Over the last few weeks and months, I have met numerous farmers who are completely oblivious to the new and radical changes in the nitrates directive affecting the derogation.

These are not just dairy farmers. The changes to the derogation rules will affect many farmers from all sectors, some of whom will have to make significant changes if they are to continue farming.

First things first, the nitrates directive was created to reduce the effect of nitrate pollution on water bodies across Europe.

The directive says that farmers should not carry any more than 170kg per hectare of organic nitrogen.

Every animal has a pre-determined figure for how much organic nitrogen it excretes per year. For years, every dairy cow was deemed to excrete 85kg N/ha/year.

This was changed a few years ago to 89kg N/ha/year, as average milk yield in Ireland increased. Basically, the more milk a cow produces, the more nitrogen she is deemed to excrete.

So, 170kg/ha is the maximum carrying capacity per hectare and this divided by the nitrogen figure per animal will tell farmers their maximum carrying capacity on the land.

However, Ireland was one of a number of countries that was permitted to exceed the 170kg N/ha figure and go to 250kg N/ha.

This is called the nitrates derogation, but over the last decade, a number of countries have not had their derogation renewed because water quality hasn’t been improving or because the state just didn’t apply for it.


The change for Ireland is that the organic nitrogen figure is no longer going to be a flat figure with every cow treated the same.

The new rule is that every herd will have a different figure based on historical milk yields. Lower-yielding herds will be 80kg N/ha, medium-yielding herds will be 92kg N/ha, while higher-yielding herds will be 106kg N/ha.

This means that some herds will have gone from 85kg N/ha to 106kg N/ha in the space of three years. This means that a farm stocked at 2.9 cows/ha in 2020 can now be stocked at 2.36 cows/ha in 2023.

Furthermore, it is also proposed to reduce the upper limit of the derogation from 250kg/ha, as it is now, to 220kg N/ha by 2024.

This will have a substantial effect on stocking rates, because now a farm in the high band can only be stocked at a little over two cows per hectare.


These changes mean that farmers will have to either find additional land, reduce stock numbers or export more slurry in order to stay within the rules.

Considering that thousands of farmers are going to be in a similar position, the demand for land is likely to increase, and with it price.

The big loser here will be tillage and beef farmers, who are leasing land as they are likely to be dealing with much greater competition for land.

With higher margins in the dairy sector, will farmers from other sectors be able to compete on price for land?