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One step at a time

The Signpost Programme dairy demonstration farmers are making progress in adopting the 12 Steps to Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Richard and Wendy Starrett’s award-winning farm in Co. Donegal is among the leading Signpost Programme farms helping to promote sustainable practices

Farmers participating in Teagasc’s Signpost Programme are on target to reduce their emissions through a series of actions and adjustments to their farming systems.The Signpost Programme is designed to support and enable all farmers to farm more sustainably, and the role of the 120 demonstration farms taking part in the programme is to showcase technologies that can reduce gaseous emissions, and to provide a location for other farmers to learn. 

The 12 Steps to Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions framework is the basis of the advisory programme supporting and enabling farmers to reduce emissions. The 12 Steps translates the mitigation actions in the Marginal Abatement Cost Curve into key actions at farm level. The baseline year for data collection for the Signpost demonstration farms was 2021, and Teagasc expects to track on-farm changes on the Signpost Farms over multiple years – at a minimum to 2025, for a five-year time series. The results referred to in this feature are for the first 24-month period and, as such, are initial indicators only of progression towards lower greenhouse gas emissions. 

Progress and potential On average, total greenhouse gas emissions for these farms was 974t CO2-e per dairy farm. Carbon emissions Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) per kilogramme of product was 0.92kg CO2 e/kg fat and protein corrected milk. Emissions per hectare were 10.4 t CO2 e/ha. Considerable progress has been made on the Signpost dairy farms to implement the 12 Steps. There is more potential to further reduce total GHG emissions on the Signpost farms by further reducing chemical nitrogen use and increasing the proportion of their chemical N applied as protected urea. The data from beef, sheep and tillage enterprises is currently being analysed and will be available over the coming weeks. 

 Step 1

Use protected urea

Framework recommendation:

Apply protected urea instead of CAN/straight urea.

Baseline data for Signpost farms: These farmers are using protected urea as a source of more than half of their fertiliser nitrogen (N), but there is still scope to increase its usage. Availability was an issue in 2022. 

Step 2

Apply lime

Framework recommendation:
Apply lime to fields identified as low pH.

Baseline data for Signpost farms:
These farms were extensively soil sampled in late 2021 and early 2022, and the farmers have used the results to target lime applications, with 77 tonnes spread per farm on average (equivalent to 0.86 tonnes per hectare farmed) in 2022. It is important that an increase in the use of lime is matched by a decrease in chemical N, as that is where emissions savings occur.

Step 3

Build or maintain soil fertility

Framework recommendation:
Continue to use phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) fertilisers such as 18:6:12.

Baseline data for Signpost farms:
Four out of ten soil samples had the correct soil pH, P and K. This is higher than is the case on a typical dairy farm (two in ten samples for 2022). 

Step 4

Use 100% LESS

Framework recommendation: Apply slurry in spring/early summer using Low Emission Slurry Spreading (LESS) technology.

Baseline data for Signpost farms:

There has been complete adoption of LESS by this group of farmers. All dairy farmers sampled their slurry in 2022, allowing them to make informed decisions as to where and how much slurry to apply.

Improving dairy herd quality is just one of the 12 Steps toward reduced GHG emissions

Step 5

Reduce chemical N use by 30%

Framework recommendation:
Apply lime, incorporate clover and make best use of slurry/farmyard manure.

Baseline data for Signpost farms:
These farmers have started the transition to a lower dependence of fertiliser N use, with fertiliser N usage 17% lower in 2022, and an average chemical N use of 170kg/ha. There is scope to further reduce chemical N use by incorporating clover on these farms as well as maximising the value of liming and slurry application. 

Step 6

Better grassland management

Framework recommendation: 
Weekly farm walk, measure grass and extend grazing season.

Baseline data for Signpost farms:
Signpost dairy farmers have a high level of grass utilisation; the target of 12t DM grass utilised/ha was exceeded by many of them last year.

Step 7

Improve animal health

Framework recommendation: 
Create a herd health plan.

Baseline data for Signpost farms:
Many different elements contribute to herd health, including lameness, mastitis, infertility, pneumonia, fluke, etc. Milk was produced with a low somatic cell count of 124,000 cells/ml on average.

Step 8

Improve dairy herd quality

Framework recommendation:
Use high Economic Breeding Index (EBI) bulls and increase herd EBI by >€10/year. Use sexed semen to accelerate genetic gain.

Baseline data for Signpost farms:
The target on the programme was to increase herd EBI by €10 per year, which was achieved by the Signpost dairy farms. 

Step 9

Increase milk solids/cow

Framework recommendation: Milk record, cull poor cows and aim for 305 day lactation.

Baseline data for Signpost farms: There was a high level of technical performance on the Signpost dairy farms in 2022 with an average milk solids output of 498kg per cow and feeding 1,189kg concentrates per cow.  Concentrate usage was high due to the  drought conditions in 2022. 

Step 10

Reduce age at first calving

Framework recommendation:
Calf heifers at 22 to 26 months.

Baseline data for Signpost farms:
The average age at first calving was 24 months on these farms.

Step 11

Finish cattle earlier

Framework recommendation:
Use Dairy Beef Index (DBI) to produce earlier finishing cattle.

Baseline data for Signpost farms:
Dairy farmers have a significant role to play in improving the quality of the dairy male calves available for finishing. The DBI of the beef sires used by the Signpost dairy farmers was on average €71 in 2022.   

Step 12

Incorporate clover

Framework recommendation:
Incorporating 5kg/ha (2kg/ac)  clover seed will replace up to 100kg/ha (80 units/ac) of chemical N/year.

Baseline data for Signpost farms:
More than eight out of ten farmers (86%) have incorporated clover into reseeds in 2022, setting them up for further reductions in chemical N use. An assessment of clover content on these farms was made in 2023.  Almost 50% of area farmed was assessed as having some clover. One third had high levels of clover, with similar amounts with medium and low levels. 


The sustainability metrics for individual farmers presented in this article are generated by the National Farm Survey (NFS) team. 


Siobhan Kavanagh
Communications and Engagement Specialist, The Signpost Programme,
Teagasc Oak Park.

Cathal Buckley
Senior Research Officer, Agricultural Economics & Farm Surveys Department, REDP, Teagasc Athenry.

Tom O’Dwyer

Head of Signpost Programme,
AGRI Centre, Teagasc Moorepark. 

Brian Moran

National Farm Survey, REDP, Teagasc Athenry.

[Pic credit] Teagasc