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Irish Dairying - Delivering Sustainability

Exports of Irish dairy products and ingredients have increased from an average of €1.8 billion for the years 2007-2009 to over €5.2 billion in 2020. The expansion of the Irish dairy industry has contributed greatly to improve economic prosperity in rural Ireland. Pat Dillon Moorepark tells more

From the years 2007-2009 to 2020 milk production has increased by 68% from 4.93 to 8.29 billion litres. Similarly, over this period, milk production per cow has increased by 15%, increasing from 4,666 litres/cow to 5,485 litres in 2020. The combined yield of milk fat and protein per cow has increased by 27%, increasing from 334 kg to 425 kg/cow. Teagasc analysis has shown that Ireland is now ranked first within the EU as the most competitive country for both total costs and total cash costs per kg of milk solids. Additionally, it has been shown that the Total Factor Productivity of specialist Irish dairy farmers increased by 24% over the period 2010 to 2018. The adoption of key technologies in relation to efficient pasture based system of dairy production were critical over this period. These included:

  • an increase in the proportion of cows calving in the months of January to April from 79% to 84%;
  • an increase in grass utilisation from 6.7 tonnes to 8.0 tonnes DM/ha;
  • an annual rate of gain in EBI of over €11 per year.

Greenhouse emissions 

However, this expansion in milk production has also contributed to an increase in Ireland’s total greenhouse emissions. In the new Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill, Ireland has set a target for a reduction of 51% in GHG emissions by 2030 and being climate neutral by 2050. Sectoral emissions reduction targets have not yet been defined, but it is assumed that agriculture will have to deliver a significant proportion of these reductions. At present, Agriculture is responsible for 21 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2 eq) per year. The Teagasc Marginal Abatement Cost Curve indicates that linear uptake of mitigation technologies between 2021 and 2030 would result in a mean abatement potential 1.85 Mt of CO2 eq per year or 3.06 Mt by 2030. These technologies will depend on the continued improvements in grazing management and EBI of the national herd, use of low emission slurry spreading and protected urea plus greater reliance on clover to supply biological fixed N instead of chemical N. The current emissions intensity of Irish milk production is slightly less than 1.0 kg CO2 eq per kg of fat and protein corrected milk. This has reduced in recent years and is one of the lowest in the world.

Water Quality 

Water quality is regulated in Ireland by the EU Water Framework Directive, which requires at least ‘good’ water quality in all water bodies - rivers, lakes, groundwater and transitional coastal waters. In Ireland, this must be achieved by 2027. The DAFM published “Ag Climatise – A Roadmap towards Climate Neutrality” in late 2020. This set a target to reduce chemical nitrogen use from a peak of 408,000 tonnes in 2018, to 350,000 tonnes in 2025 and 325,000 tonnes in 2030, representing 14% and 20% reductions, respectively. The latest EPA Water Quality report in 2020 indicated some improvements in biological quality of rivers; 57% of rivers were classified as either good or high quality status. However, nutrient levels in rivers and estuaries in the south, southeast and east of Ireland are too high and these must be reduced.


Ammonia emissions must also be reduced, and this will be largely achieved by use of low emission slurry spreading and using protected urea as the main source of chemical nitrogen. There is a requirement to reduce the decline in biodiversity in all farming systems. The target is that by 2027, 10% of farmland in dairy farms will be under high-diversity landscape features.

The Future

In the future, dairy farmers must operate farming systems that are financially profitable while at the same time environmentally sustainable and socially acceptable. Dairy production systems in Ireland are mainly grass-based, which confers environmental advantages over other milk production systems. However, environmental policy will required the adoption of new technologies and modification of the production system. These changes should build on Ireland’s ‘green’ reputation, gain market share in expanding high value international markets and improve the living standards of practicing dairy farmers.