I asked Pat Lalor about whether conventional farmers can learn anything about soil from their organic counterparts. Lalor, who went organic in 1999, was the first secretary of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Association, which he was instrumental in founding in 1993.
“I see little relevance,” said Lalor. “As an organic farmer, your main focus is on building soil fertility by building soil microbiology whereas in conventional farming, the main focus is on building soil chemistry.
“Once you get the chemistry tailored for the particular crop being grown and follow up with what ever aids are required during the growing season to keep the crop health and so on, there is no great need to be over concerned about soil biology,” he says.
Jim Cronin has been growing organically for 25 years in east Clare. He also uses horse traction, in part due to soil compaction issues.
“As a general statement Irish soils are in pretty good condition but we could be doing better farming of our soil and reducing our input costs. Over the years as an organic farmer I have come to realise that soil is the foundation of our farm. As I go around horse ploughing I am walking on, touching, smelling all types of soil.
“Some fields are like cement from a bag — dry, arid, lifeless. If conventional farmers embraced organic ideas, I’d say in four years I would be ploughing the equivalent of chocolate cake soil on his farm,” he says.
He adds: “In nurturing soil I think of minimum tillage, slow tillage, green manure crops, under-sowing, looking at root structures, maximum use of slurry, farmyard manure, rotation.”
Klaus Laitenberger, one of the organisers of the symposium, said: “There are serious issues about soil degradation in Ireland.
“The main problem in Ireland is soil compaction, less water infiltration into soil and more runoff taking good topsoil into rivers and lakes. Anytime we see dirty water running along the roadside it is lost topsoil. Obviously this causes flooding in lower areas.”
Laitenberger says there is more compaction because:
Cattle breeds are heavier now, and slurry is used instead of farm yard manure. The manure feeds the soil and soil life and improves structure. Most farmers have now slatted sheds and farmyard manure is a thing of the past.
Change from hay to silage making; heavy machinery driving over wet land causing wheel compaction.
Artificial fertiliser that by-passes soil. Soil life and biodiversity collapses in time.
“All these factors cause a reduction of organic matter in soils, a reduction of life in the soil and a massive increase in soil compaction leading to more rushes on the land and more flooding, as we’ve seen. A healthy soil can absorb water while a compacted soil can’t absorb water and instead it runs off, flooding our towns.”
He adds: “Have they ever done tests on soil compaction in Ireland? And if so, have they compared it to what it was a decade ago? Of course not. They have done it in Austria.
"They checked for soil compaction many years back and they checked again in the last few years and the increase in soil compaction due to changes of cattle breeds has been very significant.
“We had suitable cattle here in Ireland — Dexter, Kerry and moiled — which were ideal for the west of Ireland and other wet areas. These heavy continental breeds and their intensive farming systems required will ruin our soils even further.
"We need to keep feeding life in the soil and maintaining structure, otherwise the soils will degenerate. The only way to do this is to add bulky organic fertilisers — no shortcuts are possible.”