Dairy Farming


Ireland’s temperate climate and grass growing ability, combined with a dairying tradition, are natural advantages that make Ireland one of the foremost milk producers in the world. In 2011, we had over 1.1 million dairy cows producing milk on 18,548 dairy farms.

Detailed figures on the cattle herd are available from the national database maintained by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (www.icbf.com).


In 2011, total Irish milk output amounted to around 5.6 billion litres of milk with an estimated farmgate value of €1.8 billion. Exports of Irish dairy products and ingredients were valued in the order of €2.7 billion, making us the 10th largest dairy export nation in the world.

Dairy cows in Ireland are generally milked twice per day, with milk collected from farms by processing companies. The majority of milk processors in Ireland are co-operatives owned by farmers, such as Dairygold, Lakeland, Connacht Gold, Town of Monaghan, Arrabawn and Tipperary. Two of the largest processors, Kerry Group and Glanbia, are publicly quoted companies with their shares listed on the Irish Stock Exchange.

Between 1975 and 1984, milk production in Ireland grew at an average of 5.99% per year, a pace of growth that was one of the highest in the world. Growth was brought to a shuddering halt with the introduction of European milk quotas in 1984. Prompted by infamous “butter mountains” of surplus stocks in subsidised cold storage, this policy measure was designed to control milk production in Europe by freezing each country’s production at their 1983 level. In 2008, against a backdrop of sustained growth in the global market for dairy products, the European Union agreed to abolish milk quotas from 1 April 2015.


When milk quotas were introduced, Ireland had 63,000 farmers milking cows on about 1.7million hectares. Consolidation into larger herds resulted in seven out of ten farmers leaving the business since then. A large proportion was small scale and could not justify the required capital investment in housing and milking facilities, especially when quotas prevented any expansion. There is an expectation that many new entrants will join the business once the barrier of quotas is removed.

In Ireland, dairy farming is generally operated on a seasonal grass based system, in that cows calve in the Spring and eat as much grass as possible in their 300 day lactation. Dairy animals are generally Holstein or Friesian breed (www.icbf.com), although Jerseys, Montbeliardes and Norwegian Red also feature. The optimum milk production system encouraged by State research and advisory organisation Teagasc in their 2011 dairy manual (available from www.teagasc.ie) is to calve animals at two years of age and then every 365 days thereafter. Dairy cows generally last five lactations on average, although some cows can remain in the herd for much longer.

Dairy exports

The average herd size is Ireland is around 55 cows per farm, much lower than our competitors in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. However, this figure is expected to increase significantly once milk quotas are removed.

Despite having less that 1% of the world’s dairy cows, Ireland is responsible for over 15% of the world’s infant milk formula production, with three of the world’s main producers operating here – Pfizer (Askeaton, Co Limerick), Abbotts (Cootehill, Co Cavan) and Danone (Macroom, Co Cork and Rockmills, Co Wexford).

Other major dairy exports include the famous Kerrygold brand (www.kerrygold.ie). It was developed by the Irish Dairy Board (www.idb.ie), whose website also includes an extended history of dairy farming in Ireland.

The major exports of the Irish dairy industry today include butter, cheese, casein, whole milk powder, skim milk powder, whey and other specialised ingredients.



Around 10% of Ireland’s milk is required for the fresh drinking milk market, or “liquid” consumption. This market is supplied by a dedicated group of year round milk producers who milk their cows 365 days per year to ensure continuity of supply. Cows are calved all year round, or in autumn and spring batches to ensure volumes are maintained and the shelves never run dry!

Further information on dairy farming in Ireland is available from the National Dairy Council (www.ndc.ie) and from the agricultural awareness charity Agri Aware (www.agriaware.ie).






previousPrevious - Land Use in Ireland
Next - Beef Farmingnext