The conclusion of the recent round of talks between the ruling parties on the 2030 agricultural emissions reduction target is not the end of the process.
The goal of reducing total national emissions by 51 percent by 2030 is a legally binding target. So as the clock approaches 2030, if the national target is missed, there will be a mid-term review and the sectoral targets may well be increased.
Failure to meet the 51 percent target will subject the government to legal challenges from environmental groups. This is what happened in the Netherlands, where missing targets forced their government to take drastic measures with its new agricultural policy.
In the last few weeks of the emissions debate, Ireland’s political discourse has focused on the potential of culling part of the national herd, an unfortunate propensity given that the farming sector has many more options to offer in a proper dialogue.
The difficulty with the national herd debate is that all genetic options, bar culling, take years to bear fruit, meaning they need to be addressed now, not in the distant future.
If nothing is done proactively at the beginning of this year, the 2023 calf harvest will already be decided on the vast majority of farms.
The question is: by the end of 2022, will farming make plans to swap out the calves from 2024? Or will another year go by without maximizing the potential gains that can be achieved through the application of science and better genetics in both our dairy and beef cattle?
I recently took part in a farm walk at ABP’s research farm in Carlow. It buys 400 milk cross calves each year, completing heifers at 19 months of age and steers at 21 months of age.
Environmental performance and carbon efficiency of dairy cattle offspring are areas of particular interest. One of the presentations that shocked attendees the most was the Sire Performance Evaluation research.
First, calves are purchased directly from farms that have a proven track record of producing healthy calves over the past five years. Farms whose calves were not up to date were excluded from purchasing for the coming years.
The results show significant performance differences between the purchased calves. At the national level, the differences would be even more alarming if the poorly produced calves were included.
The difference between the top 10 percent of herds and the bottom 10 percent of herds in the research program is 100kg, with genetics and colostrum management being important areas for improvement on the underperforming herds.
If the bottom 10 percent of the offspring of the national dairy herd were included, the range would be well over 100 kg.
The facilities on the Research Farm are standard farm sheds, typical of the type of sheds found on dry cattle farms in the area. Feed intake and methane emissions are measured and recorded, as are calving difficulty, health, slaughter age, slaughter weight and class. The taste quality is also measured.
Data from the research clearly shows that there is a greater difference within breeds than between the breeds tested.
The difference in average offspring liveweight between the best and worst AI Angus bulls when their offspring were weighed in July was 491kg versus 421kg, which means 70kg extra liveweight just because a better bull was used. For Limousin it was 66 kg live weight.
Looking at Angus cattle carcass weights over a five-year average, there was an advantage of 46 kg or €173 at historical prices (€225 at current prices) for the high genetic value cattle over the low genetic value offspring bulls. There was also an advantage in feed efficiency, resulting in reduced emissions.
Since farmers always like to see cattle at events like this, there was a weight estimation range where two heifers from different sires were weighed. They arrived at the farm the same day. The two heifers were the same age and treated the same, but one weighed 572 kg and the other only 408 kg.
There was a good mix of dairy and beef farmers present with lots of discussion. The cattle breeders who buy the calves face two difficulties: First, the dairy farmers control which bulls are used.
If buyers of calves don’t become more selective when purchasing, leaving inferior calves to those who bred them, there is no incentive for dairy farmers to switch to the best sires available.
Second, without a national genotyping program, it is impossible to assess the true economic value and pedigree of the calves.
The environmental benefits of using the best beef bulls could drastically reduce emissions from our theoretical “national herd” that includes both dairy and beef farms.
Using sires with higher genetic merit has the potential to reduce emissions from dairy herd-derived meat animals by 13 percent without impacting calving difficulties. The number is significantly higher when compared to the inferior sires used to clean up some of the larger, more intensive dairy herds.
We should not have our dairy and beef sectors sitting in different rooms during the different meetings of the Food Vision Group. If dairy spokespeople could avoid focusing solely on milk production and look at the bigger picture, they might realize they hold the key to reducing emissions in the beef sector, benefiting the notional national herd comes.
The biggest beneficiaries would be the dairy farmers. As the number of suckler cows is already declining, it is the dairy herd that needs to be reduced the most, which could be achieved by using good beef sires in dairy cows.
Unless a plan for the 2023 breeding season is made very soon, the 2024 calf harvest will remain unchanged.
Farmers should not think that the recently agreed 25 percent emissions reduction target is the last time emissions reductions will be discussed. If they do, they will be disappointed.
There will be progress reports well before 2030, and if agriculture doesn’t make progress, the mountain can get a lot steeper.
Angus Woods is a drywall builder in Co Wicklow.
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/comment/angus-woods-we-need-to-act-now-to-maximise-potential-genetic-gains-for-2024-41896520.html Angus Woods: We must act now to maximize potential genetic gains for 2024