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How sustainable is Irish dairy?

What the Irish dairy industry is doing to achieve its climate targets.


Ireland has the perfect conditions for dairy production: a temperate climate, plenty of rainfall, and a grass-based, family-farming system which strives to continually improve its environmental sustainability.

Ireland has long relied on farming to drive its economy. There are 17,500 family dairy farms, 60,000 jobs, exports to more than 130 countries and €5bn a year in revenue to the Irish economy. Dairy brands such as Kerrygold and Pilgrims Choice are among its most successful exports.

But while there is a lot of nutritious, responsibly-produced Irish dairy being delivered to consumers both at home and abroad, there is a bigger challenge for the dairy sector to meet when it comes to climate change.

The Irish government has set a target of 25pc lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for Ireland’s agriculture sector by 2030.

This journey towards achieving climate targets and reducing carbon ‘hoofprint’ in the long-term has been difficult. But with new innovations, traditional methods, and technological developments, dairy farmers are making an impact on emissions.

But it also takes time and commitment - something Irish dairy farmers are willing to invest in their work.

Cathal Moran, who is a dairy farmer in Skeaghvasteen, Co Kilkenny, is a National Dairy Council Farmer Ambassador.

This Ambassador programme brings together a team of people involved in the production of Irish dairy, who act as advocates for the many initiatives employed to make Irish dairy even more sustainable.

Cathal points out that any change in farming – particularly change in environmental impact – takes time.

“If you have a cow about to have a calf,” says Cathal, “that’s probably the result of a breeding programme (for increased health, longevity and productivity, as well as carbon efficiency) which could be 10 years old. It will take nearly a year before it’s born and then another three years before that ‘better cow’ is in the herd. That's just one example - in terms of breeding better - but it all takes time.

“So how do you measure water quality or emissions improvement? It might take years to not only implement the measures we need to take, but also to get them right.”

Technology leads the way

Breeding initiatives, pasture management (new plant species to ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil and reduce fertiliser use), implementation of new tech and new environmental imperatives all take time to deliver the results that the industry needs to meet its targets.

The programmes that the dairy sector and its family farmers have been driving for years - and there are already yielding results. And there are further ambitious programmes set out for the next decade.

Irish dairy is investing in technology and improvements to processes to meet environmental obligations, including water quality and biodiversity.

New technology, such as soil sensor technology developed in Ireland, could help reduce the use of chemical fertilisers on farms and improve water quality in rivers and estuaries.

The sensors have been developed by Tyndall National Institute in Cork as part of an international project to measure levels of nitrates in soils more accurately.

These tiny sensors are currently being tested in Romania. The measurements the sensors provide could have a significant impact on how, where, and how much fertiliser is spread on farms.

Nicholas Cooney, a dairy farmer from Co Louth and National Dairy Council Famer Ambassador, welcomed the news of the innovation.

“There’s no doubt that advances in technology are going to help our industry address the environmental challenges that we face,” says Nicholas, who farms 500 acres and 480 cows with his wife and three children in Monasterboice. “It’s great news that these advances are being made here in Ireland.”

Nicholas is a board member of one of the leading companies involved in efficiency-enhancing and impact-reducing breeding programmes. He feels that people should be proud of Irish dairy and the efforts to be sustainable – whether they drink milk or not!

“We invested a lot in the last few years in trying to be more efficient and we use technology to do that. All the cows have collars that monitor their health, rumination, and the time spent lying down, and then we get all that information back in our phones.

“We know if a cow is sick before it shows on the animal! We can also tell what the optimum time is to breed the cows from this data. All of that leads to greater animal efficiency and ultimately, industry sustainability.”


Reducing emissions

Much has been made of methane emissions coming from cows, because they are the biggest contributor to the agriculture sector’s total emissions. Dairy farmers recognise that these emissions need to be reduced and they’re shouldering the responsibility.

However, ongoing research by Irish scientific institutions shows that the country’s biogenic methane emissions (methane from cows) may have been overestimated by between 15 and 20pc.

Confirmation through peer review - and acceptance of the results of the research by the Environmental Protection Agency – would reduce the baseline figure for these emissions – this would mean that while agriculture still faces the challenge of reducing its emissions by 25pc, it would be 25pc of a lesser amount.

While new research, new initiatives and new tech could lead to emission reduction and help lower targets, farmers on the ground are also working towards ideas to affect total emissions. There are plenty of Irish dairy farmers researching new ways to farm and using their knowledge to better their farming practices.


Farmer innovations

One example is Nicole Keohane, a young farmer in Co Cork, who farms part-time alongside her grandparents, while also undertaking a PhD. She researches the topic of udder health in the Irish dairy cow, focusing on non-antibiotic interventions.

Nicole is passionate about getting the message out to consumers that Irish farmers today are playing their part in meeting the challenge.

She says: “I'm always reading new academic articles and papers, which are investigating issues and finding solutions. I think one of the issues that we have is making the results of this research more accessible to both farmers and consumers.

“It’s so important to let people know what we are able to do, and share the message of what is already being done.

“There are so many things we're looking at introducing,” says Nicole. “These ideas and programmes are only going to increase sustainability and lower carbon emissions on the farm even more, as well as increase our carbon sequestration.”

Carbon sequestration is the process of locking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil and keeping it there. Ireland is 58pc grassland, and farmers across the island are planting and improving hedgerows and tree management to maximise the sequestration process.

Across a sample of 100 Irish farms, The VistaMilk SFI Research Centre, and Teagasc (the Agriculture and Food Development Authority), have been carrying out the most comprehensive study of carbon sequestration ever undertaken in Ireland.

Dr Karl Richards, Head of the Environment, Soils and Land-Use Dept., and one of the leaders of the VistaMilk team, said, “Our work will help establish a baseline and, using predictive modelling, suggest to farmers courses of action to increase carbon uptake on their land.

“Ireland also has c. 300,000 ha of peat soils that are a major source of CO2. Vistamilk is supporting research to better account for these emissions and to reduce them through water table management.”


A new dairy story

Irish dairy farming is on a journey to sustainability, and it is being reborn along the way. It has changed from a focus on cows, and the land they use, to being about the broader environment.

It’s now the story of an innovative sector where sustainability tops the agenda. Research is producing new solutions and long-term initiatives such as breeding programmes, pasture management and the deployment of tech are improving the efficiency and productivity of our cows and reducing the carbon ‘hoofprint’ of Ireland’s quality dairy produce.

Irish dairy can be wholly sustainable – in the true sense of the word – and provide a future for generations of farmers to come.

For more information on what dairy farmers are doing for the climate, visit the website.