Culling herd numbers isn’t the only solution, there are other options, says Cork farmer

New technologies are coming and agriculture is making progress in cutting emissions, he argues

Trevor Crowley, a farmer at Lissarda in Co Cork, has watched the debate about Ireland’s climate emissions targets with growing frustration, unable to understand how people could not move beyond the need to cull the State’s cow herd.

Despite Government’s promises in the wake of Thursday’s compromise deal that no such outcome is planned or desired, Crowley, who milks 160 Friesians at his 180-acre holding at Hornhill, is convinced that that is where farmers will ultimately end up.

“There are proposals to encourage afforestation and rewetting of bog lands and the installation of solar panels on farmland but none of the credits for any of these are going to the farmer; it seems the only option for the farmer to cut his emissions is to cull his herd,” he said.

He had always been optimistic that a compromise was achievable that would bridge the gap between Minister for Climate Action Eamon Ryan, who was seeking a 30 per cent reduction in agricultural emissions, and Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue who had argued to keep the 22 per cent target.


Farmers, he said, should be given grants to install solar panels on their sheds and wind turbines on their land to feed into the electricity grid, but the emissions credits for such measures and for planting trees to sequester CO2 should be added to Irish agriculture’s account.

Mr Crowley, who won a Bord Bia Dairy Origin Green Farmer Award in 2018, was equally optimistic that farmers could reduce methane and ammonia emissions from their holdings without being forced to cull dairy or beef animals. On his own farm, he cut his carbon footprint from 1.26kg per kg of milk solid in 2015 to 0.83kg per kg last year, according to his most recent Bord Bia audit. And he is not alone. Other farmers are doing the same.

“Nobody in farming is denying climate change, every farmer I meet is the same as myself, we all know our responsibilities to try to reduce our carbon footprint. Every meeting we attend, every publication we pick up, it’s there; you would want to be living under a stone not to recognise it.

“And fellows are willing to meet the challenge but the whole debate has gone against us at the moment, and we feel we are almost being vilified even though if you look at the figures, you can see we are making progress and there should be options open to us other than culling herd numbers.”

According to last week’s Environmental Protection Agency report, agriculture accounted for 37.5 per cent of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 — well in advance of transport at 17.7 per cent; energy generation, 16.7 per cent; homes, 11.4 per cent, and manufacturing, 7.5 per cent.

However, the EPA further noted that agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions last year rose 3 per cent, up 19.3 per cent since 2011, while fertiliser use for 2021 alone had jumped by 5.2 per cent and dairy cow numbers rose by 2.8 per cent. Milk production, for example, increased by 5.5 per cent.

In all, 60.67 per cent of agriculture’s emissions are caused by enteric fermentation (the discharge of methane by ruminants such as cows and sheep), nearly 22 per cent comes from farmland, while the management of manure is responsible for 11.72 per cent.

However these numbers are not fixed in stone, believes Crowley, who uses an aeromix aeration system on his slurry from Galway firm Easyfix, as well as low emission slurry-spreading technology. In all, his ammonia emissions are down by 60 per cent. In addition, he says, the system has a slew of other benefits. The slurry is of a higher quality, the need for synthetic fertilisers is cut by a quarter, and it gets into the ground more quickly, while cattle can be put out to grass sooner. Even grass yields are better.

Agriculture can meet the challenges posed by climate change, Crowley argues, and technological advances are coming along quickly that will better deal with the issues posed by enteric fermentation which accounts for over 60 per cent of emissions.

“That comes down to how do you stop animals belching out methane. The solution to that is in the feedstuff and what additives you put in. There’s great progress being made by Teagasc and others in developing additives from seaweed and enzymes that will cut down such emissions.”

If the national herd, currently standing at 7.3 million cattle, has to be culled then it should be done on a voluntary basis, he said, adding that he believed there is merit in a proposal from the Food Vision Dairy Group to offer farmers €5,000 for each animal culled.

The proposal, reported in this week’s Farmer’s Journal, would be attractive for older farmers who may wish to get out of the industry, though it would hold little attraction for him or for his son, Gavin (24) who is the fifth generation of the Crowley family to farm at Hornhill.

“I’m 61 and I am viable as we stand but if I were to cut my herd by 20-30 per cent, we would be only bordering viable unless there was some of compensation, but you won’t see any big increase in animal numbers from here on because most fellows have reached where they want to be.

“In fact, you are likely to see numbers decrease because of the ageing profile of farmers and that is where this €5,000 payment per animal could prove very attractive for older fellows who want to get out of farming; there are a certain proportion of farmers of a certain age who would take that.

“Farming isn’t attracting young people, it’s as simple as that which is sad and as the age profile increases the inevitable will happen and the numbers farming will start to tail off, so you are likely to get reductions in the national herd anyway — we’ve probably seen herd numbers reach their peak.

“You have to attract young people into farming, and they will be better educated. Gavin has an awful lot more courses done than I ever did but I would imagine his generation will embrace the emissions challenge and drive it to a new level — they will see solutions whereas we see a problem.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times