Dairy farmer PJ O’Keeffe ruffled feathers in 2018 when he took AIB publicly to task at a gathering in Kilkenny attended by more than 100 farmers, industry representatives and bankers over the bank’s claims that it was supporting young farmers.
There was, he said, “nothing brave” about giving someone a loan when a farm was being used as collateral. If he, or his peers, defaulted, the lender was guaranteed repayment from the sale of their farm and assets. The only people taking a risk were the farmers.
Then aged 31, O’Keeffe had just won the FBD Young Farmer of the Year award. Like many of his peers, he had borrowed money to expand rapidly once the European Union’s superlevy dairy quota was abolished in 2015, increasing his herd numbers from 70 to more than 400 cows.
O’Keeffe’s story, then and since, is similar to that of many farms across Ireland who either increased dairy cow numbers or converted their lands from other types of farming to dairy after the abolition of the superlevy.
In all, 7,000 dairy farmers today enjoy a European Commission-approved derogation that allows them to use up to 250kg of livestock manure nitrogen per hectare – numbers that lay at the heart of the huge expansion in the State’s dairy herd numbers over the last seven years.
However, the recent announcement by An Taisce that it is taking legal action over the Nitrates Action Programme (NAP), which provides the derogation, has sent ripples through rural communities reliant on dairy.
Since the abolition of milk quotas in 2015, dairy output has increased in volume by 60 per cent and in value by more than €2 billion a year, significantly ahead of targets set by the then government back in 2010.
We have no chance of working our way through to the feasible solution on reconciling sustainability and commercial farming while we continue to indulge groups who do not want to recognise what’s possible
— Pat McCormack, ICMSA
The story can be viewed as one of success, one that has built businesses for some 18,000 farmers and their families where they can earn five times the sums garnered by neighbouring suckler beef farmers, if they have any.
Now, however, dairy farmers are facing pressure to change because the meeting of production targets has also created a national water quality crisis which jeopardises the entire future of the industry.
Half of all the State’s rivers and lakes are affected by excessive dairy production. An Taisce argues: “We accept that farmers want to work in sync with the environment. That can only be achieved by working with the evidence and guidance of science, and not against it.”
But that view is not shared by Pat McCormack, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA), who told The Irish Times that An Taisce fails to recognise all the issues when it comes to reconciling food production with environmental realities.
“An Taisce’s approach seems to be predicated on the idea that commercial farming in Ireland has to be ended and removed from any future scenario with rural communities becoming some kind of nature reserve with a few organic farms scattered throughout,” he says. “We have no chance of working our way through to the feasible solution on reconciling sustainability and commercial farming while we continue to indulge groups who do not want to recognise what’s possible – and over what period.”
A sense of antipathy towards An Taisce is shared by many in farming communities. It has also sparked political debate in a Coalition Government where Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil need to maintain support in rural areas antagonistic towards the Green Party.
The divisions between the three parties were illustrated by Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar’s decision to join Fianna Fáil’s Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue at the opening of Glanbia’s €140 million cheese plant in Co Kilkenny recently. The operation was vigorously opposed for years by An Taisce.
Dairy poses major issues, says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), because the number of cattle per hectare is now above the EU average. So, too, are surplus nitrogen rates, while Ireland’s surplus phosphorus rates are among the EU’s highest.
Agriculture is “definitely” the leading cause of the deterioration in water quality, EPA programme manager Mary Gurrie says, adding that the agency wants to increase enforcement and liaison between it and the Department of Agriculture.
Fertiliser use on every farm must be better tracked, she says, adding that this would link individual farmers to pollution outbreaks. But agriculture has steadfastly refused to share the data with the EPA, or any other bodies.
Just 20 of the State’s 3,000 rivers, glens and streams are now regarded as “pristine” and the pollution problem is worst in the south and southeast, where dairy herd numbers are higher than elsewhere, the EPA says.
Increased herd numbers lead to the increased use of fertiliser to grow grass needed to feed cows which spend more time outdoors than cows in many other countries, which creates increased levels of animal slurry.
Fertiliser imports have risen by more than a quarter since 2015. On the River Barrow, which rises in the Slieve Blooms in the Midlands and flows for 190km to Waterford harbour, where it joins the Rivers Nore and Suir, 85 per cent of the nitrogen found in its waters can be traced back to farming, says Gurrie, giving an example.
Measures are in place to stop farmers spreading slurry and fertiliser during the winter months, when heavy rains can wash nutrients quickly into water courses, but this has not stopped the rise in discharges. Stricter rules are in the pipeline, but they frighten farmers who fear for their livelihoods.
The nitrates derogation, which has existed since 1991 to protect the EU’s water courses, allows farmers to carry higher-than-average cow numbers at 250kg nitrogen per hectare instead of 170kg – equal to three cows per hectare. It is a highly valued derogation, in operation in just a handful of EU states, and its significance can be judged by what happened in the Netherlands in 2016 when it was threatened with losing its derogation for breaching phosphate levels.
Then, the Dutch had to cull 200,000 cows. Just 6,500 dairy farmers in the State produce most of Ireland’s 8.5 billion litres of milk, largely thanks to the higher stocking numbers. The loss of the derogation, or its limitation, would be catastrophic, costing up to €1 billion, the industry says.
Two thirds of dairy farmers have taken on debt to expand, with loan repayments linked to the volume of milk that they can expect to produce, or, more accurately, that they have pledged to produce each year. The situation has created headaches for Government and the agriculture industry which told farmers to expand, and a worry for those who feel the wider population views their hard work as a source of environmental pollution.
Teagasc and others in the industry are now trying to claw back the situation. The research body’s Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) is offering a confidential service to advise farmers regarding water problems. Stricter rules about stocking rates and fertiliser spreading are being implemented.
The Nitrates Action Programme proposes to reduce fertiliser use by 15 per cent, but the EPA warns that 50 per cent cuts are needed in parts of the south and southeast to address water quality concerns.
Part of the problem is that different soils require different actions, as was highlighted last November by Department of Agriculture official Jack Nolan when he appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
“There is no individual non-compliance that we can point to that will be a silver bullet and improve water quality. We need to improve in every area, and that will contribute to improving water quality,” he explained. “We have found that farms that have expanded greatly over the past number of years may not have invested enough in farmyard facilities. There is an increasing spotlight on that. That situation will improve, and that will contribute to improving water quality.”
Critics, however, believe efforts to improve water quality have stagnated. In April, during an Oireachtas hearing on the Draft River Basin Management Plan, Dr Elaine McGoff of An Taisce was scathing.
“Compliance with the good agricultural practice regulations is recognised by all parties as being low and it has been acknowledged by the Department that fixing it is a key part of addressing water quality declines,” said McGoff, who has a PhD in water ecology.
Information is always changing, what farmers were advised to do 40 years ago wouldn’t be viewed as good agricultural practice now
— Liz Nugent, Maigue Rivers Trust
The Nitrates Action Programme does not offer new enforcement powers to local authorities and the EPA, she complained, while open-ended measures to “potentially’” target high-risk areas will do little to improve the situation, she added.
These criticisms are backed up by numbers. The 2019 Water Indicators Report showed that nearly half of rivers tested held excessive nitrates, with 44 per cent of sites showing an increase between 2013 and 2019. For farmers, however, the word “compliance” strikes a note of fear that their livelihoods will be hit, widening the gap between them and the rest of society that has been recognised by angler and fisheries scientist, Ken Whelan.
Since he was a small boy, Whelan has been fascinated by rivers and streams and he has lived through major arterial drainage work on agricultural land around the Blackwater, which completely upended wetlands and fishing courses. However, he believes that farmers must be encouraged to become supporters of the battle to improve water quality, rather than always being the ones who believe every environmental action threatens them.
“We need to look at the balance sheet on farms and realise that each farm has a very valuable water asset. I’ve seen that just three farms can be critical to improving the quality of one river – we need to make people see farmers as water stewards,” he says.
Shortly before the first Covid-19 lockdown in early 2020, Whelan went fishing on the River Boyne in Co Meath, where he could not believe how much of the river was coated in blanket weed, fuelled by high phosphate levels.
Some of the blame lay at the door of sewage treatment plants, but much can be traced to agriculture. “The danger with weed is that while it produces oxygen during the day, it then produces carbon dioxide during the night, which can result in a fish kill.”
Efforts since by local authorities have helped, and such local approaches are championed by the programme co-ordinator at the Maigue Rivers Trust in Limerick, Liz Nugent. As a farmer’s daughter, she is well aware of the confusion many farmers now feel.
“Information is always changing, what farmers were advised to do 40 years ago wouldn’t be viewed as good agricultural practice now,” she says. The local Rivers Trust in the Maigue catchment was started by locals in 2014 after an accidental slurry tank leak into the River Lubagh, where the farmer involved was one of those leading efforts to ensure it never happened again.
Like elsewhere, Limerick has problems caused by Government-backed arterial drainage work: “It made a massive difference to people’s lives and made land more productive, but it straightened rivers and made water flow off the land quicker,” Nugent says.
“This has resulted in phosphates being the main problem in Limerick rivers because we have heavier soils, and phosphates bind to sediment loss. In the east of the country nitrates is the problem, because they have free-draining soil.”
The Nitrates Action Plan is now to be reviewed every two years, rather than every four, with an interim review due next year. Poor water quality figures will heighten demands for changes to farmers’ stocking rates.
McConalogue, the Minister, insists that higher stocking rates on Irish dairy farms and better-quality rivers and streams are possible, but few outside of the dairy business agree.
For Mary Gurrie, 1,600 rivers, lakes and streams are in poor condition – with the blame in 1,000 of these cases laying at the door of agriculture.
“It’s really for agriculture to figure out what are the solutions,” she says.
Nutrient levels in the waters must be reduced, she adds, and it is possible for water bodies to recover. “But we really need to see action, and we need to see it now.”