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Farming in harmony with nature

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Aoife Leader is a Walsh Scholar working with Teagasc while completing a Masters in Agriculture Innovation Support. She is currently liaising with the eleven farmers participating in the Glanbia Ireland/Open Source Future Farms Group. Matt O’Keeffe, editor of the Dairy Ireland magazine recently chatted with Aoife about her study and how Future Farmer, Francis Nolan has benefited from his participation.

Aoife’s particular study is focused on biodiversity, as she explains: “A baseline assessment study of the eleven farms has been completed. This study includes a record of the biodiversity features and management practices on the farms and this has been followed up with the development of plans for each farm which fit into the overall farm systems. Each of the plans is unique to a particular farm and place an emphasis on what the farmers want to achieve in terms of biodiversity on their farms. Currently, the farmers are implementing these plans and early in 2021 there will be an assessment of what has been completed and what has not worked, identifying the reasons in each case.”

Productivity and biodiversity

Francis Nolan is one of the participants in the Future Farms Programme. He is dairy farming in Coolcullen, in north Kilkenny, not far from the racehorse training facility of renowned trainer Jim Bolger. The 140-cow, Spring-calving dairy herd has been bred to be one of the most productive herds in the Glanbia catchment area, despite the 70-hectare farm being on an elevated site over 900 feet above sea level.

Calving on the Nolan farm begins in late January with most of the herd calved within a month. Because of the high elevation, the cows begin their grazing season towards the end of February, somewhat later than on lowland farms, depending on ground and climatic conditions, and graze into late October/early November. The high EBI (Economic Breed Index) herd is Holstein/ British Friesian bred to deliver high milk solids (490 kgs/cow) from large quantities of quality grass (13 tonnes of grass produced per hectare).

Francis gives his reasons for participating in the Biodiversity Study being undertaken by Aoife Leader:  “Our dairy farm is comparable to many across the country. We have a stocking rate of 2.5 cows per hectare and that allows us to maximise the use of grass to produce milk across the growing season. I think what Aoife is working on ties in well with what we are doing on the farm.”


Farming sustainably

Aoife is adamant that there is no cherry-picking of the farms she is studying: “I took on the group of Future Farms that was in place. The grouping gets refreshed every couple of years so I was happy to take on the study as a random sample of farms in the region. Apart from biodiversity, they are great examples of what can be done on farms in terms of adopting a range of environmentally positive practices including Low Emission Slurry Spreading (LESS) and using Protected Urea, which greatly lower nitrogen losses to the atmosphere. Along with biodiversity initiatives, these all tie into the concept of farming sustainably. These are not insular initiatives. The idea is to spread knowledge and best practice among the farmers’ peers. Taking the Nolan farm as an example, we mapped the biodiversity on the farm, scoring each relevant feature or initiative and used the Teagasc Biodiversity Management Practices Index to score management practices. 9.5 per cent of the farm has features which directly lend themselves to biodiversity.

These include commonly found features such as hedgerows, grass banks and watercourses as well as area-based features which we listed including a grove of trees and a swampy area that has been fenced off to protect it as a multi-faceted habitat. The farmyard itself has also been managed with a view to managing and protecting biodiversity features. The average score across the Group was 8.5 per cent with a spread running from 4.5 per cent to 18 per cent. Average field size is a good proxy for biodiversity. The target size for ensuring strong biodiversity on a farm is 5 hectares. Francis’s field size averages 3 hectares and the hedgerow boundaries or linear features ensure that biodiversity potential is strong on the farm.”


A balanced approach

Francis is adamant that a positive environmental balance is achievable: “I think commercial dairy farming can be in complete harmony with biodiversity. We haven’t had to make many changes. Fencing off waterways to prevent livestock access, completed at the same time as installing a drinking system across the grazing paddocks, was one of the major changes and that hasn’t interfered with management of the farm. Maintaining hedgerows and developing buffer zones haven’t affected production on the farm while they do help to protect biodiversity.”


A critical analysis

The Walsh Scholar is well aware that farmers have been the focus of criticism around their environmental credentials: “Every farm is a living habitat and farmers work alongside nature every day of the year. There are regulations in place to ensure compliance with environmental protection standards. Most farmers I work with have an interest and enthusiasm for biodiversity and, with an adequate support structure in place, even more can and will be done to enhance biodiversity on farms. The reality is that the levels of biodiversity, even on highly stocked farms, are quite high already, especially by comparison with other countries across the world. Maintaining and improving that high standard is the priority. The Nitrates Derogation, allowing high animal stocking levels per hectare, has been contentious. I have found in my studies that these farms are capable of maintaining high levels of biodiversity in tandem with high stocking rates. It should be recognised that most of these farms are actively engaged in increasing biodiversity on their farms.”


Environmental care can enhance productivity

Many of the environmental protection measures introduced on the Nolan farm have improved production efficiencies, as Francis confirms: “The Low Emission Slurry Equipment we use has helped to get more value from the nutrients in the slurry. This is especially the case in the springtime when grass is growing strongly. I’m all for developments that allow me to farm efficiently at the same time as protecting the environment and biodiversity on my farm. This is all going to be part of farming in the future so having a biodiversity plan for the farm will run alongside having a nutrient management plan, for instance.

We have to be prepared to look at new developments and see how we can accommodate them on our farms.” Francis Nolan is confident that his farm can accommodate the much-signalled changes coming in the next version of the Common Agricultural policy (CAP): “Our field size and the surrounding hedgerows are a big positive. The hedgerows and watercourses add up to 18 kilometres in total. That provides a lot of room for biodiversity on the farm.”


Communicating the message

Aoife Leader’s Masters in Agricultural Innovation Support will be a template: “We are piloting a biodiversity plan that combines with the overall workings of a farm. From my study, I hope to have identified a communication strategy that informs farmers and encourages them to implement robust biodiversity plans on their farms. The long-term aim is to get the message around biodiversity more widely spread to all stakeholders, including the general public, so that they can appreciate that is being achieved.” 

*Note: Walsh Scholarships are awarded in memory of Dr. Tom Walsh, first Director of An Foras Taluntais (precursor of Teagasc) and a world leading authority on soil science.

For further information on the Glanbia Ireland /Teagasc Open Source Future Farm Programme please contact your local GI Farm Development Manager.

First Published 17 November 2020

Tagged with: Dairy

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