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New results released on the Sustainability of Irish Farms

Teagasc has released its latest sustainability report covering the year 2020. The report uses the Teagasc National Farm Survey to track the performance of dairy, cattle, sheep and tillage farms across Ireland in improving their economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Although data collection was hampered by Covid-19 restrictions, the report includes data for 2020 along with comparable figures stretching back through the last decade, allowing for a temporal assessment of farm performance.

Lead author of the report, Dr Cathal Buckley, Teagasc Rural Economy and Development Programme, noted that, “There is a sustainability paradox when results are examined by farm system. Dairy farms have a higher level of economic and social sustainability compared to most other farm systems, but also have higher levels of environmental emissions.  By contrast, drystock farms have lower levels of economic and social sustainability, but also have much lower levels of environmental emissions. Tillage farms lie in between dairy and drystock farms in terms of economic sustainability, but also have low levels of environmental emissions.”

In terms of the trend over recent years, Dr Buckley said; “It is notable that ammonia emissions declined in 2020 relative to the preceding years across all farm systems.  Data which track farm management decisions indicate a significant movement towards low emissions slurry spreading methods and this is helping to reduce ammonia emissions”.

Comparing farm performance for recent years, Trevor Donnellan, Head of the Agricultural Economics & Farm Surveys Department in Teagasc, and co-author of the report however noted; “Dairying continues to be the powerhouse when it comes to economic sustainability compared to other farm systems. Average dairy farm incomes far exceed drystock systems and are also ahead of tillage farm incomes.  On the flip side, dairy farmers typically have a less favourable work-life balance, typically working longer hours than farmers in other systems.” 

Focussing on greenhouse gas emissions, the data indicate that dairy farmers continue to improve their environmental efficiency, with lower levels of greenhouse gases generated per tonne of product produced. However, these efficiencies are being overridden by a rising dairy cow population. In spite of the improved emissions efficiency, total dairy farm emissions continue to increase although emissions per ha remained constant on the back of increased area farmed.

At the report launch, Dr John Finn presented the results of a pilot study as part of the EU SmartAgriHubs project which has developed a biodiversity indicator for use in the Teagasc National Farm Survey.  Dr Finn stated that “A biodiversity indicator can now be generated for farms in the Teagasc National Farm Survey.  As a proof of concept this study shows what’s possible if the necessary resources are dedicated to collection of this data.”

Commenting on the release of the report, Teagasc Director, Professor Frank O’Mara, stated; “The extensive detail available in the Teagasc Sustainability Report provides policymakers with valuable information for policy design and development.  Through its Signpost Programme, Teagasc is committed to working with farmers, the argi-food industry and other stakeholders to improve all aspects of sustainability across all farm systems. In particular, the knowledge developed through this initiative will assist agriculture in meeting its environmental targets”.

The full 2020 Sustainability Report can be viewed here