Successful dairy farming in West Waterford without chemical nitrogen on the grazing ground has been praised by Minister of State for Agriculture Pippa Hackett.
Speaking in Seanad Éireann on Europe’s fears of fertiliser shortage due to high natural gas prices, the Green Party Senator said she recognised that one swallow did not make a summer.
"This farmer’s results do not constitute a scientific study, but this farm is producing approximately 8,000 litres of milk per cow per annum, which is well above the national average, and has saved close on €40,000 this year alone on fertiliser and application costs.”
Senator Hackett said there are some tough times ahead for many of our farmers due to fertiliser prices jumping. “Goods based on fossil fuels have shaped our society, and fertiliser is one of them. In the same way, we cannot live without plastics, much of the grass that farmers grow cannot live without chemical fertiliser.
"We are all hooked. As the price of fossil fuels continues to rise, might this be time to ask does it have to be this way, and can we do things differently?”
“This programme for Government commits us to delivering an ambitious reduction in the use of inorganic nitrogen fertiliser through to 2030. It does not say by how much, but it does say we must do it without undermining family opportunity.”
She said she visited the dairy farm of Cam, James and Clodagh Foley, near Tallow in West Waterford. “They are large dairy farmers, who have been making the transition to reducing synthetic inputs, and farming with nature, and it’s working.
“This farmer is no green romantic and is not an organic producer. He is an intensive farmer who milks 200 cows on 265 acres, along with his father’s 60-acre farm to carry his replacement heifers and to grow some forage crops.
“He is a tough businessman with an enterprise that needs to deliver for him and his young family, but he believes that in the long term, his farm also needs to deliver for his soil.
“In 2018, recognising that his standard perennial ryegrass production system required a great amount of fertiliser and a stable climate, he decided to change tack.
“He started introducing multispecies swards as part of his re-seeding programme, planting multiple varieties of grasses, clovers and herbs. He also started decreasing his use of chemical nitrogen.
“As he decreased his chemical use, he waited to see if the grass would stop growing. It did not. He waited to see if milk yields would drop. They did not.
“Chemical fertilisers can do a great job of feeding a certain type of grass, but it is not necessary on multispecies swards, which draw on nature’s nutrients for growth.
“This is regenerative agriculture with healthy soil and healthy cattle thriving on a tasty and nutritious mixture of crops, however wild and uneven they might look to the casual observer.
“What this farmer is doing may not work for every farmer, but every farmer should at least think about what is happening on that farm.
“I know what I saw, which was a strong family-run dairy business based on healthy soil and a farm bursting with biodiversity. I would really like to believe too that I saw the future.”
Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue has asked Teagasc for a roadmap to maintain farm output whilst reducing the use of chemical fertilisers.
Untapped potential for more strategic use of cattle and pig slurry and farmyard manure and alternative fertilisers is likely to figure, along with greater focus on lime and soil testing. Minister McConalogue said: "I'm acutely conscious of the situation around fertiliser prices which is very much an international issue. While I cannot control prices or influence the market, I believe there are options on the island where we can grow more grass while reducing our dependency on chemical fertiliser. This will have benefits for both farmers but also for the environment.” Better use of organic fertilisers may improve longer-term sustainability and protect farmers from input price volatility.
In broader terms, the gas price crisis could also be good for the environment if it helps the energy transition needed for decarbonisation.
High heating costs may induce households and firms to lower their energy bills, by insulating homes and offices.