Research: Switching cows for crops would reduce protein output

With additional reporting by Breifne O’Brien

It has been outlined that if Ireland switched its livestock system from cows to crops and vegetarian foods, it would cause a 40% reduction in the production of edible protein.

Speaking at the first day of Dairy Open Day 2021 at Moorepark in Co. Cork today, (Tuesday, September 14), Teagasc’s Donagh Hennessy told attendees: “If we are talking about the future role for livestock in sustainable food production, then we need to know if we are positive food producers or negative food producers.

“If feed-food competition is severe enough, then the livestock system is actually a net loss to the amount of food that could be produced from that land area,” he explained.

According to Teagasc, feed-food competition is said to occur when land-area is used for livestock feed rather than food-crop production.

The Teagasc scholar outlined that the feed-food competition was calculated for all of Ireland’s ruminant sectors.

This was done by looking at the ‘land-use ratio’ which he explained “finds the area of land used, both on site and internationally, for every livestock system, and for a potential alternative crop for that land”.

Switching cows for crops

He noted the findings of the research indicated that if the dairy system was removed and replaced by a vegetable-based system, then “only about 47% of the digestible protein that the dairy animal produces” could be replaced.

He added: “So, that dairy animal by existing, produces twice as much food than if it didn’t exist and the land was instead used for crop production.”

Continuing, he noted that dairy beef “worked out at about parity” and, when combined, the system “is about 0.58, which means removing the dairy system, would reduce the amount of protein produced nationally by 40%”.

He added that suckler and sheep farming also “came out close to parity” and said the total ruminant system “is 0.69, which means if we eliminate our livestock system tomorrow, and replace it with crops, it would mean a 40% reduction of edible protein.

“This means Ireland’s ruminants are positive producers of food.”

Hennessy also said: “What doesn’t help the suckler beef system is you are running the dam and the progeny so you have twice the area. You have the suckler cow and the suckler calf, the ewe and the lamb.”

In the case of dairy cows, the offspring are categorised separately.

Attendees also heard that Teagasc research indicates grass-based dairy production in the US “is a net loss to the global food supply while also an emitter of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions”.

“If you remove the dairy beef animal in the US tomorrow, you could produce 3.5 times as much edible protein,” the Teagasc representative said.

“The dairy system is about three times more efficient than the pig system at producing food from the land available. What’s driving the pig system is imported soya,” according to the findings of the Teagasc research.

Commenting on suckler systems, Hennessy said: “If you put a suckler on land that is 0% suitable for arable quality, its land use ratio drops efficiency so the land use ratio for suckler production in the west of Ireland comes out at about 0.6 and sheep comes out at about 0.4.”

Concluding, the Teagasc representative said: “From a feed-food competition perspective, we should be using land as efficiently as possible and suckler and sheep systems are the most effective systems on that type of land [marginal land], otherwise it is falling out of agriculture production, forestry or some alternative use.”

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