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Dairy Sector

Vision for the Irish Dairy Sector

To be the world’s most trusted exporter of sustainably driven and technically advanced high quality dairy products to customers worldwide.

Sector Summary

Ireland’s dairy industry is built on the tradition of cattle grazing outdoors on grassland pasture for up to nine months of the year on family-owned farms, often passed down from generation to generation. Indeed, it has been found that Irish dairy herds enjoy on average 240 days per year out on pasture, with 95% of their diet consisting of grass. This outdoor grazing system enables Irish dairy to be one of the most environmentally efficient in the world with a carbon footprint of 0.97kg CO2e per kg FPCM*.

These 17,000 farms have an average herd size of 91 cows and an average size of 55 hectares. Ireland has the longest grass growing season in the northern hemisphere. This advantage is bestowed on the country by virtue of its island location on the western edge of Europe, with a temperate climate, plentiful rainfall and rich deep soils. Ireland has a population of just over five million people, yet it produces enough dairy to feed multiples of it. Our dairy production is focused on cheese, butter, powders and dairy ingredients. 

Sustainable Growth 

In 2021, Irish farmers produced 8.75 billion litres of milk, an increase of over 2 billion litres since 2015. There has also been an increase in both fat and protein levels in Irish milk deliveries in recent years. Looking ahead to 2022, Irish milk production is expected to exceed 8 billion litres for the third year in a row, this production is driven by increased cow numbers and improved cow genetics. Irish dairy cow numbers, as recorded in June 2021 stood at 1.6 million, an increase of 2.3% on 2020 numbers. 

Against the backdrop of the abolition of European production quotas in 2015, the Irish dairy sector has been investing in its capability to position Ireland as a global leader in the development of a high value, environmentally sustainable dairy. 

To measure and support this sustainable growth, Bord Bia and Irish dairy industry partners** worked together to introduce the Sustainable Dairy Assurance Scheme (SDAS) in 2014. SDAS is a national dairy scheme with close to 100% participation from Irish farmers.  

The SDAS scheme monitors quality assurance requirements and collects farm performance data to monitor the sustainability of Irish dairy at individual farm level. It measures Ireland’s progress in a systematic way on its journey of improvement.

Grass Fed

The Bord Bia Grass Fed Standard is the world’s first independently verified grass fed certification. 

It provides reassurance that dairy products carrying the independent ISO accreditation have been produced using milk from Irish grass fed cows.

Dairy products certified to carry the Bord Bia Grass Fed Standard are produced using milk from herds with a 95% grass diet, spend an average of 240 days a year on pasture and are SDAS verified.  The Grass Fed Standard offers nutritional and environmental benefits as well as offering an opportunity for international customers to promote their Irish-sourced dairy products as certified grass fed. This is an increasingly popular consumer preference, with over 60% of consumers in key markets claiming that they would pay more for grass fed dairy products. 

Export Markets 

In 2021, Irish dairy exports reached €5.1 billion, making it the largest food and drink export category.  This was the third consecutive year in which the value of dairy exports exceeded €5bn. Driving this was strong market returns across the core categories of butter, cheese, and powders, coupled with a diversified market mix. 

Ireland exported dairy products to over 147 countries in 2021. The largest destinations were The UK, Netherlands, Germany, China and the US. 

Irish dairy exports for Asian destinations experienced extraordinary growth, particularly for ingredients. Dairy exports to priority markets such as Indonesia and Malaysia increased in value by 60% and 23% respectively, becoming worth more than €97m cumulatively. 

Butter was our most valuable dairy export at €1 billion, equalling one fifth of the total value of dairy exports. Irish butter has enjoyed unprecedented demand in recent years, particularly in the US. Kerrygold is now the number two butter brand in the US, with the US becoming Ireland’s second most valuable market for butter. Irish butter exports also grew in Japan and in Southeast Asia in 2021, with markets such as Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines all showing increased demand. 

Cheese was Ireland’s second largest dairy category in value in 2021, reaching over €1 billion. 

Total for the Dairy category in 2017(mt) was 1,361,000 to 2021(mt) 1,700,000, a 20% total increase.

* 3 year average SDAS audit figures Audits 2019 – 2021
** SDAS program was developed by a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) representing Bord Bia – the Irish Food Board; Teagasc; the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI); the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM); industry (producers and processors) and other technical experts.