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Can farms combining livestock and crops improve sustainability?

Can farms combining livestock and crops improve sustainability?

Tasos Chatzichristou, PhD student in Agricultural Economics at Teagasc, tells us why mixed farming systems are a potential solution to bridging the gap between agriculture's economic and environmental challenges.

Global agriculture faces pervasive challenges related to the economic, environmental and social sustainability of farming systems while seeking to maintain food security. Rising production costs, stagnating incomes, workload pressures, and increased regulatory burdens are among the factors that elevate stress among farm families and reduce their well-being.

As a result, farmers and society must reconcile often conflicting sustainability aims. In this context, quantifying the synergies and trade-offs between environmental goals, such as reducing agriculture's carbon footprint, and maintaining farmers’ livelihood is vital in guiding policy-making and designing adjustment pathways for enhanced sustainability.

In response to these challenges, the EU's European Green Deal has set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 40% before 2030 and to be climate neutral by 2050. In Ireland, the agricultural sector contributes over a third of national greenhouse-gas emissions, largely driven by methane from its ruminant livestock population.

Decarbonisation in the Irish agricultural sector, then, is imperative, with adaptation of farming systems playing a pivotal role in ensuring ambitious national emissions targets are met. To support the production of high-quality, safe, and sustainable food, Irish authorities have implemented a new Common Agricultural Policy Strategic Plan balancing multifaceted goals, including protecting family farm incomes, and supporting climate change ambitions through a new green architecture.

One way to create opportunities to improve farm sustainability as envisaged by the CAP Strategic Plan is through mixed farming systems that integrate both crop and livestock enterprises. Such farming systems combine farming activities to exploit synergies between production activities in areas such as manure management and feed autonomy.

They promote circular economy practices by minimising input use, shortening supply chains and fostering nutrient recycling. Mixed systems may also lessen income risks and exploit economies of scope through integrated production of complementary co-products. Although a promising avenue for boosting sustainability, their adoption faces barriers such as complexity and additional requirements in capital, knowledge, infrastructure and management techniques.

Historically, mixed crop and livestock systems were commonplace in Ireland, but farm businesses have become increasingly specialised over recent decades due to factors such as farm mechanisation, labour constraints and agricultural policy incentives. Accordingly, the majority of farms focus on the production of a primary output and taking advantage of economies of scale to achieve lower average costs with higher productivity.

Specialisation is capital-intensive, focusing on linear production processes to maximise output efficiency. Linear production refers to the extraction of raw materials from resource rich countries, processing in industrial countries like China, shipping to Europe or the US, where they are used, discarded and replaced. Unlike the circular economy, materials are not recycled or stored, deeming some intensive specialised systems to fall short on environmental sustainability targets underlined by policymakers.

Research is needed to understand the impacts of mixed versus specialised systems across various sustainability dimensions (financial and environmental), and provide tangible evidence to farmers and policy-makers on their relative strengths and limitations. Re-Live is a European project funded by Era-Net which is looking to tackle questions related to the environmental, economic and societal impact of mixed crop and livestock systems.

The goal of the Re-Live project is to provide a gold standard methodology that will support farmers with management decisions to lower their farm carbon footprint while minimising the impacts on profitability. Re-Live focuses on promoting the circular bio-economy through mixed crop and livestock systems. The research programme intertwines work packages that span from on-field research to systems modelling.

Our on-going research here in Teagasc aims to provide an open-access decision support tool for evaluating the economic and environmental performance of farms across Ireland. In particular, it will provide insight into the impacts of different soil interventions, cultivation practices, farm integration practices, manure management, straw utilisation and renewable energy production. In broad terms, it's a tool that encompasses and quantifies an array of sustainability concepts implemented by the latest European and Irish Agricultural Policy.

As modern agriculture faces many challenges, mixed livestock and cropping systems are resurfacing as a potential solution to bridge the gap by promoting more holistic, circular approaches in farming systems. Research is still needed to identify the impacts of mixed systems on sustainable food production. These efforts should align with a restructured Common Agricultural Policy that is mapping a new direction for European and Irish agriculture. As a result, fitting farm integration into the broader puzzle of sustainability might prove a difficult task, but it might prove essential for rural development.

This article was first published on RTE Brainstorm