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Agriculture in Ireland

The Irish Agri-Food Industry

The agri-food sector in Ireland in 2016 generated 7% of gross value added (€13.9 billion), 9.8% of Ireland’s merchandise exports and provided 8.5% of national employment. When employment in inputs, processing and marketing is included, the agri-food sector accounts for almost 10% of employment.

Contribution of the Agri-Food Sector to the National Economy

The agri-food sector is one of Ireland's most important indigenous manufacturing sectors, accounting for employment of around 167,500 people. It includes almost 700 food and drinks firms throughout the country that export food and seafood to more than 160 countries worldwide. Economic activity in the agriculture and food sector produces a far bigger return than equivalent activity in other traded sectors of the economy. That is because agri-food companies source 74% of raw materials and services from Irish suppliers, compared to 43% for all manufacturing companies.

Data from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) indicates that the agri-food sector (including agriculture, food, drinks and tobacco as well as wood processing) accounts for around 7% of Economy wide GVA with primary agriculture, forestry and fishing accounting for around 1.6% of Ireland’s GVA.

Contribution of the Agri-Food Sector to GVA in 2016€m
GVA at Factor Cost 254,715
GVA in Primary Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry at Factor Cost 4,093
GVA in Food & Beverages Sector 9,612
GVA in Wood Processing 198
Total 13,903
GVA in Primary Sector as a % of Total GVA 1.6%
GVA in overall Agri-Sector as a % of Total GVA 7%
Source: Eurostat National Accounts aggregates by industry nama_10_64

Employment in the Agri-Food Sector

Composition of Employment in the Agri-Food sector, 2016

Source: CSO QNHS, Average for 2016

Agri-Food Exports

Agri-food exports account for almost 10% of total Irish merchandise exports. However, when the low import content of agriculture and food exports and the low repatriation of profits earned in the agri-food sector are taken into account, it is estimated that the agri-food sector accounted in 2008 for around 40% of net foreign earnings from merchandise exports.

Irish food and drink exports grew dramatically in 2017, increasing by 11.6% and were valued at a record €12.7 billion. Since the period 2007-2009 the value of Irish agri-food exports has increased by over 61%..

Agri-Food Exports 2016-2017

Ireland Agri-food Exports 2016-2017 GB + NI
 All DestinationsGB + NI% of Total
SITC Section (1 digit) and Division (2 digits)2015201620162016
 EUR million  
0 Food and live animals 10,096 11,360 4,607 41%
00 Live animals other than animals of Division 03 340 447 329 74%
01 Meat & meat preparations 3,596 3,844 1,929 50%
02 Dairy products and birds' eggs 1,760 2,396 836 35%
03 Fish, crustaceans, molluscs and preparations thereof 555 611 60 10%
04 Cereals & cereal preparations 381 416 373 90%
05 Vegetables & fruit 278 299 250 84%
06 Sugars, sugar preparations & honey 212 159 50 32%
07 Coffee, tea, cocoa, spices & manufactures thereof 374 367 245 67%
08 Feeding stuff for animals (excl unmilled cereals) 296 281 212 73%
09 Miscellaneous edible products & preparations 2,317 2,498 300 12%
of which Infant food 1,284 1,291 134 10%
1 Beverages and tobacco 1,310  1,330 289 22% 
11 Beverages 1,275 1,326 289 22%
Total food and live animals and beverages 11,371 12,686 4,896 39%
Source: Eurostat COMEXT

Land Use and Farm Structure

  • Irish agriculture is primarily a grass-based industry.
  • The Census of Agriculture 2013 showed there were 139,600 farms compared to 139,829 farms in the 2010 Census of Agriculture.
  • The utilised agricultural area declined marginally since the 2010 Census of Agriculture to 4,949,500 hectares. The average size of agricultural holding also decreased marginally to 32.5 ha.
  • Approximately 81% (3.69 million ha) of agricultural area is devoted to grass (silage, hay and pasture), 9% (0.45 million ha) is in rough grazing and the remainder circa 9% (0.39 million ha) is allocated to crop production.
  • There are approximately 139,600 family farms in Ireland with an average size of 35.5 hectares per holding according to the Farm Structure Survey of 2013.

Number of farms and utilised agricultural area, Farm Structure Survey 2013

Number of farms and utilised agricultural area in 2010 and 2013
 20102013% Difference
Number of farms 139,860 139,600 -0.2
Utilised agricultural area excluding commonage (hectares) 4,994,353 4,959,500 -0.7
Average farm size (hectares) 7 5 -0.6

Main Commodities Output and Exports

Output, Input and Income in Agriculture, 2017

The CSO currently estimates that the operating surplus in agriculture in 2017 increased by almost €1 billion (€954 m) a dramatic 45% increase on the level recorded in 2016. This very large increase was largely due to a very large increase in the value of agricultural output and relatively stable levels of expenditure on inputs.

Comparing 2017 with 2016 we see that the value of goods output increased largely as a result of large increases in the value of milk output , while subsidy receipts and expenditure on inputs (intermediate consumption remained largely stable).

  • Goods output at producer prices: +13.6% or €958m
  • Milk output: 45% or €809m
  • Cattle output: 3% or €51m
  • Pigs output: 11% or €52
  • Sheep output: 3% or €7m
  • Cereals output:5% or €12m
  • Total intermediate consumption: 2% or €100m
  • Fertilisers: 1% or €4m.

The value of subsidies less taxes increased by 4%, from €1,592 m in 2016 to €1,651m in 2017.

  • The contribution of Primary Agriculture to the Irish economy in 2016, at 1.5% of GDP, is close to the EU average.
  • Beef and Cattle production dominate the Irish agricultural economy. Milk and beef output accounted for 62% of agricultural output at farm gate prices in 2017.

In terms of the destination of Irish food and drink exports in 2017, the United Kingdom at around 39% remained the principal market with sales of just under €4.9 billion. Continental EU markets account for 31% of food and drink exports with a combined value just under of €4 billion.

Ireland in 2016 net exports of beef accounted for 85% of production, making Ireland the largest beef net exporter in the EU and fifth largest in the world.

Cattle and Beef

  • There were 7.4 million cattle in Ireland according to the June livestock survey on the 30th June 2017, this represents a 2% increase on the 2016 level.
  • Irish beef production is predominately a grass based system, with 617 thousand tonnes produced in 2017.
  • In 2016, Ireland exported an estimated 537 thousand tonnes of beef worth approximately €1.6 billion.
  • In 2016, 143,000 cattle were exported live from Ireland worth approximately €73 million.

Sheep and Sheep meat

  • For 2017, the June livestock survey indicates that the Irish sheep flock increased by 1.4% to 5.3 million head, with the breeding flock increasing by 0.3% to 2.59 million head.
  • During 2016, Ireland exported an estimated 51,000 tonnes of sheep meat which was valued at approximately €282 million.
  • France is the main market for Irish sheep meat exports, accounting for approximately 34 per cent of total export s in 2016. The UK is also a substantial export market, accounting for 25% of exports.

Pigs and Pig meat

  • In the June 2017 CSO Livestock Survey there were 1.57 million pigs in Ireland, this represents a decrease of just over 2% on 2016 levels.
  • In 2016, Ireland exported an estimated 241,000 tonnes worth approximately €407 million.
  • In 2016, the non-EU markets accounted for almost 50% of Irish pig meat exports with, the UK accounting for around 30% and the balance shipped to continental EU markets.


  • In 2017, total milk output (incl. imports) was estimated at 8,075 million litres.
  • From this total milk output, 540 million litres was consumed as liquid milk. In addition to this 223,700 tonnes of butter were produced in 2017.
  • In 2017, the total value of dairy exports grew by 1.6% to €2.36 billion

Agri-Food Sector contribution to the Irish Economy

The agri-food sector makes a very significant contribution the Irish economy. The Annual Business Survey of Economic Impact (ABSEI) for 2016, conducted by Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, provides aggregated estimates for all Irish-owned and foreign-owned firms across a range of variables. As part of this survey, Forfás collates data on Irish Economic Expenditure (IEE), taken to consist of wages, Irish raw materials and Irish services. An analysis of expenditures by companies operating in Ireland highlights the close ties the FD sector in Ireland retains with the national economy in terms of IEE as compared to manufacturing in general.

Irish Economic Expenditure accounts for 70% of total expenditure in the FD sector. This compares favourably to the manufacturing sector when taken as a whole, where the equivalent rate of IEE is 38%.

National Farm Survey 2016

In 2016 861 farms participated in the Teagasc National Farm Survey (NFS), these farms are weighted to represent a national population of approximately 84,736 farms. Overall 2016 was a not a good year for farming with average farm income down 9%on 2015. Average family farm income in 2016 is estimated at €23,848.

  • In 2016 the average value of gross output declined despite a 4% increase in direct payment receipts. The decline of gross output value was due to lower milk prices in 2016.
  • Overall farm systems input expenditure was stable in 2016 with a 1% increase in overhead costs offset by a 1% decline in direct costs of production (in particular fertiliser costs).
  • Farming in 2016 continued to be reliant on subsidies, subsidies accounted for almost 75% of family farm income on average in 2016.
  • Despite the ongoing recovery in the Irish economy and labour market the number of farm households where the farmer and/or the spouse had an off-farm income was marginally lower in 2016 than in 2015 at just under 50%.

Overview of the dairy farm system

There were approximately 15,639 Dairy farms with an average income of €52,154 in 2016. FFI in 2016 was 16 percent lower than in 2015 due to lower milk prices. Milk prices declined by an average of 10%. The ongoing expansion in the volume of output following the ending of the quota system mitigated the impact of lower milk prices on output value, with output value in 2016 down by 6% while milk production grew by 4%.

Figure 8. Components of family farm income on dairy farms 2015 & 2016

Overview of the cattle rearing system

There were approximately 19,305 cattle rearing farms represented in the NFS in 2016, suckler cow production is the dominant system on these farms.

The value of output on these farms was maintained in 2016 despite lower cattle prices due to increased volumes of cattle held. The value of direct payments on Cattle Rearing farms was up 10 percent on the level in 2015 due to increased receipts from participation in GLAS and the Beef Data and Genomic Programmes.

Total costs of production were unchanged in 2016 with higher direct costs (driven by higher feed expenditure) offset by lower overhead costs.

Figure 9. Components of family farm income on Cattle Rearing farms 2015 & 2016

Overview of the cattle other system

There were approximately 27,627 Cattle Other farms, with an average income of €16,853 in 2016, a 2% increase on 2015. Cattle fattening is the dominant enterprise on these farms.

The value of output increased on these farms despite lower finished cattle prices.  Higher volumes of cattle as well as lower prices for younger cattle purchased in allowed the value of output net of subsidies to increase by 2%. The value of direct payments was up 2% on 2015. Input expenditure was up slightly in 2016, with direct costs unchanged on 2015 and overhead costs up by 2%.

Figure 10. Components of family farm income on cattle other farms 2015 & 2016

Overview of the sheep farm system

There were approximately 12,758 Sheep farms with an average income of €15,708 in 2016, a 3 percent decline on 2015.

Total farm gross output declined  by 1 percent on Sheep farms, despite a 2 percent increase in direct payments receipts. Lamb prices decreased by 2 percent in 2016 and the average flock size was more or less unchanged. The contraction in gross output value was largely driven by lower sheep and cattle prices. Overall input expenditure on Sheep farms was stable in 2016 with higher direct costs of production offset by lower overhead costs of production.

Figure 11. Components of family farm income on sheep farms 2015 & 2016

Overview of the tillage system

There were approximately 7,387 Tillage farms with an average income of €30,840 in 2016, a 10 percent decline on 2015.

Gross output value on Tillage farms was unchanged in 2016 despite an 8% increase in direct payments receipts. Lower cereal prices and yields as well as lower prices for cattle drove the decline in the value of output exclusive of subsidies. Both overhead costs and direct costs of production increased on Tillage, with total costs up 5 percent on 2015.

Figure 12. Components of family farm income on Tillage farms 2015 & 2016