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Supporting Sustainability on the Ground

Supporting Sustainability on the Ground

On Stand No 4 at Farming for a Better Future Open Day at Johnstown Castle, Tom O'Dwyer and Pat Murphy, both Teagasc, discuss Supporting Sustainability on the Ground. They include the supports in place for farmers from Teagasc. View the live boards and presentations here on Teagasc Daily


Sustainable agriculture can be defined in many ways, but ultimately it seeks to produce food and other outputs, sustain farmers, resources and communities by promoting farming practices and methods that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities. Over the last number of years the imperative for farm sustainability improvement has become clear – agriculture needs to reduce its negative impacts on the environment and it needs to begin to deliver positive environmental goods and outputs for society. This is the challenge for all Irish farmers. Some farmers may decide to take on fundamental shifts in their production systems, for example planting a significant area of forestry or changing the management of peat soils and this will have very significant environmental outcomes. However, for the vast majority of farmers achieving the targets that have been set for the industry will be done through incrementally implementing a series of changes on an ongoing basis over the next number of years. Success will depend on implementation across all farms and failure will undoubtedly lead to the implementation of restrictive policies for all farmers

Why do farmers need to focus on sustainability?

  • Firstly it is “The right thing to do”
  • Environmental trends are heading in the right direction
  • Policy is increasingly focussing on outcomes
  • Policy will become more restrictive if outcomes don’t improve
  • Consumers and the market demands and will pay more for sustainable produce
  • For the “team” – all farmers in this together
  • €€€ - financial benefit
  • Farmers role as proud custodians of the landscape
  • Irish farmers can be world leaders

What sustainability metrics should farmers be looking at?

  • Water – river quality of local watercourses (see Maps at catchments.ie)
  • N/P balances, N/P use efficiency
  • Biodiversity - % of farm allocated to nature (commercial farms), quality of habitats, BMPI (  https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/environment/biodiversity-countryside/Teagasc-Biodiversity-Management-Practice-Assessment-Tool.pdf   ) participation and scoring in result-based approaches
  • GHG – total farm GHGs, GHGs per kg of product, range of farm practices
  • Social sustainability – Work/life balance, viability of rural communities
  • Economic sustainability – productivity, profitability
  • Refer to Teagasc Annual Sustainability Report
  • Benchmarking may not always be possible at farm level – a farmer may have to refer to regional/national statistics

Four steps to improving your farm’s sustainability performance

Teagasc recommends a range of “good farming practices” that will enable farmers and growers to reduce gaseous emissions, protect and improve water quality, restore and enhance biodiversity, while also contributing to farm profitability. It is important that each individual farmer understands their farm’s sustainability metrics (or numbers), what contributes to those numbers and the opportunities to improve them over time.

  1. Know your farm’s sustainability numbers. The starting point for any farmer on the journey to becoming more sustainable is to establish their farm’s numbers or current performance. In the past this would have referred to as production-related indicators e.g. yield per cow, average daily gain, kg of beef sold per hectare or profitability related indicators e.g. gross margin per hectare or net profit. But increasingly, farmers will have to understand new indicators, including GHG emissions, ammonia emissions, nutrient balance, nutrient use efficiency, biodiversity score etc. Some of the metrics may depend on more collective action such as river, lake and groundwater quality, the quality of habitats such as uplands and the survival of threatened species. Such indicators are now being made available to farmers through a range of sources.
  2. Identify opportunities to improve your farm’s sustainability numbers. There are many opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, capture carbon, reduce nutrient losses, improve water quality and enhance biodiversity; the potential will depend on the type of farming and your current practices. No two farms are exactly the same; so it follows that the solution will be different for each farm. Technologies and practices which can lead to improved sustainability are listed in the table below. Take the Signpost Sustainability Self-Assessment to identify the opportunities for your farm.
  3. Implement your chosen actions. Teagasc recommends that farmers identify and implement the priority actions on their farm. There are possibly many actions which you could take, but your initial focus should be on those actions which are most suited to your farm and which can have the greatest impact. For example, in terms of reducing GHG emissions, Teagasc has estimated that for intensive grassland farms, switching to protected urea as your source of N fertiliser can have the greatest impact.
  4. Keep records, monitor and review. Record keeping is essential to inform future decision-making, and to allow for the calculation of farm sustainability metrics over time. 
  • Protected urea
  • Lime
  • Correction of soil P and K deficiencies
  • LESS slurry equipment
  • Timing of slurry application
  • Reduced fertiliser N application rates
  • Better grassland management/use of PastureBase
  • Clover
  • Adequate slurry storage
  • Improved herd health
  • Breeding better/ more efficient animals (EBI/ DBI/ CBV/ 4 & 5 star sires)
  • Optimum replacement rate
  • Field margins
  • Buffer strips
  • Side trimming of escaped hedges
  • Retention or planting thorn saplings/ flowering trees

Teagasc supporting farmers to improve sustainability

  1. Signpost Programme The Signpost Programme is a Teagasc-led, whole of industry partnership to support and enable farmers in climate action. While the focus of the programme is to support farmers in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it will also help with advice regarding improving water quality and enhancing biodiversity on Irish farms. Programme partners include farmers, agri-food industry organisations, state organisations, farm organisations and media. You can find out more about the Signpost Programme at www.teagasc.ie/signpost. There are three main pillars to the Signpost Programme. Signpost Farms - a network of almost 120 demonstration farms has been established and this network will play two critical roles: (1) be amongst the first to adopt climate mitigation technologies; (2) share their experiences with other farmers through farm walks, events, articles, videos, media etc. 2. Signpost Advisory campaign – Teagasc proposes to establish a new, targeted advisory service focussed on climate action and sustainability. This new service will provide training opportunities (to enhance farmer knowledge and skills and facilitate farmer-to-farmer learning) and targeted follow-up one-to-one support to farmers, leading to the creation of farm specific action plans. This will augment current advisory activities and will be provided free-of-charge to all participating farmers. Teagasc expects to launch this new service before the end of 2022. 3. National Agricultural Soil Carbon Observatory (NASCO) – this new on-farm research project aims to deepen the understanding of soil carbon sequestration. The Signpost Farms form an integral part of this Observatory. Agronomic soil samples (to 10cm) have already been taken on the Signpost Farms to establish baseline soil carbon levels, and plans are in place for more detailed soil sampling (to 1m depth). In addition, flux data from long-term eddy covariance towers will provide detailed information on carbon exchange at an ecosystem level; these towers will be located on a subset of the Signpost Farms.Signpost Programme 
  2. Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) The Agricultural Sustainability, Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) was established in a collaborative process between the state and the dairy processing co-ops, to provide an evidence-based approach to reducing agricultural pressures on water quality. The programme, working with the Local Authorities Water Programme (LAWPRO) offers farmer focused advice in 190 priority areas for action (PAAs) and is a critical, integral and parallel part of this collaborative process. The ASSAP programme enables landowners to engage positively in seeking solutions to local problems with the support of a confidential sustainability advisory service focused on water quality improvement. Support from the farming organisations for the programme has been very strong and this is vital in communicating and informing farmers about the ASSAP programme and its key messages.
  3. Agri-environment Scheme Support (ACRES) and Sustainable fertiliser planning Autumn 2022 will see the introduction of a new Agri-environmental scheme; called ACRES. There are two main components to the scheme.
    1. In eight areas the scheme will operate predominantly as a results-based scheme in high nature value landscapes.
    2. In the rest of the country the scheme will be similar in approach to GLAS with priority access based on priority environmental assets, an element of results-based approach mixed with a range of action-based measures. The scheme has set higher targets for outcomes than previous schemes and will incorporate the development of a sustainability plan for each farmer. Teagasc advisers will support clients in the application and implementation of the scheme and in particular in ensuring that the scheme contributes to the achievement of key environmental targets Teagasc advisers will also support farmers in meeting the requirements of the new direct payments scheme (BISS) in relation to increasing requirements for cross compliance and for the Eco Schemes.
  4. Discussion groups Discussion groups are increasingly focussed on all elements of sustainability, including profitability, environmental sustainability and social sustainability. Discussion group members gain new skills and expertise in a friendly and open environment, learn from the experiences of other farmers and are supported in trying out new ideas. Teagasc research has identified higher rates of practice adoption and higher farm profit as benefits of group membership. Contact your Teagasc Adviser about joining a group (if you are not a member) or ensure that your group focuses on the sustainability challenge (where you are already a member). 


In summary, Ireland has a strong international reputation as a supplier of sustainably produced food and drink. However, the Irish agri-food industry, including farmers, is challenged to become even more sustainable over the coming decade. This will require an even greater focus by farmers on caring for the environment and making space for nature, while continuing to produce high quality food and drink. While each farmer will have to identify and implement the best solution for their farm business, a range of possible solutions are known. The Teagasc Advisory Service is ready to help farmers develop tailored solutions for their farm.

And finally, while change is difficult, it is possible. Irish farming has shown previously that it is capable of change. Let’s all work together to make the necessary changes. Let’s start today. 


Tom O'Dwyer is Head of the Teagasc Signpost Programme while Pat Murphy is Head of Environment KT Teagasc.

Other resources & online information

Email: tom.odwyer@teagasc.ie  pat.murphy@teagasc.ie 

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

Check out the hashtag #GrassSoilsTechnology