Custodians of the land: How Irish dairy farmers are driving sustainability

Dairy farmers are tackling climate challenges through technology and innovation

Shane Fitzgerald farms in Portlaw in Co Waterford: the family farms 200 dairy cows on grass and he describes their efforts as a ‘balancing act’

Ireland has a long tradition of dairy farming. Our temperate climate with plenty of rainfall is ideal for the growth of grass that cows can turn into nutritious milk. Irish cows are outside grazing grass anywhere between 240 to 300 days of the year and are not, as is the case in many other countries, continuously housed indoors and fed exclusively on processed feed.

Dairy farming has taken place in Ireland for more than 6,000 years. There are 17,500 family-run dairy farms in the country, with more than 60,000 people employed by the industry and some €6 billion delivered by dairy farming to the Irish economy each year.

Irish dairy farming is not, however, without its detractors, most notably with respect to emissions. Agriculture accounts for over 37 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, and farmers are expected to reduce emissions by 25 per cent by 2030, as set out in the Programme for Government and the Climate Act 2021 (CAP21). This target is challenging, but it’s a challenge Irish farmers are rising to with a combination of innovation, techhology and ambition.

The word sustainability is now synonymous with Irish dairy farming. Across the country we can find countless examples of farmers who are investing in new technologies and methodologies designed to offset the carbon ‘hoofprint.’

One example is the increasingly widespread use of low-emission slurry-spreading technology, which reduces ammonia emissions released into the atmosphere. Many farmers are also using low-emission fertiliser which, according to Teagasc – the Agriculture and Food Development Authority – has the potential to reduce farm emissions by up to 8 per cent. By introducing white clover into pasture, farmers are reducing the amount of chemical fertiliser required. Less fertiliser means less chance of run-off into the country’s waterways and can significantly lower the carbon hoofprint of Irish dairy farmers.

A balancing act

Shane Fitzgerald farms in Portlaw in Co Waterford with his father John and fiance Kate. The family farms 200 dairy cows on grass. Fitzgerald describes their efforts as a “balancing act”.

“While the political goalposts keep shifting, we are committed to producing high-quality milk in as environmentally friendly a manner as possible. On one hand we are being incentivised to protect biodiversity, and yet the milk production is not being adequately supported. There are challenges, but there are also opportunities, and with the right supports we can encourage the next generation of farmers coming through to drive sustainable change.”

“Young people represent the future of farming,” Fitzgerald says. “We are aware of the consequences of the actions we take today. As a young dairy farmer I certainly want to ensure that our environment is protected for the next generation.”

Fitzgerald is a National Dairy Council ambassador, one of a group of dairy farmers for whom spreading a sustainable message is second nature. His family has used protected urea as a fertiliser on the farm for four years now. “It’s a safer product,” he says, “which is more environmentally friendly and less prone to leaching into waterways.” Fitzgerald also uses a trailing shoe to spread slurry, which results in fewer ammonia emissions when compared to the use of a splash plate.

“Our challenge is to balance the sustainability priorities alongside the human element and the production elements of dairy farming,” Fitzgerald says. “And I’d love the public to better understand the balancing act we are trying to achieve.”

Genetic advantage

Dr Karina Pierce is Professor of Dairy Production at UCD’s School of Agriculture and Food Science. Her research focus is on the sustainability of dairy production systems and the role of dairy cow nutrition as a means of reducing the environmental impact of dairy production and improving milk composition and quality.

Pierce points to Ireland’s grass-based system and genetics as key reasons why the Irish dairy farming production system is more environmentally-friendly compared to other dairy production systems.

“In Ireland we produce most of our milk from grass,” Pierce says, “so that means the feed is grown on the farm and you are importing a lot less feed in from other places that would carry a higher carbon footprint.

“We also have very good genetics here in Ireland, meaning cows live a long life in the system and produce a comparatively high volume of milk over their lifetime. Many other countries have a considerably lower output on a per cow basis. Our cows are very productive, they are fertile and they last in the system a long time,” Pierce says.

Pierce has worked at the UCD Lyons farm on improving the carbon footprint of dairy farming through better genetics, reducing chemical nitrogen inputs, incorporation of clover and looking at different types of grasses.

Her work has given her great hope for the future of dairy farming. “FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) figures indicate an increased demand for dairy in line with increasing world population,” she says.

“Ireland exports most of the dairy that we produce. We have very well-established export markets, and an excellent reputation globally; that bodes really well. There is also an increasing demand for grass-fed dairy. Irish farmers will continue to adopt available, environmentally friendly technologies and also become more efficient at producing dairy. All in all, it’s a very positive outlook from an Irish dairy perspective.”

Angela Brickley farms with her husband at the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains in Coolrain, Co Laois, focusing on the Austrian Fleckvieh breed

‘Cows as athletes’

Angela Brickley farms with her husband at the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains in Coolrain, Co Laois. Here the focus is on the Austrian Fleckvieh breed, which is the second most popular dairy breed worldwide. “I believe we can move towards a more sustainable future by looking to the Fleckvieh breed, which is a dual-purpose cow, producing excellent-quality milk and having beef characteristics,” Brickley says.

The Fleckvieh cow lives longer than the single-purpose dairy cow, she explains. The choice of this breed enables Brickley and farmers like her to reduce the carbon hoofprint of each litre of milk produced. “In the past year, milking from 65 cows, we produced half a million litres of milk with good fat and protein.

“There are herds that are probably 30 or 40 cows greater than us, who are only doing the same number of litres,” she says. “We have good genetics and good farm management to thank for this advantage. And ultimately, fewer cows means less emissions.

“What makes Fleckvieh so good for sustainability is that they are excellent for beef production as well as for dairy, so one cow does the work of two traditional cows – a dairy and a suckler cow, all in one. With the Fleckvieh breed, a male calf is equally as valuable as a female calf,” Brickley says. ‘Which makes for a more valuable and more sustainable herd.”

Louise Crowley farms with her father in Croom, Co Limerick, she believes that ‘it is in our interest, and the environment’s interest, to farm as sustainably as possible’

Voice of future farming

Dairy farming with her dad in Croom, Co Limerick, Louise Crawley is a passionate advocate for farmers’ rights, and often uses social media to give the general public a greater insight into farming life. At 28, she believes that the voice of the young farmer matters, and maintains that her generation are bringing positive solutions to the table. “It is in our interest, and the environment’s interest, to farm as sustainably as possible,” she says.

Louise and her father are satisfied with their current herd size following the abolition of milk quotas.

“We are happy with our animal numbers,” she says. “There are enough cows to provide both of us with a living and we just want to focus on making those cows that we have, and the farm that we have, as efficient as possible. I know very few young farmers who want huge numbers of cows; they are happy to farm what they have and say ‘I am doing it as best as I can’.

“I think if you go over 100 cows and you are farming on your own that is an awful lot of work. I would have no interest in wanting to add another 200 cows to the farm here and I think a lot of dairy farmers feel the same way.”

Having expanded their herd from 70 cows, Louise says more cows means more demand and more effort.

“You have more cows, you have more bills, you have more work and at the end of the day all we want to do is have a life out of it ourselves. We are not in farming to make millions out of it. Instead we want to keep the farm going and improving, making it better every year.

“I am the third generation on the farm; you would be hoping that there will be a fourth generation that might want to carry it on,” she says.

Tom Power farms with his wife Moya just outside Dungarvan in Co Waterford: ‘Farmers have been custodians of the land for generations’

Seventh-generation farmer Tom Power farms with his wife Moya just outside Dungarvan in Co Waterford.

“Farmers have been custodians of the land for generations,” he says. “In my view the Irish system of farming should be put on a pedestal as the way to produce milk sustainably.”

Power explains that sustainable farming starts from the ground up. “The first thing we do each year is soil test every field,” he says, “to give us an indication of our soil nutrient requirements. We address any issues and this in turn allows us to target the paddocks that require slurry and avoid those that don’t. That minimises the chemical leaching that might otherwise occur.

“We also try to calve out our cows in groups at the start of each year,” he says. “This makes the best use of our grass, which is the most sustainable form of feed. Similarly, we don’t milk over the winter, as this would incur higher feed requirements and higher energy use when compared with milder seasons.”

Power says there is a lot done, yet always more to do, when it comes to environmentally conscious dairy farming. “We are always trying to do a bit more,” he says, “Whether that’s the planting of clover, which reduces nitrogen emissions; grass measuring, improved animal health or low-emission slurry spreading, it’s a constant journey towards more sustainable methods.”

Pastures new

Back in Portlaw, Shane Fitzgerald says he is dedicated to the environmental wellbeing of his farm.

By moving fences up to three metres out from hedgerows and watercourses to increase the field margins – the areas between the grazing pasture and the field boundary – Fitzgerald aims to help farmland biodiversity and resists the tendency to maximise land usage on his farm. “It leaves a bit of space for nature,” he says. The practice also helps to keep pesticides, fertilisers and slurry away from watercourses and hedgerows.

“I think that’s a good message to get across to people: that we can leave a bit aside for nature and allow our hedgerows with their flora and fauna to flourish.”

For more information on what dairy farmers are doing for the climate, visit ndc.ie/farmer-ambassadors