'Nitrates changes and prospects for next year's calf sales are looming large for dairy farmers'

Gillian O'Sullivan. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Gillian O'Sullivan. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Gillian O'Sullivan

The past month has been filled with the last of the summer wine, that relaxed time when we have tried to squeeze in as many family outings as we can before the kids return to school.

For the most part that involves letting the older two muck about on the beach while myself and Neil try to keep a handle on the three-year-old, Tim, a game akin to catching smoke.

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On the farm a blip in August grass growth resulted in farm cover per cow dropping from 190 to 150 and the gap was filled temporarily with 6kgDM silage and 3kg ration to reduce grass demand for two weeks.

That drop in growth resulted from an error in the type of fertiliser product we used.

Conventional urea would never be the product of choice for our dry farm after the spring time but the newer protected urea products can be spread in drier conditions as the inhibitor coating on the granule reduces volatilisation and hence nitrogen loss.

The trouble with volatilisation and conventional urea products is that when spread under dry warm conditions a significant amount of the nitrogen can be lost, resulting in Nitrogen lost to the farmer and the atmosphere.

We mistakenly purchased a urea product that was described as "enhanced" but didn't actually have the inhibitor coating of protected urea. Under the dry warm conditions prevailing when it was spread, it resulted in the only significant growth in the field being dungpads.

The moral of the story is buyer beware and if purchasing protected urea, ensure that it actually has the inhibitor coating on the granule which "protects" it. The inhibitor coating that is most common with protected urea products is NBPT and the other less known inhibitor coating on the market known as 2NPT + MPA.

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Judging by feedback from discussion groups across the country, there has been a very favourable response from those who have changed over to using protected urea this year and this should give confidence to others to follow with using it next year.

Speaking of discussion groups, in the past month I have found myself alone in the car with my thoughts travelling the length and breadth of the country either facilitating, attending or hosting discussion groups.


I am a huge advocate for the shared knowledge and learning that goes on whenever a group of farmers come together.

The jolt a different perspective can give to someone's farm is invaluable provided you have the grace and ability to listen. In facilitating groups, I am sometimes invited in to brainstorm the question of OAD milking for a particular farm and that took me as far as Co Down. I find the interesting parts of a discussion group meeting can sometimes emerge in the quiet conversations that occur between the walk from the farm yard to the cows, that time when you chat to those around you about everyday concerns or appreciate good stock and management.

A common thread that emerged were the changes quickly coming down the tracks in relation to farm environmental and welfare regulations. Potential changes to the nitrates derogation base cow will put downward pressure on stocking rates. Another issue is how calf sales next Spring will become increasingly challenging if there are fewer beef farmers willing to rear bull calves. And there's the additional factor of the export trade that's as reliable as a chocolate teapot. The reality that a thriving dairy industry needs an equally strong beef partner cannot be overlooked.

And while the dairy industry is thriving there's a worrying trend emerging of increasing nitrogen inputs year on year since 2017.

It's important to mention the great willingness among farmers to embrace changes that work for both the environment and themselves as, despite public opinion, none of us want to leave behind land in poorer stead that when we began farming it.

I often feel like Irish farmers are akin to a rugby team with the advisors being the coaches and the Department the referee.

Sometimes coaches tell players to be aggressive at the breakdown to gain yards, but there is a fine line between aggression and a sin-binning and who will be left holding the ball when the ref blows the whistle?

While we're talking about rugby what about New Zealand? With freshwater proposals and the Zero Carbon Bill on the agenda, it looks as though New Zealand farmers have been allowed to play advantage for long enough.

Gillian O'Sullivan farms in Co Waterford and was the 2018 Zurich Farm Insurance/Farming Independent Farmer of the Year

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