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Incorporating sustainable climate actions into your farm business

January 4, 2023

Climate change continues to remain in the media headlines with a focus on agriculture as a sector which can make a significant contribution to climate targets. 

Agri-Environment Adviser, Phelim Connolly, from the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) has been asking Environmental Business Development Group (BDG) members what climate actions they have been incorporating into their farm businesses. The answers were both informative and encouraging with many farmers going above and beyond to build more resilience into their enterprises.

Over the past year many participants have incorporated slurry testing into their management systems to gain a better understanding of the nutrient value of this once problematic waste. However, with the cost of chemical fertiliser, the best use of on farm nutrients is now a must for all farmers. There can be quite a bit of variation in nutrient value between different production types, however typical figures returned through the groups suggest higher levels of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) per 1000 gallons than standard figures would have previously suggested for a typical 6% DM slurry being produced in a beef or suckler cow system. To get the most out of this slurry analysis many farmers also chose to incorporate soil testing into their management in the past year as it gave them a much clearer insight into which fields were most in need of additional nutrients. This information will also aid these farmers to make the best use of slurries in 2023.

When speaking with participants it was apparent that nutrient application using Low Emission Slurry Spreading Equipment (LESSE) has become the norm when applied in spring as contractor use is common within the beef and sheep sector. LESSE gives the greatest return of nitrogen to the soil at 40% availability when applied in spring, compared to 30% available when using splash-plate, as less nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere as methane and nitrous oxide. Often when farmers use their own slurry spreading equipment the use of splash-plate is still commonplace.  Farmers who have invested in LESSE adoptions in recent years appreciate the additional benefits it has given them during spring and summer months.  With less contamination of grass allowing them to graze fields or paddocks sooner and still returning 25% nitrogen efficiency compared to 15% for splash-plate during summer months. The additional efficiency levels when using LESSE is having a dual benefit by saving these farmers money on chemical fertiliser inputs and also reducing the amount of greenhouse gases lost to the atmosphere.

Amongst group members there has been an increased emphasis on introducing white clover into new reseeds and stitching of clover into existing good quality lays where clover content is lower. This has become easier thanks to the number of specific machines available on the market to do this job. There is now a greater awareness of the need to manage clover a little differently to get the best out of it. Its nitrogen fixing benefits of are well known, however it is not until later in the year when soils are warmer that clover can be of greatest benefit and use of other nitrogen products should be reduced to encourage its establishment and development. Greater attention needs to be given to soil pH and Potash levels to establish and retain clover with optimum levels essential.  Careful consideration must also be given to the application of herbicides or clover safe alternatives. Those who have successfully established clover within their swards reported an excellent year of growth which really benefited their livestock and helped manage input costs and emission reductions.

As we are currently in the most expensive time of year to keep livestock, many members have taken the opportunity to scan early and remove empty cows from the herd.  With strong demand for cull cows it makes even less sense to carry passengers which are not contributing to farm profitability and are only pushing farm emissions higher as there is no output to attribute to them. Many group members are choosing to breed their own replacements or purchase stock from a trusted source with high maternal genetics as a priority.  There is also increased emphasis on twenty-four-month-old calving. The use of farm software apps to monitor growth rates and production efficiency is also on the increase amongst group members as they aid decision making when it comes to breeding or selling stock.

The above-mentioned actions are only but a few of the many proactive changes our farmers are making to tackle climate issues. Whilst these changes are primarily made with emissions and the environment in mind all will inevitably have a positive impact on farm profitability.