Securing a sustainable future for Irish dairy farmers

Irish dairy farmers operate on a global stage and, to stand out from the crowd, they need a unique selling point.

Back in 2012, Bord Bia launched Origin Green – the only sustainability programme in the world to operate at a national scale showcasing Irish produce in global and home markets.

Origin Green is an important asset for the Irish food industry, as an increasing number of retailers and the food services trade around the world look at sustainability as a key purchasing criteria.

The programme demonstrates Ireland’s strong credentials in terms of sustainability; as well as providing evidence and proof of the work being done at every step of the production cycle in Ireland.

Both of these are key to securing a sustainable future for Irish dairy farmers and the Irish dairy industry.

Farmers who are certified members of the Bord Bia Quality Assurance scheme and who participate in a farm sustainability survey as part of their audit are members of Origin Green.

At farm level this has been achieved by building on Bord Bia’s well-established infrastructure of quality assurance schemes, which have been adding in the wider criteria of sustainability.

Farmers key to the success

The Irish dairy industry has grown into a super global business and Irish dairy farmers are central to its success.

Bord Bia’s Sustainable Dairy Assurance Scheme (SDAS) is the world’s first national dairy sustainability scheme. It allows farmers to measure their continuous improvement of efficiencies and sustainability practices.

Approximately 17,000 Irish dairy farmers have applied to take part in the Sustainable Dairy Assurance scheme.

Currently, 13,000 dairy farmers are certified under the programme – accounting for seven out of every ten dairy farmers in Ireland

Dairy farm audits take place every 18 months and Bord Bia has traditionally looked at areas around food safety, quality and animal welfare – which they continue to look at today.

But now, Bord Bia is also including a sustainability survey. So it’s not a huge amount of extra work in terms of the survey, but is quite rigorous.

Bord Bia aims to identify areas where improvements can be made in terms of sustainability performance, but also where improvement on profitability can be made on-farm.

Key improvement measures on Origin Green dairy farms include Economic Breeding Index (EBI), grazing season, energy use, efficiency of nitrogen use and slurry management.

Origin Green farmers are given feedback specifically for their farm. This information can help farmers to set targets that can improve sustainability and increase profitability on their farms. The targets are tailored for the farm in question and are very achievable.

A farmer’s perspective

There is a growing consensus among farmers that improved sustainability practices are beneficial for their farm businesses.

Brothers Joe and Michael Hayden run a dairy farm in Killaveney, Tinahely, Co. Wicklow and are members of Origin Green.

Joe Hayden explained: “I am involved with Origin Green so that I can bring my business to another level as an expanding dairy farmer”.

Origin Green links profitability with carbon reductions. The targets are realistic – and we exceed some of them.

“There is much more to be gained and it’s an exciting time. I am the fourth generation working this farm; my kids are the fifth generation.

“Origin Green is making a huge contribution to helping preserve the land for future generations,” Hayden said.

Key benefits

Farming sustainably enables farmers to stay in business and make a living.

It doesn’t cost anything to be part of Origin Green but by achieving efficiencies, they can improve profitability and sustainability as well.

Research from Teagasc demonstrates that farmers who work towards the identified targets can boost financial performance and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, a Carbon Navigator sustainable farming target such as a 10-day increase in the length of the grazing season can cut emissions by 1.7% and boost performance by up to €27/cow.

It also shows that a target such as a 20% shift to spring slurry application on dairy and beef farms can reduce farm emissions by 1% and improve farm income by €10/ha.

Biodiversity is a hugely important aspect in terms of sustainability on dairy farms and Bord Bia is currently looking at things like hedgerow management, habitat management, wildflowers and also pollinators on-farm.