Research and investigation point to a sustainable future for dairy farming in Ireland. Established in 2018, the VistaMilk SFI Research Centre meets challenges and solves problems in five specific areas: soil, pasture, cow, food and agri-tech.
Through organised collaboration and coordination, VistaMilk creates an overview of all research and innovations taking place under its remit and can combine different projects to generate a range of recommendations and practical solutions.
Dairy Farming in Ireland
These will enable Irish dairy farmers to develop sustainable practices that will protect the 18,000 family dairy farms, the 60,000 jobs, and the €5bn yearly economic contribution that dairy supports in this country. It will also provide consumers with the reassurance of knowing that the dairy products they buy continue to be both farmed and processed locally.
For the Irish dairy industry (part of an agricultural sector that accounts for 37% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, the bulk of which are methane) there’s an issue beyond reducing its total emissions by 22% by 2030. It’s an issue of perception.
The conclusion has been drawn that reducing Ireland’s emissions is as simple as reducing livestock numbers and two narratives have emerged:
· A reduction in emissions from livestock is a ‘quick fix’, allowing everyone else to get on with business as usual.
· A reduction in Ireland’s national herd is the only way to meet agri-sector-specific targets.
Both conclusions are overly-simplistic and flawed, and both ignore the significant strides and investments being made by the dairy industry to address the issues, reduce emissions, meet the targets, and become a truly sustainable sector. Much of this work is research-based, and the results that are emerging point to a bright green future for agricultural Ireland.
The research experts at VistaMilk are showing the way in:
· Breeding Programmes – matching specific cows with particular bulls and identifying and predicting cow characteristics, breeding animals which produce high-quality milk, give birth to more valuable calves, are disease resistant, are fertile and produce less methane.
· Pasture Management – optimising pasture yield, and pasture quality, reducing reliance on chemical fertiliser, increasing milk production, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
· Biogenic Methane Emissions – agriculture accounts for about 35% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, the bulk of which is biogenic methane:
· Research at VistaMilk has shown that national inventory calculations may overestimate methane emissions from dairy cows by up to 18%.
· New methodologies have been developed to distinguish short-lived biogenic methane from cumulative greenhouse gases, ie carbon dioxide.
· Research is investigating the potential of feed additives supplemented to dairy cows in small quantities to mitigate enteric methane emissions.
· Carbon Sequestration – infrastructure is in place at VistaMilk to establish the quantity of carbon being sequestered by pastures, determine the effect of soil type and management practices, and identify practices to optimise carbon sequestration rate.
Beyond emissions and environmental impact, VistaMilk is also leading research and development programmes that point to the future of farming as well as suggesting solutions to nutrition-related challenges:
· AI, Machine Learning and Machine-to-Machine Communication – predicting grass growth, identifying which animals might become ill, and what impact climate might have – with the aim of modelling the entire farm.
· Dairy Products and Nutrition – there’s a global obesity crisis costing trillions of dollars a year – what if there was a dairy product – a protein – which, by simply incorporating it in your diet, combats weight gain and ‘trains’ the gut to behave differently? VistaMilk studies are looking at how the regular inclusion of whey protein in our diets can control weight gain and combat the obesity epidemic.
VistaMilk’s research projects point the way to meeting the dairy sector’s emissions targets and show that agri-sustainability in Ireland is entirely achievable.
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