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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘Dairying continues to be the powerhouse when it comes to economic sustainability’

Teagasc has released its latest farm sustainability report covering 2020.

The report uses the Teagasc National Farm Survey to track the performance of dairy, cattle, sheep, and tillage farms across Ireland in improving their economic, environmental, and social sustainability.

The state agency confirmed that Covid-19 restrictions did hamper data collection.

However, it said the report includes data for 2020, along with comparable figures stretching back through the last ten years.

This allows for a “temporal assessment of farm performance”.

Farm sustainability

The lead author of the report, Dr Cathal Buckley, Teagasc Rural Economy and Development Programme, said there is a sustainability paradox when examining results by farm system.

“Dairy farms have a higher level of economic and social sustainability compared to most other farm systems, but also have higher levels of environmental emissions.”

“By contrast, drystock farms have lower levels of economic and social sustainability. They also have much lower levels of environmental emissions.”

He said tillage farms lie in between dairy and drystock farms in terms of economic sustainability. Furthermore, he added that they also have low levels of environmental emissions.

Move to LESS

In terms of the trend over recent years, Dr Buckley pointed out that ammonia emissions declined in 2020 relative to the preceding years across all farm systems.

“Data, which track farm management decisions, indicate a significant movement towards low emissions slurry spreading methods. This is helping to reduce ammonia emissions.”

Trevor Donnellan, Head of the Agricultural Economics & Farm Surveys Department in Teagasc and co-author of the report, said:

“Dairying continues to be the powerhouse when it comes to economic sustainability compared to other farm systems.”

He added that average dairy farm incomes “far exceed” drystock systems and are ahead of tillage farm incomes.

“On the flip side, dairy farmers typically have a less favourable work-life balance. They typically work longer hours than farmers in other systems.”

Focussing on greenhouse gas emissions, the data indicate that dairy farmers continue to improve their environmental efficiency, with lower levels of greenhouse gases generated per tonne of product produced.

“However, these efficiencies are being overridden by a rising dairy cow population,” the state agency said.

Despite the improved emissions efficiency, total dairy farm emissions continue to increase. However, emissions per ha remained constant on the back of increased area farmed.

At the report launch, Dr John Finn presented the results of a pilot study as part of the EU SmartAgriHubs project, which has developed a biodiversity indicator for use in the Teagasc National Farm Survey.

Dr Finn said:

“A biodiversity indicator can now be generated for farms in the Teagasc National Farm Survey.“

“This study shows what’s possible if the necessary resources are dedicated to the collection of this data.”

Improve all aspects of sustainability

Teagasc director, Professor Frank O’Mara, said the “extensive” detail in the Teagasc Sustainability Report provides policymakers with “valuable” information for policy design and development.

Also, through its Signpost Programme, he said Teagasc is committed to working with farmers, the agri-food industry, and other stakeholders to improve all aspects of sustainability across all farm systems.

“In particular, the knowledge developed through this initiative will assist agriculture in meeting its environmental targets,” he concluded.

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