‘It is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot feed our cattle and sheep’

Calls have been made for Irish farmers to start contemplating destocking by the leader of the Green Party, Eamon Ryan.

The Dublin Bay South TD made the comment as he asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, whether his department has carried out research on the optimal size of the national cattle and sheep herd in the context of fodder and emissions.

Speaking today (Thursday, July 12) in the Dail, deputy Ryan said: “We are overstocked. We hear every farmer around the country saying that, because the physical reality is that we cannot feed our cattle – not to mention the issue of emissions.

“We have a 50 million tonne overshoot which we have to deal with by 2030. The agriculture industry has to play its part in that. We also have to destock because of water pollution.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot feed our cattle and sheep.

He believes that farmers have been “whipped towards ever greater numbers, ever more intense practices and ever larger herds”.

The Green Party leader expressed concerns regarding the fact that some farmers have already been forced to start feeding first-cut silage to livestock.

Continuing, he said: “Please god there will be a second crop, but – at the moment – one would not bet on it. What are they going to do in the autumn and winter? They are the patsies. They are the guys and women who are at the sharp end in respect of this processing industry.

“The likes of Larry Goodman are not going to have a hard winter, but the guys on the front line who lean on this and who are paying for everything are the ones getting caught out in this squeeze.”

Grass supply

However, Minister Creed did not agree with deputy Ryan’s belief that Irish farms are overstocked.

The minister noted a 2013 report by Teagasc, which concluded that there was “an excess of grass” to feed livestock under present numbers.

“Meeting the increasing demand for grass supply, responding to increases in livestock numbers, will require increased levels of soil fertility and grassland management coupled with increased levels of grass utilisation.

One of the key early findings emerging from the analyses of data captured in PastureBase Ireland indicates that many farms have the potential to increase their grass growth.

“If soil fertility and grazing management can be improved, farms are capable of increasing grass production,” he said.

Fodder crises

On the topic of fodder crises, Minister Creed stressed that it is important that “we do not talk ourselves into a situation in which the current difficulties we face are used against us in the international marketplace”.

“In the context of the crisis in spring, which we dealt with, we imported the equivalent of eight hours’ feed for a bovine population of 7 million.

We have difficulties, but they are not issues of national crisis.

“We need to be careful not to talk ourselves into a situation in which we impose unnecessary damage on the sector,” he warned.

Climate change objectives

In terms of emissions, Minister Creed referenced a report recently published by Teagasc which highlights the potential for greenhouse gas (GHG) abatement to limit the emissions from the agriculture, forest and land-use sectors over the period 2021 to 2030.

This report outlines the types of abatement options available and the minister stated his officials are “actively engaged” in reviewing these options.

During his exchange with the leader of the Green Party, Minister Creed urged deputy Ryan to bear in mind that the Paris Accord states that Ireland should meet its “climate change objectives without compromising food production”.

Concluding, he said: “What is the point in dismantling a carbon-efficient system of food production only to replace it with production which is not as carbon-efficient in other countries?

The deputy needs to be aware of how efficient our production is per unit of output relative to our competitors. People will source protein one place or another, and it is best that they source it from the people who are most efficient.

“Even the Paris Accord, to which we ascribe and whose targets we are legally obliged to achieve, recognises that.”