Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue gave little away when the subject of capping herds was mentioned in the context of the “significant expansion” of the Irish dairy sector in recent years, instead repeatedly stressing the need for a “stable herd” to meet climate goals.

The minister was speaking at the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) annual general meeting which took place online yesterday (Thursday, January 28).

During the meeting, the minister said in his opening address to attendees that the climate action roadmap for the Irish agricultural sector, Ag Climatise, is based on “the premise of a stable herd” and that there was a “need for a mature discussion” on the topic of continued dairy expansion.

During the questions and answers session after this, IFA Dairy Committee chairman Tom Phelan quizzed the minister on his comments, saying: “I think you need to clarify where you see dairy expansion going forward – are you talking about capping?

“Why cap the one sector that is delivering a viable farm income for farm families?” Phelan asked, highlighting that €1.3 billion had been spent in processing, adding that farmers had invested heavily with the rural economy benefiting from this.

In his response, the minister said: “The recent Ag Climatise roadmap is based on a stable herd. We have seen Irish agriculture become more efficient in terms of the inputs that are put in and in terms of the outputs – but if overall the herd is increasing then it’s going to be very, very challenging for us to actually overall reduce our emissions. Every sector is going to have to play its part regarding climate change.”

Highlighting the work done by Teagasc in developing the Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC), Minister McConalogue said that gains are earmarked through better nitrogen use and soil fertility but reiterated, to make those gains and achieve reductions, “the Ag Climatise is based on a concept of stable herd”.

IFA president Tim Cullinan asked what the minister and his department’s position is on delivering for the dairy sector, to which Minister McConalogue reiterated that measures for gains in emission goals “will only be realised in the context of a stable herd”.

I don’t have a magic solution around how we achieve that but it’s something that we have to have a discussion on because if the rest of the economy is making a contribution we can’t be increasing our overall emissions in the agri-food sector.

“We have to be making a contribution too. The Ag Climatise document outlines how we can do that and it’s based on the concept of a stable herd around that.”

Asked directly by Cullinan “are you saying here today that you are looking at a cap on the herd?” the minister said:

“What I’m saying today is consistent with what was published in the Ag Climatise roadmap, which is, in order for us to make gains and to control our emissions and not be increasing them, making a contribution is based on the concept of a stable herd.

“That’s a discussion that it will be important for us to have but certainly if we’re to make our contribution it’s outlined a stable herd is central to making those achievements.

Cullinan pushed him on this, asking: “So are you saying we won’t have a cap? Can we take it from today that we won’t have a cap on the herd?”

Without a stable herd we’re not going to be able to make a contribution in terms of emissions; that’s what’s clear, the rest of it is to be discussed and teased out. But that’s a discussion we have to have.

When told that “a stable herd is a herd that’s not increasing”, which sounded like a cap, the minister said:

“A stable herd is a stable herd; how we achieve that is something we have to discuss and examine but if we’re not having a stable herd then emissions will be going up in the years ahead.”