Emissions in agriculture declined last year driven by reductions in chemical nitrogen fertiliser - Teagasc

Though herd sizes increased on dairy farms in 2022, average emissions, including methane, on a whole farm and per hectare basis declined

Irish agriculture achieved a decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from dairy, cattle, sheep and tillage farms during 2022, according to the latest sustainability report by the farm advisory body Teagasc. The reduction was largely achieved on the back of reduced chemical nitrogen fertiliser use.

The report outlines the continuing adoption of actions to address emissions, particularly by dairy farmers who make up by far the largest sector. Agriculture is required to cut its emissions by 25 per cent by 2030 under legally-binding sectoral ceilings.

In 2022, 34 per cent and 75 per cent of slurry on cattle and dairy farms respectively was applied to land using low emissions slurry spreading equipment which helped reduce emissions – though uptake of other desirable practices, such as a transition to lower emission fertilisers, “remains low”, the report finds.

Though herd sizes increased on dairy farms in 2022, average emissions including methane on a whole farm and per hectare basis declined. In addition, milk was produced with a lower carbon footprint than in 2021. However, ammonia emissions increased due to increased use of “straight urea fertiliser” on dairy farms, it adds.


Dairy cow numbers rose by 1.4 per cent (22,800 head) to 1.6 million in 2022, but over the past decade have increased by around 40 per cent.

The report analyses farm performance indicators from the Teagasc National Farm Survey to track the progress of Irish dairy, cattle, sheep and tillage farms in improving their economic, environmental and social sustainability. In addition to 2022 indicators it includes data covering much of the past decade to illustrate the extent of changes.

Teagasc director Prof Frank O’Mara said Teagasc research continues to develop and refine a range of technologies and farm management practices which can reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment.

Its signpost programme is intended to ensure these solutions continue to be adopted by farmers. The report “demonstrates how progress is already being made, and highlights where further improvements can be achieved. Critically, the report demonstrates the multidimensional nature of sustainability in an economic, environmental and social context”, he added.

Lead author Dr Cathal Buckley, Teagasc rural economy and development programme said: “Dairying continues to exhibit a strong economic performance relative to other farm systems. We continue to see an increase in dairy output and dairy farm incomes. However, expressing farm incomes on a unit of family labour basis, dairy and tillage farms can be considered as relatively comparable in income terms. The results show that both of these farm system types considerably outperform the drystock farm systems [including beef production] in economic terms.”

Comparing farm performance for recent years, Trevor Donnellan, head of the agricultural economics and farm surveys department in Teagasc said: “From a socio-economic point of view, the improvement in farm incomes in 2022 makes a larger share of farms sustainable in an economic context.”

Family dairy farm income was found to be €2,300 per hectare, compared to €1,043 for tillage, €372 for cattle and €340 for sheep.

The report finds the reduction in use of nitrogen fertilisers was likely due to high prices before and after the start of the war in Ukraine, though farmers are strongly advised to reduce nitrogen fertiliser on economic and environmental grounds. Department of Agriculture figures show use of the fertiliser is down a further 16 per cent this year compared with 2022.

The Environmental Protection Agency reported earlier this year that emissions from the agricultural sector dropped by 1.4 per cent last year, following a period of sustained increases – mainly due to expansion of dairying.

The report shows dairy farmers work the longest hours at 2,657 hours per year. Sheep farmers worked 2,246 hours, cattle farmers 2,139 hours and tillage farmers 2,133 hours.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times