Will Ireland forsake beef for dairy in agri emissions trade-off?

Carbon budgets in agriculture are likely to accelerate an ongoing reduction in beef herd

Ireland’s climate fudge – a two-decade-long practice of promising to cut emissions and put the State on a more sustainable path while actually doing very little – comes to an end this week with the “hardwiring into law” (Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s words) of sector-specific emissions targets. These will leave the State open to a legal challenge should it fail to deliver a 50 per cent cut in emissions by 2030.

The most controversial and toughest to implement will be those relating to agriculture, which is responsible for a third of the State’s emissions, the highest of any EU state.

Agriculture lacks the same big-bang innovations that energy has with renewables or transport with electric vehicles. This is compounded by the public’s appetite for ever-cheaper food, something that makes railing at farmers over emissions deeply hypocritical.

Agriculture-derived methane, the vast majority of which is emitted by livestock, makes up about 65 per cent of agricultural emissions while nitrous oxide, from the spreading of fertilisers and slurry, accounts for about 30 per cent.


Industry research body Teagasc estimates that an 18 per cent cut in agri-emissions can be achieved through efficiencies and technical innovations, mainly around feed and fertilisers. But this is still below the proposed 21-30 per cent reduction target earmarked for the sector.

Anything above 21 per cent will require a reduction in the national herd, according to a report by KPMG, a thorny issue the Government has been steadfast in avoiding up until now.

Deliberately vague

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue after the budget and again on RTÉ’s Prime Time last week remained deliberately vague on what’s being planned. He talks about “stabilising the herd” rather than reducing it.

But there’s a view forming in the industry that a decision to gradually run down the suckler beef herd in favour of the more profitable dairy sector has already been made.

The Government has no intention of announcing such an explosive decision or even admitting it: the outcry from the State’s suckler farmers, the powerful processing industry and the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) would be volcanic.

But there are whispers that beef sector supports will be gradually tapered and the focus of policy from here on in will be on dairy and other sectors.

Evidence of this new mode of thinking came – somewhat inadvertently – a few weeks ago. At a Dublin Economics Workshop event in September, outgoing Teagasc director Gerry Boyle said the agency was "strongly advocating" switching from beef cow production to dairy beef production as part of the State's response to the climate crisis.

Currently about 50 per cent of Irish beef comes from the 900,000-strong suckler herd, which are kept specially for beef production, with the remainder coming from the dairy herd, in other words from male dairy cows.

Boyle seemed to be suggesting that an integrated system – with the gradual phasing out of a separate beef herd – could allow the more profitable dairy sector to expand while reducing emissions overall.

“While it sustains an employment-intensive processing industry, the core profitability is very poor,” Boyle said.

His comments caused a storm. IFA sources labelled them “political dynamite”. He later recanted them, saying they were taken out of context and that it was not Teagasc’s role to promote any particular enterprise over another.

Emissions targets

But was Boyle revealing the thinking within Government? It’s inconceivable that the Government hasn’t consulted long and hard with the State’s chief agricultural agency on how emissions targets for the sector will be achieved.

His remarks also echoed those made by economist and former chairman of the State’s Climate Change Advisory Council John FitzGerald, who is also a columnist with The Irish Times.

“The economics of beef are on a knife-edge – even with heavily protected EU beef prices, farmers generally gain no net income from animals sold for meat and may even lose money,” FitzGerald wrote in a column in 2019.

Most beef farms here are small, part-time operations and, in the main, unprofitable without EU subsidies. This is ironic given that it was EU milk quotas in the 1980s, which limited our dairy output, that pushed many Irish farmers into beef. The lifting of milk quotas in 2015 combined with declining returns from beef has begun to reverse this trend.

From a peak of 1.1 million in 2012, the beef cow herd has been falling – to about 900,000– as more farmers switch to dairy or exit altogether.

By contrast, at 1.6 million, the Republic’s dairy herd is 30 per cent larger than it was before the ending of milk quotas, while the island’s milk pool – currently about 10.4 billion litres – is expected to double (from its pre-quota level ) in the next two years.

The disparity in returns is stark. According to Teagasc’s annual farm income survey, dairy incomes last year averaged €74,236 while incomes in the “cattle rearing”, which comprises the bulk of suckler beef farms, and “beef finishing” sectors, averaged €9,037 and €14,813 respectively.

The expansion of the diary herd has coincided with a deterioration in water quality. That’s an issue that will have to be tackled independently of the beef/dairy debate. Either way, the stage is set for some difficult trade-offs.