The huge farming challenge is to be both profitable and sustainable

The huge farming challenge is to be both profitable and sustainable

The drive for sustainability threatens profitability in our No 1 agri-food enterprise. Picture: iStock

The huge sustainability challenge demanded of our farmers was made clear at last week’s Teagasc online dairy conference.

Brendan Horan, Teagasc, Moorepark, explained what is demanded in dairy farmers’ contribution to climate action targets.

He said building on the basics is the first step.

This includes milking high EBI dairy cattle, practising excellent grassland management, and maintaining good soil fertility.

Some farmers still have to master these first steps.

The next step is using less nitrogen fertiliser inputs while maintaining productivity, according to Teagasc Moorepark.

Laurence Shalloo told the conference: “We have to embrace the challenge, and adopt the technologies which will allow us to replace fertiliser nitrogen in our grass-based systems.”

That includes increasing the efficiency of the fertiliser nitrogen used; improving the precision of grassland management; getting soil nutrients right; having 20–25% clover in grass swards; using low emissions slurry spreading technology and protected urea; and reducing the crude protein content of grazing concentrates to 15%.

Becoming more sustainable is a risky challenge for our dairy industry.

It’s less than a month since Teagasc and Cork Institute of Technology experts found that milk production is considerably more profitable in Ireland than in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, France, or the UK.

That profitability owes much to Ireland’s grass-based systems, when grass growth and feed demand are matched, through stocking rates and calving dates, and purchased supplementary feed is minimised.

Nitrogen (N) fertiliser is a key part of that system.

According to Teagasc, as things stand, a 40-hectare dairy farm using 250 kg of N/ha will see a fall in profitability of €4,622 if reducing the N application by 25kg/ha, and of €8,951 if reducing the N by 50kg/ha.

Reducing N from 250 to 200kg/ha, at a stocking rate of 2.5 cows/ha, reduced feed available on the farm from a surplus of 119 kg DM/ha to a deficit of 433kgDM/ha.

Filling that deficit with imported feed doesn’t make the farm more sustainable, because there are also unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions associated with that imported feed.

“A move to lower grass production carries the risk of greater importation of feed onto the farm, which will lead to reduced profitability, and a deterioration in environmental sustainability, as has been demonstrated around the world,” said experts at last week’s Teagasc online dairy conference.

And it isn’t just a problem for dairy farmers.

The Teagasc experts say that cutting N application by 20% on suckler beef farms reduces the gross profit margin per hectare by 7%, and the net margin by 12%.

Cutting N application by 22% on lowland sheep farms reduces lamb output per hectare by 15% and net margin per hectare by 16%.

To sum up, relying less on bags of nitrogen fertiliser, in the interests of sustainability, makes dairy farming less profitable, but could completely destroy the limited profitability of suckler or sheep farming.

However, we have the technology to reduce the requirement for applied nitrogen. But applying it on farms, without significantly reducing grass growth and profitability is quite a challenge.

For example, incorporating white clover into existing grassland reduces the requirement for chemical nitrogen as much as 100kg of nitrogen per hectare.

But the adoption of this technology at farm level has been very limited, because it is challenging to get it right.

It hasn’t been for want of publicity. Joe Sheehy, our former dairy correspondent, repeated the “use more clover” message in this publication for decades.

But it fell on deaf ears, and according to Teagasc, it will require a number of years before there is sufficient uptake to replace significant levels of chemical nitrogen.

A considerable knowledge transfer and a continued research programme are required to get significant adoption of clover.

That leaves farmers relying on greater use of low emission slurry spreading technology, protected urea, increased soil fertility (including lime application to correct the soil pH), and greater precision in grazing management, all of which can reduce the chemical nitrogen required.

Most dairy farmers have no choice but to adopt these methods, because the Nitrates Action Programme is turning the screw on how much chemical nitrogen can be used.

It has already made low emission slurry spreading, use of clover, lime application to correct the soil pH, and precision in grazing management, compulsory for many farmers.

With a net decline in water quality since 2013 (Ireland has 53% of surface water bodies meeting good or high ecological status, compared to a European average of 40%), there will be no let-up in the Nitrates Action Programme.

It recently introduced several measures which become compulsory on January 1 next.

And at the same time, the public consultation opened for the fourth review of Ireland’s Nitrates Action Programme, which must be published at the beginning of 2022. A second round of public consultation will be undertaken in 2021 to further build on the submissions received.

Ireland’s next Nitrates Action Plan will be even more demanding of farmers, in line with the significant greater environmental ambition in the Programme for Government and at EU level.

For example, suggestions are invited on how to deal with concerns that farms availing of a derogation to have high livestock density are condensed in some more vulnerable water catchments. 

Already, many farmers have to prevent cattle access to watercourses. One of the questions raised is should that be extended.

A fertiliser regime similar to that for pesticides, where sales are recorded on a farm-by-farm basis, will be considered, along with more training for farmers and advisers.

It has become clear that the slurry storage available on farms is not always sufficient. The storage periods will be assessed by the Nitrates Expert Group.

Protection of drinking water sources needs to be strengthened.

The proportion of soils with optimum fertility remains low, at about 18% in 2018. That problem will be reviewed, along with grazing intensity relative to whole-farm stocking, and zero-grazing, now adopted by more and more farmers.

Over 4,500 farms export livestock manure to remain compliant with stocking rate limits. Potential additional controls on that will be examined, in a full assessment.

With the intensity of the largest herds in the country having the potential to put significant pressure on both water quality and quantity in their local catchment, additional measures may be considered.

Clearly, the challenge is huge, to run our dairy farms sustainably, while maintaining the profitability of our No 1 agri-food enterprise.

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