McConalogue confirms voluntary support scheme to reduce dairy cows

Climate target for agriculture ‘is anything but business as usual and will require transformational change’

Decarbonising Irish agriculture will be done through cutting emissions associated with farming and not by reducing livestock numbers or cutting food production, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has said.

Addressing the Oireachtas Environment and Climate Committee on Thursday, he accepted nothing less than transformational change would be required if agriculture was to meet its climate obligations.

“To put it simply and bluntly – the target for agriculture is anything but business as usual and will require transformational change,” he added.

Responding to Fianna Fáil TD Christopher O’Sullivan, who called for assurance the national herd would not have to be cut by 30 per cent, a view that took hold during negotiations on setting sectoral ceilings, Mr McConalogue said he could allay those concerns among some in rural communities.


“What we wanted to cut and reduce was our emissions profile. That is what our 25 per cent target is for, and that is doable,” he said.

In spite of assurances on herd numbers, the Minister confirmed farmers would be compensated to give up dairy cows to help address the climate crisis under a voluntary exit scheme to be introduced next year.

The scheme would be based on milk production levels in 2022, he told Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly, to avoid anyone increasing production with a view to participating in the scheme when it was established. It was a targeted move to reduce emissions in the dairy sector.

A voluntary exit scheme was one of the recommendations of the Food Vision Dairy Group, which was tasked to find ways to stabilise and then reduce emissions from the dairy sector.

Mr McConalogue defended Irish dairy and beef production, especially in meeting international demand for quality foods at a time when global food production was becoming more difficult due to the climate crisis.

While the climate issue was a challenge no other generation had faced, Mr McConalogue believed the farm sector, “the backbone of rural Ireland”, was fully committed to achieving its ambitious climate targets.

Farm families have been at the vanguard of driving positive environmental change for years, he said.

The sector, which is responsible for 37 per cent of Irish emissions is required to implement a 25 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030 as its contribution to an overall reduction of 51 per cent across the economy.

Agriculture was the first sector to have a credible roadmap for achieving climate ambitions while scientific and technological solutions were evolving all the time, the Minister said.

The willingness of farmers was reflected in the huge level of interest in joining ACRES – a new €1.5-billion flagship agri-environmental scheme – with 46,000 farmers applying to join.

The 2023 climate action plan focused our measures under inputs and additives including fertiliser use, husbandry practices and diversification. In practical terms, it included reducing chemical nitrogen usage and changing fertiliser type; providing voluntary diversification options for farmers, while improving the environmental dividend from farmed land, Mr McConalogue told the committee, which has called in ministers to outline progress on implementing agreed climate actions within their departments.

A new national fertiliser database would inform better use of fertilisers in a sustainable way and support farmers in reducing usage, while nitrogen reduction was also encouraged through supports for low-emission slurry spreading. Supporting use of protected urea would also help to achieve ammonia emissions targets, in addition to greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

“These changes can have benefits for the environment as well as profitability at farm level through a reduction in input costs,” Mr McConalogue said.

He highlighted the role breeding strategies to reduce methane could play in building carbon efficiency traits into Ireland’s livestock population.

Diversification opportunities that are and will be available to farmers include expanding tillage; roll-out of anaerobic digesters; scaling up organics; and accelerating forestry.

“Delivery of a biomethane industry of scale will be important for agriculture but also for industry and the decarbonisation of heat supply,” he said. A biomethane strategy will be published later this year while he predicted widespread development of roof top solar electricity on farms.

Committee chairman Brian Leddin and Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore challenged the minister on the fires that destroyed landscape in the southwest and Carlow recently as part of the so-called “controlled burning” that farmers are allowed to undertake to clear land of vegetation between September and February.

It highlighted practices tolerated in managing land including removal of large amounts of hedgerows, when significant reforms were needed to protect biodiversity and stop release of carbon, Mr Leddin said.

Ms Whitmore said the emissions from burning had been calculated at 1.9 million tonnes a year.

Mr McConalogue said agriculture policy required improving biodiversity and environmental assets, and confirmed he was reviewing hedgerow regulations on what can be removed. Without controlled burning of land during the legally-permitted period, there was a high risk of burning at the height of summer which would be difficult to control, he added.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times