Beef herd should be culled to help meet emissions targets

We have one of the most competitive dairy sectors in the world and it can be left alone, but the beef sector is far less efficient

The Climate Action Plan 2021 sets out a roadmap for taking decisive action to halve our greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net zero no later than 2050. The overall emissions target for agriculture is a reduction of 22 to 30 per cent by 2030, a lower target than had been anticipated. Many had expected more robust measures to apply, including some actions to reduce the national cattle herd. Instead, the Government adopted a very cautious approach and is hopeful for political reasons that some combination of economic, sectoral or fortuitous circumstances will make harder decisions avoidable in the future.

Agriculture accounts for more than one-third of Irish greenhouse gas emissions, driven mainly from the national cattle herd and nitrogen fertiliser use. While the pressure from the level of fertiliser application can be contained by alternative products and not least from the dramatic increase in fertiliser prices, the main focus is firmly on the national cattle herd as the primary source of emissions.

Farming interests must know that a reduction in emissions is inevitable, although they keep repeating that any imposition of restrictions on farm production would have a catastrophic impact on the rural economy. However, the day of reckoning is fast approaching when specific and tangible actions have to commence to reduce GHG from agriculture and both farmers and the relevant Government departments will have to come off the fence.

They are leaving it rather late, as we are well into the first carbon budget period 2021-2025, but we are now getting the first indication of what might ensue from the Interim report of the Food Vision Dairy Group, established by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This group was set up to identify measures that the sector can take to contribute to “initially stabilising and then reducing emissions”.


Sooner or later, the issue of how emissions from the national cattle herd can be reduced will have to be faced up to, and whether the reduction in numbers comes from the dairy or beef herds or both is an important matter. Beef and dairy enterprises now dominate Irish agriculture – occurring on about 80 per cent of farms, with about 16,000 dairy farms, down from 110,000 in the mid-1960s, and 85,000 non-dairy cattle farms.

The impact for the national and farm economy of a 10 per cent reduction in the dairy herd would lead to an estimated decline of more than €500 million in agri-food exports, and a €150 million reduction in dairy farm income. With respect to the beef herd, it would require a fall of about 17 per cent to match numerically the decline in dairy cow numbers, but the decline in the value of exports would be small, as dairy is more than double the value of beef exports. Interestingly, there would be an actual increase in aggregate beef farm incomes with that reduction in the herd, as market output in cattle farming has not been sufficient to cover production costs for many years.

Which of the two herds should bear the burden of reducing greenhouse gases?

First, the dairy cow herd, its progeny and associated chemical nitrogen usage account for 40 per cent of total agriculture emissions. They have also been increasing steadily since the dairy quota was abolished in 2015. Second, the impact of reducing the dairy rather than the beef herds is much more costly to the farming economy. Third, the beef cow herd is falling in numbers but at only at half the rate at which the dairy herd is increasing. Fourth, dairying, which has been falling inexorably as a farm enterprise over the past half century, is now the preserve of the most intensive and efficient corps in Irish farming, is relatively large in scale, is four times more profitable than beef farming and is one of the most competitive dairy enterprises in the world.

In decline

By contrast, the beef farming is mostly small in scale and less efficient, carried out by landholders of whom nearly half are part-time, are older than average, have less contact with support services and are more conservative in their farming activities.

Beef farming is financially the more vulnerable, is heavily dependent on subsidies, and is already in decline. This trend could and should be accelerated, and accompanied by a targeted forestry expansion campaign and made particularly attractive to low-income beef farmers. The replacement of beef farming with forestry is a win-win action. It increases farm income, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and significantly increases carbon sequestration.

What, then, for dairy farming? It is undeniably best placed to exploit Ireland’s comparative advantage in milk production. And yet it is now adding significantly to the sector’s GHG emissions. What is needed is a concentrated focus by the sector on reducing these emissions by implementing the Teagasc Signpost Programme, urgently and collectively adopting those new technologies, which include feed additives, new developments in livestock breeding, changes in fertiliser use and multi-sward species to mitigate emissions.

The dairy mitigation campaign should be led by the processing sector by entering into dialogue and working collaboratively with their suppliers on an agreed technical emissions plan. The plan should also include a measure to restore and enhance biodiversity features on dairy farms to contribute to offsetting emissions.

The farming sector is confronted with the strangest scenario imaginable. Curtailing output goes against the grain. The vast majority of farmers have beef or dairy enterprises and these are the very ones which produce Ireland’s finest farm products but also the unmentionable greenhouse gases. What may ultimately transpire and the most logical outcome economically, is that the beef herd should bear the brunt of the adjustment to a more climate-friendly agriculture and dairying should continue to expand modestly but in a more environmentally compatible manner by focusing more on increasing efficiency with stable or smaller herds.

Brendan Kearney is an independent economic consultant.