Losing the nitrates derogation completely would be “catastrophic for the industry”, according to Tirlán CEO Jim Bergin, speaking at the Positive Farmers Conference in Cork on Wednesday.

Bergin said that about 1bn litres of the co-op’s milk supply is from farms operating between 220kg N/ha and 250kg N/ha and a further 1bn litres from farms between 170kg N/ha and 220kg N/ha. The co-op processes a total of 3.2bn litres.

Bergin warned that the economic impact of a possible loss of the nitrates derogation on rural Ireland would be massive, and questioned whether the Government was treating the matter with enough urgency.

“The frustration from my point of view is that I still can’t see the ‘Marshall Plan’,” Bergin said.

“Where is the urgency around leading and advising our farmers in a really intensive way to address this problem so that every farmer understands what is needed [to improve water quality]?”.

He said the derogation can be retained if farmers take the immediate actions required.

“My argument with Government is that improving water quality is the most complex proposition overall, in terms of sustainability, that our farmers have faced since the 1970s.

“We need boots on the ground working intensively with farmers providing leadership and expertise at a far more intensive rate than they have. If we are seen by the EU to deliver and make the changes, my personal view is that we will manage to retain the derogation.”

On the prospects for milk price, Bergin said he expects base milk price to be above 40c/l in 2024. He added that there is a risk of a short term spike in demand and price over the coming months, which will mean a sharper price drop towards the end of the year.

“If we had a gradual increase over quarter one to above 40c/l, then that could be sustainable for a considerable period and beyond peak,” he said.