The top dairy farmer in the country will be named next Monday after the judges reach their decisions in a competition that sets out to highlight and reward excellence.
Technical and management practices, quality milk standards, sustainability, animal welfare, and care of the environment will be assessed by the judges.
Each of those categories is vital for the future growth of the Irish dairy industry, which has an annual turnover of €4bn and yearly exports of €2.6bn.
Some 17,000 dairy farmers are engaged in the industry, which provides direct and indirect employment to 7,500 more people.
That scale of enterprise spread across the land underlines the crucial role that dairy farming, processing and servicing plays in the national economy.
Also, with global consumption of dairy products expected to increase by 20% or more before 2021, there is obvious potential for further export growth.
However, with some 150m small-scale dairy households, equivalent to 750m people, engaged in milk production worldwide, there is increasing competition for Irish exports.
Earlier this year, the National Dairy Council published a three-year strategic plan. Founded in 1964, the NDC’s core objective is to support the consumption of dairy products in the Republic. It is a non-profit organisation funded by a voluntary dairy farmer levy. Its new strategy sets out to protect and promote the image, quality, taste, and nutritional credentials of Irish dairy produce.
NDC chairman Jackie Cahill, speaking at the launch, said there is a compelling story to tell to consumers about the quality of Irish dairy produce and the role of such foods in a healthy, balanced diet.
“We have a growing and enviable reputation for the sustainability of our good quality, pasture-based dairy farming, combined with the nutritious nature of so many dairy products. The Irish dairy industry is also poised for positive change,” he said.
Mr Cahill said that, by 2015, the end of the three-year strategic timeframe, a new era will have begun for dairy farming here, with the abolishment of milk quotas in 2015 and the work of Food Harvest 2020 bearing fruit.
Chief executive Zoe Kavanagh said the work of the NDC will continue to be underpinned by evidence-based nutritional science and research.
Ms Kavanagh said this is an exciting time for the dairy sector.
The NDC and Kerrygold Milk Awards are therefore important to the efforts of Bord Bia, the Irish Dairy Board, and Irish food companies in seeking a larger slice of the world’s €64bn trade in milk products.
Last year’s competition winners were David and Kathleen Cassidy, Coppenagh, Lisnagar, Cootehill, Co Cavan, suppliers of milk to Glanbia to make Baileys Irish Cream.
Five of this year’s 14 finalists are from Co Cork, with four of them farming in the west of the county.
They are Denis Collins, Letterlickey, Bantry (Drinagh Co-op); Noel and Anne Jennings, Clancoole, Bandon (Bandon Co-op); John McCarthy, Butlerstown, Bandon, (Barryroe); and Ronald Shorten, Woodfield, Clonakilty (Lisavaird).
Richard and Nora Fitzgerald, Gortnahown, Mitchelstown, who are Dairygold suppliers, are the other finalists from Cork.
Shortlisted from Tipperary are Kevin Bourke, Ballinlonty, Borrisoleigh, (Tipperary Co-op) and Conor Molony, Clobanna, Thurles (Centenary Co-op).
Galway and Mayo have a finalist each: Thomas Mahon, Geeha North, Kinvara, (Arrabawn) and Gerard Murphy, Cahermaculick, Shrule (Aurivo).
There are also two finalists from Limerick: Edward Fitzgerald, Tobernea, (Kilmallock) and Denis O’Gorman, Ballinagoul, (Kilmallock), each supplying Kerry Agribusiness.
The other finalists are David Boland, Horseleap, Moate, Co Westmeath (Aurivo) and Glenn Chapman, Tobergal, Ferns, Co Wexford (Glanbia), John O’Gorman, Hugginstown, Co Kilkenny (Glanbia).
A prize of €5,000 and the NDC and Kerrygold Quality Milk Awards trophy await the overall winning farmer.