the herd is in the middle band for nitrates.
The current organic nitrogen figure for Curtin’s Farm is 230kg N/ha so in order to be compliant with the new rules, cow numbers would need to reduce by seven cows or an addition 2.73ha would have to be sourced.
Alternatively, over 55,000 gallons of slurry would have to be exported off the holding, which is about one third of all the slurry produced on the farm.
Francis Nolan, Kilkenny
Francis is a dairy farmer in the Teagasc/Tirlán joint programme. Milking 156 cows on 70ha and carrying youngstock, the organic nitrogen figure is currently 233kg N/ha.
Based on the new rules, this family farm would need to source an additional 4.12ha of land in order to bring the nitrates figure under 220kg N/ha or reduce cow numbers by 10 or export 83,000 gallons of slurry off the farm.
This is equivalent to all the slurry produced by approximately 82 cows, presuming a 14-week housed period.