The Department of Agriculture is urging the country’s dairy processors to consider increasing payments to suppliers based on the environmental status of their farm.
At an Agriculture Committee debate on the Nitrates Directive senior inspector Jack Nolan said the industry will have “a key role in driving behaviour change” if measures under Ireland’s proposed Nitrates Action Programme are to be fully implemented from January 2022.
Addressing members, alongside officials from the Department of Housing, Mr Nolan said such a move would incentivise all farmers, particularly the 7,000 in derogation, to reverse declining water quality trends and protect the sector’s global image.
He also confirmed that two thirds of the country’s dairy cows are on derogation farms and that dairy farmers are responsible for 50pc of chemical nitrogen use as they have a higher demand for grass.
“We have a good package of measures that stand up to comparison across Europe, but they need to be taken up by farmers rather than something that is driven by regulation.
“We also need industry to drive change. In Holland you get extra payment for a litre of milk if you have more than the standard biodiversity on your farm, you’ll get a cheaper loan from Rabobank if you have more than the standard biodiversity.
“One of the co-ops in the south west have an extra payment for having an animal health plan and milk recording and it would be great to see industry taking the lead, pushing on and bringing people with them.
“The money coming to farmers should be dictating by the quality of the product that they are producing and, at the moment, there is no differentiation between farmers that are doing their upmost and farmers that are not playing their part.”
He warned that maintaining the derogation is “very economically important” to Ireland – one of just four countries in the EU that avails of the exemption that provides farmers an opportunity to farm at higher stocking rates, subject to certain environmental conditions.
As it stands, the proposed new measures include: a tighter slurry spreading period, introduction of excretion rate bands for dairy cows, limits to stocking rate allowance on commonage and changes to soiled water and slurry storage on farm.
“We need behaviour change on farms and we need farmers to do this because they understand it is going to save them money and also protect the environment. All the measures proposed here, and in the current programme, are based on science.
“The logic behind it is to prevent as much as possible nitrogen loss to water. None of the measures on their own are a magic bullet, or will solve water quality, but each deliver a little bit and when you add them up you get to where we want to be to reach our water quality targets.
“We believe if the measures we’ve proposed are allowed onto farms and they are successful we can reverse the trend and that we can facilitate the high stocking rates.”
The regulation will decided on over the next month before being submitted to the European Commission for consideration in December.