Nitrates inevitably dominated the exchanges between Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue and farmers at the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) AGM on Friday.

One Kerry farmer told of how, due to banding, he had to drop back from 92 to 82 cows this year.

“If we go to 220kg/ha, we go back to 74 cows next year,” he said. "We have a carbon output rating of 0.77kg/ha, under the national average,” he added.

“You’re a prime example of the problems [with nitrates],” Minister McConalogue replied.

“We are still trying to get as much flexibility as possible," he said, adding that the Commissioner is visiting Ireland next week.

'Lot of uncertainty'

He rejected an assertion that the Government gave in too easily on the 250kg derogation.

“There's no lack of ambition. We wanted to hold it at the 250 - that hasn’t proven possible. That’s led to a lot of difficulty and a lot of uncertainty.

"I can’t change the fact that uncertainty is there, all I can do is work to hold it [220kg]. We must all work together, it’s fundamental to our whole dairying system.”

Minister McConalogue added: “We have among the best water quality in Europe. There’s very good reason why we have the derogation.

"We have the capacity to utilise more nutrients due to our long grass growing season and our grass-based system."

In an obvious reference to the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers' Association's (ICMSA) decision to pass other protesting farm organisations to attend a Farmers Charter meeting in September at the height of the row over nitrates derogation changes, Minister McConalogue thanked the ICMSA “for participating in that engagement, for being robust where necessary, for demonstrating to their members that whilst everyone may not always agree, the most effective way to find a landing zone is through engagement and dialogue”.

Approval sought for grant

Highlighting that 6,000 farmers currently export cattle slurry, the Minister said he is looking for the EU to approve a 70% grant for importers of organic manures to build additional slurry and farmyard manure (FYM) storage facilities and a higher €90,000 TAMS ceiling for all farmers investing in slurry and FYM storage.

CAP funding “has been static and is under pressure” Minister McConalogue said. “We hear of people saying we should go to the CAP for extra funding and funding of new schemes - that can’t be the case. We have full control of our national budget and we have increased co-funding by 50%.”

On TB, Minister McConalogue described 2023 as “a challenging year”, with rising TB incidence “frustrating for everyone to watch, and not sustainable”.

Some “hard decisions may have to be required”, he continued. “I’m guided by the TB stakeholder group which I set up." Acknowledging the “pure torture and trauma for anyone who gets reactors”, he said the herd risk issue will be discussed and considered.

He agreed that a deer cull is needed: “Yes, there are far too many, they are getting out of control and we need a cull. Unless we intervene, it will only get worse.”

On payment delays, Minister McConalogue said the Department has paid out 110,000 farmers. “If you’re one of the 10,000 to 20,000 unpaid, that is not much help.”

The fact that a new system was being built and worked off this year made it more challenging, he said.