Agriculture in Ireland
Ireland has many natural advantages for farming given its fertile soil, temperate climate and abundant rainfall. Along with these natural resources, the country has a rich tradition of farming skills, which have been passed down through the generations. The total land area of Ireland is 6.9 million hectares, of which 4.4 million hectares is used for agriculture.
Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle, which is explained by the fact that the majority of agricultural land is grass based. In total 81% of agricultural land is grassland, 11% is marginal grazing and 8% is in crop production (Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine 2017).
The vast majority of Irish farms are family run. There are approximately 140,000 farm holdings in Ireland, with an average size of 32.5 hectares (Farm Structures Survey 2013).
Ireland is marketed internationally as ‘The Food Island’. The agri-food and drink sector accounts for 10.8% of Ireland's exports. The United Kingdom (41%), continental Europe (31%) and rest of the world (28%) are the main destinations for exports. The sector accounts for almost 167,500 jobs.
There are currently over 1.1 million dairy cows in Ireland on approximately 20,000 farms. Ireland's grass growing ability is maximised to its full potential by the dynamic dairy farming and processing industry.
Total milk output is over 5,400 million litres. High quality milk products such as cheese, butter, casein and infant milk are sold throughout the world, with exports of these dairy products amounting to €3.2 billion.
The majority of herds are operated on a seasonal grass based system with cows calving in spring and grazing for the majority of their lactation. 10% of herds are milked 365 days a year, with cows calving all year around or in spring/autumn blocks.
The most common dairy breeds are Holstein or Friesian, although Jerseys, Mountbeliardes and Norwegian Red are also seen.
Ireland produces approximately 550,000 tonnes of beef annually. About 10% of this is consumed domestically, meaning 500,000 tonnes is exported worth €1.8 billion. Nearly 98% of exports are destined for the UK and continental Europe. Along with exported carcass beef, almost 200,000 live cattle are exported to continental Europe to meet the demand of the feedlot industry for high quality, healthy animals.
There are currently over 7 million cattle in Ireland, which is nearly double the human population.
The main asset for the Irish beef industry is the suckler cow herd. The dams are generally Angus, Hereford, Limousin, Charolais or Simmental. These cows are crossed with terminal sires such as Charolais, Limousin and Belgian Blue. The calves produced are of high genetic merit and the best quality.
These calves are reared with their mothers on grass based diets for 8 months before being weaned. They then enter either highly efficient finishing programmes off-grass or family run feedlots.
While the main component of the feeding system is grass, home grown alternative forage, cereal grain and a range of by products from the brewing and distilling industry are also fed to the animals.
All Irish beef is produced to comply with the highest animal welfare standards. The major advantage of beef animals being fed mainly grass based diets means that Irish beef has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world.
According to the recent sheep census there are 2.5 million breeding ewes in Ireland, with an average flock size of approximately 100 ewes. The sector is divided into lowland sheep production and hill sheep production.
As with other Irish livestock sectors, grass is the basis for profitable production. Over 75% of sheep in Ireland are destined for export as prime lamb. Exports of over 40,000 tonnes are worth €180 million annually. The French market accounts for 45% of exports while the UK (25%) is another significant market.
Irish lamb is produced to the highest welfare standards and is well renowned in the markets its sold into.