What will be done with the land of Ireland, if the specialist beef herds which are grazed on most of it are reduced?
This trend has started already, with calf registrations indicating that suckler cow numbers fell 5% in 2018.
That trend is likely to continue this year, with reduced beef prices, and many beef farmers losing money.
A “hard” Brexit at Halloween, affecting the existing export market for 52% of our beef production, could accelerate reduction of the specialist beef herds.
Their demise could be hastened further by the end (for most participants) of the Beef Data and Genomics Programme in 2020. The BDGP helps to maintain suckler farmers by paying them for breeding more efficient animals. If farmers drop out of the programme without a good excuse, they have to return all the payments they got in the six-year scheme.
By 2020, suckler farmers will also have a clearer picture of the threat to their livelihoods posed by the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement in principle.
Described by the IFA as “a sell out of a large part of our most valuable beef market to Latin American ranchers and factory farm units”, it opens the EU up to trade with a territory more than three times larger than the EU, which produces huge amounts of some of the world’s cheapest beef.
This litany of problems for the Irish beef industry has been welcomed by many, because they want to get rid of the sucker cows of Ireland, and beef farmers.
They are climate extremists, and they would get rid of our dairy herds also, because cattle for them are the source of the vast bulk of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which we have to reduce in line with our new Climate Action Plan.
Climate experts, on the other hand, say we don’t have to get rid of cattle, we can instead apply the many emission reduction strategies identified by Teagasc.
Such strategies include more efficient farming, using protected urea, and better ways of spreading slurry. But what if such measures are not enough, perhaps because they are cancelled out by continuing farming expansion, to avail of the strong growth potential of the Irish dairy sector, thanks to its international competitiveness?
That was the question posed last week by Teagasc Research Officer Trevor Donnellan.
If emission reduction strategies don’t do the job, our largely unprofitable beef farms would then be eyeballed for the slaughter.
The point would be made that, if the farmers got rid of their cattle, EU support payments would continue to provide nearly as much income as they had earned from cattle.
But what will be done with the land of Ireland, if the specialist beef herds which are grazed on most of it are reduced?
Climate extremists, in particular, should heed the advice on this from Trevor Donnellan, who says they should be mindful of the law of unintended consequences,
He explained that a hectare of the average beef farm produces less than half the GHG emissions of a hectare of an average dairy farm.
He said it would be advantageous, from a simplistic climate policy perspective, if some beef farmers chose to plant their land with trees, and some might well do that.
Their farms would switch from being a carbon source to a carbon sink.
He said others want a mass change in land use towards horticulture, but they fail to take account of the wafer-thin profit margins in horticulture; the volume of product to be harvested and exported; and the task of staffing this very labour-intensive activity, in an economy with full employment. In addition, converting permanent grassland to horticulture or tillage would result in at least as much carbon dioxide as from the displaced beef cattle.
A policy designed to persuade farmers to exit beef production entirely could be less successful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than a policy that encourages beef farmers to stay on, but at a lower production intensity, advised the Teagasc expert.