The SFI research centre said agri-sustainability in Ireland is ‘entirely achievable’ and its research aims to reduce the dairy industry’s emissions without cutting livestock numbers.
Reducing livestock numbers to lower Ireland’s emissions would be an “overly simplistic and flawed” approach, according to experts at the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) agritech research centre VistaMilk.
The research centre, launched in 2018, has multiple research and innovation projects focused on this issue under its remit. It said these projects could create sustainable practices that protect the environment while preserving Ireland’s dairy industry, which supports 60,000 jobs and contributes an annual €5bn to the economy.
These research projects focus on areas such as breeding programmes, pasture management, carbon sequestration and the application of new technology such as AI and machine learning.
The Irish dairy industry is part of an agricultural sector that accounts for 37pc of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Climate Action Plan, this sector is facing emissions reduction targets as the country looks to reach a 51pc overall reduction by 2030 and get on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050.
VistaMilk said agri-sustainability in Ireland is “entirely achievable”, but there’s an “issue of perception” when it comes to reducing the dairy industry’s impact.
The research centre added that there is a narrative that a reduction in emissions from livestock is a “quick fix” and that reducing Ireland’s national herd is the only way to meet targets in the agri sector.
“Both ignore the significant strides and investment being made by the dairy industry to address the issues, reduce emissions, meet the targets and become a truly sustainable sector,” VistaMilk said in a statement. “Much of this work is research-based, and the results that are emerging point to a bright green future for agricultural Ireland.”
Ongoing research projects
Speaking to SiliconRepublic.com, VistaMilk assistant director Dr Laurence Shalloo said the dairy industry has a “very good track record” when it comes to taking on new technology and research.
One example he gave was the Economic Breeding Index, which has been adopted by farmers to identify the most profitable animals when growing their dairy herds. Shalloo said a new carbon element is expected to be put into the breeding index this year.
“Which means that next year when farmers select bulls, they will not alone be selecting them on profit but they will also be taking into account the carbon associated with those bulls,” he explained.
VistaMilk said breeding programmes are helping to create livestock that are disease resistant and produce less methane. The research centre also said its work in pasture management is showing results in pasture yield, milk production, reduced emissions and reduced reliance on chemical fertilisers.
To reduce methane emissions, which represent the bulk of Ireland’s agricultural emissions, research is looking at the potential of feed additives supplemented to cows to reduce their methane output.
However, VistaMilk claimed that national calculations may have overestimated methane emissions from dairy cows by up to 18pc last year.
Shalloo noted that Ireland’s grass-based systems are unique globally for milk production.
“That’s why there isn’t huge amounts of information available in terms of methane from pasture-based systems,” he added. “We had done some work in the past and are doing some work now showing that our emission factors seem to be overestimated when we look at the international default values.”
The research centre also said it has developed new methodologies to distinguish short-lived biogenic methane from cumulative greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
Farms of the future
While looking at ways to reduce the environmental impact of the agricultural sector, VistaMilk said its research is focused on the future of farming.
This includes using AI and machine learning to predict grass growth, climate impacts and the likelihood of sickness spreading in animals.
Last year, VistaMilk announced it was working on a €1.4m carbon sequestration research project to help Irish farmers move to more climate-friendly agricultural systems. Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in plant material.
VistaMilk is working on the project with Dairy Research Ireland, the group that allocates funding from the levy collected from Irish dairy farmers.
Shalloo said there are currently 29 eddy covariance towers across Ireland collecting information for a central database as part of this project.
“Over the next two years to two and a half years, we expect some very robust results coming from those towers,” Shalloo added.
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