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Farming and the environment

24 October 2018
Type Media Article

By Tom Walsh, Teagasc Adviser, Galway/Clare

Most farmers are familiar with environmental schemes such as REPS, AEOS and GLAS.  Those are schemes which have dramatically increased our awareness of the importance of farming in an environmentally sustainable manner.  We see the major changes that have resulted on farms arising out of those schemes.  The REPS scheme, first introduced back in the mid ‘90’s resulted in dramatic changes at farm level with huge improvement in pollution control, water quality, growing and management of trees and hedgerows with an increased awareness of the environment and farming in an environmentally friendly manner.   Financial inducements coupled with farm planning, REPS courses, farm walks and demonstrations helped to make this scheme the success it became.

Following on from the various versions of the REPS scheme, AEOS was introduced and followed by GLAS.  AEOS and GLAS were aimed more at biodiversity with payments directed towards specific items of work and not a whole farm scheme such as REPS.  Planting of trees, hedgerows and orchards, fencing-off of watercourses, field margins and buffer zones and the promotion of ‘Low Input Permanent Pastures’ and ‘Traditional Hay Meadow’ were all features of those schemes. They also led to the introduction of what we now know as ‘Wild Bird Cover’ which is aimed at providing feed for birds of varying sizes during the winter months.  GLAS ties in with the green vision for Irish agriculture as contained in Food Harvest 2020 and as promoted by Bord Bia in the Origin Green campaign as it promotes agricultural actions, which introduce or continue to apply agricultural production methods compatible with the protection of the environment, water quality, the landscape and its features, endangered species of flora and fauna and climate change mitigation. The GLAS scheme is ongoing, but is not open to new applicants.

Despite huge progress having been made in all the areas outlined above, climate change is one of the biggest challenges were are facing and is hugely significant for global agriculture, which must adapt to changes in climate, and find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activity.  In Ireland agricultural emissions account for approximately 30% of national emissions, and most are associated with our livestock industries.  Beef and dairy production are highly important in Ireland.  While our highly-managed grass-based systems of production are very efficient in terms of emissions per kg of milk or meat produced, further research and knowledge transfer is necessary to gain further reductions.

A number of strategies have been identified that offer potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per kg of beef produced from beef cattle production systems, while also improving farm productivity:

Extended Grazing:   Extending the grazing season provides opportunities in two ways.  First the shorter indoor period results in lower quantities of slurry produced and stored, leading to a reduction in slurry methane and nitrous oxide emissions.  Grass-based diets are also associated with lower fermentation emissions relative to grass silage-based diets.

Improved Sward Quality:  Improving grass quality can reduce emissions by increasing the efficiency of sward utilisation, thus improving the efficiency of fertilizer usage, reducing methane emissions per kg of beef produced.  As a result of lower sward fibre content and improved livestock productivity, increased liveweight gain per day will be achieved.

Increased Use of Clover:  White clover can reduce Nitrogen fertiliser use, leading to lower emissions.  The reduction in fertilizer also reduces indirect emissions for the farming system by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, marketing and distribution of the fertilizer.

Improved Slurry Management:  By increasing the quantity of slurry spread in Spring rather than Summer and by adopting low emission application methods help to reduce the ammonia emissions, as Spring weather conditions are normally associated with lower ammonia losses.  Lower ammonia loss also increases the fertilizer replacement value of slurry and therefore reduces the total fertilizer nitrogen input.

Improved Animal Productivity:  Improving the productivity of beef cattle either through improving genetic merit or through improved management can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in a number of ways

  1. Reduce age at first calving: Reducing age at first calving is associated with lower feed, less fermentation and manure management emissions.
  2. Increase the longevity/survival of suckler cows: Lower values for survival means that the replacement rate of a suckler herd is higher, increasing the number of replacements required to be reared and increasing the GHG emissions produced per cow calving.
  3. Improving the calving rate of sucker beef cows: Higher calving rates reduce the carbon footprint by increasing output per cow unit, thus diluting the GHG emissions.
  4. Improving the feed efficiency of beef cattle: This would reduce the feed inputs and associated emissions per unit of output.

The Carbon Navigator which was an essential part of the Beef Data Genomics Programme was designed to highlight the efficiency factors outlined above.

Water Quality

Water quality is always a very important issue, and while much improvement has taken place, there are areas of the country where further action needs to take place.  Support for farmers in those areas is needed and this has led to the setting-up of the new ‘Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme(ASSAP)’.  Teagasc has committed 20 advisers to this programme and they will be working with other agencies.  The aim is to help farmers address water quality in ‘Areas for Action’.  They will work with farmers to reduce the impact of farming by improving nutrient management, controlling losses from farmyards and managing land to avoid losses.  They will support farmers to improve water quality, to raise their awareness of the water quality in their area and to farm to protect ‘their water’.