Subscriber OnlyFarming & Food

Weather woes and nitrates: why farmers faced a perfect storm in 2023

The unpredictability of the weather was felt from the very beginning of the year, but the real hit came with one of the hottest Junes on record creating drought-like situations

Farmers’ obsession with the weather is infamous, and this year proved why the weather can be so important to every sector of the farm community. It was a year of droughts and floods, with the added stressor of the nitrates derogation creating the perfect storm. Tillage farmers in particular will be keen to forget one of the worst harvests in living memory. Land reached saturation levels unheard of in recent history, with crops abandoned and left to rot in fields.

“It’s not a crisis yet but it’s going to be,” were the words of warning from Cork tillage farmer Paul Moore back in August. Fast forward to November and the crisis has occurred, with a €1,000/hectare support scheme launched by the Department of Agriculture for tillage farmers who had been unable to harvest crops.

The unpredictability of the weather was felt from the very beginning of the year but the real hit came with one of the hottest Junes on record creating drought-like situations and stalling grass, vegetable and crop growth. Any relief felt by farmers when they saw the rain appear in July was quickly wiped away by the fact that the rain did not stop, and the incessant deluge resulted in the wettest July on record in the country.

Severe weather at this crucial summer harvesting time means Teagasc has predicted some farms are 20 per cent short of winter fodder, while straw bales for bedding cattle have risen in cost by between 15 per cent to 30 per cent in some parts of the country due to shortages.


The impact of the weather hasn’t escaped Kerry dairy farmer Shaun McCarthy. “The rain hasn’t really stopped since July, we’re gone over 1700mm at the moment,” he said.

Mr McCarthy has 84 dairy cows on 150 acres in Annascaul, and lives with his wife Maura, who is also a hairdresser, and their four children Eoin, Molly, Paddy and Mickey. He runs the farm as a one-man operation and has been working hard to prepare for tighter restrictions around the nitrates derogation and calf exports. He built a new calf house, installed an automatic calf feeder and used artificial insemination to get female-only dairy calves instead of low value dairy bull calves.

“We’re okay with nitrates because we have some commonage and we use that for rough grazing,” he said. “We also reseeded the whole farm, with a third in clover which can capture nitrogen naturally from the air and should reduce the need for chemical fertiliser by 15 per cent across the whole farm.”

Dairy farmers make up just 17,500 of the 120,000 farmer population, but they are still the biggest show in town when it comes to their earning potential. Even with milk prices back compared to the previous year the dairy sector was still the highest earner and the average income on a dairy farm this year was €59,000.

“An October EY report showed Irish dairy as the biggest native industry, with an economic value of a staggering €17.6 billion. That wealth generated is very focused in rural areas, supporting 56,000 jobs,” said director of Dairy Industry Ireland Conor Mulvihill.

While the income on suckler farms increased by 24 per cent, according to Teagasc, that still only amounted to €10,300, which is four times less than the average wage of most workers in Ireland. Sheep farmers also saw a 4 per cent rise in incomes to €17,000. Tillage farmers suffered a series of meteorological abuse and their incomes dropped on average by 60 per cent to around €30,000.

Outside of the weather there were other considerable challenges. While a standout figure achieved by the industry was an almost 30 per cent decrease in the use of chemical fertilisers in two years – achieving a 2030 EU target a full seven years in advance – this was largely due to higher fertiliser prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In the context of climate change, emissions from the agriculture sector dropped by just over 1 per cent according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but still have to reduce by 25 per cent by 2030.

Another challenge were changes to the nitrates derogation. Just over 2,000 dairy farmers discovered they would be in breach of stricter limits on their herd size due to a reduction to the nitrates derogation from 250kg nitrogen per hectare to 220kg nitrogen per hectare. The new limit was due to Ireland’s poor water quality reports. However, there were large scale farmer protests and confusion around whether a “flexibility” could be sought to sidestep the new limit that comes into force in January 2024. A brief visit from the European Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius to Agriculture House on Kildare Street, Dublin, confirmed there would be no flexibility. This resulted in another protest on the streets of Cork, with farmers demanding to know if they would have to cull pregnant cows.

In better news for the farm community there was a huge upsurge in the number of farmers joining the organic scheme, with over 4,000 farmers now fully organic or going through the conversion scheme.

Irish grass-fed beef was also awarded a protected geographical indicator (PGI), with Bord Bia expected to use it to help market beef from the Irish suckler herd starting in Italy next year.

But looking ahead besides the weather the dairy sector will continue to dominate the farm sector in 2024, with challenges ranging from tighter rules around calf exports to nitrates and water quality. The Irish Times understands some banks now calculate loans to dairy farmers based on farmers being only able to stock at 170kg nitrogen per hectare from 2026 onwards – essentially assuming the nitrates derogation will be lost completely.

However, this has not diminished the drive within the dairy industry, with cow numbers expected to grow and the opening of the Kilkenny Cheese plant in Belview which will be one of the largest and most advanced cheese plants in the world. It is also hoped the Kerrygold brand will become Ireland’s first ever €2 billion value retail brand.

“There’s a grand living to be made out of dairy farming,” Shaun McCarthy reflected, but like all farmers, he is wary of tempting fate and quickly added, “most of the time”.

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily - Find the latest episode here