By Amy Lewis
In an ever-changing climate, we must adapt to keep up. Farmers are encouraged to do just that by the Smart Farming initiative established in 2014, while at the same time boosting farm returns and helping the planet.
Led by the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Smart Farming programme allows individual farmers to identify where they can cut costs and, in turn, reduce their environmental impact.
To date, 1,900 farmers have engaged with this programme, which focuses on eight key areas: Soil fertility, grassland, energy, water, feed, inputs and waste, machinery, and time management.
The programme is co-ordinated with the help of expertise from bodies including Teagasc, the EPA and the SEAI, to name a few.
“The lead and the drive on this came from the work of the IFA environment and rural affairs committee, at a time when there was an adversarial debate around climate change and greenhouse gases in Ireland. This was a genuine effort on their part to get involved in a positive way with the environment, and make a direct impact on their income,” says IFA Smart Farming programme manager Thomas Ryan.
The key objective of the programme is to identify €5,000 in cost savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5-7% per farm, on average.
This goal has been exceeded. In 2017, average cost savings identified on participating farms totalled €8,700, the average greenhouse gas emission reduction was 10%.
According to Ryan, most cost savings were made in the area of soil fertility, and the largest savings were seen on dairy farms.
“Forty-seven percent of the cost savings came from getting soil fertility right. In Ireland, almost two thirds of soil are classified as nutrient-hungry. The point we were able to demonstrate was that you can decrease your concentrates bill and increase grass growth by improving soil fertility. This may require an initial investment, in liming for example, but what we are able to show is the value in that investment.”
Meanwhile, increasing genetic merit through Economic Breeding Index (EBI) was identified as being the most effective measure for reducing greenhouse gases.
Although actions and results are unique to each farm, the initial Smart Farming procedure is the same. Each participating farmer receives a Resource Efficiency Assessment (REA) of their farm, which identifies potential cost savings. This is conducted by a qualified agronomist who, as well as evaluating farm data submitted by the participant, completes a farm walk with the farmer in order to gain a more complete understanding of management practices. Following this, a draft REA is drawn up recommending appropriate cost-saving changes.
A carbon reduction strategy for each farm is also developed, using a Carbon Navigator tool developed by Teagasc and Bord Bia; This provides an estimate of greenhouse gas emission reductions that can be delivered. Soil, water and silage tests are conducted, while feed management strategies are also usually recommended.
For the whole process to be a success, the complete co-operation of each farmer is key. Along with submitting a long list of documents including home and farm electricity bills, soil sample results and silage test results, participants must commit to passing on their knowledge.
“It’s quite innovative how this is working,” says Director of the EPA’s office of environmental sustainability Dr Eimear Cotter. “The farmer signs up, completes a farm walk, and identifies some improvements they might be able to bring in. The interesting part is, then, the farmer commits to sharing his or her experience with others.
“This peer-to-peer learning is quite different from anything else out there, but many environmental challenges are quite complex. Trying to effect change and action is going to require different ways of doing things”
The intention is that effective smart farming techniques will roll out through the wider agricultural community through word-of-mouth.
While not affiliated with the initiative, programme leader for the BSc in Agriculture at Waterford Institute of Technology and lifelong farmer Dr Tony Woodcock praises its approach.
“A huge amount of farmers are custodians of the environment. They care about it, and care about what they pass on to the next generation. You can also always say they will care about the profit of their farm. So the low-hanging fruit are changes where you are going to be environmentally-friendly and profitable at the same time.
“These programmes works much better than having an academic present a research project. That will go so far. It’s not that farmers don’t believe the research, but they’re more likely to engage if they see somebody they know who has made changes and saved money.”
While one method may prove beneficial on one farm, it may not on another.
This variability is what makes it difficult to recommend blanket agricultural changes across the country, according to Woodcock.
Affirming that there is “no silver bullet” when it comes to reducing costs and environmental impact, he says that the best thing a farmer can do is to educate themselves as much as possible about their own farms.
Irish farmers appear eager to do just that. The limit of 50 participants for this year’s Smart Farming programme was easily reached, with many more on the waiting list for 2019. It’s envisaged that up to 65 farms will participate next year. And many more farmers will engage with the programme as a result of peer-to-peer learning.
As the network of participants in the Smart Farming programme expands, so too does the scope of its plan. This year, the areas of nutrient planning and water management will be added to the current themes. Biodiversity will also become a key part of the initiative. The initial stage will see IFA working together with Teasgasc, UCD and the National Biodiversity Data Centre to create a shared understanding of biodiversity, and what it means in the farming context. Biodiversity priority areas will be agreed, and recommendations will then be incorporated into the existing programme.
While there is no end in sight for the initiative, there are certainly long-term ambitions. “The goal is to continue to demonstrate the real tangible effort that farmers are willing to make themselves to contribute to the sustainable development of the sector,” says IFA Smart Farming Programme Manager Thomas Ryan.
Ultimately, it’s hoped that sustainable practices will become embedded into common practice on farms, says the EPA’s Dr Eimear Cotter.
In Ireland, we have committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2005 levels, by 2020; and agriculture accounts for 32% of our emissions.
Though it’s widely acknowledged that we will miss our target, could the Smart Farming Initiative help us to move in the right direction?
“If we get profit before scale right, we will continue to improve efficiency, and hopefully will decouple the link between size of herds and increased environmental impact,” says Ryan. “I’d like to think Smart Farming will play a part [in meeting our goals] alongside other programmes out there.”
Cotter echoes these sentiments.
“It’s going to require a build-up of lots of initiatives. Smart Farming is a part of that where we are looking at long-term behavioural changes but it won’t provide all of the answers. It’s one measure that we are supporting, along with many others.”