Dairy and beef farmers need to recognise their interdependence to overcome future challenges.
The recent Climate Action Bill will present major challenges for our beef and dairy sectors. Those challenges can be best addressed if both sectors work together as the fortunes of each are interdependent.
The introduction of the milk quota in 1984 led to a phenomenal growth in suckler cows from about 400,000 prior to then, to in excess of 1,000,000 by the mid-1990s.
That development led to our beef output being substantially less dependent on the dairy herd than it had been traditionally. But with the abolition of the quota in 2015, we are slowly but surely witnessing a growing contribution from dairy beef.
We can’t say if it’ll ever approach the pre-1984 levels, but a transition is well underway and it has implications for both the dairy and suckler sectors.
The dairy sector will require a sustained focus on the beef qualities of the dairy calf crop. This requirement is being reinforced by the welcome attention being given to the welfare of male calves on dairy farms.
We now have modern tools, such as sexed semen and the dairy beef index (DBI) that we didn’t have pre-quota.
Suckler farmers are understandably concerned about the shifting sands. The sector has been unprofitable for all but a small minority of producers (possible as low as 10%-15% of producers).
While numbers have been in decline since the early 1990s, most observers had assumed that decoupling would have accelerated the decline but inertia proved to be a more powerful factor.
The abolition of the milk quota will likely prove in time to have been a decisive factor in reducing the suckler herd. Dairy farmers have replaced sucklers with dairy cows.
Many beef farmers have also converted to dairying. But the revival of dairying also presents opportunities for beef producers. Many are seriously viewing the prospects of dairy beef production on its own or in combination with suckling.
The contract rearing of dairy heifers is also an opportunity being pursued by others. The focus has to be relentlessly on exploiting the most profitable opportunities.
A strong core suckler sector will continue to exist but at a lower level than at present. Also, and importantly, premium quality beef needs to attain a premium price.
Both sectors share the common and immediate challenge of coping with the environmental constraints of climate change, ammonia emissions, water quality and biodiversity protection.
Farmers understand this very well. These constraints will require a sea change in farming practices, especially in relation to the use of chemical nitrogen.
But the carbon budgets that are set out in the climate bill are to be framed in accordance with the ambition in the Programme for Government, which requires a doubling of the target reduction compared with the bill that was published just two years ago.
If this target were to be extended pro rata to agriculture, it is highly likely that the overall bovine herd would have to decline.
A number of factors needs to be borne in mind in determining the extent by which the bovine herd ought to be reduced and the mechanisms through which this will be achieved.
The first concerns recognition that biogenic methane is a short-lived greenhouse gas (GHG) and hence does not contribute to global warming to the same extent as other greenhouse gases, and also that there is considerable potential for offsetting emissions through carbon sequestration.
Regulation hasn’t yet caught up with the science but it will in time. It would be premature to engineer a significant reduction in the cattle herd only to see a regulatory change down the road.
A second consideration is that if farmers are to be expected to significantly reduce numbers, it is only reasonable that they’d have economically viable alternatives to turn to.
The simple fact is that, other than niche areas, there are no viable alternatives that can generate a level of profitability within a whisker of dairying.
So the carbon budgets that’ll be determined over the next couple of months will need to respect the unique features of livestock farming in Ireland.
Targets without instruments to achieve them are useless. It’s like having a bow, a target but no arrows.
Undoubtedly a more restrictive nitrates action programme, coupled with a reduction in chemical nitrogen, will reduce dairy cow numbers for those farmers that can’t manage to compensate for reduced grass production through use of clover and greater nitrogen-use efficiency.
In conclusion, beef and dairy farmers are facing into a challenging future from an environmental and economic perspective. But they’re a resilient group.
Both sectors can come through these challenges well, as long as their interdependence is harnessed; there is due recognition given to the uniqueness of biogenic methane as a GHG as well as the potential for carbon sequestration; and sufficient time is provided for farmers to adapt to what will be a profound requirement in how they farm.