The suckler cow, and livestock farming in general, has come under much criticism over carbon emissions in recent years.
There are countless farmers all over Ireland that work in harmony with the environment, while at the same time, running efficient suckler herds with high levels of output to feed the nation.
Billy O’Kane is just one example of a farmer taking a proactive approach to producing beef with a low carbon footprint in a viable, profitable system.
Farming 500ac of grassland outside Ballymena, Co Antrim, Billy runs 230 spring-calving suckler cows. All cows are pure or part Stabiliser, with pedigree breeding stock sold under the Crebilly prefix.
Billy made the switch to Stabiliser cows back in the early 2000s. Prior to this, the farm traditionally carried a herd of continental beef breeds.
Cow size and maintenance were key reasons for the change in breed type, as well as opting for cattle that were specifically bred with feed conversion efficiency in mind.
“Mature cow size is something I am conscious of. Big cows eat more, yet they do not wean heavier calves. It has been a long process, but we have pulled our cow size down year on year.
“Mature cows are typically 620kg and weaning weights average 53% of mature cow weight, which is close on 330kg at a standard 200 days of age.
“No concentrate is fed to calves or the cows during the grazing season. This weight is driven from milk yield and a grass diet. Cows that cannot wean calves weighing close to 50% of their liveweight at 200 days are removed from the herd,” says Billy.
The net result is a more compact cow with a higher level of output per hectare farmed. Each grazing block is currently carrying 50 cows with calves at foot.
Over a decade ago, the same grazing blocks could only support 40 continental cows and calves, due to the heavier mature weight and higher grass intakes. This means each grazing block is generally producing 25% more liveweight from similar input levels.
Male progeny that are not suited to selling as breeding bulls are intensively finished at 14 months, with carcase weight around 380kg to 390kg and U- grade conformation, having eaten 1.5t of meal.
Bulls are weaned in late November and placed on a 50:50 concentrate and silage diet. This year, Billy has been liaising with his feed merchant to develop a lower carbon footprint ration.
The ingredients used are predominantly of UK or EU origin. No ingredients originating from countries that are actively partaking in deforestation are included, so almost no soya products are fed.
Finished bulls and some steers are marketed through a Stabiliser producer group which Billy coordinates.
Selling bigger numbers through the group gives the farmers greater negotiating power for fairer prices. Feed is also purchased through the group.
Heifers surplus to replacement requirements are sold to other herds, primarily through the producer group, but also directly to commercial suckler herds at commercial prices.
Grass swards have a high clover content, reducing the reliance on chemical fertiliser. All reseeds are established using minimum tillage methods rather than opting for conventional ploughing, to prevent carbon loss.
“The average Irish soil has around 6% organic matter, which is the part that contains and stores carbon,” Billy says. Ploughing every year and cropping has reduced average arable soil organic matter to around 2%. Zero or min-till reseeding and rotational grazing on this farm has soil organic matter at 15%.
“That’s a lot more carbon captured from the atmosphere and stored,” he adds.
Slurry is typically applied to grassland using low emission spreading equipment, reducing emissions and maximizing the amount of available nitrogen for grass growth.
Carbon auditing the farm
Last spring, Billy carried out a carbon audit for the entire farm. Carbon output from livestock, feed, fertiliser and fuel was measured, as well as carbon sequestration into grassland, trees and 44km of hedgerows on-farm.
“Josh Thompson, a PhD student, undertook data collection for the audit. We used the UK Stabiliser Cattle Company’s values on carbon emissions, which had been calculated by Alltech’s E-CO2 system.
“Published data using both organisations’ figures has shown that compared to the UK and Irish average, a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas output, per kg of beef, is possible through a combination of Stabiliser genetics, calving at 24 months, clover grazing swards and harnessing the feed efficiency with bull beef finishing.
“Everything we do on the farm is geared to increase production and carbon efficiency, which ultimately is a positive step for profitability,” states Billy.
The results from the audit make interesting reading, depending on the reporting system used.
“Under the older GWP 100 system, the farm has still some way to go to reach net zero carbon.
“However, when using the GWP* system developed at Oxford University, which is regarded as the most scientifically up-to-date carbon accounting method, the farm and our beef comes out at just the right side of carbon neutral.”
In Billy’s opinion, governments setting agri policies have to realise that there is a place for cattle and the suckler herd if people are to be fed.
“Only one-third of agricultural land on the planet is suitable for cropping to produce human edible food. The other two-thirds of land is not.
“Cattle can forage this less productive land, converting grass to high-quality protein and provide food for a growing population.
“Similarly, the policy of offshoring food production to make the UK and Ireland “theoretically” net zero is counter-productive and frankly environmentally dangerous. We can produce beef on efficient grass-based systems that capture carbon.
“Beef imported from deforesting South American countries has a net carbon footprint four times higher than the UK and Irish average.
“Protecting our beef industry also provides food security and safeguards all the associated jobs built around farming and processing.
“As farmers, we all have a responsibility to do our bit and protect the environment.
“I want to leave a viable, sustainable farm in place for my children and grandchildren to inherit, so I am committed to cutting carbon as much as possible,” Billy concludes.