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Darragh McCullough: It's time to stop whinging about farmer bashing and focus instead on the facts


Meeting targets: Every dairy farmer has to get on board to reduce emissions

Meeting targets: Every dairy farmer has to get on board to reduce emissions

Meeting targets: Every dairy farmer has to get on board to reduce emissions

Last week I called for facts and guidance to help farmers through the environmental storm they find themselves in. In the interim, I did some research myself, and here are 10 key things I've learned.

1 Farming is a key player

Farmers play a big role in the ongoing pollution, degradation and over-heating of the planet. But they are also the key solution. The reason is farmers largely control what happens with the planet's soil, and soil will be the key to sucking up emissions and maintaining biodiversity.

2 Tighter regulations

For example, the nitrates derogation is going to get tougher, with 90kg of nitrogen allocated to each cow. This is only reflecting reality, but it will force a 5pc lower stocking rate, or greater exports of slurry.

In addition, there will be a slew of new rules banning splash-plates, CAN, grassland without clover, and using marginal land to reduce stocking rates, along with new requirements to have land at correct pH levels before applying fertiliser.

But goalposts are likely to keep moving on this until water quality improves.

So don't bank on the 250kg/Ha nitrogen derogation lasting for ever, and do expect requirements for even longer slurry storage and punitive fines for point source pollution incidents.

The data and technology is going to pinch the most intensive guys too. So the practice of running very high stocking rates over 3LU/Ha on milking platforms will be identified as a problem, and the authorities will be able to pinpoint the farmers doing it.

3 This is a dairy sector problem

But the good news is that it is profitable enough to deal with it. So even if nitrogen limits were slashed from 250kgN/ha to 150kgN/ha, 7,000 dairy farmers would either cut stocking rates by 40pc and see profit fall by a third or rent land and get young stock contract-reared. The latter options would hit profits by about 10pc, which might not be palatable, but it's do-able.

4 Increasing milk per cow is not the answer

Many farmers think that if the limit is the kilogrammes of nitrogen being allocated to each cow, surely we can by-pass the restriction by keeping fewer cows and pumping more milk from them?

The Teagasc research on this is unequivocal: more milk per cow requires more meal, and that will increase your imported nitrogen per hectare. It will also reduce your profitability and increase the carbon footprint per litre of milk.

This last point is counter-intuitive. How can a cow producing 10,000 litres of milk have more emissions per litre than two cows producing 5,000 litres each? But the figures show that the lower emissions associated with the maintenance of a single cow are still more than outweighed by the extra emissions associated with all the additional grain and silage and slurry transported in high-input systems.

Again, Teagasc are adamant about this, regardless of what you may have heard from US experts claiming that emissions from US milk is among the lowest in the world. Milk from confinement systems has a 15pc higher carbon footprint.

5 Who to believe?

I've been bothered by the endless counter-claims in this space. For example, EU figures rank Irish dairy as having one of the smallest carbon footprints in the world. Separate FAO research had Ireland as one of the poorest, and this was from the United Nations!

But it turns out that the GLEAM project was designed to estimate emissions for 'Developing World' countries that didn't have detailed data of their own.

The author of the study has told Irish authorities that the EU and Irish data is more reliable where available and to use that.

Equally, some ag industry supporters would have us believe that methane isn't as big a problem as the climate scientists make out.

There's lots of cul-de-sacs in this debate. The advice from Teagasc is that methane counts, and it needs to be tackled.

6 Research

The industry needs bulletproof data on what is really going on with Irish farms. There are huge gaps in information. For example, we don't really know how much carbon our soils are sucking up annually. Logic tells you that a soil that is pumping out 15t/Ha of grass dry matter will sequester more carbon than a soil that is left go wild. But nobody knows how much more.

If we can prove that dairy grasslands are absorbing more carbon than wilderness, then there is a clear case for this to be offset against dairy emissions.

But this will require investment in research tech such as 100 eddy-covariance towers, costing €150,000 each, on farms all over the country to get a good picture of grassland under different management and growth. That's a lot of money.

Then again there's a lot at stake. Farmers are going to be relying on their industry representatives to bat for them on this.

7 Farm investment

Even with a wholesale switch away from splash-plates, CAN, poor soil fertility and monoculture ryegrass swards, dairy farmers will need to be prepared to do more.

Some things will actually save the farmer money, like cutting the protein in the ration fed to cows at grass to 10pc. Some items will come at very little extra cost like allocating parts of the farm to biodiversity. But fixing every run-off point and building more slurry storage is going to cost.

Only the profitable operations will be able to afford this investment, which will inevitably create consolidation pressures that will cut out the messers, but also end any hope of dairying maintaining its cute 'family farm' image.

8 Education

Rather than whinging about farmer bashing, get some facts on board. Like the fact that oat milk has a smaller carbon footprint per litre compared to cows' milk. However, when they are compared on a nutrient basis, milk's emissions are about an eighth of oat milk.

Or that the most profitable dairy farms have a carbon footprint that is 15pc lower than the bottom third.

9 The targets can be met

Not only am I optimistic that farming can reduce emissions, I think it can be done even with extra dairy output.

This notion gets laughed out of town by environmentalists. But Irish farm emissions are down by 10pc over the last 20 years, while during the same period, dairy, beef and pig outputs have grown hugely.

However, it's not going to happen if everyone just holds their breath and hopes for the best. EVERY dairy farmer has to get on board.

The research is already showing the way. For example, dairy could wipe 10pc off its carbon footprint by swapping 100kg/Ha of nitrogen for clover. Yes, it will require better grassland management to ensure that the clover lasts at a high enough rate, but anything that offers a saving on inputs, while also making farming better for the environment, has to be a no-brainer.

10 False dawns

We'll see lots of new additives over the next few years claiming amazing reductions in the methane produced by cows, or in the gases released from slurry. Some of them might work, but most won't.

Equally, be prepared for the agri suppliers to undermine products that could hurt sales. Why did we not hear any of the hundreds of nutritionists around the country shout about all the money farmers wasted paying for more than 10pc crude protein in rations fed to cows at grass over the last 40 years?

How much of the scaremongering over protected urea residues is to do with the fact that a wholesale switch to a product with twice the concentration of CAN would severely hit fertiliser sales' tonnages?

And don't get distracted by renewables: there's so little of milk's carbon footprint tied up in the electricity or fuels used that it will only make a small difference to the big picture, even if it does create a positive image of a farmer.

While largely a dairy issue, this concerns every farm sector. If dairy is able to tackle its emissions, it takes the pressure off the beef sector to scale back.

If the dairy sector succeeds in expanding further, it will ensure that the figure of 10,000 jobs created over the last decade continues to grow. Profitable farming will ensure that rural communities aren't dependent on urban Ireland to keep them afloat.

Indo Farming