The VistaMilk SFI Research Centre has said that reducing the livestock herd or a reduction of emissions from livestock as a ‘quick fix’ toward environmental goals is an “overly simplistic and flawed” approach.

VistaMilk describes itself as creating an overview of all research and innovations taking place under its remit and can combine different projects to generate a range of recommendations and practical solutions.

It has said that these will enable Irish dairy farmers to develop sustainable practices that will protect the 18,000 family dairy farms, the 60,000 jobs, and the €5 billion yearly economic contribution that dairy supports in Ireland.

It said it will also provide consumers with the reassurance of knowing that the dairy products they buy continue to be both farmed and processed locally.

In a statement, VistaMilk said: “For the Irish dairy industry (part of an agricultural sector that accounts for 37% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions, the bulk of which are methane), there’s an issue beyond reducing its total emissions by 22% by 2030. It’s an issue of perception.

“The conclusion has been drawn that reducing Ireland’s emissions is as simple as reducing livestock numbers and two narratives have emerged:

  • A reduction in emissions from livestock is a ‘quick fix’, allowing everyone else to get on with business as usual;
  • A reduction in Ireland’s national herd is the only way to meet agri-sector-specific targets.

“Both conclusions are overly-simplistic and flawed, and both ignore the significant strides and investment being made by the dairy industry to address the issues, reduce emissions, meet the targets, and become a truly sustainable sector.”

Future for livestock dairy sector

According to VistaMilk, much of this work is research-based, and the results that are emerging point to a bright green future for agricultural Ireland.

 According to the research centre, its experts are showing the way in:

  • Breeding programmes – matching specific cows with particular bulls and identifying and predicting cow characteristics, breeding animals which produce high quality milk, give birth to more valuable calves, are disease resistant, are fertile and produce less methane;
  • Pasture management – optimising pasture yield, pasture quality, reduce reliance on chemical fertiliser, increase milk production, and reduce GHG emissions;
  • Biogenic methane emissions – agriculture accounts for about 35% of Ireland’s GHG emissions, the bulk of which is biogenic methane:
    • Research at VistaMilk has shown that national inventory calculations may overestimate methane emissions from dairy cows by up to 18%;
    • New methodologies have been developed to distinguish short-lived biogenic methane from cumulative GHGs, i.e. carbon dioxide;
    • Research is investigating the potential of feed additives supplemented to dairy cows in small quantities to mitigate enteric methane emissions.
  • Carbon sequestration – infrastructure is in place at VistaMilk to establish the quantity of carbon being sequestered by pastures, to determine the effect of soil type and management practices, and to identify practices to optimise carbon sequestration rate.

Nutrition-related challenges

Beyond emissions and environmental impact, VistaMilk has said that it also leading research and development programmes that point to the future of farming as well as suggesting solutions to nutrition-related challenges.

  • AI, machine learning and machine-to-machine communication – predicting grass growth, identifying which animals might become ill, what impact climate might have – with the aim of modelling the entire farm;
  • Dairy products and nutrition – VistaMilk studies are looking at how the regular inclusion of whey protein in our diets can control weight gain and combat the obesity epidemic.

VistaMilk is a collaboration between agri-food and information communications technology (ICT) research institutes and leading Irish/multinational food and ICT companies.

It is funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM).