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Catch-all Solution

The Agricultural Catchments Programme is in a unique position to assess and inform policy. Here, Research Officers Bridget Lynch, Michele McCormack and Ognjen Zurovec and Programme Advisor Mark Boland tell us about the programme’s vital, multidisciplinary work.

TResearch Autumn 2023

Can you explain the history of the ACP team within Teagasc?

Bridget: The Agricultural Catchments Programme (ACP) was established in 2008 and has been fully funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine since then. We are now approaching the end of the fourth four-year phase of the programme, and we have 23 staff located across our six catchments. In the current phase, the programme has expanded to include gaseous emissions and carbon sequestration. In addition, the soil science research has expanded to include N and P soil solution monitoring, and the socio-economic research of the ACP farms using National Farm Survey (NFS) methodology.

What are your core priorities and objectives?

Bridget: The overarching objective of the ACP is to provide a scientific basis for policy review of the Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) and its derogation across different soil types and land-uses, as well as the influence of agriculture on the Water Framework Directive objectives. A team of technicians, technologists, researchers and advisors work with the over 300 catchment farmers to deliver this.

How does your research approach address these objectives, and how is it shared?

Michele: My research as a socio-economist is to bridge the gap between the biophysical sciences and farmer behaviour. This puts us in a unique position to build a holistic picture of the roles of soil, weather and farmer behaviour in understanding trends in water quality and gaseous emissions. ACP research findings are regularly presented at both national and international conferences.

Ognjen: The ACP has been surveying soil nutrient levels in catchments since its inception. This has yielded important scientific findings about how nutrients end up in surface and groundwater. We present our findings to many different audiences, such as scientists, policymakers, advisors, industry professionals, farmers and the general public. 

Can you explain the importance of this work in the context of Irish farming and agriculture?

Bridget: Ireland has a goal of restoring all waters to ‘good’ status by 2027, and of reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030. The ACP is building a comprehensive understanding of how agronomic and climate drivers influence nutrient loss and gaseous emissions. In a nutshell, the ACP publishes and disseminates its findings, which assess the effectiveness of – and feed into – national policy.

Michele: To reach the environmental goals in both water quality and gaseous emissions, it is important to take a holistic approach. The ACP is in a unique position to gather data and apply robust scientific research to help answer questions pertaining to how Ireland can achieve these goals and build a future for the next generation of Irish farmers.

Have there been any changes made in Irish farming as a result of your work?

Ognjen: Our recent findings reveal a 5% increase in the area with good overall soil fertility and a 20% increase in soils with optimal pH levels since the initial soil samples were taken in 2009. These results strongly support the dedicated efforts of Teagasc through its advisory service, including the ACP, in emphasising the importance of nutrient management planning on farms.

Michele: The most recent NFS data has allowed us to calculate a number of KPIs that span a wide range of environmental, economic and social metrics. This data allows us to place our ACP farmers within a wider dataset of farms where we can compare the results with similar farms across Ireland. One of the measures where the ACP farms are performing above average is in terms of Nutrient Use Efficiency. This good result indicates that the combined efforts of research, knowledge transfer and farmers are working.

How important are farmers to the ACP?

Mark: From the beginning of the programme, farmers’ understanding of the programme requirements, and their willingness to engage with advisors, researchers and technicians, has been exemplary. As an advisor I have been fortunate to form good relationships with the farmers I work with. We very much rely on the goodwill of the farmers to carry out our work, and, therefore, ensuring good lines of communication between ourselves and the farmers will allow the programme to continue to provide valuable research findings on key environmental issues.

Ognjen: All of our work is conducted on the land of farmers who generously support our research efforts. Their partnership and willingness enables us to gather essential data and measurements that form the foundation of our research. Furthermore, the participation of farmers is crucial in understanding the intricate interactions between agricultural practices and environmental sustainability. Without the invaluable cooperation of catchment farmers, none of our scientific investigations would be possible.

Michele: Understanding the role of farm management practices and farmer activities is crucial in building an overall picture of the drivers of water quality and gaseous emissions issues. We currently collect farm level data based on the Teagasc National Farm Survey (NFS). We also surveyed farmers in relation to Ireland’s fifth NAP and in the past a number of surveys were carried out to investigate nutrient management practices on ACP farms. This data is crucial and, over the entire period, they have engaged positively in providing the ACP with this sensitive and personal data.

TResearch Autumn 2023

Have you noticed a difference in farmers’ behaviour over the years? Has there been a change in their attitudes towards the environment?

Michele: The initial phase of the ACP was to evaluate the Nitrates Directive with a focus on protecting and improving water quality. Since then, environmental issues have become more important to society in general. Within the ACP we have observed a growing understanding and acceptance of the important role farmers have to play in the environmental debate.

Farmers have engaged with numerous technologies to assist them in bringing their farms in line with current environmental standards such as Nutrient Management Planning, soil testing, using ACP weather data to plan slurry applications and the use of Low Emission Slurry Spreading (LESS) equipment.

Mark: Farmers within the ACP have always been aware of the environmental concerns arising from agriculture, particularly around water quality. In the most recent phase of the programme, the addition of greenhouse gas monitoring has expanded the remit of the ACP. Farmers are becoming increasingly aware of the targets placed on agriculture to reduce emissions. While farming may be seen by many to be a business, most farmers have grown up surrounded by nature with an appreciation of the landscape they live in. They are prepared to make any necessary changes in their farming practices to enhance the environment they farm in.

Can you describe your team’s broader contribution to Teagasc?

Bridget: The ACP epitomises ‘Teagasc Together’ with our multidisciplinary and diverse team. In addition, we directly address the organisation’s mission to provide scientific leadership and support to Irish farmers in achieving a sustainable food system.

What are the team’s values? What are the principles you work to that you think make your team successful?

Michele: The success of the ACP centres on several key principles: collaboration, trust, respect, accountability, excellence, adaptability, innovation and a desire for continuous improvement.

Are there any trends or changes to the field coming up that will affect your work?

Michele: In 2022 Ireland’s NAP came into effect. This legislation introduced new measures to help Irish farmers achieve targets set out under the Nitrates Directive – for example, changes to closed periods, new livestock excretion rates and a reduction in chemical fertiliser.

ACP farmers were surveyed in relation to their opinions on the fifth NAP; farmers expressed concern in relation to the additional costs, both direct and indirect, associated with these changes. They also raised concerns in relation to a perceived lack of enforcement of regulations that subsequently led to tighter regulations on all farmers.

Over the next period, we expect to see the results of these changes in the observed data. This will enable the ACP to evaluate changes in the NAP from a water quality perspective.”

“The ACP is building a comprehensive understanding of how agronomic and climate drivers influence nutrient loss and gaseous emissions.”

“Within the ACP we have observed a growing understanding and acceptance of the important role farmers have to play in the environmental debate.”

What are you proudest of as a member of the team?

Bridget: In this phase, the gaseous emissions team set up five eddy covariance towers across the catchments, which took a lot of hard work from many colleagues. Currently all five are up and running.

Michele: Improvements in the farm data collection have allowed us to calculate a wide range of sustainability indicators for ACP farms. This will allow us to create a dataset unique to Ireland.

Ognjen: The recent addition of soil solution monitoring in the Timoleague catchment required significant effort from the soil research team. We anticipate valuable insights into nitrate leaching under various grassland systems and farming practices.

Mark: The level of engagement of the ACP farmers and my close working relationship with them. It makes my job easier knowing that farmers see myself as a trusted line of communication.

[pic cap 1] Bridget Lynch, Ognjen Zurovec, Michele McCormack and Mark Boland standing outside the water-monitoring station at Ballycanew

[pic cap 2] Michele McCormack, Mark Boland, Bridget Lynch and Ognjen Zurovec standing at the stream side at the catchment outlet in Ballycanew

[pic credit] Mary Browne