Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Simon Coveney has called for a “significant collective effort” to help farmers with a nitrates derogation to offset the coming reduction to the derogation so that they are not forced into a “dramatic” cull of animals.

The minister gave the nitrates derogation issue specific attention as he delivered the keynote address at the Sustainable Dairy Future Conference today (Monday, December 4).

The two-day event is organized by the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS), the ICOS Skillnet, and University College Cork (UCC), which hosted the event.

From January 1, the upper limit of nitrogen (N) stocking rate under the derogation will fall from 250kgN/ha to 220kg/ha. Farmers who farm between those stocking rates will have to drop their average stocking rate over the course of next year to 220kgN/ha or less, and in subsequent years also.

Minister Coveney said today that farmers he has spoken to are wiling to make the necessary changes to see water quality improve, but he also drew attention to the short timeframe involved.

“I really think between now and January 1 and into next year, there needs to be a significant collective effort to help the farmers that are impacted by this change to cope with that, in a way that doesn’t result in dramatic decisions to cull animals in a way that is not necessary,” the minister said.

“What I mean by that is I think we need to work hard to have much more clarity, for example, on capacity we have to export slurry off farmyards, to use that on arable farms,” he added.

“Interestingly, in the last week or so, I’ve been contacted by a number of arable farmers, offering to take, actually in some cases, large amounts of slurry, and have the capacity to do that.”

“I think, as an agricultural farming industry, particularly through the co-ops, we need to be looking to try and assist in this transition, in any way we can,” Minister Coveney commented.

As well as commenting on the possibility of large numbers of animals being culled as a result farmers needing to offset their stocking rate, the minister also referenced land acquisition. However, the minister indicated that this solution may not be workable in all cases.

“Really, there are only three options: reduce head count by culling; to actually get access to more land, which is possible in some parts of the country, but difficult and expensive in others; or by exporting slurry in a way that is structured and managed, and helps to match where our farmers can actually take slurry and where our farmers need to offload it, in some cases in quite large quantities,” Minister Coveney said.

“I think the government needs to have an open mind in terms of how we can assist in that process. I think there is a strong argument, and I know the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been working on this, to actually put grant aid support in place for building slurry storage capacity on some arable farms.

“I think there is appetite on some arable farms to do that, and I think that is the type of thing we need to progress, so that dairy farmers that are impacted by the nitrates change can see a pathway to deliver that change through next year,” he added.

However, the minister sounded a warning on the lack of time to make that happen.

“I think we need to move as quickly as we possibly can on that, because we are talking about a target that is averaged over the 12 months of next year. Obviously, the less we do in the first quarter of the year, the more farmers will have to do in the back end of the year, which I think will put them under pressure,” he said.