Farmers are willing to change, but they must be incentivised

Farmers are willing to change, but they must be incentivised

Farmers have been criticised for not reducing agri-emissions, which are near 1990 levels. Layers of bureaucracy will be imposed on farmers over the next decade or so to cajole them into

acting.

The Draft National Climate and Air Roadmap for the Agriculture Sector to 2030 and Beyond – Public Consultation was launched by the department this past week.

It said that the agricultural sector needs to respond and “play its part in the transition to a low carbon, climate resilient economy and society for the future,” and the target is a 10% to 15% emissions reduction for agriculture.

The consultation suggests a five-pronged approach, while maintaining viable farm incomes (though fewer than a third of farms are classed as viable, according to the National Farm Survey results for 2018).

The objectives are:

  • 1. Reduce GHG emissions from the sector
  • 2. Increase the carbon sequestration potential of our land and forests
  • 3. Meet our ammonia ceilings targets
  • 4. Build resilient food production and land-use systems that meet these climate and air obligations, while also meeting market expectations
  • 5. Communicate our progress

The report acknowledges that large swathes of the country are suited mainly to cattle or sheep production and that emissions per unit of production are low. Yet the plan insists on driving down green house gas and ammonia emission intensity.

Increasing the efficiency of the national herd by reducing the age at first calving and replacement rates can lessen the climate impact of our animal populations. Increasing the efficiency of applied fertiliser through soil management (lime, p & k), targeting 60% of slurry by low emissions spreading systems, conversion to urea-based products, and insisting clover is included in reseeding land are mentioned as ways to enhance soil fertility and nutrient efficiency.

Other suggestions are to improve beef genetics, reduce protein in livestock feeding stuffs, and increase the area of lands planted by 8,000ha per annum. Some of these will be easy wins, such as the conversion from CAN-based fertiliser to protected urea. Suggesting to farmers that they should reduce their replacement rates is patronising, as most farmers are doing everything they can to avoid animals falling out of their herd.

Equally, asking dairy farmers to improve the beef traits of their animals will only make sense to them where they will be financially rewarded.

It is more that three decades since farmers shifted away from the beefier British Friesian to the Holstein, as farmers figured the extra litres more than made up for the loss of beef value. With beef prices on the floor, there has never been less incentive for dairy farmers to focus on beef and encouraging farmers in this direction will be a hard sell.

Encouraging farmers to finish their animals sooner will reduce the quantity of methane produced over the animal’s lifetime, but farmers on poorer land typically allow their animals to grow into size and adopt a low input approach, feeding silage for two winters and little meal and finishing animals at 30 months. This is more profitable for their land type.

Farmers will adapt to whatever rules are imposed on them, but government must provide the appropriate incentives.

Farmers are receptive to change, with nearly 269,000 hectares of land included in the GLAS low input permanent pasture scheme and a 14,000 hectares under bird cover.

Given that farm incomes are low, government should ensure that additional costs and regulations will not affect farm profits and that more intensive, predominantly full-time, farmers are not vilified out of existence.

Farmers should consider how the additional regulations may affect their business and how that may translate into lower stock rates, or additional farm running costs (such as soil sampling and milk recording), or capital costs (such as slurry equipment) and factor this into their medium-term projections.

The department consultation is open until January 10th, 2020.

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