Farm Ireland

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Louise Hogan: Is the era of unbridled dairy expansion coming to an end?

Stock image.
Stock image.
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

Is the dairy expansion rollercoaster about to come to a halt?

After just five years of massive growth, are restrictions on milk output once again on the agenda?

These are the questions that thousands of dairy farmers, along with the country’s milk processors, will certainly ask following warnings from the Department of Agriculture that major changes to management practices are required at farm level to protect the country’s Nitrates Derogation.

The sharp increase in cow numbers and milk production over the last decade has come at a cost, the Department point out.

The latest report from the EPA shows that water quality in the country’s rivers and lakes has deteriorated by 3pc.

Ammonia emissions — 98pc of which come from farming — breached agreed limits in 2016 and are expected to do so again when the results are released for 2017 and 2018. Farming does not stand alone when it comes to water quality, as a myriad of factors are blamed for fish kills for example, with municipal works or sewage, plus industrial operations, also major sources.

In light of the challenges, the Department has signalled that farmers covered by the Nitrates Derogation will have to do more to protect water quality from 2020.  One practice that is likely to face the chop is the use of hill land to ‘dilute’ stocking rates and facilitate increased fertiliser usage.

In addition, farmers qualifying for a derogation are also likely to have to cover all slurry storage tanks and use low-emission methods (such as the trailing shoe and dribble bar) when spreading slurry.

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Although Department officials insist that tighter controls on nitrogen usage — and more specifically on nitrogen losses — on intensive holdings should not necessitate reduced stocking rates, the fear is that this is just the first step in a process that will ultimately limit the expansion potential of dairy farms with restricted milking platforms. 

There are already suggestions that the current limit for the Nitrates Derogation of 250kg of organic N/ha could be reduced down to 220kg of N/ha. There has also been talk of an increase in the organic N production assigned per cow from 85kg of N/ha to 100kg of N/ha.

While the latter move would certainly more accurately reflect current norms in terms of output from the average Irish cow, both changes would have a profound impact on the dairy sector.

Industry sources have suggested that such a move could double the number of farmers that require the Nitrates Derogation – from the current 7,000 to 14,000 – and drive demand for rental land into orbit as dairy farmers sought additional land to meet their nitrates limits.  The other alternative is 15-20pc cut in cow numbers – suckler or dairy.  Either way, the days of unbridled expansion are coming to an end.

The new quota could be land scarcity, nitrates or water quality — take your pick.

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