Integrating beef and dairy systems could radically reduce emissions, Teagasc says

Gerry Boyle says move would also allow the more profitable dairy sector expand

Gerry Boyle said most beef farms were small, part-time operations and, in the main, unprofitable without EU subsidies. Photograph: iStock

Gerry Boyle said most beef farms were small, part-time operations and, in the main, unprofitable without EU subsidies. Photograph: iStock

 

Integrating the State’s beef and dairy systems could radically reduce carbon emissions from agriculture while providing a more profitable livelihood for many struggling farmers, the annual conference of the Dublin Economics Workshop has heard.

Gerry Boyle, director of farming agency Teagasc, 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 40-50 per cent of beef production in Ireland comes from suckler cows, kept specially for the production of beef, with the remainder coming from the dairy herd.

An integrated system would see the gradual phasing out of a separate beef herd and a reduction in the national herd, the main driver of agricultural emissions. It would also allow the more profitable dairy sector to expand while reducing emissions overall.

Profitability

Prof Boyle said most beef farms were small, part-time operations and, in the main, unprofitable without EU subsidies.

“While it sustains an employment-intensive processing industry, the core profitability is very poor,” he said. Dairy on the other hand was the more profitable industry and supported a significant export trade, Prof Boyle said.

“So it’s difficult for an economist to say that we should curtail expansion provided we can get the decarbonisation,” he said.

While Ireland’s beef herd has declined, the State’s dairy herd is almost 30 per cent larger than it was before the ending of EU milk quotas in 2015.

“If you’re going to change farmers to an alternative system such as dairy-beef, which would be reliant on a smaller number of animals – with beef produced from the dairy herd in far greater amounts – clearly fiscal issues will come to the fore,” he said.

“I couldn’t see farmers shifting without significant incentives or transition payments and that really is a matter for Government and policy,” he said.

“If there were appropriate compensatory schemes in place, you could get significant change, but that’s what it will take,” he said, noting the climate transition will have a significant fiscal cost.

Emissions

The Government’s recently passed climate legislation puts the State on a legally-binding path to net-zero emissions no later than 2050, and to a 51 per cent reduction in emissions by the end of this decade. This will involve strict carbon budgets for agriculture, which is responsible for 35 per cent of the State’s overall emissions.

Laura Kevany from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said while the revised national development plan will do some of the heavy lifting in terms of achieving the State’s climate targets, there will have to be other measures including regulation, taxation and behavioural change.

Financial Times author and journalist Gillian Tett said environmental, social and governance standards are increasingly seen “as a tool of risk management” for companies given the potential backlash from customers and clients.