Technologies for today and tomorrow
Teagasc experts are highlighting how technologies are being used to turn the challenges of sustainability into opportunities on Irish farms.
Farmers are facing increasing economic, social and environmental challenges in the drive towards sustainability. The EU Green Deal has set targets to halt biodiversity decline, improve water quality and reduce fertiliser and pesticide use. Nationally, Ireland has set very challenging environmental targets around reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) and ammonia emissions.
Urgent work is needed to implement technologies that are known to support the achievement of these targets, but are at the same time economical for farms. Teagasc’s David Wall, Principal Research Officer and Enterprise Leader, and Karl Richards, Head of Environment, Soils and Land-use Research Department, recently highlighted a range of these technologies at their ‘Farming for a Better Future’ event at Johnstown Castle, to support sustainability on Irish farms.
“There are a large number of proven technologies available to improve environmental sustainability on farms,” says David, “but early action is required in order to reverse trends. Farmers need to tap into the support of farm advisory services to adopt these technologies on their farms.
“Many of the technologies have multiple benefits and also improve farm profitability and, promisingly, researchers are continuously investigating newer technologies to help farmers further improve sustainability.”
Here, we take a look at some of the technologies available to farmers that can support sustainability goals.
Optimising livestock production systems
Continued improvements in grazing management, breeding of efficient animals, reducing the age of slaughter and increasing home-grown feed supplementation are proven technologies that will lead to further reductions in emissions in livestock production systems.
In addition to these, newly emerging technologies are also being tested for Irish systems, such as feed additives for reducing biogenic methane and the breeding of lower methane-emitting animals, holding the potential to reduce emissions further over time.
Technologies at systems level are required to meet climate neutrality
There are declines in important farmland bird species and pollinators in semi-natural habitats across Ireland.
A recent survey of intensively managed farms found that the median wildlife habitat area was 5% (tillage), 6% (intensive beef) and 6.6% (intensive dairying).
There are many ways that farmers can actively improve habitats and wildlife on their farms to help achieve targets. A range of technologies such as multispecies swards, hedgerow management, field margins and results-based payment schemes are available to enhance on-farm biodiversity. Researchers are also investigating approaches to quantifying farmland habitats and management plans.
The EU Biodiversity Strategy aims to have at least 10% of agriculture areas under high-diversity landscape features
Reducing fertiliser use
Nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from nitrogen fertiliser, manures and urine account for around 30% of agricultural emissions. The remaining 70% comes mainly from slurry management and animals directly.
One big challenge farmers face is to dramatically reduce reliance on imported, fossil fuel-derived fertilisers. There are a range of proven technologies available today to reduce this reliance. Optimising soil fertility releases around 70kg N/ha from the soil and reduces fertiliser requirements, which in turn can reduce emissions by around 40%. The use of low emissions slurry spreading increases the nitrogen supply in slurry, which also reduces fertiliser requirements. Finally, replacing urea and calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) with protected urea can reduce emissions; so too can certain low nitrate compound fertilisers.
Ireland has set a target for agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25%.
Improving water quality
The effect of agriculture on water quality has been subject to large amounts of research over the past 20 years. While Irish water quality is above average within the EU, only 53% of Irish waters are ranked good or high status, so rapid improvements are needed.
There are a large number of technologies available for farmers to control nutrient loss from farm yards and hard standings and diffuse losses from fields. Good nutrient management planning is a cornerstone to reducing diffuse nutrient losses, and interactive tools such as Teagasc’s NMP Online will be critical to support farmers.
Our Agricultural Catchments Programme has greatly improved the science behind water quality and has developed a new critical source area tool, which highlights areas for farmers to address on their farms. Farmers can also make use of the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP), which provides free advice on the implementation of appropriate technologies in areas with poor water quality.
Utilising carbon sequestration
Agricultural soils are a source of emissions in the land-use and forestry part of the national GHG inventory. The potential carbon sequestered in our mineral soils is four times lower than the carbon lost from agricultural peat soils, which need more specific management to mitigate GHG losses going forward.
Currently, carbon sequestration is accounted for in the inventory using default values. New research is underway to produce country specific emission factors for different soil types, land-use, land management practices and water table management of peat soils. This will improve the accuracy of the inventory and quantify a number of technologies to reduce emissions from soils and enhance carbon sequestration.
Increasing trees on farms through hedgerow management, on-farm forestry and agroforestry will increase carbon sequestration and is subject to new research. The emerging area of carbon farming is also being researched.
Principal Research Officer and Enterprise Leader
Teagasc, Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford.
Head of Environment, Soils and Land-use Research Department
Teagasc, Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford.
[pic cap] Farmers need to take action to improve declines in important farmland pollinators