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Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainability on Irish Farms

Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainability on Irish Farms

On Stand No 1 at the Farming for a Better Future Open Day at Johnstown Castle, Karen Daly and David Wall, Teagasc, Crops Environment, and Land-use Research, discuss the Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainability on Irish Farms. View the live boards and presentations here on Teagasc Daily.

View the board and detailed information on Stand No 1 live from' Farming for a Better Future Open Day' at Johnstown Castle

Currently farmers are facing the challenge of economic, social and environmental sustainability with environmental challenges increasing over recent years. The EU Green deal has set targets to halt biodiversity decline, improve water quality, setting targets to reduce fertiliser and pesticide use. Ireland has set very challenging environmental targets such as reducing greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions, improving water quality, reversing the decline in farmland biodiversity. The trends in emissions, water quality and biodiversity continue to decrease or remain static and we urgently need to work together to implement technologies that are known to reverse these trends. Farmers need technologies that allow them to combine economic and environmental sustainability.

Livestock production systems

Technologies at the systems level are required to reduce emissions per hectare to meet the 25% target by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050. Continued improvements in grazing management, breeding of efficient animals, reducing the age of slaughter and increasing homegrown feed supplementation will lead to further reductions in emissions. In addition to these proven technologies for improving livestock production systems, newly emerging technologies are being tested for Irish systems such as feed additives for reducing biogenic methane and breeding of lower methane emitting animals in future, hold the potential to reduce emission further over time.

Greenhouse gas emissions

The 25% greenhouse gas reduction target will be extremely challenging and the recent emissions increases will have to be reversed. Nitrous oxide (N2O) from nitrogen fertiliser, manures and urine accounts for c. 30% of agricultural emissions. The remaining 70% comes from slurry management and directly from the animals. Agricultural soils are a source of emission in the Land use and forestry part of the inventory. Carbon sequestered in our mineral soils is four times lower than the carbon lost from agricultural peat soils.

Reduce nitrogen fertiliser use

One big challenge is to dramatically reduce reliance on imported, fossil fuel derived fertilisers. There are a range of proven technologies today to reduce this reliance. Optimising soil fertility releases c.70kg N/ha from the soil and reduces fertiliser requirements. Soil fertility is important for clover/multi-species sward establishment and the opportunity to dramatically reduce nitrogen fertiliser use. Use of low emission slurry spreading increases the nitrogen supply in slurry, reducing fertiliser requirements. Where chemical N is used then replacing CAN and urea with protected urea can reduce emissions by over 70%. New research is showing lower emissions when certain low nitrate compound fertilisers are used and that optimal soil fertility can directly reduce emissions by c. 40%.

Carbon sequestration

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 agro-forestry will increase carbon sequestration and is subject to new research. The emerging area of carbon farming is also being researched.

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 at good or high status and thus rapid improvements are needed to achieve good water quality status by the 2027 target. There are a large number of technologies available for farmers to control nutrient loss from farm yards, hard standings and diffuse losses from fields. Good nutrient management planning is a major corner stone to reducing diffuse nutrient losses. The Agricultural Catchments Programme have greatly improved the science behind water quality and have developed a new critical source area tool for highlighting areas for farmers to address on their farms. The Agricultural Support and Advisory service provides free advice to farmers on appropriate technologies in areas with poor water quality. New technologies have been developed to reduce nutrient and sediment loss to water from farm roadways.


The EU biodiversity strategy aims to have at least 10% of agriculture area under high-diversity landscape features by 2027. There are declines in the area of semi-natural habitat, important farmland birds and pollinators. 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 achieve the 10% target, including a range of technologies from multi-species swards, hedgerow management, field margins and result-based payments for biodiversity. Research of tomorrow is also investigating approaches to quantifying farmland habitats and management plans.


There are a large number of proven technologies available to improve environmental sustainability on farms. These are on display through out the open day and have advisers to support farmers on how to adopt these on their farms. Future research is investigating newer technologies to help farmers further improve sustainability. Many of the technologies have multiple benefits and also improve farm profitability. Please identify the technologies that will work on your farm and you could implement over the next year.

Other resources & online information

Email: david.wall@teagasc.ie ; karl.richards@teagasc.ie 

See Johnstown Castle Open Day - Technologies for farms of the future 

Check out the hashtag #GrassSoilsTechnology