Statisticians have cracked a code for a bumper crop by feeding cattle with a new seeding recipe that will dramatically boost grasslands.
As well as being a more holistic approach to rearing beef and dairy livestock, the recipe could drastically cut the amount of fertiliser going into soils and save farmers a pretty penny.
Agriculture is the biggest contributor to carbon pollution in Ireland, so the varied planting and diet will help achieve a 40% cut in emissions by 2030.
Caroline Brophy, of Maynooth University, spearheaded a big-data project that examined results from mixed planting at 31 sites across Europe, including three in Ireland, where different local climates and environments affect production.
Some of the best results came from planting red or white clover with traditional pasture plants, such as rye grass, like lolium perenne or the dactylis glomerata, commonly known as cock’s-foot or orchard grass.
“What we saw from the study was any kind of mixing gave a strong diversity effect,” she said.
“Think of putting two types of species together. If one is deeper-rooted than the other, it is able to go further down for nutrients and water, so you utilise the system better.”
On average, there was an 18% increase in yield when types of legumes, such as clover, were mixed in. The study tests whether using a mix of plants, which are fast or slow to establish and take shallow or deep roots, is better than using just one, heavily fertilised grass.
Ms Brophy, a lecturer in Maynooth University’s department of mathematics and statistics, will next look at how diversity may protect against climate extremes.
“If you end up with a summer without much rain or a winter that is colder, how do you cope with that? Are there effective insurance measures you can put in place to protect yourself; so, we are asking ‘can diversity protect against climate extremes?’,” she said.
Irish agriculture, with 6.5m cattle and 3.5m sheep, accounts for 32.6% of Ireland’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
Ms Brophy said creating a diverse pasture is nothing knew. They are more resistant to weeds and cope better with changes in local climates, like increasingly dry or wet summers.
“Diversity goes back as far as Darwin,” she said.
While the project has collaboration with Teagasc, Ms Brophy urged a greater connection with farmers for the testing of planting schemes.
“I think it’s happening a little bit already. If you have a system that works, why try messing with it,” she said.
“I don’t want to put words in farmers’ mouths, but I think there is a a small movement towards putting legumes in among the grass. I think the farming community are open to it.”
One farmer, Tommy Moyles, from Ardfield near Clonakilty, in Co Cork, has already seized the initiative by turning his land from tillage to pasture, but allowing a strong clover content in his grass and reducing his artificial nitrogen usage from 26 tonnes to 14 since 2012.
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