The Minister for Agriculture and Food regularly travels abroad to extol the virtues of Irish produce on a global scale. Next week our minister will be in New Zealand, while all our other Ministers will also be promoting the green credentials and standard of Irish product on a global scale.

Currently there is a significant shift in farming in the south and east of Ireland taking place with an exodus out of grain, into grassland (dairy) and energy (solar) production.

Dairy farmers don’t necessarily want all this extra land, but new policies such as the impending nitrates rules are forcing them into the land rental and purchase space to dilute stocking rate.

The 2022 6.1% increase in the tillage area within the Republic of Ireland and the increasing trend for crops in Northern Ireland in the last year is set to be wiped out. Remember, only a small percentage of our island is suitable for tillage.

Next week, our ministers will no doubt talk to our trading partners about what is sustainable in farming and Irish food – and rightly so. But on the ground, the cropping area decline will mean big change.

We will be importing more maize from Canada and Brazil to supplement our grass-based dairy and beef, and to feed our pig and poultry sectors.

Key drivers

One of the key drivers for change on farms is that convergence, the flattening of farm payments on tillage farms, is reducing support payments to many tillage farmers.

For grain growers, there’s the double whammy that this year many land leases currently being renewed are going mostly to dairy farmers, who are paying increasingly more money for land to dilute slurry over larger areas of land.

The necessity for this is a political decision between our Department and Brussels, with no sound scientific environmental benefit to a reduced nitrates derogation level.

So, three big changes are happening at one time. The tillage area is being significantly reduced.

Dairy farmers are evolving into much bigger units, some out of family farm enterprises, and there is a continuing gradual shift away from grass-based dairy farming.

Fewer cows permitted per hectare means farmers will switch over time into a higher input and output model to maintain the same milk output from farms. Thankfully, Teagasc has also now come out with a report on this.

Under pressure

So while we will be showcasing our virtues as we celebrate Saint Patrick next week, all our trump cards on sustainability in the dairy, beef and tillage space will be under significant pressure.

The other competition for land use hitting tillage country is the rapid growth of solar farms.

Solar farms are best positioned in the east and south of the country, where the highest sunshine hours are recorded.

But do they need to cover thousands of acres of grade-one land, which has the potential to grow 15 tonnes of grass dry matter - or yield 10-12 tonnes per hectare of grain if left unshielded?

We can’t be all negative on energy production and we need to allow choice for landowners, but can we be more strategic?

If farmers have options to generate income from this business, can we be prescriptive or more strategic? Solar farming is not allowed in the UK where land quality is very good.

Are they a step ahead of us, or have they at least a vision for the industry? Do these overseas-owned energy companies snapping and locking up good Irish land for 40 years know something we don’t?


The test for the minister will be in how he reacts to this transition. Our recent survey suggested there will be a shift of thousands of hectares out of tillage this year.

I realise we don’t need another talking shop, but a think-tank is a start at least. Will the minister set up a Food Vision group for tillage? Is it an extension of the feed and fodder committee due to meet next week after an extended break?

Is this part of the remit of Tillage Industry Ireland (TII) and should they be tasked with building the vision? Is another sector-specific group the answer when, instead, maybe bringing some of these sectors together is better?

Lots of questions, but no clear direction with the result that land use change will continue unchallenged while going inevitably in the wrong direction for the dairy and tillage sectors.