Just as Minister McConalogue announced that the 2021 protein aid payment of €300/t would be paid out shortly, to approximately 850 applicants, a protein crop strategy plan was also launched.

This sets an objective to increase native protein production from 52,000t to 130,000t annually, which is just one of the many targets set out in a report produced by the Irish Protein Stakeholders group.

The report titled Strategic plan to support native protein production looks at the many actions needed to help make this happen, plus the need to build market demand in parallel with production capacity.

This report puts our protein requirement at around 900,000t

The Teagasc-led protein stakeholders group is made up of representatives from the Department, Teagasc, seed companies, growers, the merchant trade, co-ops, feed mills etc – a diverse group to represent all facets of the feed chain.

Ireland currently has a large dependency on imported animal feeds, especially proteins. This report puts our protein requirement at around 900,000t (or 3.1Mt of faba bean equivalent).

This is mainly supplied by imported soya bean meal, maize distillers’ grains and other feed sources.

It identifies that the faba bean crop is most suitable in the short term to help reduce Ireland’s reliance on imported proteins. However, it also states that peas, lupins, soya beans and forage crops can all make valuable contributions to our protein requirement.

Since the protein aid payment was introduced in 2015, the area of beans has increased from under 3,000ha in 2014 to almost 13,000ha in 2020, producing, on average, 52,000t per annum for the Irish feed industry.

Policy drivers

The European Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategies aim to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly. Having native protein crops can help achieve the various targets and a higher area of leguminous crops will help with the 20% target reduction in fertiliser use, as well as the 50% reduction in pesticide use set out in Farm to Fork.

Our Ag Climatise roadmap points to the potential to produce 40,000ha of beans.

However, this group is happy to take it one step at a time, recognising that support is essential to help achieve these goals and the new 20,000ha protein crop target is to be supported through the CAP in Ireland under the voluntary coupled support scheme for protein crops.

This new scheme will cater for more hectares (from 12,000 to 20,000ha) and a provide higher support level (€350/ha). It is available to support peas, beans, lupins and soya beans, with mixed cropping included at a lower rate. These changes bring total Department of Agriculture support for the scheme from €3m to €7m per annum.

Protein stakeholder targets

The group has identified three strategic elements that are needed for the 130,000t targeted production from 20,000ha to be achieved:

1 Protein crops must be profitable at farm level versus other crop options. Achieving this will require variety improvement on many different fronts, better agronomic practices and a bridging of current knowledge gaps.

2 Creating a positive market for indigenous protein crops. This must provide a positive marketing message through establishing the nutritional credentials of native proteins and demonstrating the advantages to livestock producers of substituting them for imported proteins.

3 Establish improved recognition of the sustainability credentials of native protein crops to achieve climate change and biodiversity targets through the displacement of imported protein sources.

Sustainability benefits

Teagasc analysis has shown that nitrogen requirement can be reduced by up to 6,000t of CAN equivalent if the bean area increases from around 10,000ha to 20,000ha.

The report states that legumes bring other sustainability benefits also, such as enhancing soil N, providing a break in cereal rotations, a resource for pollinators, helping soil biodiversity etc.

Improving profitability

The report suggests five main areas to be addressed to help grower profitability from growing a bean crop.

1 Variety improvement, better agronomic practices and bridging current knowledge gaps to exploit the added value potential of plant-based protein in premium food markets.

2 Improve basic agronomy to help deliver an average target yield of 6.5t/ha for beans and 6.0t/ha for peas.

3 Quantify the positive effects of rotational beans in terms of reducing succeeding-crop nitrogen, overall soil fertility, yield improvement across the rotation and the impact on overall pest pressure.

4 Develop premium markets for legumes such as protein for vegan diets, for fishmeal feeds and others such as pea gin.

5 Support crop incomes through the continuation of the protein aid scheme.


These measures are to be supported through the production of a growers’ guide for beans, specific knowledge transfer events, the establishment of grain parameters that best suit food and feed markets, and an improved knowledge of the requirement for legumes in premium markets.

One other objective here is to instigate a benchmarking process using the top 10% of growers every year to help identify the agronomy that is most strongly associated with good crop performance.

Making the strategy a success would also depend on the successful uptake by potential users

This information would then be used to promote the agronomic practices that are associated with higher performance and to inform future research objectives.

Making the strategy a success would also depend on the successful uptake by potential users and the performance of the feed in animal diets. It suggests:

  • Supporting animal feed compounders who prioritise native feed ingredients over imported feed sources.
  • A review of the nutritional value of beans and peas for ruminant and monogastric diets.
  • An awareness campaign to highlight the positive nutritional and environmental sustainability benefits of feeding native rations to livestock and pig farmers.
  • Potential advantages for the environment would need to be quantified if native protein sources are to replace some imported alternatives.

    The report suggests the establishment of a sustainability indicator for Irish proteins (GHGs, carbon, biodiversity, etc) which can be used to compare them to imported sources.

    It also calls for the reduction in nitrogen and pesticide use to be quantified where legumes are incorporated into a rotation. This would show how rotations containing legumes align with the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy.

    The report also calls for the quantification of the biodiversity value of increasing the protein crop area to 20,000ha.

    These crops are very bee and insect friendly and this must help overall above- and below-ground biodiversity.

    Benchmarking performance

    Beans are a useful source of crop protein and they also contribute to sustainability in many different ways.

    The aim of the process of Benchmarking Beans for Yield Improvement is to help determine the key agronomic factors associated with the highest-yielding crops and how management influences both biotic and abiotic stresses.

    These crops would then be used as a benchmark to guide other farmers and advisers as to the factors that appear to be most influential for yield.

    It is hoped that adopting these would quickly decrease the overall yield variability in the crop.

    The benchmarking process is likely to examine three key areas:

  • 1. Soil.
  • 2. Agronomic practices.
  • 3. Yield components.
  • Basic management details such as inputs and key growth stages are to be recorded in all crops.

    Soil: Measurements are likely to include the soil type, fertility (SOM, pH, P, K, Mg, and trace elements) based on a soil test prior to planting each year, an assessment of soil structure and possibly a test to measure specific soil microbial activity.

    Agronomic practices: These would involve recording things related to sowing such as the sowing date, the variety, the seed rate and percentage establishment, the method of establishment and the rotation used. Other husbandry details such as crop nutrition and action against diseases would also be needed.

    Yield components: More detailed analysis would also be required to trace the components of yield such as plants/m2, the number of pods per plant, an assessment of the number of seeds per pod and seed weight at harvest. Knowing these parameters would help to identify the structure of the high-yielding crops.

    Not a competition

    It must be emphasised that the benchmarking process is not a competition to achieve the highest yield, either on a one or multiyear basis.

    The objective is to highlight the management practices that are associated with the farmers and the crops that achieve above-average yields.

    To provide a good pool of growers, the organisers hope that at least 50 growers will participate and submit the necessary details to make valid comparisons between crops.

    Following an adjudication process, it is expected that the top 10% of growers will then be selected to provide the information for the benchmarking process.

    These farmers and their agronomists will then be profiled in the Irish Farmers Journal to highlight their agronomy practices and, as a knowledge transfer method, to help to get other growers to adopt and follow these practices which seem to be associated with higher yield potential. It is also envisaged that these findings will be used to help guide the direction of future research.

    Industry involvement

    It is hoped that all the major purchasers and merchants involved in bean production and usage will provide at least one entrant for the benchmarking exercise.

    An individual field can be used rather than the entire area grown on a farm; indeed that is probably preferable in that it would have a more definite management history.

    The required information must be recorded on a standard application form to help ensure all crop information is directly comparable.

    After harvest, the adjudicators will assess the association between yield and key agronomic practices, with the intention of selecting five growers to be profiled. The organisers are keen to point out that there will not be winners and losers in the process.

    Indeed, if the whole process works as anticipated, the real winners will be the people who are not those profiled.

    Starts next year

    The benchmarking process is to begin next year, with application forms to be submitted by the end of April 2022.

    The participants in the benchmarking project will be invited to a presentation of findings in December, which is to coincide with an announcement of the actual protein payment level for 2022.

    In short

  • A new strategic plan to support native protein production has been launched to help provide direction for the future of protein crops.
  • The plan targets an increase in protein crop production from 52,000t in recent years to 130,000t.
  • The nutritional value of crops like peas and beans needs to be re-evaluated to give confidence to end users.
  • Those who prioritise the use of native ingredients should be supported in their efforts.