Category Archives: Thats Farming


This post first appeared online at on the 11th December 2017

A few days ago, I suggested that a tax on nitrogen might be a practical way to address some environmental issues. Of course, this would increase farm production costs in a trading environment where the cost is unlikely to be passed onto the consumer. Hardly satisfactory.

Further, there is also concern about recent rises in nitrogen prices, albeit they are coming off a 2016/17 low that was 20% or so under the 2011/15 average. There also remains concerns among farmers that prices are already higher due to tariffs on imports into the EU and the heavy trading weight of the few manufacturers operating within the market.

To take a broader view, looking forwards, given the reliance of the artificial nitrogen manufacturing process on limited supplies of natural gas, even if fracking is used more extensively, and the unacceptability of extracting further fossil fuels, one should plan for ongoing price increases. It is, therefore, likely that market mechanisms will start to restrict usage, thus making a tax unnecessary.

Beyond a likely increase in cost, there are other reasons to look to reduce artificial nitrogen usage. In terms of nutrients, Ireland now imports between 300,000 and 350,000 tonnes of nitrogen a year. This equates to just over a million tonnes of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. In addition to the financial cost, which should still be returned as enhanced farm output], there are question marks over GHG emissions from manufacturing and spreading nitrogen fertilizers and nitrate leakage into acquirers, rivers, lakes and, ultimately, our drinking water supplies.

Notwithstanding dedicated organic production, one recognizes that tillage cropping is difficult without artificial nitrogen. A move to rotations that include nitrogen-fixing pulses can help reduce total rotational N requirements; albeit the pulses only leave a residual of 40kg/N/ha or so for the succeeding cereal crop.  Using less nitrogen will mean it again becomes all about soil fertility building. Hence, one is beginning to read more about returning rotational leys and grazing livestock to tillage land, but maintaining yields will be difficult. Ultimately, it will come down to obtaining an enhanced value for the produce that relates to the eco-friendliness of the farming system employed [as with certified organic] and which is paid for by the final consumer.

In these days of poor tillage profitability, restricting nitrogen usage without any value-added will make little sense to the farmer. There should, however, be opportunities for Irish tillage farmers to provide the raw materials for livestock farmers who produce higher-value, ‘eco-friendly’ products [not least with respect to growing protein crops] but it depends on the products and routes to markets existing. Both must be developed further in Ireland. As time goes on, it is unlikely that Irish tillage farming will make sense if it produces only generic animal feed that competes head on with imports from large-scale, international producers. Restricted nitrogen usage will only make it worse.

If one is willing to look at the research being done into using clovers and multi-species swards [as per] there may be greater opportunities to reduce grassland nitrogen usage without compromising production or financial returns. Where there is a focus on utilizing a long-growing season one does, nevertheless, appreciate that more work needs to be done to ensure the length of the grazing season. That said, one wonders if early season grazing may also fall foul of regulations to minimize nitrate seepage from grazing pastures at the very start of Spring. Simply, nitrate pollution, in its various forms, will inevitably impact upon the operation of current farming systems.

Potentially, the nitrates issue may mean that Irish dairy farmers must move away from intensive near-grass-only systems. One already reads that New Zealand is being forced into a rethink. It will not be easy because what nay appear as a simple change has manifold impacts upon the farm business, investment decisions and the returns needed to provide economic viability. As with tillage, a shortfall in Ireland relates to not having supply chains that can reward the farmer for changing to farming systems that provide consumers with multiple benefits that go beyond food provision alone.

Ultimately, reducing nitrogen usage must go together with fully independent, thus publicly-funded, research. The research will be into developing farming systems that use less nitrogen and into those precision farming techniques which improve the efficiency of what nitrogen is applied.

Hence, the proposal is that the farming organisations should establish year-on-year targets to voluntarily reduce artificial nitrogen usage across the industry. By doing so they will:

  • address any trading imbalances that are increasing nitrogen fertilizer prices for Irish farmers
  • focus farmers and researchers on husbandry techniques that are under the farmer’s control
  • replace imported to the farm and country costs with ‘localized’ costs and management skills
  • target the significant GHG emissions sustained when applying and manufacturing artificial N
  • minimize the risks to aquifers, rivers, lakes, seas and drinking waters from nitrogen seepage
  • enhance the chances for flora and fauna through establishing more species-diverse pastures
  • improve the above and below ground tillage farming environments by diversifying cropping


This post first appeared online at on the 23rd November 2017

After the recent suggestion that there should be a tax levied on GHG emissions from agriculture, will a proposal to tax nitrogen fertilizers be next?

Whilst I have doubts about the workability of the former, a nitrogen tax may not be as fraught with implementation difficulties. Poorly thought out a GHG tax might not even deliver the desired results whereas anyone who has studied agricultural economics will understand what a nitrogen response curve is and appreciate that an increase in the price of nitrogen should reduce its usage. The consequences for farm incomes and food production may, however, not be so easily identified.

Why the concern about nitrogen fertilizers [and nitrogen ‘leakage’ from agriculture per se]? There are health concerns about nitrates in drinking water and ecological concerns about the quality of our rivers and lakes. Only a few days ago the British Geological Survey published a report about the slow seepage of nitrates from soils through the underlying rocks and into aquafers used for drinking water. And then there are nitrous oxide losses into the atmosphere from applying nitrogen fertilizers to add to GHG levels and ozone depletion. And then there is the usage of fossil fuels [natural gas] in the production of the nitrogen fertilizers themselves. The charge sheet is rather long.

In defence of artificial nitrogen, one can say that the Haber-Bosch process has made a major contribution to global food production over the last century. Food prices would not be as cheap today without the ready availability of artificial nitrogen to stimulate plant growth. One also doubts if urbanization would have been able to occur to the same degree without society being freed from the constraints of having to locally recycle nutrients back to the land from whence the urbanites food originated. Artificial nitrogen allowed the revolution in the way humans live.

The Sustainable Food Trust in the UK has just published a report that highlights the externalities [the costs of our food that are not measured by the market price alone] of our current methods of food production. It is far from an exact science but as they acknowledge, “this report attempts to help address the knowledge gap… by bringing together the most up-to-date evidence which quantifies and monetises the diverse negative impacts of the UK food system” (The Hidden Cost of UK Food, The Sustainable Food Trust, November 2017).

The report has specific comments to make about nitrogen fertilizers; “conversion of inert nitrogen in the air we breathe to reactive nitrogen (essentially ammonia, artificial nitrogen fertilisers and oxides of nitrogen) has increased 20-fold over the last century… activities and processes related to agriculture – such as fertiliser manufacture, animal manure storage and application, and soil nitrification, denitrification and degradation – make the farming sector by far the largest source of pollution from reactive nitrogen, responsible for approximately two-thirds of all nitrogen pollution of the atmosphere and aquatic environment, while transport and energy production account for one-third between them”. It goes onto state that, “the negative costs to society of nitrogen fertilisation in the EU27 exceeds its contribution to the gross value added to the primary agricultural sector by its use, by €70 billion per year”.

And one can also add that the availability of artificial fertilizers has allowed the extensive development of monoculture-based farming that is divorced from soil fertility building practices. Monocultures are also being implicated in soil degradation, biodiversity loss and the development of naturally-evolving resistance to our modern food-producing solutions. It is difficult to ignore the probability that the food systems that we have developed over the last 60-70 years have come at a yet to be fully unquantified cost to society. Then again, as with climate change, one can be pretty sure that there will be those who prefer denial to entering a constructive debate about change.

Agree or disagree with such findings, it is quite an opening salvo to make in a debate about the true cost of our food. Interestingly, the report was discussed on the BBC’s Farming Today and a spokesperson for Nestle immediately responded by expressing their willingness to engage in the debate over the environmental and social costs of food. If the wider farming community chooses to ignore the issue, there will be those further along the food supply chain who will not, and they will, as through their demands for the implementation of earlier quality assurance schemes, force the issue. The question for farmers is, do they want to be ahead of the curve or to wait until they must dance to the tune called by others?

True, artificial nitrogen has facilitated social and economic development as we know it. Without it, societal change would have been limited by the need to use farming systems that directly secure nitrogen from the atmosphere. Nevertheless, food systems based upon artificial nitrogen have, apparently, generated significant external costs that we are now only just beginning to understand and to quantify. And the more we understand them, the greater will be the pressure placed upon food producers to change to mitigate them. It is why we are heading into a period of unprecedented change for farming and food systems. To carry on as before will not be an option.

The above said, we must ensure that an external cost of change is not farm incomes and the welfare of farmers. To do so we need to adopt a changed mindset; we need to engage, and we need to actively seek out the truly sustainable alternatives that work for the environment and farmers. They are thankfully appearing, albeit often not from within the mainstream of farming or research.

A case in point is Ireland’s own Smartgrass project [similar research is occurring elsewhere] that seeks out “how to produce high quality/high yielding grassland forage in an environmentally sustainable way”. One aspect of their work is the use of multi-species swards to maintain production while using less nitrogen fertilizers. The adoption of precision agricultural techniques that better target nitrogen use is another. Such work should have multiple benefits to all, the farmer included. In theory, the losers will be those who manufacture nitrogen fertilizers but, as with those who build the soon to be defunct combustion engine, one can expect that they will adapt and change to keep the economic wolf from their own door. Nobody really likes change, but sometimes it is inevitable.


This post first appeared online at on the 25th October 2017

Twenty years ago, I became involved with soybean production in SE Europe. Romania was then a GM-soybean producer; now it is not. The GM-free debate is old hat. And it was a decade ago that I came across the Danube Soya initiative to establish a certification scheme to produce GM-free, European-grown soybeans from the many countries through which the Danube passes.

Working long-term in the region means that one is focused on markets of central Europe and one soon became aware of the importance of sustainable foods issues in these markets. GM-free was one of them. European-grown GM-free soybean was seen by some as the way forwards as consumer demand for GM-free grew; more so when GM-free fed livestock products were demanded. And it was not going to only be a German-Austrian market issue. In 2016, Waitrose’s dedicated pork supplier, Dalehead Foods took its first consignment of European soybeans as the premium retailer began rolling out its plan to replace its [already] responsibly sourced soya beans from non-deforested land in Brazil. The soybeans are certified GM-free by the Danube Soya Producers Association. It is not just German supermarkets taking GM-free supply-chains seriously.

Hence, it was somewhat surprising to read that the CEO of Bord Bia believes that it is necessary to first establish whether non-GM is a market trend or a consumer fad. If Ireland is a dynamic and innovative foods producer, it is a little late in the day to be asking such a question. Market research and marketing is meant to keep one at the forefront and ahead of the game. It is now possible that Ireland will only move after it realizes that it must have GM-free certified products if it wishes to maintain sales to German supermarkets. And making the change will not be done overnight, it will be difficult but the lack of urgency is palpable.

To a degree one can understand the caution. Irish farming and food does seem to have a predilection for ‘science’ when it comes to food production, and GM is seen by some as a desirable part of modern food production. It is reflected in the approach that it is about educating the consumer rather than following consumer demand. It is a part of a wider supply-driven rather than market-led malaise that pervades the Irish farming industry. With GM-free feed one can also understand that an Irish farming industry wide change over to GM-free will have costs and it will have its difficulties; and farmers rightfully ask if they will be paid a GM-free premium.

And therein lies the second part of the problem; the change-over seems to be seen in the context of it being an industry-wide change. Presumably it is looked upon as an activity that will have to be incorporated into and administered through the near national quality-assurance schemes. One can be sure that there are food producers in Ireland who are already producing GM-free products; albeit often using imported ingredients, so it is not exactly new. And as mentioned, Waitrose in the UK is taking measures to improve its sustainability credentials with respect to GM-free. These are, however, individual initiatives, they are not national ones.

Going GM-free is not about national certification, it is about developing specific supply-chains. It is certainly an idea that the Irish tillage sector would embrace. It does, nonetheless, mean that specific GM-free products must be created and supply-chains and routes to market for them developed. It is, frankly, something Ireland, with its largely centralized processing of livestock products, is not very good at. For example, GM-free [and grass-fed beef] is now nothing new and there are many producers of such around the world, from Russia to Romania to Tasmania to the United States, not to mention internally within the European Union. One doubts if they have developed GM-free certification for a consumer fad. When it comes to GM-free, Ireland is already playing catch-up.

Being behind the curve is somewhere that Irish farming, with its small production scale, cannot be. It must be a premium-products producer. It must be part of dynamic and innovative supply-chains that reach premium-paying consumers. The country’s position on GM-free illustrates that it is being found wanting. Irish farming needs to be reaching the top of the market and to do so it needs routes to market that are flexible rather than centralized and industrialized. GM-free is more than about supplying premium, GM-free products, it is about starting the processing of developing a capacity to supply the 80%-plus market position as opposed to the premiumized-commodity markets.

Going GM-free is about much more than GM-free, it is about being willing to make the serious and often relatively small changes needed to develop the country’s routes to markets. It is about linking its farmers to premium paying consumer and ensuring that its farmers benefit. It is a fair bet that continued centralization of processing and accreditation will destroy Irish farming as we know it.


This post first appeared online at on the 20th September 2017

Is a prerequisite for a politician to be able to balance one’s principles with the winning of votes? One wonders if Michael Gove is not showing himself to be particularly adroit on this front and he begins to fashion the UK’s exit from the Common Agricultural Policy?

My expectation is that the Minister will be an advocate of free trade that will facilitate UK access to low-cost foods from the Globe’s cheapest producers. There is, however, a strong political lobby demanding that food and environmental standards are maintained, even enhanced, after Brexit and the Minister appears to agree; he is going to attempt the impossible and to balance the two, apparently, widely differing objectives.

And where does one find those lobbying for British farmers in this Ministerial conundrum? There used to be a day when the Tory Party had a bulwark of MP’s from Shire farming families but, alas, no longer. That, and the political weight of a now small farming population means that farmers will have to accept what Brexit serves up for them; they are going to be policy takers, not policy makers.

UK farmers will need to protect their own market position by the continued adoption of food-safety, food-quality, environmental and animal-welfare standards. Red Tractor is well established but maybe it will have to go to Red Tractor Plus. There are other schemes relating to geographic origin and animal welfare but, that said, the UK lags Italy and France when it comes to quality-focused designated-origin schemes. That will change as UK farmers realize the full necessity of ratcheting up their standards and communicating the associated message to the consumer.

Trade agreements will allow easier access to UK markets but they will not mean a diminution of what is demanded by food processors and retailers to ensure that their due diligence is visibly in place. It is due diligence requirements, not legislation and regulation that will limit UK market access. Ireland with its QA and sustainability schemes meets the required due diligence standards, but so will the likes of NZ and Australia. They are not a barrier to entry to rely on into the long term.

Increasingly one’s expectation is that the lion’s share of farm support will shift from production-related support to rewarding farmers for delivering upon environmental and quality objectives. It will include transitory mechanisms that will encourage and facilitate change. Post-EU, British food and farming policy will emerge with a thoroughly green hue.

Just how will a Green-door Brexit impact upon Ireland’s farmers? They and their supply-chain partners will have a choice; either they compete in the UK market place on cost with global, also quality-assured suppliers or by raising their standards, be they environmental or quality, to focus on the upper echelons of the market. Will they join UK farmers in a race to the top?

That Irish farming can compete on cost is a grass-based myth. Certainly, a well-consolidated and well-invested agri-food processing sector may be able to compete with the global players, but can it truly do so in a long-term, sustainable way if the structure of the Irish family-farms that underpins it is unsuitable for the task of producing its low-cost raw materials? The danger for Irish farmers is that the processing sector will look elsewhere for its supplies, it is already doesn’t.

For Irish farmers, supplying the UK must be about matching, if not bettering, the food safety, food quality, environmental and animal welfare standards implemented within the UK post-Brexit.

Yes, the QA schemes have met supermarket demands and other schemes have met the demands of, for instance, the burger chains. Ireland now, nonetheless, needs to develop schemes that meet premium-paying consumer demand with the right consumer-facing products. They need to reach the market via supply-chains that ensure that the farm-gate price received by farmers is boosted as a reward for delivering what the market wants, be they in the UK or elsewhere. Irish farming policy must focus upon quality-enhancement. It is long overdue but with Brexit it must now happen.

The UK has an advantage in that Brexit will allow it to develop its own farming and food policy and to tailor it to meet its own Green-door objectives. As the UK is and will remain such an important market for the Irish farming industry, Ireland must follow. It will, however, be a challenge to determine how to offer support to facilitate the necessary changes and to create a level support playing field with the UK as it may not be a priority for a post-2020 CAP. Post-Brexit UK farming and food policy may be a revolution whereas, to be honest, one cannot expect more than a CAP evolution.

With Brexit, there remains so very much to think about.


This post first appeared online at on the 15th October 2017

How the French go about labelling Charolais Beef

As one should expect with beef produced in France from Charolais cattle, there is no such thing as ‘French Beef’ or even ‘Charolais Beef’, it is rather more ‘complicated’ than that!

The BŒUF DE CHAROLLES appellation d’origine contrôlée

The AOC Bœuf de Charolles is the ‘summit’ of Charolais beef production in France as it is Charolais beef from the Charolles itself. Although it is from the historical home of the breed the AOC only dates from 2010 and the EU PDO designated origin registration from 2014. This itself illustrates that French food-product labelling is still evolving.

Farming Charolais cattle in the region within the AOC scheme is about enhancing the value of the product at the farm-gate to maintain the viability of local cattle farming and it is about the preservation of farming traditions and the local hedgerow-lined pastures and their biodiversity.

To qualify for the AOC, farmers must meet strict standards. The cattle must be born, reared, fattened and slaughtered in the designated geographical area. The calves must be 100% Charolais and suckler reared. The cattle must be grazed for a minimum of 200 days per year at stocking rates not exceeding 2.0 livestock units per hectare. Fattening must occur on specified ‘fattening pastures’. These pastures are permanent and must not receive any artificial fertilizers. It is said that the pastures enhance the flavour of the meat. In winter only locally-produced hay is fed and silage is not allowed. The use of complementary feeds is limited to an annual average of 2kg per day during rearing and 1kg/day/100kg LW during the finishing period. Concentrates feeds must be based mainly on linseed and GMO feeds are forbidden.

Heifers must be at least 28 months of age at slaughter with minimum carcass weight of 320kg. The bullocks must be at least 360 kg and have a minimum age of 30 months. Cows that are used for Bœuf de Charolles beef must be no more than 8 years old [96 months]. The traditional slow finishing is required to produce beef with the characteristics required of Bœuf de Charolles, a finely marbled beef that must be matured for at least 14 days. Slaughter must be local to minimise stress.


The Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais is also a Charolais-breed-specific EU registration; albeit as a Protected Geographic Indication [registered in 1996]. As the name suggests, the cattle must be reared in the Bourbonnais region. The beef also qualifies as Label Rouge.

The required production systems are not dissimilar to the earlier AOC although not as restrictive in terms of pasture management. Ages at slaughter are the same although the carcass weight minimums are 20 kg lighter. The minimum maturation period for carcasses is 10 days.

As with many designated-origin systems in France, the production volume is limited as there are only about 120 farmers supplying Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais beef. The sales are mainly through traditional butchers.


The third and most recent [2017] EU PGI designation for pure-bred Charolais beef, the Charolais de Bourgogne beef differs from Bœuf de Charolles and Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais in that it is not so focused on traditional, slow production. Males must be slaughtered at between 14 and 24 months of age. For heifers the minimum age is 24 months and they must be grazed for two seasons. The slaughter weights required are lighter again at 320 kg and 280 kg for males and females respectively. Cows must not be greater than 10 years of age. A minimum maturation time of seven days is required and the beef may be sold fresh or frozen.

Feed must be based on grass and forage exclusively from the PGI geographical area. This means that the cattle must be raised on the regions natural, biodiversity and flora-rich grasslands. Hay is the required winter forage. Again, as with the Bœuf de Charolles, there is the link to the preservation of the local bocage country and its traditional hedgerows and meadows.

During rearing, concentrate usages if limited to an average of 2 kg per day. A more intensive finishing is allowed; a reflection that the PGI is about using Charolais cattle within a specific region but with more ‘modern’ farming methods than the PDO/AOC Bœuf de Charolles allows.


Beef which qualifies as produce of the Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais PGI region can also carry the Label Rouge superior-quality label. In addition, there are also other Label Rouge Charolais labels including Le Charolais Terroir and Tendre Charolais.

Tendre Charolais again stipulates that the cattle must be 100% Charolais and born, raised and slaughtered in France. The use of suckler rearing, minimum grazing periods and forage use within the diet are specified. The scheme also imposes housing and animal welfare standards and rules are laid down with respect to slaughtering and the aging of the beef.

Tendre Charolais is a marque of the L’Association Charolais Label Rouge; a supply-chain association whose role is to ensure the quality of ‘tender beef’ from the Charolais breed. It includes 4,500 farmers, 27 co-operatives and nearly 250 other entities including butchers and retailers.

Tendre Charolais also aims to ensure that there is equitable remuneration for each actor within the supply chain including the farmers. It seeks to ensure that there is a future for extensive livestock farming and the regional landscapes and that local, rural employment exists.

Charolais Terroir is another label that encompasses a complete supply-chain approach. As with all the other labels mentioned, it specifies that all cattle must be pure-bred Charolais. The emphasis is then upon the selection of the right live animal to deliver specific carcass characteristics, how the animal is transported, handled, slaughtered and processed, and the quality of the final carcass. The carcass can then be sold with both the Charolais Terroir and Label Rouge labels attached.

Overview of some of the French labeling schemes

The French have a long history of designating their food products. The first cheese was designated under France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée [AOC} system in 1925 and the first meat in 1957.

Many AOC products now also have one of the following EU designations:

Protected Designation of Origin [PDO]: covers agricultural products and foodstuffs which are produced, processed and prepared within a given geographical area using recognised know-how.

Protected Geographical Indication [PGI]: covers agricultural products and foodstuffs closely linked to the geographical area. At least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation takes place in the area.

Traditional Speciality Guaranteed [TSG]: highlights the traditional character of the product, either in the products composition or means of production

France has eight EU PGI’s for beef and veal and this reflects their emphasis upon locality of origin. A further three more production and location specific PDO’s exist.

Another premium but lower strata label developed in France is Label Rouge. There are 36 beef and veal Label Rouge products, mainly differentiated by locality of origin and a specific breed.

In addition to these official labels, the producers also use their own labels.

Label Rouge is a quality assurance marque controlled by the French Ministry of Agriculture. It attests that food or non-food and unprocessed agricultural products have specific characteristics that establish a superior level of quality [especially resulting from their specific production conditions or workmanship] to similar products. The Label Rouge marque is to be found on bread, honey, herbs, dairy products, eggs and poultry, beef and lamb and charcuterie.

Label Rouge products may also be distinguished by a producer-group label, AOC status, an EU designated-origin marque and be organic. It is possible for a product to display all of the labels.



This post first appeared online at on the 6th October 2017

In recent days another report emerged about methane emissions from livestock. Cue, a vocal response from the environmental lobby. Before that a more specific report concerning the declining state of Irish rivers. Cue, a vocal response from the environmental lobby. Then we had another about the impact of herbicides used to control rushes on drinking water quality…

If you a farmer none of this makes great reading or listening. If like so many, you also consider yourself an environmentally-aware farmer, it is worse. Some may portray farmers in general as climate-change deniers, and there may be a few around, but they are probably far from a majority. What is, however, more common place is worried farmers who daily read and hear about others demanding that they change their ways.

Farmers are being told that they are in the wrong but not how they can change for the better. They are also aware that change means extra cost and additional costs do not bare well on an often too fragile bottom line. Very, very few are the profit-driven agribusinesses that some like to portray, they are family farms where the aim is to provide a decent living for the household, nothing more.

Whilst following and communicating with those from the ‘green’ lobby, I also follow many environmentally aware farmers. There are those who recognize the need for change and are actively working out ways to do it. They are changing their farming systems and, often, creating products around those changes and finding ways to deliver the complete package to the aware consumer. It is happening, but it is happening outside the mainstream; and therein lies the problem.

We have reached the point where we need to move on from highlighting the problems, that is the easy part, to identifying solutions and working out how to implement them. We need clear cut planning. And to start with we must clarify what the objectives are.

The environmental lobby are highlighting the big picture; that we need to reduce GHG emissions, albeit too often in the context of gross and not net emissions; largely because the accounting and science has not yet caught up with the reality of carbon cycles and sequestration. To the list we can add; cleaning up our rivers, ditto our water supplies, reversing the dramatic decline in farmland biodiversity and, especially, the vital to our food-security, pollinators.  We now need the detailed targets to aim for.

What should those targets encompass. How about, just for starters:

lower nitrogen usage to reduce emissions, run-off and fossil-fuel use [in fertilizer production]

raise sward diversity to maintain productivity with less N and to enhance grassland biodiversity

improve the farmland environment to help reinstate flora and fauna and, especially, pollinators

create income-effective upland farming systems that also effectively manage water catchments

reduce animal farming’s dependence on liquid-manure housing systems and all that they entail

develop on-farm energy generation and storage solutions so farms can be energy independent

find husbandry-based methods to support solutions where efficacy is threatened by resistance

minimize the usage of antibiotics in farming to preserve their availability in human health care

Do not let anyone suggest that dealing with the abundance of problems facing our food production systems, and hence, our farmers is not hugely complex. It is certainly not fully appreciated by those who demand change. Once we have identified and agreed where we all want to go, there is also the equally complicated issue of how to provide transitionary support to the farming sector to encourage and facilitate the necessary change. Objectives, policies and mechanisms are all needed.

And last, but not least, we must work out how to deliver all the above whilst enhancing the future of those who produce our food and manage our landscapes and our rural communities.

This is no small undertaking and it can only be achieved by the farming and food and ‘green’ communities getting onto the same page. We need to have a farming/food/environmental/rural policy for Ireland that begins with an agreed set of objectives. Frankly, what we have at present does not fit the bill. We must start again but that is going to take time, energy and cost. We must stop dissipating our collective resources on fighting with each other, it is a waste. They need to be channelled into finding a way forwards. The unacceptable alternative is to continue to bicker and to regress, remorselessly.



This post first appeared online at on the 15th September 2017

Last week saw the opening of a new milk dryer; it would provide economies of scale and strengthen the capacity of the co-operative to supply ingredients. What caught my eye, however, was the celebration of the 80-odd new jobs that it would create. Is it a reason to celebrate?

Typically, a milk dryer needs a staff of about fifty people. As they require the centralization of hundreds of millions of litres of milk, they inevitably create a few more jobs in the haulage sector. The presence of the new dryer should also enhance the economic future of the milk suppliers.

This is not the first new dryer in Ireland to be commissioned in the immediate past. Indeed, much of Ireland’s post-quota, expansion-milk has been dried. We should now begin to see the success of these investments reflected in the farm-gate milk price.

The milk processors ability to deliver a farm-gate price that can sustain its suppliers will depend on its product mix. How much will be sold as finished products and how much will be ingredients for others to convert into consumer-facing, branded products?

Infant formula is so often cited as a flagship product for the Irish dairy industry. Is it really such or is it a formulated product manufactured in Ireland that needs ingredients from multiple countries? Finally, from judging by recent press articles, it is at last being realized that its production, sales and branding is controlled by a handful of multi-nationals. The co-operatives owned by Irish farmers produce some of the ingredients but the profits go elsewhere in the supply chain.

Just how much does the major growth in infant formula exports to China benefit farmers? If one scratches the surface, one would probably find examples across a myriad of food businesses; the Irish dairy farmer does the heavy lifting whilst others take the cream from their milk.

Given the recent massive investment in expanding milk production and processing the additional milk, this is now the de facto position. What is done is done, the money is spent and dairy farmers and their co-operatives are committed to a course of action.

When dairy expansion was advocated, we were told that it would create employment. It does appear to be creating a demand for milkers, but few seem to want to provide their labour, at least at the salaries offered. In a functioning labour market, pay should now rise to bring labour into the sector. That of course assumes that a labour shortage creates a milk shortage and a milk price. That is not happening; thus, leaving the individual farmer to work harder to fill the shortfall. It is an inevitable consequence of the supply-driven rather than market led expansion model chosen.

With an emphasis on milk for milk powders Ireland has chosen to follow a New Zealand approach that has been effective for NZ during the Chinese-market expansion years. It was facilitated by NZ’s trade agreement with China.

To compare the prime numbers in NZ’s South Island expansion regions of Canterbury and Southland with Ireland is a sobering exercise. At is simplest, the average herd size is around 800 cows in Canterbury and 600 Southland. That is around 8-10 times greater than Ireland. Labour productivity in the NZ regions is around 180 cows per person, probably about three times that in Ireland. Hence, beyond grass, where was the logic in entering the same commodity markets as New Zealand?

A novel key performance indicator to consider is the milk processed per person employed in processing. For Canterbury, it was 3,500,000 litres rising to 3,900,000 in Southland. From a rural employment perspective, milk dryers are not exactly great creators of rural jobs! In the European artisan sector, one could probably find jobs that require a fiftieth of a differentiated milk type. It will be the same in Ireland, 80-plus jobs are not a massive return for the milk processed or, for that matter, the investment made. If you are wanting to highlight job creation, don’t dry milk.

The rural population density in South Island is about a 1/10th of that in Ireland and in Southland a lot less than that so are milk-processing jobs vital sources of rural employment in NZ? One could argue that given the response to Ireland’s current need for milkers, there is full employment in rural Ireland but one suspects not. Maybe it is that dairy expansion is creating the wrong jobs?

Hence, should we have been focusing on creating rural jobs in milk processing rather than in the milking parlour? Should we have been focusing on value-added and higher-value as opposed to more milk for centralized and automated processing? Should we have been focusing on maximising the farm-gate value of milk, lowering the volume needed for viability, and thus reducing and not increasing the pressure on those doing the milking? The current situation suggests that we need a farming and processing system that needs less milkers, not more.

Rural Ireland needs jobs and its family farms need off-farm income and we need to take a long hard look at whether these should not actually be coming from milk and food processing. Maybe we will discover that they are no more attractive occupations than milking, but we should find out.

It is a radical suggestion given that local processing will mean different products and alterations to the milk supply side, but it is one that needs investigating. The alternative is just to accept that the future of Ireland family-owned dairy farms is entirely tied to the milk for milk powder strategy; an approach that will also not provide many wider benefits to the country’s rural communities.