How Irish Dairy Farms Are Working to Meet Government's Environmental Regulations – Lancaster Farming

Cows head to pasture on a farm in County Limerick, Ireland.
Cows head to pasture on a farm in County Limerick, Ireland.
Earlier this year, European farmers took to the streets to protest increases in governmental regulations. Changes and protests varied in severity and longevity by country, but the general sentiment was it is becoming harder to farm.
In Ireland, the majority of those pressures are falling on the country’s largest agricultural sector — dairy.
“We’re doing a good job. We’re doing it efficiently,” said Mark Keller, interim CEO of Ireland’s National Dairy Council. “And we will and are committed to continue to do everything we can to meet those targets.”
Expectations include reducing emissions, improving water quality and increasing yield per cow, Keller said. At the moment, improving water quality has the highest stakes.
Nitrates Derogation is government issued license that allows increased production while still limiting the amount of ammonia a farm may produce, be it from slurry, chemical fertilizers or cows directly. At the end of 2023, that maximum amount decreased as a way to achieve environmental goals.
Another potential decrease is coming if water quality, as measured by the European Water Farm Directive, does not improve by the 2024 report, released in 2025.
(Limits are measured in kilograms per hectare of ammonia.)
“Imagine that for every hectare you can have 250 cows. That dropped from 250 to 220, so that meant that 30 cows had to be culled,” Keller said.
So what are farmers doing?
“They’re resigned to the fact that they know they need to meet these sustainability goals, so they’re just working away and doing it,” Keller said.
Research, led by the organization Teagasc, is identifying areas of improvement. Topics investigated include emissions, water quality, breeding efficiency, cow care and slurry management, Keller said.
Other programs help lead and fund necessary change, like ACRES Co-Operation and the Agricultural Sustainability, Support and Advisory Program.
Projects include efforts like planting reed beds, which can filter runoff. Farms that are built on hills benefit most from this practice, Keller said, and can implement multiple beds for optimum filtration.
“By the third filter, the water is actually drinkable, believe it or not,” Keller said.
Farms are also installing solar panels and electrifying everything possible, Keller said. Some farms produce enough to sell excess electricity back to the grid.
In the field, data-driven application — identifying areas of need — and use of a dribble slurry system have reduced emissions, Keller said. They call it the Low Emission Slurry Spreading Scheme, and 88% of farmers use it.
Fertilizer is another contributor to emissions because of its manufacturing methods and necessary transport, so farmers cut use back by 30% in 2023, Keller said.
To compensate, farmers have added clover to pastures. Clover captures atmospheric nitrogen, stitching it into the soil, Keller said, which helps make a nutrient profile ideal for grass growth.
Clover fits Ireland’s pasture systems — a method the nation’s climate supports better than most of the world.
“The milk production on farm literally follows the grass growth, and that’s pretty much been the way of things for centuries,” Keller said.
Ireland can get an average of 255 full-time grazing days in the year. They average 300 whole and half days.
Other parts of the world, by comparison, can only get about 120 days on pasture, Keller said.
The average farm in Ireland has about 100 head in the herd, Keller said. Cattle are typically British Friesians crossed with Holsteins.
There are around 17,500 dairy farms in Ireland, Keller said. Dairy makes up 70% of the country’s agriculture.
Milk production limits have increased in recent years, Keller said. Up until 2014, the European Union had production caps to prevent a milk value decrease.
But when those ended — to support the growing global population — Ireland ramped up production and exports.
The Middle East, Africa and Asia are strong milk markets while the U.S. sells a lot of the Irish butter brand Kerrygold, Keller said. Central Europe supports the Irish cheese business, and recent years have seen an increase in milk powder sales to dairy deficit areas, like North Africa and Sub-Sahara Africa.
Another recent expansion has been infant formula for sale in China and other parts of Asia, Keller said.
The recent increases contribute to Ireland’s environmental concerns but have been beneficial to the world.
“‘If we reduced back the production of dairy in Ireland, surely that would have a positive impact on the climate in Ireland?’ The straight answer is, it probably would …. The challenge is, aside from the economic impact of closing down two in five family enterprises around the country and the impact that has on the rural economy, we’re also forcing economies that have dairy deficit to produce milk in a way that we know will be highly inefficient,” Keller said.
To view Teagasc research, visit their website
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Rebecca Schweitzer-Benner is the special sections editor at Lancaster Farming. She can be reached at
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