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Monday 27 March 2023 Dublin: -3°C
Getting to Know: Irish Dairy Farmers share their stories of sustainability
We meet dairy farmer Miriam Gunn who speaks to us about sustainability in the dairy industry.

“IT’S A 14-hour day if everything goes to plan.”

Miriam Gunn operates one of the 17,500 family-run farms in Ireland, producing liquid milk and milk used to make other dairy products. Based in Strokestown, Roscommon, the farm is home to three generations of farmers: her father-in-law, herself and her husband, and their kids. 

A typical day for Miriam begins at 7am, when she commences her work as a farmer and as a mother. “Milking the cows starts at 7 o’clock, I’m not always out for that with getting kids up for school and that sort of thing. After milking, the calves are fed and any jobs that need to be done with those are done, any animals that need to be tagged will be done then.” 

After the kids are brought to school, Miriam sets out on planning for the upcoming day and the following weeks and months. Paperwork, such as calf registration, medicines used on the farm, and recording feed details, gets completed before feeding the other cows. 

dairygold_edward_donovan_cloyne_cork Clare Keogh Clare Keogh

Minding approximately 180 cows is made easier with the help of a feed-to-yield system, which gives each animal a tailored amount depending on its milk yield. The cows are fed simple blocks of good quality silage and concentrate to “keep it fairly simple,” as Miriam says.

The evening shift consists of bringing the kids in from school and feeding them as well. Milking recommences at 7pm, followed by feeding the calves as the family tries to finish up around 9pm.

The life of a dairy farmer isn’t always as straightforward as the day Miriam describes. Throughout her time as a farmer, misconceptions around the farming industry in Ireland have impacted life on the farm, particularly around climate change. Miriam believes that “There’s an awful lot of misinformation floating around with a strong agenda that’s skewing ideas of what we do.” 

I don’t think people realise the full extent of how important and how deep that care for the environment is, in everything we do. It isn’t acknowledged. I always equate dairy farming with being a parent in that it’s the same level of responsibility. The majority of parents are doing their absolute level best to be good parents and I think it’s the exact same thing with dairy farmers.”

ndc_kerrygold_qma © Clare Keogh © Clare Keogh

When Miriam began farming, the farm operated under the quota system. Changes in 2015 meant a switch to a policy where farmers were expected to increase output massively. A recent move by the government to a more sustainable agenda for dairy farming has seen the industry place sustainability at the top of its priorities, a move which is being welcomed and implemented by farmers across Ireland.

Miriam’s farm in Strokestown is one of the thousands to incorporate sustainable methods of farming into their day-to-day operations. Miriam can point towards environmentally sustainable solutions such as methods of low-emission slurry spreading and constant soil sampling and analysis to manage fertiliser use which positively affects emissions and water quality and saves the farm money as well. 

New initiatives such as giving all animals a carbon hoofprint, which is used in breeding programmes to allow for the birth of a more emissions-efficient animal, and the space for nature scheme which shows areas on the farm designated for nature.

When it’s quantifiable, when you can see that figure, you are more aware of it to start with and you want to protect it. And if it is low, it gives you a wake-up call as well. If you, for example, had a farm and you looked at your space for nature report and it was only 3%, you’d go, ‘oh god, what do I need to do here?”

Miriam is passionate about farming in a sustainable way, and recently completed the Green cert, which will be compulsory for all future farmers. “Every trained farmer going forward is going to have training in that area, and you can’t say that about every sector.” 

clare-keogh © Clare Keogh © Clare Keogh

Thanks to the work of farmers like Miriam, the industry is focused on reaching its target of reducing its GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions by 25% by 2030, whilst still providing quality products to consumers both home and abroad. “Ireland is farming, Ireland has always been an agriculture-based society, it’s what we have lived on for generations and generations and generations.” 

We are one of the sectors that can address their emissions, and can make a big impact on their emissions. And in fairness, everything for the last few years has been geared towards doing that. There are huge amounts of research, initiatives, and training being carried out. We are in the fortunate position to do something to alleviate our carbon emissions.”

The National Dairy Council is an Irish organisation telling the story of nutritious, responsibly-produced Irish dairy.