Flexibilities that could reduce the impact of the derogation cuts on dairy farmers’ stocking levels are looking increasingly likely to be agreed by stakeholders at the Water Quality Working Group, and could be in place by 1 January.

A move towards low-protein concentrate feed during summer grazing, along with adjustments on the nitrogen content of slurry and the nitrate excretion rates of young calves, are among a package of measures which were discussed by the working group on Tuesday.

While a final agreement was not reached at this week’s talks, farmer representatives said good progress was made on Tuesday and a compromise deal could be hammered out at the group’s next meeting, which takes place on Friday, 15 December.

A presentation by Teagasc showed that feeding a 12% protein ration during the summer, instead of 15% as per the current rules for derogation farmers, could reduce organic nitrogen for cows in the middle band from 92kg to 88kg, while it would reduce organic nitrogen for cows in the top band from 106kg to 99kg/cow.

In addition, Teagasc presented data showing that the nitrate levels attributed to calves up to three months of age could be cut from 6kg to 1kg.

Along with changes to the rules around the export of slurry, farmer representatives said the proposed measures introduced a level of flexibility – based on Teagasc research and science – which could allow milk suppliers to hold cows that would otherwise be lost due to the derogation cuts.

The ICMSA said there was an onus on the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue to support farmers who are facing serious reductions in cow numbers as a result of the derogation changes.

“We have a degree of autonomy and that must now be utilised to give the most hard-pressed farmers the required ‘breathing space’ that they are going to desperately need,” said ICMSA president Pat McCormack.

“These are measures that are completely within the gift of the Minister and which he can introduce as part of the NAP review,” he added.

The Irish Farmers Journal understands that while the Department is considering the introduction of a feed register, farmers could be able to opt-in to feed low protein feeds from 2024, by selecting that option in the same way that they select what nitrates band the herd will be in.

Reducing the nitrogen excretion rate for cows in the middle band will mean an extra four cows can be retained on a 40ha farm, while an extra five cows can be a retained on a 40ha farm where the herd is in the top band.