Rising numbers cancelling out environment efficiencies on dairy farms

Significant reductions in ammonia arising from agriculture during 2020

Irish farms are making significant progress in reducing emissions of ammonia, arising from animal manures, grazing animals and the use of synthetic fertilisers, the 2020 Sustainability report confirms. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Dairy farmers continue to improve their environmental efficiency with lower levels of greenhouse gases generated per tonne of product produced but emission efficiencies are being overridden by a rising dairy cow population, according to a Teagasc report.

Irish farms are also making significant progress in reducing emissions of ammonia, another greenhouse gas arising from animal manures; grazing animals and use of synthetic fertilisers, the 2020 Sustainability report confirms.

The farm advisory body uses its national farm survey to track the performance of dairy, cattle, sheep and tillage farms across Ireland in improving their economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Although data collection was hampered by Covid-19 restrictions, the report includes data for 2020 along with comparable figures over the past decade, allowing for a detailed assessment of farm performance.


Lead author, Dr Cathal Buckley, of the Teagasc Rural Economy and Development Programme said: “There is a sustainability paradox when results are examined by farm system. Dairy farms have a higher level of economic and social sustainability compared to most other farm systems, but also have higher levels of environmental emissions.”

By contrast drystock farms, which includes beef production, have lower levels of economic and social sustainability, but also have much lower levels of emissions.

“Tillage farms lie in between dairy and drystock farms in terms of economic sustainability, but also have low levels of environmental emissions,” he added.

It was notable ammonia emissions declined in 2020 relative to the preceding years across all farm systems, he said, as “data which track farm management decisions indicate a significant movement towards low emissions slurry spreading methods, and this is helping to reduce ammonia emissions”.

Comparing farm performance for recent years, Trevor Donnellan, head of Teagasc’s agricultural economics and farm surveys department, noted: “Dairying continues to be the powerhouse when it comes to economic sustainability compared to other farm systems.

“Average dairy farm incomes far exceed drystock systems and are also ahead of tillage farm incomes. On the flip side, dairy farmers typically have a less favourable work-life balance, typically working longer hours than farmers in other systems.”

The data confirms dairy farmers continue to improve their environmental efficiency but because of increased dairy cow numbers total dairy farm emissions continue to increase although emissions per hectare remained constant on the back of increased area farmed.

At the report launch, Dr John Finn presented the results of a pilot study under the EU SmartAgriHubs project which indicates biodiversity status of farms.

“A biodiversity indicator can now be generated for farms...As a proof of concept this study shows what’s possible if the necessary resources are dedicated to collection of this data,” he said.

Future sustainability reports will include metrics on biodiversity, which means progress on addressing biodiversity loss and enhancing nature can be measured.

Teagasc director Prof Frank O’Mara said the sustainability report provides policymakers with valuable information for policy design and development. “Through its Signpost Programme, Teagasc is committed to working with farmers, the argi-food industry and other stakeholders to improve all aspects of sustainability across all farm systems. In particular, the knowledge developed through this initiative will assist agriculture in meeting its environmental targets,” he added.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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