Reducing GHG emissions and the size of the national herd in Ireland were the focus of a recent episode of RTÉ One’s Ear to the Ground.
In opening the first episode of the new series, one of three presenters, Darragh McCullough, commented that Ireland has committed to reducing its GHG emissions from farming by 25% in the next eight years.
But, he asked if the sector can achieve this without reducing the national herd.
He pointed to figures from the EPA, which show that the agricultural sector was directly responsible for 37.5% of national GHG emissions last year.
Emissions from farming, its figures indicate, he added, rose by 3% on the back of an increase in dairy cow numbers and milk production.
Last year, the dairy herd increased by 2.8% and mid-year through 2022, the number of dairy cows has jumped by a further 1.4%.
Bruce Thompson, who That’s Farming has previously interviewed, is an eighth-generation farmer who runs an enterprise in Co. Laois, which has nearly tripled in size over the last seven years.
He explained to viewers: “Pre-quota, our family farm had 54 cows, and now since the abolition of quotas, we are now are milking 320 cows in a spring-calving system.”
When asked by McCullough if he has finished expanding numbers, he responded:
“If the opportunity [to expand] came, I would probably take it, but as far as land masses are concerned at the moment, I have hit my hedgerows, I suppose. I cannot go any further.”
McCullough added that, like Bruce, many dairy farmers are undertaking actions, such as planting multi-species swards, using protected urea and breeding more fertile and productive cows, to reduce their carbon footprint.
In outlining the above, he asked, “are those actions enough to reach the new 25% target?”.
“You [Bruce] are one of the best dairy farmers in the country, technically very efficient, and are the type of farmer that should be able to hit the target.”
To which the farmer replied: “Without reducing my herd number, I will not be able to hit a 25% reduction in emissions.”
“We are probably looking at a total reduction of 14% by pulling all the stops out. I am not prepared to reduce my herd numbers.”
New scientific research entitled randomised national land management strategies for net-zero emissions, published by the University of Galway and the University of Limerick, examined how farming and land use can best achieve our climate targets.
It found that as well as all technical offsetting measures, Ireland will need to plant “a lot” more forestry and reduce our herd numbers.
Dr David Styles is one of the authors, and, during the episode, he said:
“The best guess is that by 2023, we will need a 10-15% herd reduction to put us on a more comfortable path to meeting that 25% reduction if we are still pretty effective with all the debatement options that we are talking about.”
When asked if dairy farmers should be allowed to continue to expand, he replied:
“Possibly, there are pathways where the dairy herd could expand very modestly if there are very large reductions in beef suckler cattle, for example, in other sectors.”
“But that is not on the table at the moment. So, the ways things are dairy expansion is a massive problem in terms of our climate targets.”
“It [dairy farming] is not compatible with our climate targets,” he remarked.
Dr Cara Augustenborg is an assistant professor in landscape studies and environmental policy at UCD and CCAC (Climate Change Advisory Council) member.
She commented: “We are going to have to look at ways to diversify our food production model, so we give farmers other choices aside from just livestock farming.”
“It could be planting trees or more carbon farming measures or moving a little bit into horticulture or whatever some farmers may choose to do to get that extra bit of the way to achieving that target.”
“It should be up to each individual farmer to decide what measures suit their current farming practices.”
“We have heard from suckler farmers who have said they would be open to producing anything that they are being paid to produce if they are given other options.”
“At the moment, they are not being given their options and just like we have seen peat workers being given other options to transition away from working in the fossil-based peat industry, we also have to give farmers options to transition out of livestock farming too,” she concluded.
Farmer’s closing remarks
McCullough then said to Bruce: “The scientists say we are looking at a 15% cull in the national herd to hit the targets. Can you imagine this herd being 10-15% smaller?”
He replied: “Apart from hurting my pride, it would result in a significant reduction in my output and my income. It would be a difficult pill to swallow.”