Drastic cut of up to 53% to suckler herd needed – climate council

Ireland must reduce its bovine numbers – specifically its suckler cows – as part of its climate change efforts, according to a report published by the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC).

Published today, Wednesday, July 24, the council outlined three suggested measures for the Government to take to ensure a reduction in the Irish herd.

“The observed trend in the expansion of the national dairy herd has been the major contributor to increases in agricultural emissions in recent years,” according to the report.

Continued reduction of the suckler herd would make an important and cost-effective contribution to mitigation within the sector.

“The potential release of land from beef production could support alternative uses, raise farm incomes and reduce exposure of the sector to external market shocks.

“The national herd is a major and increasing source of greenhouse gas emissions. The collective impact of existing mitigation measures is likely to be insufficient in achieving reductions in agricultural emission,” the report states.

The council outlined three scenarios – A, B and C –  to reduce suckler cow numbers for the period 2019 to 2030.

Scenario A

Under scenario A, the dairy herd is maintained at 2018 levels and the suckler herd declines by 15% relative to 2018.

Based on a historical reduction over the past 10 years of 1.4% per annum in the national herd, according to the CCAC, under this scenario total agricultural emissions are projected to be 19.2 million tonnes carbon equivalent in 2030, or 2.9% greater than 2005 levels and 1.7% below 2017 levels.

Scenario B

Under the second proposed scenario, the suckler herd declines by 30% relative to 2018.

In this scenario, total agricultural emissions are projected to reach 18.5 million tonnes carbon equivalent, or 0.9% below 2005 and 5.4% below 2017 levels.

This is approximately the level of reduction within the suckler herd suggested in the Teagasc baseline (S1) emissions projection for 2030, according to the report.

Scenario C

Under the final suggested measure, the council proposes that the suckler herd declines to pre-milk quota (1984) levels.

The reduction in suckler cow numbers required to reach the level observed in 1984 (circa 479,000 cows), the year the milk quota was introduced, was also explored.

It was estimated that approximately a 53% reduction relative to 2018 would be required.

With this level of reduction in conjunction with stabilisation of the dairy herd at 2018 levels, total agricultural emissions are projected to reach 17.4 million tonnes carbon equivalent in 2030.

This is 6.7% less than 2005 levels and 10.9% less than 2017 levels.

‘Necessary’

According to the council, a reduction in the national herd is “necessary to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions, while potentially improving farm incomes and making the agricultural sector less vulnerable to market volatility”.

“In addition, a reduction in national bovine numbers would significantly help combat localised environmental degradation, for example reducing ammonia emissions and improving water quality and biodiversity, where negatively impacted by intensive production.

“A reduction in bovine numbers would be achieved gradually and potentially through extensification, restructuring, re-scaling and diversification within existing enterprises, or by some enterprises switching out of food production altogether, for example towards afforestation,” the report notes.

Dairy

Dairy farming was also scrutinised by the council.

The report noted that dairy production is currently economically viable, which it states is not the case for the majority of beef enterprises.

However, dairy production is associated with greater risk of environmental degradation, for example generating on average twice the level of greenhouse gas emissions per hectare as beef production, while negatively impacting biodiversity.

Further expansion of the dairy herd should only occur within environmental limitations and not increase the risk of adverse environmental impacts at farm and catchment scales.

Derogation from the Nitrates Directive, which may have facilitated dairy production expansion in certain cases, is currently under review.

“This may play an important role in ensuring that production is maintained within certain environmental limitations,” the report states.

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