There’s a Father Ted episode where Fr Dougal is trapped driving a milk cart with a bomb that will detonate if the speed drops below 4km/hr. Fr Ted and some fellow priests chain-smoke while frantically brainstorming a solution to this looming catastrophe.
’m unfortunately reminded of this scene while reading the interim report from the Food Vision Dairy Group around the actions needed to reduce emissions from the sector.
There are 17 proposed measures that cover the short, medium and long term from now until beyond 2030.
As this is the interim report, firm conclusions on how to best implement these actions have not yet been reached, but every measure needs due consideration given the urgency of the time-frame within which “transformational” change is needed from farmers.
The background is that around two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions come from methane and one third from nitrous oxide. The vast majority of the methane originates from the rumen of cattle, and the largest contributor of nitrous oxide emissions is chemical fertiliser applications.
In the most simple terms, significant emission reductions cannot be achieved without looking at the two big-ticket items: cow numbers and chemical fertiliser usage.
So, what is included in these 17 actions and how does that translate? Five measures relate directly to chemical nitrogen — reducing usage by 25pc, changing to 100pc protected urea and LESS, along with the requirement for 20pc of grassland to have clover or multi-species swards. All within 3½ years.
Many of these have been part of every Teagasc message delivered to farmers in recent years, and while uptake is happening, the pace has been slow, with stumbling blocks around clover-safe herbicide licensing, availability of protected urea and slurry spreader waiting times.
Two measures relate to reducing cow numbers via energy diversification into anaerobic digestion (AD), and a voluntary exit reduction scheme, which has been floated already, with a potential €5k/cow price tag.
This seems a likely scheme but has issues to iron out around preventing the farm that reduces stock being replaced with animals from another holding.
How does energy diversification into anaerobic digestion relate to cow numbers and why is solar not being targeted?
The proposed Irish model of small-scale AD is based on sustainable feedstocks for the AD plants —ideally, silage from red clover or multi-species swards which rely on low nitrogen inputs along with slurry.
It is speculated that policy will move towards a more favourable position to support the development of a sustainable biomethane industry.
This would create opportunities for farms to diversify away from dairy or beef into biomethane production while relying on low-N silage as a feedstock.
Decarbonising the gas network in the energy sector is a priority, and doing this in tandem with agriculture makes huge sense as natural gas can be replaced with biomethane without big infrastructure changes.
The AD plant in Teagasc Grange is nearly up and running, and this will take about 9t of silage and 14t of cattle slurry per day as feedstock.
Managing farm outputs to suit AD is a new concept, making the demo plant a key development.
Solar is great, but all the emission offsets go to the energy sector; as biomethane production affects stock numbers alongside nitrogen reductions to grow the pasture as well as providing an economic incentive to farms, this is the winner in terms of renewable energy.
The report details a number of actions that use the words ‘explore’ and ‘develop’ — in other words they are in research phase and need more work to get over the line.
Methane-reducing feed additives and a methane-reducing breeding strategy are only in their infancy in terms of their impact on Irish grass-based dairying.
Measuring and monitoring CO2 production at individual farm level is another action that requires research, to build baseline measurements that can be collated and meet the EPA’s requirements for inclusion in the national inventory.
This is necessary, but progress is slow on all fronts.
Two other measures in the report involve animal health improvements and four involve communications.
This leaves us with the proposed cap and trade emissions model, where farmers are assigned production credits which can be traded. It sounds feasible but there is no international model in operation and it would require a detailed administrative framework from scratch to operate.
Given the time it has taken Department administration to develop a fertiliser register, this is a huge ask.
So that is the plan: in the short term, measures from the MACC curve alongside a voluntary exit scheme while buying time to further research methane and carbon measurements; in the medium to long-term, developing a sustainable biomethane industry.
So does that leave all the heavy lifting to the new Nitrates Action Programme?
Is there anything to be said for another Mass?
Gillian O’Sullivan farms with her husband Neil near Dungarvan, Co Waterford