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12 Steps for Beef farmers to Reduce Gaseous Emissions


On the 28th July 2022, the Irish government reached agreement on Sectoral Emissions Ceilings to ensure Ireland plays a leading role in combating climate change. John Galvin, Teagasc Athenry advisor, explains how the Signpost Programme led by Teagasc will pave the way for farmers to achieve this

View or download 12 Steps to Reduce Gaseous Emissions on Beef Farms (PDF)

On the 28th July 2022, the Irish government reached agreement on Sectoral Emissions Ceilings which will ensure Ireland plays a leading role in combating climate change. These ceilings have been set against the backdrop of reaching a 51% reduction by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050 at the latest.

Spotlight on Agriculture 

As agriculture in Ireland accounts for 37.5% (23 million tonnes CO2eq.) out of a total of 61.5 million tonnes CO2 eq., this has really put the public spotlight on it. The reason Irish agriculture is such as large proportion is that we have a small population density to dilute it and a relatively low industrial base, this is quite a similar scenario to that in New Zealand. 

Within the EU, agriculture accounts only for about 10% of Green House Gas emissions. 

This latest announcement has created a lot of media attention and whilst it is quite unpalatable to farmers and the wider agricultural community, it should not come as too large of a shock given that the initial targets/ceilings for agriculture were set at 21-30%, so it is as such, a halfway house ceiling at 25%.

Agriculture emissions to air are divided into two main categories – Greenhouse gases and Air pollutants.

 Greenhouse gases (GHGs)

Greenhouse gases have a negative impact on climate change and agriculture contributes 37.5% of our national emissions, comprising of methane (70%), nitrous oxide (25%) and carbon dioxide (5%). The sources of these emissions comprise mainly from animals (60%), Soils being fertilised and grazed (30%) and manure management accounting for the remaining 10%.

Air pollutants 

The other agriculture emission is Air pollutants and these comprise mainly of ammonia which is a gaseous form of nitrogen. Agriculture accounts for 99% of all ammonia emissions. Ammonia comes mainly from the management of animal manures, the grazing of animals and the spreading of artificial nitrogen based fertilisers.

How can this 25% reduction be achieved?

The Signpost Programme led by Teagasc, is a collaboration of farmers, industry, state organisation, farm organisations and media all working together to support farmers to farm more sustainably. The key elements within this programme are demonstration farms (117 across all sectors) that are early adopters of sustainable technologies along with the Signpost Advisory campaign. The latest output from this programme is a one page document outlining 12 Steps for Beef farmers to take, to reduce Gaseous emissions on their farms (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. 12 Steps to reduce Gaseous Emissions on Beef Farms

Many of these emission reduction technologies/actions are well known and nothing new to farmers and all will indeed yield a benefit to a farmer’s bottom line also for example; Calving a cow at 24months versus 36 months decreases carbon emissions by 8% and increases profit by €120/cow.

However the key to the success of the signpost programme will be the greatest and fastest on-farm delivery and adoption of these technologies that has ever taken place in the Irish state. The measure of success of the programme will be the reduction achieved and assuming a high level of adoption, it is estimated to yield a 12-18% reduction, still shy of the magic figure of 25%. So what is the point I hear you say? If we do nothing, then the spotlight most certainly will be on agriculture and a mandatory cull in the national herd which both politically and at farmer level is not for discussion currently, but will most definitely be on the cards. Basically the adoption of current available actions buys Irish farmers time, there is intensive on-going research into methane inhibiting feed additives that may become game changers, there is also very positive results from research work through a collaboration of Teagasc, ICBF and UCD towards breeding low methane producing animals with no loss in productivity.

Methane reductions can also be achieved with increased production of young bull beef that has significantly lower emissions than steer beef, however the market and consumer must demand this.

Methane

It is evident from the figures above that methane at 70% is a huge culprit, especially given that it is 28 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, in other words if every farmer stopped spreading all fertilisers thus eliminating nitrous oxide, Irish agriculture would still barely meet its target. The issue with methane has to be tackled and it is going to be very challenging to achieve the reductions required in the absence of stock number reductions. The CAP Strategic Plan is already introducing policy with a much enhanced green agenda, with the inclusion of an eco- scheme element to its direct payments, more onerous and results based Agri-environmental schemes such as ACRES and REAP and a massively increased budget for organic farming. All of these will undoubtedly encourage a swing towards less intensive agriculture. 

Will Irish Agriculture hit its targets?

My mandate is to give advice not opinion and all beef farmers can do is adopt and review the 12 steps within the farm gate. “Right now the biggest threat to a cow is another cow.”


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The Signpost Programme is a collaborative partnership of farmers, industry and State Agencies, working together for climate action.