Weighing up the cost of dairy farming on our environment
The Balmoral Show last week showcased the best of Northern Ireland's farming industry, including dairy. Farmers across the island have upped milk output rapidly since EU quotas were abolished, but at what environmental cost, asks Dan White
Irish milk output is soaring, with 2019 likely to be another record-breaking year. But is this huge increase in production putting unsustainable pressure on the environment?
When EU dairy quotas, which had artificially restricted Irish milk output for 31 years, were abolished at the end of March 2015, farmers moved quickly to increase production. Milk output jumped by 13% to almost 6.4 billion litres in 2015 as the sector farmers moved to make up for lost time.
And milk output just kept on rising. It hit almost 7.6 billion litres last year and is now widely expected to reach at least 7.8 billion for the full year, with output up by 8.6% in the first three months of the year.
That's a 40% rise in output in just five years. Further strong growth is being widely predicted, with Dairygold chief executive Jim Woulfe having stated that a 10 billion litre Irish dairy industry was "in sight".
So far so good, but are we in danger of getting too much of a good thing? As Irish dairy farmers move to make up for the time lost during the more than three decades of quotas, the template is very much that of New Zealand.
When quotas were first introduced in 1984, the Irish and New Zealand dairy industries were of roughly comparable size. While Irish milk output remained flat under quotas, New Zealand's output quadrupled to an estimated 23 billion litres in 2018/19. Now, with quotas gone, Ireland is playing catch-up.
However, there are increasing signs that the massive expansion of the New Zealand dairy has come at a heavy environmental cost. A report published last month by the New Zealand Environment Ministry paints a devastating picture of environmental degradation, with increased dairy production being one of the main culprits.
"In farming areas, water pollution affects almost all rivers and many aquifers. Some lakes and estuaries may also be affected," according to the report.
"There has been a significant shift from sheep and beef farming into dairy farming, most notably in Canterbury, Otago, and Southland. The national dairy herd increased by 70% between 1994 and 2017, while numbers of sheep and beef cattle declined. This shift is important because cattle excrete more nitrogen [through urination] per animal [in plain English they urinate more] than sheep."
As a result of this huge increase in intensive dairy farming the report estimated that 71% of the river length in pastoral farming areas had excessive nitrogen levels while pollution caused by animal dung meant that 82% of the river length was unsuitable for swimming.
New Zealand is not unique in experiencing environmental problems resulting from intensive dairy farming. Closer to home the Dutch government has been culling that country's dairy herd as it attempts to curb excessive phosphate levels caused by animal manure.
The number of dairy cows has been cut by 190,000 in the two years to the end of 2018, a reduction of 11% in the size of the overall herd. These environmental issues in New Zealand and the Netherlands come at the same time as a report commissioned by the medical journal The Lancet, published in January, which called for a major reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy products.
While The Lancet report was fiercely attacked by Irish farming groups at the time of its publication - with Irish Farming Association (IFA) president Joe Healy stating that Ireland was the most carbon-efficient milk producer in Europe - it's not hard to detect which way the wind is blowing on this issue.
The huge increase in Irish dairy production over the past five years has only been possible due to a 26% increase in the size of the dairy herd, from 1.08 million cows in 2012 to 1.37 million in 2018 - Irish dairy farmers began increasing their herd sizes in 2013 in anticipation of the end of quotas in the spring of 2014.
That's an extra 290,000 dairy cows, with all of the extra waste that comes with them.
While the Netherlands is a relatively small country, just over half the size of the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand is much larger. At 268,000 sq km it is almost four times the size of Ireland's 70,000 sq km.
All of which begs the question: if New Zealand dairying is hitting environmental constraints at 23 billion litres, will a far smaller country such as Ireland hit them at much lower volumes?
"It is not a question of when it begins to happen. It is already beginning to happen," says Professor Nick Holden of UCD's School of Biosystems and Food Engineering. "It is not as extreme as in New Zealand, but there is certainly evidence that we are going in that direction."
Other experts in the field aren't quite so pessimistic.
"We should not assume that the rapid expansion we have seen in the past few years in dairy will be the norm," says Alan Matthews, emeritus professor of European agricultural policy at TCD.
"This has been mostly a one-off response to the removal of dairy quotas after 30 years, so a rapid expansion in production and dairy cow numbers was to be expected.
"While left to its own devices production will continue to increase, I would not expect it to be at this hectic pace. Apart from environmental constraints, there are also issues with finding labour, etc."
The rapid post-1984 expansion in New Zealand dairy production followed the UK's entry into the then EU in 1973, which deprived New Zealand agriculture of most of its traditional export markets, and the end of all farm subsidies in the mid-1980s.
Forced to rely exclusively on world markets for a living, New Zealand farmers replaced sheep with much more environmentally-demanding dairy cattle.
Irish dairy farmers, who as Mr Holden points out, have much more experience of dealing with environmental factors than their New Zealand counterparts, are much less likely to bump up against environmental constraints in such an abrupt manner.
The difficulties being faced by beef farmers could ironically represent an opportunity for dairying. In addition to the 1.37 million dairy cows, Ireland also has another 982,000 suckler cows - where, instead of the milk going for processing, the cow feeds her calf, which is reared for beef instead.
Making the transition would involve farmers switching from beef, which offers a less hectic easygoing, pleasant if financially relatively unrewarding lifestyle, to what is a brutally demanding form of agriculture.
Dairy farming means getting up before dawn to milk 60, 70, or even more cows, cleaning the milking parlour after they have left and then, a few hours later, doing it all over again.
All of this twice a day, seven days a week, for nine or 10 months a year.
Yes, the financial rewards are there for those prepared to put in the effort with dairying, but how many of today's beef farmers will be prepared to do so?
Regardless of whether or not existing beef farmers are prepared to make the switch, the existence of a near million-strong suckler herd does provide the dairy sector with a lot of potential room for growth.
Low margin suckler cows could be replaced by high margin dairy cows at no net cost to the environment.
This is important because, even under existing regulations, Irish agriculture faces significant environmental constraints.
"The environmental constraints that are most important in the Irish context are water quality, ammonia, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.
"For ammonia there is a national ceiling and as agriculture produces more than 90% of ammonia this is de facto a ceiling for agriculture, though this would be shared by all enterprises and not just dairy," says Mr Matthews.
Cows, both dairy and suckler, are also significant producers of greenhouse gasses.
The Republic's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that agriculture, principally cattle, contributed approximately a third of Ireland's greenhouse gasses in 2017.
Yet despite these emerging constraints, Mr Matthews believes that further expansion of milk output is still possible.
"Dairying contributes to all of these problems and further expansion will intensify them. However, apart from ammonia, the limits are relatively non-specific so from a formal or legal perspective it would seem further expansion is possible," he said.