Irish dairy farmers are investing in the future
Dairy farmers are more aware than anyone of climate change as they witness it every day – and it is at the forefront of how they farm and plan ahead
Christopher Tuffy was named the FBD Young Farmer of the Year in 2022. Christopher milks 155 cows in a spring-calving system in north Sligo. He keeps his system as simple as possible, aiming to produce as many kilograms of milk solids as possible from grass, and with as high a percentage of fat and protein as possible.
Christopher has switched all of his slurry to low-emission slurry spreading. He has re-seeded parts of his farm to include clover which requires little or no nitrogen, and has switched to protected urea rather relying on the use of chemical fertiliser.
“The production of more environmentally friendly milk has cost us nothing so far,” he says. “It has actually made our system and our farm more profitable, and better run.”
Christopher believes that Irish dairy needs to maintain stock numbers at current levels or there will be no future for young people in the industry.
“It’s rural Ireland,” he says. “We are out here in Sligo. We need agriculture. Look at the amount of jobs being produced in rural Ireland by agriculture.
“If I didn’t come home and milk cows I would have to emigrate. I always wanted to be a farmer but only by having the opportunity to increase cow numbers at the end of the quota or there was nothing else in rural Ireland for me.”
Christopher maintains that younger farmers are especially attuned to the environmental aspects of agriculture. “We are grass measuring,” he says, “and taking a wide variety of other steps to reduce our emissions. We are really investing in our own future; that’s the way we see it. We are determined to show that we are producing milk at a very high level with comparatively low emissions. Why should we be reducing herd numbers when there are other countries producing milk at a far higher carbon footprint per kilo of milk solids, and they are not restricting their milk production output?”
The Young Farmer of the Year says that farming is a fantastic industry to work in. “I think there is a future for dairy farming, provided we are positively encouraged to reduce our emissions, and some incentives are there to help us along the path.”
Fifth generation of farmers on the border
Brian McGinnity is a dairy farmer situated on the Monaghan-Fermanagh border. He farms in partnership with his brother and father, and the farm has been in the family for some 200 years – making him a fifth-generation farmer.
“We are doing what we can,” Brian says. “The climate matters massively to us because our livelihoods depend on it. Farmers witness climate change at first hand,” he says. “And we haven’t seen this kind of weather before. I can recall a day in June when there was 35ml of rain in about 20 minutes and I have honestly never seen anything like it before.
“We were milking the cows during that storm, with the gutters flooded, and we were standing in about six inches of rainwater. So there’s no doubt: farmers are on the ground and we experience the effects of climate change firsthand.”
Brian has been using protected urea for the last five years, while his agricultural contractor uses a dribble bar to apply slurry. This method of application ensures minimal nutrient loss, more accurate application and fewer gases being released into the atmosphere.
“We have an application in for a dribble bar for our own tanker,” Brian says. “And we have changed some of our road ways to allow any of the run-off [water] to be cambered down to the field as opposed to into drains where it might affect water quality.”
He says that the climate conversation is constantly ongoing between farmers.
“We are in discussion groups with one another,” he explains, “where climate change and carbon footprint are the regular focus of conversations.
“We are fully aware of what’s going on, and we are working together to find solutions.”
Farming for over 30 years
Margaret McCormack from Moate in Co Westmeath has been farming for over 30 years, and has 150 cows. She also works for a cattle breeding company called Progressive Genetics carrying out milk recording work, which helps identify the best milk quality, the most efficient production and the cows that are linked to it. “Our milk and dairy products are the best in the world,” she says. “We are one of the few countries that is able to produce milk off grass.”
As an older female farmer, Margaret says she is very engaged with environmental sustainability and the role of women in farming. She has seen huge changes over the last 30 years – for example, during the 1990s there was huge emphasis on the Holstein dairy cow and on milk quantity.
“Milk solids didn’t matter then,” she recalls. “It was all about the amount in litres. Now it’s gone from quantities to quality, where you are working on your solids, as high protein yields the higher prices.
“I love milking the cows and I love feeding calves because you could be in the worst of form and you go out into the cows and feel better. They might give you a kick but won’t answer you back; that’s been my theory for a long time.”
Margaret joined a ladies farming discussion group set up by Aurivo Co-operative, based in Sligo, with its catchment area in the northwest.
“I think it’s the best thing that was ever done for women in farming. When I was young rearing my children and I said I was a farmer nobody wanted to know me. Now I am joined by all these younger farming women; it’s fantastic. I call myself the granny in the group and they are all so interested in sharing knowledge.
“We know what it is like to have children, this is the way I look at it. I am after having children; the cow is after calving, she is after having her baby. I kind of have an understanding of what the poor cows is going through for the first week after giving birth and I would have more empathy for the cows than a man would,” Margaret says, with a smile.
Milking 80 cows in Clones
Kieran McDermott is a young farmer milking 80 cows in Clones, Co Monaghan. Kieran formed a partnership with his parents in 2015 and took over the running of their dairy farm in 2020.
He says he has always had an interest in dairy farming and is motivated by the fact that every day is different. “There is a great variety of work on a dairy farm. You could be up milking cows, you could be mowing grass for silage, you could be grass measuring or pasture re-seeding; there are no two days the same.”
Kieran enjoys the summer mornings, when all is quiet and he can listen to the dawn chorus as he starts his working day. The winter mornings are more “tricky”, he says, “but there is always something to be excited by on the farm”.
“Every year you see new life coming into the world,” he says, “cows calving, calves are born; you can see them growing up. It’s nice when you see your hard work coming to fruition, and seeing the progress that you can make over five or ten years.
“I see a good future in dairy farming,” Kieran says. “We will have to change and adapt as we always have done. In the last couple of years we have been growing clover in our pasture; we are growing red clover for silage; and we have invested in low emission slurry spreading equipment to increase the amount of nutrients absorbed by the soil and to reduce ammonia emissions.
“As farmers we all want to see the environment thrive and flourish,” he says.