Lets appreciate dairy on this year’s world milk day!
World Milk Day was established in 2001 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations to recognize the importance of milk as a global food. In 2023, World Milk Day will focus on how dairy is reducing its environmental footprint, and it’s a great opportunity to talk about the huge strides made by the Irish dairy industry in the area of environmental sustainability.
Dairy farming is, of course, at the heart of Irish life. It’s been taking place here for 6,000 years, the dairy products produced by our 17,500 family farms (and the 60,000 people they employ) are exported to 130 countries, and dairy contributes over €6.5 billion to the Irish economy each year. On a litre for litre basis, milk produced in Ireland has a lower carbon footprint than any milk produced anywhere else in the world.
Across Ireland farmers are employing innovative technologies and practices that are designed to reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint, both in terms of its emissions and its water quality impacts – and many of these are the result of research and investigation at research centres like VistaMilk.
Our targets – a 25% reduction in emissions by 2030 and all our waterways to be ‘good’ or better by 2027 – are challenging, and the Irish dairy industry is changing to address them. But what are these changes and how have they come about?
The Soil Beneath Our Feet
These days Irish dairy farmers are turning their attention to soil more and more, embracing new ways of operating.
Measuring soil for nutrient content (nitrogen) to help them make better decisions about where to apply fertiliser or spread manure, and how much to use, reducing their on-farm GHG emissions.
Farmers also assess soil temperature, soil moisture and rainfall predictions and use the information to decide when to apply fertiliser or spread manure to minimise emissions and the risk of run-off into Ireland’s waterways.
GPS technology helps farmers be more accurate and precise in their use of fertiliser and manure, reducing emissions and impacts on waterways.
The Pasture on Which They Graze
The incorporation of clover and other plants into the pasture complements the mainstay of perennial rye grass. Not only do the cows enjoy clover, and seem to be more productive grazing on it, clover helps fix nitrogen in the soil, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers by up to 40%.
In 2022, 90% of reseeding on Irish dairy farms incorporated clover, demonstrating that Irish dairy farmers are reaping the benefits of grassland science and embracing new ways of farming.
Grass imaging is developing technology that uses AI to analyse drone-captured images of grassland to assess the plan composition of the sward, its need for nutrients and re-seeding and its suitability for grazing.
Breeding for Better
Breeding and feeding strategies, many developed here in Ireland, are seeking to address the greenhouse gas emissions of our dairy herd. The Economic Breeding Index (EBI) allows farmers to select genetic traits in their cattle, and now features a carbon sub-index allowing for a more environmentally sustainable animal.
Research into feed additives that also affect a cow’s emissions is taking place at locations around the country, particularly into how a grass-fed cow can be fed emission-reducing supplements. Potential answers could be via the animal’s water supply, or through a slow-release bolus, like a gobstopper for cows.
Sustainable diets are commonly considered to have four attributes and Irish dairy scores well against all of them.
Nutrition – Dairy foods account for 39 % of Ireland’s calcium intake, 45 % of its iodine intake, 38 % of its vitamin A intake and 35 % of its vitamin B12 intake. The Department of Health recommends all individuals consume three servings of dairy products (milk, yogurt and cheese) per day with 9-18 year olds recommended to consume five servings.
Culture – Dairy farming and dairy foods are part of the fabric of Irish culture and tradition. There are 17,500 dairy farms operating in Ireland and dairy has been a part of the Irish diet for centuries.
Economics – Milk is one of the most affordable sources of nutrition.
Environment – Irish milk, on a litre for litre basis, has one of the lowest carbon footprints internationally.
But dairy products and consitituents can have other benefits for those who consume them. Research in VistaMilk and its partners organisations show whey protein (a protein derived from milk), for example, has the potential to alter the human gut microbiome and assist in combatting obesity, while yoghurt can be used as a micronutrient delivery system to provide people with substances that might have long-term health benefits.
On World Milk Day, let’s celebrate Irish dairy, the people who make it happen and the enormous amount of work that is being undertaken, at VistaMilk and elsewhere, to introduce new ways of doing things, to provide the data and information to inform smart decisions and to help deliver a truly sustainable future for the industry.
 SDAS Carbon Footprint Report 2022
For more information, or to arrange an interview with A VistaMilk spokesperson:
Jeremy Probert | 4TC | jeremy@4TC.ie | 00 353 (0) 89 700 0792 |www.4TC.ie
Notes to Editors:
VistaMilk SFI Research Centre
Established in 2018, the VistaMilk SFI Research Centre identifies challenges and solves problems for the Irish dairy sector in four specific areas – soil, pasture, cow and food. VistaMilk is a unique collaboration between Agri-Food and information communications technology (ICT) research institutes and leading Irish/multinational food and ICT companies. It is funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM).
Through strategic collaboration and co-ordination, VistaMilk’s research programme provides an opportunity to acquire, analyse and act upon data to generate a range of recommendations and practical solutions to real and current issues.
VistaMilk’s access to expertise and resources makes it an authoritative voice on a range of topics facing the Irish dairy industry, including sustainability, emissions reduction, and carbon sequestration.
VistaMilk’s projects will enable Irish dairy farmers to develop the sustainable practices that will protect the 18,000 family farms, the 60,000 jobs and the €5bn yearly economic contribution that dairy supports in this country. It will also provide consumers with the reassurance of knowing that the dairy products they buy continue to be both farmed and processed locally.
 Irish Cattle Breeding Federation