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How green is my dairy - The movers and shakers making Irish dairy more sustainable

Dairy farming has been taking place in Ireland for 6,000 years, but farmers all over the country are working hard to make it more environmentally sustainable than it ever has been before.

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It can be easy to go into autopilot sometimes when filling your trolley in the supermarket. We are blessed with an ample selection of quality fresh produce, and we’ve come to expect nothing but the very best on the shelves.

Take the chiller cabinet for example, as so much delicious dairy comes from Irish producers of milk, yogurt, cheese and butter. The stories of the people putting in the work it takes to deliver it can often get lost.

Irish dairy plays an enormously important role in the economy, contributing over €6 billion every year. There are over 17,500 family farms across the country, supporting over 60,000 jobs, and while that’s the result of generation after generation of farmers doing dairy, there is always a need to move with the times.

Understanding the scale of Irish dairy highlights the role it will have to play in any national targets set for environmental sustainability. The dairy industry’s challenge is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25pc before 2030.

Innovation, rather than sacrifice, is how the challenge will be met.

People want to fill their trolleys with nutritious, high-quality dairy, produced in Ireland. The narrative that emissions reduction targets can’t be met without reducing the herd and curtailing Ireland’s dairy sector is one that needs to be nipped in the bud.

No one understands this better than those involved in the production of Irish dairy. Getting to know some of them can make it easier to understand how much is already being done to make the sector increasingly environmentally sustainable.

Angela Brickley, Co. Laois

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Farming in Coolrain, Co Laois, Angela was originally a beef farmer before she made the switch to dairy. She has now changed her business model once again, concentrating on breeding dairy cows with beef characteristics, particularly focusing on the Austrian Fleckveih breed.

She is also the only supplier in Ireland introducing the Fleckveih breed into this country’s managed breeding programme. The programme will, over time, deliver better, healthier, more productive and more environmentally efficient cows.

Angela is a fierce advocate of managed breeding, particularly that which adds beef traits to male dairy calves. This increases their value to the farmer and makes for a more efficient cattle farming system.

That may seem a reasonably straightforward decision on the surface. To opt for animals that are effectively dual-purpose, delivering more from the same and thereby making the national herd more efficient.

However, it’s also a good example of how improvements to dairy sustainability address the economic, as well as the environmental, challenges faced in Ireland.

Shane Fitzgerald, Co. Waterford

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Shane farms in the shadows of the Comeragh mountains and is wholly dedicated to the environmental and economic well-being of his farm.

As a young farmer looking to make the industry more sustainable, he is one of a number of pioneering milk producers delivering environmental improvements on their farms. By leading the way for other likeminded people, he is demonstrating best practices and efficiencies for other farmers to evaluate and adopt.

You only need look at his own farm to see why his efforts are seen as exemplar when it comes to best sustainable farming practice. Part of a generation that seeks to both protect Irish dairy’s heritage and ensure it adapts to the challenges ahead, Shane has strong views on how young people could, and should, be encouraged into dairying as a career.

Making Irish dairy more sustainable will require more young people like Shane to get involved in farming.

Louise Crowley, Co. Limerick

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Having been farming full time in Croom, Co Limerick since 2018, Louise Crowley understands the power of social media when it comes to rekindling the story of Irish dairy. She has grown a following of over 25,000 on Instagram, and shares the realities of working on a farm as well as the enormous progress being made to delivering a more sustainable product, both environmentally and economically.

If you were to ask her audience what it is that keeps them engaged, her openness and honesty are likely to be among the top reasons. Rather than only show snippets, she brings the highs, lows and challenges of the dairy industry to the eyes of thousands of people who would otherwise have little awareness of or interest in farming.

Whether it be a herd of cattle knocking down a fence that she’s only just put up or some other unexpected situation that could throw her off balance, she says the positives far outweigh the negatives. A vocal supporter and promoter of Irish women in agriculture, Louise says all of the challenges of farming are worth it when it comes to the many good days you only get to have when running a farm.

Tom Power, Co. Waterford

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A previous winner of the National Dairy Council and Kerrygold Quality Milk Awards, Tom manages a herd of 500 cows in Ballymullala, Co Waterford.

If you were to ask Tom, he would tell you that Irish dairy is the best in the world but recognises that the industry needs to work hard at reducing emissions. While changes need to be made, he has said that if you look at the global picture, curtailing Irish dairy production by forcing a reduction in cow numbers – a cull – would be a disaster.

Farmers like Tom should make us immensely proud of Irish dairy – its produce, its heritage, its place in our society. According to Tom, the quality of our produce rivals that of anywhere else, and the standard of care afforded to cows in our industry is second to none.

Perhaps that’s to be expected from a seventh-generation farmer, but it comes with the recognition, echoed across the industry, that for Ireland to keep its place as one of the world's leaders in dairy produce we will need to make some changes. Environmental sustainability is going to play a major role in the years to come, and individual farmers like Tom know they are going to have to lead from the front.

Nicole Keohane, Co. Cork

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Farming part-time in County Cork, Nicole works alongside her grandparents who are currently milking just under 100 cows. When she’s not playing her part in running the farm, she’s working on her PhD during the week at college in Waterford, researching the topic of udder health in the Irish dairy cow focusing on non-antibiotic interventions.

Nicole’s area of study is reducing antibiotic usage in the dairy herd by investigating alternatives, which will have the benefit of preserving high-strength antibiotics for human use, rather than veterinary use. It’s another way in which dairy is making itself more sustainable – reducing its impact on society, while improving the health of the cows.

Climate action is very important to Nicole and she is passionate about getting the message out to everyone that Irish farmers today are playing their part in meeting the environmental challenge and through changes in farming practice, through innovation and through technology are addressing the very real and immediate emissions reduction targets.

Dairy farming has been taking place in Ireland for 6,000 years, because our country has the right climate and the right soil and is 65pc pasture. It’s Ireland’s foundation and because it is – unlike manufacturing as in other countries – it should be no surprise that it has the largest impact.

As a nation we should be proud of Irish dairy and trust that it can be wholly sustainable (in the true sense of the word) and provide a future for generations of farmers to come.

To find out more about the people making a difference, visit the National Dairy Council website here.




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