No shortage of data for good policy decisions in farming

There have been dramatic changes in the dairy sector, before and since the removal of quotas in 2015
No shortage of data for good policy decisions in farming

When results of the National Farm Survey carried out by Teagasc are revealed each year, most attention is focussed on the data on incomes, and the variation in incomes earned in different enterprises.

But the Survey has a wealth of other data on Irish agriculture, which are sometimes overlooked.

Today, I’m looking at indicators of productivity and sustainability on Irish farms.

To start, some facts on the survey.

It has been carried out by Teagasc (and its predecessor, An Foras Taluntais) since the 1950s.

Since we joined the “Common Market” as it was then, in the early 1970s, it has been part of a wider European survey of farm incomes and practice (the EU Farm Accountancy Network).

The most recent report summarises data on 827 farms, where Teagasc staff collect and analyse data, which are regarded as representative of 90,000 Irish farms.

Farms with less than €8,000 annual turnover are not included, neither are the intensive enterprises of pigs, poultry and horticulture.

Enterprises where horses are the main enterprise are also absent.

Dairy productivity

We all know that there have been dramatic changes in the dairy sector, before and since the removal of quotas in 2015.

The Survey enables us to track these changes. The accompanying table shows data from the surveys of 2010, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019. The number of dairy farmers has remained relatively static at 16,000 plus, over the period.

The rapid decline in dairy farm numbers took place before 2010.

The resources table shows that the average area of a dairy farm has increased by 21% between 2010 and 2019.

The number of livestock units increased by 39%, while the stocking rate per hectare increased 30%.

The average number of dairy cows on these farms increased from 56 to 80, an increase of 41%.

There has been an 8% increase in labour used on dairy farms, implying increased employment of 1,920 people.

The number of non-family labour units employed has increased from about 2,700 in 2010 to 4,200 in 2019.

Now let us look at the output and incomes table.

The component increases, added to the yield improvement, imply an increase in total output per cow of 18.7% over the decade.

Milk production per hectare farmed has increased by over 20%.

These productivity achievements are impressive and would not be replicated in other sectors.

Farm family income in most years exceeds €60,000, which is more than 35% above 2010 levels (and 2010 was a “good year” in relative terms).

The exception was the bonanza year of 2017 when incomes exceeded €86,000.

The main reason for this was extremely high world prices for dairy products.

That illustrates the fact that no matter what increases in productivity farmers make, price is the predominant factor in determining incomes.


Sustainability is a complex subject. There are concepts of economic sustainability, social sustainability and environmental sustainability.

These concepts are becoming far more widely used in the wider analysis of political policy proposals.

And in Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, they now have a central role.

The European Farm Income Survey of which the National Farm Survey is a part has changed its emphasis and its name, to reflect the increased focus on sustainability. What was the Farm Accountancy Data Network (FADN) will become the Farm Sustainability Data Network.

Teagasc has already been busy publishing research on indicators of sustainability, with the data largely derived from the National Farm Survey. A “Sustainability Report for 2018” was published recently, the corresponding report for 2019 will be published later this year.

Among the environmental indicators now being measured annually by Teagasc are:

  • Greenhouse gases and ammonia emissions per farm, per hectare, and per kg of output.
  •  Nitrogen balance and nitrogen use efficiency.
  •  Phosphorous balance and phosphorous use efficiency.

Among the social sustainability indicators now being measured are household vulnerability, agricultural education, isolation risk, high age profile, and work-life balance.

The 2018 report estimates these variables for 2018, but also for six years previously, using three-year moving averages, because weather in any one year or prices in another can present a misleading picture.

While the proportion of Irish farms recognised as “vulnerable” has remained static in recent years, other social indicators show a worsening situation.

The table shows that the age profile is disimproving.

The number of farms, where the farmer is over 60 and there is no one in the household under 45, has increased from 22% in 2012 to 29% in 2018.

The percentage of farmers living alone has increased from 16% to 19% in the same period.

Other social indicators have shown an improvement. Hours worked per annum has fallen from 1,835 to 1,693.

Environmental indicators do not indicate any substantial change over the period (although when calculated per kg of output, there are clear improvements). Some of these indicators can be affected by the weather.

The disimprovement in nitrogen balance in 2018 is attributed to particularly bad weather in that year.

Is there any section of the Irish economy which is so well served with data on incomes, costs, environmental and social outcomes, as agriculture is by the National Farm Survey?

It should contribute to better policymaking at home and in Brussels, and should make the work of the industry’s lobbyists easier.

More in this section


Keep up-to-date with all the latest developments in Farming with our weekly newsletter

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up