I firmly believe that Irish farmers and Irish agriculture can look forward to the next 10 years with a tremendous amount of positivity.

I make this point for a number of reasons. First off, the budgets linked to the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) deal are now in place; this represents the safety net or foundation upon which everything else can be built.

The question then becomes – where do we go from here?

Future for Irish agriculture

So let’s start with the low lying fruit. Irish sheep producers are enjoying record lamb and hogget prices at the present time. This is a trend that is very likely to gain further momentum during the period ahead.

At the heart of the issue is the Brexit deal struck by Britain, which now sees British sheep producers totally hampered by enhanced red tape and product inspections, when it comes to them servicing the French and EU markets.

All these administrative obstacles are adding to their costs, essentially pricing them out of a market that they heavily relied upon. Of course, France still needs lamb with the result that Irish lamb producers will benefit accordingly now and into the future.

Single payments and milk prices

As I have previously pointed out, the UK government’s decision to phase out the single payment support mechanism for livestock farmers in England and Wales opens up a door of opportunity for Irish beef producers.

I feel confident in predicting that significant pressure to increase retail beef prices will be brought to bear on British supermarkets. In fact it’s already happening. And, as the old saying goes, a rising tide floats all boats.

Milk has been a very positive story since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Producer prices have consistently strengthened over the past six months. This welcome upturn in producer returns has happened at a time when the catering and service sectors were totally out of action.

So what will happen when both these industries get up and running again – both here and around the world? I sense that further positivity for Irish agriculture on the dairy front may be coming down the track.

Potential challenges?

So much for the good news! The next question to be answered is this – are there any dark clouds on the horizon for Irish agriculture?

Conversations that I have had with farmers over recent days would point to their concerns regarding future production constraints coming our way in the guise of new climate change regulations.

Personally, I think that it’s time the authorities reset the clock to zero when it comes to talking about agriculture’s ‘so called’ impact on the climate.

First off, no one has yet quantified the vast potential of Irish soils, hedgerows and woodlands to store carbon.

And until this – very significant – matter is fully analysed, I believe it to be inherently unfair for our most important industry to be impeded on the back of inaccurate and / or incomplete data sets.

Grassland management

What I fully buy into, however, is the need for Irish farmers to become more efficient. In my opinion, we are still only playing with the principles associated with grassland management.

What we are actually achieving on-farm still remains well below what optimally-managed grass swards can produce in terms of dry matter (DM) output.

No doubt, Ireland is home to a selection of the best grassland farmers in the world. But there remains vast swathes of the country where a combination of liming, fencing and a bit of drainage could combine to deliver more than significant improvements in grassland output – without impacting on the environment.

Nitrates derogation

On many of our most densely stocked dairy farms, the game afoot is that of matching cow numbers, and their associated slurry output, with the criteria laid down within the EU Nitrates’ Directive derogation.

So here’s a thought. There is a way of reducing cow numbers and actually increasing national milk output at the same time.

I’m not saying that purebred Holstein cows are the environmental answer on every farm. However, there is no doubting that a Holstein/Friesian cow can produce a lot of milk from fresh grass when given the right encouragement.

EU impact on Irish agriculture

Finally, a thought or two, reflecting on the direction of travel now being taken by the farming industry in France.

This week has seen the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA) reporting on the stance taken by French farm lobby groups, pushing for the introduction of producer prices that take full account of the input costs incurred by farmers.  

In my opinion, this is an inherently strong principle, one which gets to the very core of the challenges faced by farmers across Europe going back many decades.

The fillip such a policy would give Irish farmers, if it were to be mandated at an EU level, would be more than significant. And let’s be clear about this… French farmers have a habit of getting their way.

It’s also worth pointing out that such an approach comes with a ‘zero cost’ commitment from the EU. One assumes that the supermarkets will be asked to take on the heavy lifting, where this matter is concerned.

So, yes, I do think that farming in Ireland can look forward to the future with a great deal of confidence. But, in any event, it won’t take long to find out if I am sucking diesel or just blowing out hot air!