GHGs issue can be win-win for dairy

Most of the agricultural research to date indicates that there is little or no conflict between good farming and care for the environment.

In fact, some of the Teagasc research findings on fertilisers and grass have enabled many farmers to save a lot of money on fertilisers, without loss of production, and better protecting the environment.

Agricultural research has also proved the benefits of good grassland management for the environment.

However, some commentators are sceptical about and the reasons for it

Nevertheless, the official view around most of the world on global warming is that it must be tackled urgently.

Certain practices will be enforced, and these are likely to be inconvenient and costly.

Global warming can be examined under many headings — including EU and Irish targets for greenhouse gases, and agricultural practices to reduce greenhouse gases.

What will be the Irish approach?

EU Targets

In March, 2008, EU leaders committed to a target of unilateral reduction of 20% in greenhouse gases by 2020, compared to 2005.

Ongoing discussions are taking place seeking agreement on how to achieve these targets.

Governments might have to purchase carbon credits from other countries, or pay very heavy penalties for exceeding their greenhouse gas allowances.

In the event of global agreement, which is unlikely, the target could be a 30% reduction.

There is a good chance the EU will achieve the 20% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020.

It is the target in Ireland, but there are no specific agricultural targets.

In the broader picture, indications from last year’s international climate change conference in Doha were that promises made some years ago by developed countries to financially support under-developed countries to mitigate their climate are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Here, Teagasc researchers say the Irish case must be based on the need for more food production globally, and emissions per unit of production should be the criterion for negotiations.

On this basis, Ireland is very competitive.

Moorepark researchers also highlight the greater carbon efficiency of grazing high-quality grass.

A few years ago, Teagasc organised a conference on climate change, and the key message was the global threat of greenhouse gas emissions can be seen as an opportunity for Irish farming.

While agricultural output remained steady here, emissions were reduced by 8%.

At the same time, emissions from the transport sector rose 175%.

Teagasc says there is a good case for rewarding Ireland for its efficient grass-based system of farming.

They say if carbon sequestration is factored in, Ireland has a significant competitive advantage.

Carbon sequestration removes carbon dioxide via photosynthesis, thus reducing greenhouse gases emissions.

Forests are also carbon sinks — and are increasing in Ireland. In some countries, forests have to be cut down to increase feed production. Teagasc say it is essential carbon sinks be included in any new climate mitigation proposals.

Irish greenhouse gases

Ireland’s greenhouse gases situation is almost unique, in that a very high proportion comes from agriculture.

New Zealand is the only other developed country that has a higher proportion of emissions from agriculture (48%). Ireland has 28%.

There is a concerted effort by other sectors to ensure that Irish agriculture takes responsibility for a large share of greenhouse gas reduction, because emissions from agriculture are very potent. Methane from animals is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide gas, and nitrous oxide is 310 times more potent.

The main greenhouse gases from agriculture are methane from ruminants (60%), nitrous oxide (36%), and carbon dioxide, about 4%.

There is a target reduction in greenhouse gases from 19.6m tonnes in 2005 to 17.05 m tonnes in 2020. The big questions are can Irish agriculture deliver this, what will be the economic effect, and what impact will it have on how agriculture develops?

An obvious solution is a reduction in cattle numbers. But this is not practical, and if animals are reduced in this country, the deficit will be made up in other countries, which will result in a lot more greenhouse gases. There are changes that can be made to agricultural practices which can significantly reduce greenhouse gases without unduly affecting farm profitability. In fact, it has been proved that emission-reducing practices increase profitability.


In the context of dairying, higher yielding cows offer scope for reducing emissions. Irish cows, on average, are producing under 70% of their genetic milk potential. An improvement in genetic merit, and higher output per cow, will be a feature of future Irish dairying.

With the end of EU milk quotas in sight, higher yielding cows will minimise increases in emissions from expansion in cow numbers, as well as optimising profits. But with a big expansion in dairying likely, they will not reduce the present levels of emissions from dairying.

The Food Harvest 2020 plan envisages a 50% increase in milk production, with an extra 350,000 dairy cows.

But, with greater efficiency in the beef sector, the equivalent number of beef animals (now being slaughtered between 30 and 48 months) could be removed from the system.

Recent data indicated over 40% of our dairy replacements calve at about three years of age. If most of these could be changed to two-year-old calving, they could be replaced with tens of thousands of extra cows, without increasing greenhouse gases.

Other strategies for minimising emissions from dairying include longer grazing seasons, improving pasture digestibility, feeding oils, increasing clover in swards — all of which should also improve profit.

Replacing some grass silage with maize silage or wholecrop will also minimise greenhouse gas emissions. Trials with enzymes and other products that change digestion to reduce methane are promising.


The biggest change that can be made to reduce emissions in the cattle and beef sectors is earlier slaughtering of beef animals, and more bull beef.

This does not necessarily mean lower profits, because higher quality grass and clover can play a huge role in reducing age to slaughter.

Recent studies show that emissions are reduced by 40% on top farms, compared to “average” beef producers.

However, the carbon footprint (emissions) of Irish beef production is among the lowest in Europe. Other strategies, such as including coconut oil in rations, and finishing cattle on all-concentrate diets, will have very significant effect in reducing emissions.

But reducing beef production here would only result in increases in other countries, and is not a suitable option.

Nitrous oxide is a major greenhouse gas from agriculture, but can be significantly reduced by proper use and timing of fertiliser and slurry. Changing tillage practices, such as minimum cultivation, and rotations will also be helpful.

Forestry and biomass crops have important roles to play in minimising greenhouse gases.

The most important objective for agriculture is to ensure any changes that have to be made to reduce emissions will simultaneously improve technical efficiency.

The world needs massive increases in food production to feed a growing population, and Ireland can produce food efficiently.

Expansion in Irish agriculture, especially in dairying, must not be stifled by green regulations.

We cannot afford to destroy our present generation of farmers with actions that may or may not be of benefit to generations in the distant future.

A tax on livestock was suggested, but it would only drive livestock out of the EU to other parts of the world. The European Commission has said any tax cannot be put on animals until an accurate system for monitoring and verifying is developed.

Over the next decade, there will be a lot of discussion with environmentalists and economists on one side and the interests of Irish agriculture on the other.

Ireland is an agricultural country which mainly grows some type of grass, and this has huge beneficial greenhouse gas-reduction effects.


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