I attended an online information meeting as part of the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) last week. Water quality in a lake in our catchment has gone from a poor standard in the 2008 -2013 EPA water quality to bad in the latest report.

It was a useful event and helped get a handle on what is required and what can be done at a very local level to improve water quality.

While there are potential domestic and agricultural sources behind the deterioration of water quality, the extra focus on the catchment will go a long way to resolving the issue.

There hasn’t been a dramatic increase in cow numbers and while there has been an increase in domestic dwellings over the last 20 years around here, it’s not like a town developed. The issue for farmers is that when it comes to nitrates, 99% of them are as a result of farming activity.

I think water quality will be a driver of what agriculture can do in future. The results will drive policy on a macro level and farm practice on a micro level.

Some farmers will face a bigger culture change than others but it will affect us all across the sector.

If the blame was put at farmers’ doors without science behind it, we would be demanding scientific results. Now, because the results will lead to a change in the status quo, we can’t just dismiss them.

Whatever happens, it will be interesting to see how water quality can be improved in the lake over the next few years.

National herd

On a related environmental issue, I stand to be corrected but it feels like the term “the national herd” only entered the national lexicon in the last two years.

The Irish cattle herd consists of less than 0.5% of the global total. In 1970, the overall cattle herd floated between 6m and 7m, peaking in 1998 at the 7.5m. This rise was driven by the 10- and 22-month premiums among other coupled payments.

Since then, it has floated between 6m and 7m or thereabouts.

If you want to see a dramatic rise in numbers, the increase by about 2.3m head in the decade running up to 1974 is where to look. Looking through the CSO figures on cattle, the previous rise of 2.3m head took place over a 110-year period.

I saw the stats for suckler cows broken down into herd size recently and they made for interesting reading.

What stood out for me was the fact there is a similar number of suckler farmers with nine cows or less as there are dairy farmers.

There’s almost as many suckler herds with five cows or less than there are herds of over 30 cows.

Looking through the CSO figures on cattle, the previous rise of 2.3m head took place over a 110-year period

A decline of 30% in suckler cow numbers was predicted in the aftermath of the abolition of milk quota. Reality turned out differently. Perhaps the reduction was expected to come from the larger suckler herds converting to dairy. These herds emerged largely due to the introduction of milk quota in 1984.

I can see the Irish cattle herd contracting organically over the next decade or so. There will be succession issues on farms across both bovine disciplines.

On top of that, a rise in dairy numbers will be stymied by environmental constraints and a disparity in income with their peers will see a fall-off in suckler herds.

While there may be a huge disparity in size, each herd owner is equal when it comes to the ballot box.