As we went to press last week, the news was just breaking that the Nitrates Derogation was cut from 250kg to 220kg per hectare. Using stocking rate as an oversimplified tool to manage surplus nutrients getting into water is wrong.

Of course it has a part to play, however there are much more important and less damaging tools available to farming as a business than this.

Given the raft of other rules to manage nutrients introduced in the last 12 months, and taking into account what science has already said on stocking rate, it looks like this move has been made for a different purpose.

In parallel, we have the ongoing discussion with stakeholders around a cull cow scheme. It’s as if the powers that be want to turn back the clock.

Farmers lose out and the industry loses out. There will be a further drive for scale, and specialisation in the dairy sector will intensify further. The very parts of our industry that make Irish farming globally appealing – grass and family farms – are under threat.

In one way, this move by our Department of Agriculture is awkward and messy – especially when there are still so many questions that we don’t have answers to. We don’t know who is affected, where is affected and how farmers forced into destocking will be compensated.

In another, much more significant move, it’s the first step in a fundamental shift towards a European system of farming, when Irish farming is and can be so different.

This narrative that we are only three of 27 countries with a derogation means nothing. Firstly, in relative terms, the European style of dairy is much more damaging to the environment and welfare.

Secondly, individual European countries get specific deals on many issues – think of Poland and grain just recently.

Science or politics

We either believe in the science or not. We follow the independent advice of our national advisory and research organisation Teagasc or else we park it. In its most recent review of nutrient use, Teagasc cites the example of Castledockrell in Wexford and Timoleague in Cork.

Contrasting examples showing how stocking rate is not the key driver of nitrates in water.

The advice from Teagasc clearly states that stocking rate, in itself, was not found to be a primary driver of nitrate-N concentrations in most cases. For example, over the period 2010 to 2017, a significant increasing temporal trend in ground water nitrate-N concentration was observed in a tillage catchment (Castledockerell).

By contrast, in an intensive grassland catchment (Timoleague), no long-term trend was observed, despite the proportion of land area in derogation increasing. In recent years, there are indications that nitrate-N concentration is reducing in the Timoleague catchment.

We set up long-term detailed studies like the agricultural catchment work, but we then make policy decisions that demean good work and make our industry vulnerable.

We know soil type, the slope in land, weather and managing nutrients are key drivers of nitrates in water. Farmers are almost now singularly focused on the numbers game, stocking rate. This whole mess needs solutions fast to avoid undoing all the good work.


So what is the solution? One of the key drivers in Timoleague is that surplus nutrients (slurry stored on farms) was utilised off-farm rather than spread on-farm at the wrong time of the year.

In effect, some of the farms in the catchment were short slurry storage for the stock on the farm.

Fix slurry storage and spreading out of season first. The other significant driver of a positive trend in Timoleague was the reduction in artificial nitrogen over a 10 to 15-year period. This year alone artificial fertiliser is down 17%.

Managing slurry storage and managing artificial nitrogen are much more important than stocking rate in terms of managing surplus nutrients.

Both are very costly and both have a big impact on farms, but they are far more constructive in solving nitrates in water if that is the focus. It’s a sad day when we ignore the money, time and effort that underpins science and long-term studies.

The minister has got this one wrong for the farmers. To punish well managed, profitable, family farms who obey the rules, who importantly are not the cause of the problem, is fundamentally wrong.