Facing the Future: How Irish dairy farmers are making use of scientific innovations to reduce emissions

Since 2015, and the abolition of milk quotas, the Irish dairy industry has grown, both in terms of production and overall herd size.

Gearoid Maher farms with his wife Sarah in Limerick. The dedicated environmentalist has committed to planting 1,500 metres of hedging while the couple have greatly reduced fertliser use

The recent expansion, which is now beginning to slow and stabilise, has had environmental implications. Agriculture was responsible for 38.4% of national Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in 2022 (even though sectoral emissions declined) however – on a litre for litre basis - Irish milk has a lower carbon footprint, at 0.97kg CO2-eq, than milk produced almost anywhere else.

The Programme for Government and the Climate Act 2021 (CAP21) requires greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland’s agricultural sector to be reduced by 25 per cent by 2030. While this represents a challenge, many Irish farmers are investing in new technologies and methodologies designed to mitigate their environmental impact.

Some are using low emissions slurry spreading technology designed to reduce ammonia emissions into the atmosphere. Many farmers are using 100% protected urea as a fertiliser, which according to Teagasc can potentially reduce total farm emissions by 7-8%, while stitching clover into the pasture allows dairy farmers to reduce the amount of chemical fertiliser required by as much as 40% per hectare.

In addition, by planting and conserving hedgerows and trees, Irish farmers are encouraging carbon sequestration - the process of locking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil. Preliminary research suggests that the carbon sequestration already taking place on mineral soils in Ireland could be underestimated.

In this article, Irish farmers share their environmental efforts in their own words.

Caroline Hanrahan runs a dairy farm near Ballyhooly in north Cork with her husband Ger. ‘It’s a wonderful way of life – and one we are keen to pass onto the next generation’

Passionate advocates for dairy farming

Caroline Hanrahan and her husband Ger operate one of Ireland’s 17,500 family-run dairy farms, a farm that has been under their family’s stewardship for six generations.

Suppliers to Dairygold, the Hanrahans produce milk from their 350 dairy cows near Ballyhooly in north Cork. Caroline, who holds a science degree from University College Dublin, is a passionate advocate for dairy farming.

“I think it’s a wonderful way of life,” she says. “And one we are keen to pass on to the next generation. We have five children ourselves, who range from ten to sixteen years of age. It’s good to see the kids helping out on the farm and to see the great work ethic and the care for animals it instils in them.”

Caroline says that she and many farmers across the country are “on board” for the challenges involved in emissions reduction. On her farm, the LESS (low emissions slurry spreading) method has been adopted, as has the use of protected urea, the number one technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on grassland farms and help achieve ammonia reduction targets. The Hanrahans also measure grass and test soil PH levels, and have started on the ‘clover journey’.

“We have been sowing clover for the last four years,” she says, “with about half of our farm in clover currently. It’s proving very effective in reducing the amounts of chemicals we are using on the farm.” The Hanrahans also keep their breeding policy under active review, using the Economic Breeding Index (EBI) to ensure, as Caroline puts it “that we are breeding the best. We are using high EBI bulls and selecting our top cows, resulting in the most efficient choices and highest yields possible. Breeding a more efficient cow means that she stays in the system longer. It results in more milk solids, so it’s a win-win: there is money in our pocket plus the fact that it’s better for the environment.

“We are interested in and making efforts in all areas of sustainability,” she says, “including monitoring water quality and promoting biodiversity on our farm. It is hugely important that we farm in the right manner; one that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.”

Caroline believes that Irish dairy farms possess an important international edge. “It’s fantastic to see Irish dairy all over the world,” she says. “There’s no other country that can produce high quality, grass-fed milk like our own.”

Improved grassland management

Gearoid Maher farms in partnership with his wife Sarah in Co. Limerick. The couple is very conscious of the environment around them and focus their farming practices towards reducing chemical inputs, and on animal welfare.

A true environmentalist, Gearoid has committed to planting 1,500 metres of hedgerow on his farm and believes we all need to realise that we can’t keep cutting hedges or keep spraying fields with pesticides. In the past four years he has also planted over 800 trees across his farm.

“In addition to the hedgerows and trees, which are wonderful for carbon sequestration, we maintain low input biodiversity fields that receive no fertiliser or no inputs whatsoever,” he says.

Where fertiliser is used, the couple have reduced volumes by at least half by switching from Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) fertiliser to protected urea. Improved grassland management allows the cows to spend more days at grass, results in a substantially lower volume of feed required for the herd. As feed is still required, they have eliminated the use of soya and added a methane inhibitor which, it is believed, could reduce emissions per cow by as much as 30%.

“Teagasc reckon that a cow on a grass-based system is producing 17-18% less methane than was previously believed,” Gearoid says, “so if you take that alongside our changes to feeding, it’s possible we could have reduced our methane emissions by almost 50%.

“Sustainability is simple to me,” he says. “It’s about reducing how much we have to buy in the farm gate, and maximising what we can produce to go out the gate. This is not without its challenges, but we are more than up for them.”

Majella McCafferty, farmer advocacy manager for the National Dairy Council. ‘My career has been about making farms as sustainable and as profitable as possible’

Environmental efforts and farming excellence

Majella McCafferty works as farmer advocacy manager for the National Dairy Council. She previously worked as a farm development manager for LacPatrick Dairies/Lakeland Dairies and as a farm profitability specialist for Aurivo co-operative where she advised farmers on the sustainable expansion and management of dairy systems.

“My career has been about making farms as sustainable and as profitable as possible,” she explains. “The two ambitions sit side by side.” Majella believes that the future for dairy farming in Ireland is positive.

“All dairy farmers do however need to be looking at environmental issues,” she says, “and keeping public perceptions of Irish dairy farming as a focus point in their minds.” She says that her advice to dairy farmers has been consistent, and it centres around one word: efficiency.

“I always advise making all aspects of the farm as efficient as possible,” she says. “You need to look at grassland management, water quality, soil health…everything needs to be in the best possible condition. Farmers also need to be looking at the different efficiencies on their farm such as breeding the right type of cow for their farm, breeding the most sustainable and high performing animals in general, alongside grassland management, soil health, and biodiversity. These are today’s key performance indicators, and if you get these right you will win in all areas.”

Majella is keen to showcase the environmental efforts, and the “farming excellence” that is happening every day on Irish farms.

“Modern Irish farmers are balancing science, business, and technical considerations,” she says, “against a backdrop of a true love for the land.” She would encourage the general public to attend open days on dairy farms to see what goes on, and to see the depth of Irish farming passion at first hand.

“Farmers love their animals and love farming,” she says, “and they showcase this every day from the time they get up at 5.30am. I’d encourage anyone to visit a dairy farm to have a look at what is actually going on on the ground.”

Brendan Walsh, dairy farmer in Ballylooby, Co Tipperary. ‘The farming community recognises the fact that we need to cut emissions’

Ireland has a huge advantage

Brendan Walsh, a dairy farmer in Ballylooby, Co Tipperary, would also like people to know more about what farmers are doing to contribute to Ireland’s shared national climate goals.

A seventh-generation family farmer, Brendan caught the farming bug early, and developed his expertise by studying dairy business at UCD. His farm is home to 160 dairy cows. “We’re dairy farming over a hundred years on this farm,” he says.

“The farming community recognises the fact that we need to cut emissions,” he begins. “And clover plays a huge role in that.” Brendan claims that the introduction of clover to his farm has helped him reduced his usage of chemical nitrogen/fertiliser by 45% over the last three years. He estimates that he will further reduce his usage by 55% to 60%.

Brendan also uses the Economic Breeding Index (EBI) to select the most efficient dairy cows, which are by definition more carbon efficient. “Breeding can have a big impact on the carbon efficiency of the herd,” he says.

“We place great focus on selecting cows or breeding for cows that last longer in the herd. We want to breed not necessarily for more milk litres, but more milk solids; that’s more fat and more protein, and that’s essentially what we are paid on. A cow that can give more milk solids is a more efficient cow from a production point of view and from an environmental point of view as well,” he says.

Brendan believes that our temperate climate is the key to a great future for Irish dairy farming. “We have a perfect climate for growing grass,” he says.

“Cows are out grazing up to 300 days a year, and that’s all down to our climate. There are huge advantages in Ireland versus other countries where cows have to be housed because of cold winters, summers, lack of rainfall, all the other weather issues that we have seen on the news the last couple of years. We really do have a huge advantage in that respect.

“The future is bright,” he concludes. “There are challenges, but they are challenges than can be met, and the technologies that Irish farms like ours are embracing will make all the difference.”

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