If proposals to drastically reduce the suckler cow herd in Ireland are acted upon, land “released” from such measures must not be used for more intensive activities, according to the Climate Change Action Council.

Possible options for such land include anaerobic digestion (AD), albeit with further sustainability research, and forestry, according to the council.

Under the council’s Annual Review 2019 report, published this morning, Wednesday, July 24, the council called for a reduction of suckler cows in Ireland, proposing three suggested measures to do this, ranging from a 15% to a 53% reduction in the herd by 2030.

Following on from these proposals, the council said:

It is important that where land is released from beef production, it is not utilised for more intensive and potentially environmentally damaging activities, and that adequate supports are in place to support sustainable alternative land uses such as afforestation where appropriate.

Altered farm or land management, including extensification, restructuring, re-scaling and diversification or exiting from bovine production entirely, should be sufficiently supported, according to the council.

Supports would be needed to ensure that the mitigation actions are valued and contribute to higher farm incomes and protect socio-economic benefits to wider rural communities.

Any encouraged reduction in suckler cow numbers must address potential adverse socio-economic and cultural impacts, the council said, adding that it is vital that a “Just Transition is actively pursued”.

Cattle prices and CAP

The council noted that the majority of beef enterprises are currently economically unviable.

“At farm scale, a reduction in the number of animals may actually increase farm income due to the current situation where basic farm payments are diverted to support production.

“From a wider rural economy perspective, beef farming provides important socio-economic and cultural benefits that must be considered.

Extensification, a potential means of achieving number reductions, could be encouraged by linking part of the Common Agricultural Policy payments to stocking limits or maximum nitrogen (N) fertiliser applications per hectare as well as management of biodiversity habitats.

This, according to the council, would have important co-benefits in terms of biodiversity, water quality and lower ammonia emissions.

Farmers who agreed to participate in an extensification scheme would continue to receive their full direct payments, the council suggests.

“Indeed, it would be possible to recycle a share of direct payments from more intensive producers to top up the payments for farmers who agreed to extensification if the Government wished to do this.

“A reduction in beef supply would also likely lead to higher prices for the remaining cattle and for other beef farmers, all things being equal assumptions.”

Other measures

Other measures and options put forward by the council for Irish agriculture to reduce its emissions by 2030 include: carbon stocks and further sequestration potential in grasslands; multi-species grass swards; agroforestry; small-scale native woodland plantations; and carbon sequestration by farm hedgerows.

In addition, energy from biomass was highlighted; it was noted, however, that the adoption of bioenergy crop production may be unattractive to farmers due to past experiences of market instability.

“The use of biomass for energy generation may be appropriate in the short term, but biomass may have greater value within the bioeconomy,” the report states.

The demand for grass for anaerobic digestion may provide alternative enterprise options for land released from bovine production systems.

“However, the sustainability of such systems requires research,” the council concluded.