Resilience in the face of an ever-changing climate

RESILIENCE CAFRE RI Farm
ADVISER: Phelim Connolly is an Agri-Environment Adviser at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise.

NORTHERN Ireland is experiencing more extreme weather events than ever before. Met Office records for 2020 inform us that we have experienced the wettest February since records began. March, April and May resulted in the driest spring since 1900 and the summer months of June, July and August were the wettest in the past 12 years.

These figures back up many farmer experiences this year; firstly near drought grazing conditions in spring leading to slow grass growth, followed by soils reaching saturation point during the peak summer months, leaving grazing extremely difficult to manage.

GRAZING: Young high genetic merit calves grazing on a reseed which includes white clover.

Phelim Connolly, Agri-Environment Adviser at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), said: “Climate change is having an impact on all our lives, and agriculture is no exception. Climate change leads to an increased probability of extreme weather events like the heavy rainfall which caused the Glenelly Valley landslides of August 2017. There has also been in an increase in similar events recorded in the Republic of Ireland in recent times.

“Climate change is a result of increased amounts of greenhouse gases being trapped in our atmosphere. Agriculture accounts for 27 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions produced in Northern Ireland from the spreading of slurry and the manufacturing of chemical fertiliser releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

“The manufacturing of animal feed, use of fuels, energy and heating are associated with the release of carbon dioxide and livestock produce methane, all contributing to our greenhouse gas emissions. UK Government aims to address climate change by aiming for net zero carbon by 2050. Any DAERA future agriculture policy will seek to incorporate these objectives.”

How farmers can become more resilient during extreme weather events?

Phelim Connolly added: “Don’t carry inefficient cows. Superior genetics can lead to greater liveweight gain from grass alone with less reliance on concentrates. Cows with superior maternal traits will wean heavier calves leaving more money in your pocket and help the environment. And, cows which don’t scan in calf after the breeding season should be culled from the herd.

“Also, reducing mature cow size will allow farmers to manage their soils and grazing better without the need to house cattle as quickly in wet conditions. There are a number of breed societies concentrating on reducing mature cow size and this in theory should lead to less soil compaction allowing the soil’s water retention value to be improved.

“Improving farm infrastructure will allow for better control of grazing. Installing strategically placed drinkers and access points to fields along with the use of rotational grazing will all help farmers manage grassland better in wet conditions. This will allow farmers to extend the grazing season, reducing the amount of ammonia produced as a result of housing.

“Finally, maintaining existing drainage systems. Effective draining systems in heavy clay soils will remove water from the field system faster. The soil will spend less time in a waterlogged state after heavy rainfall events allowing grass growth to recover faster and grazing to take place.”

What simple changes can farmers make to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they produce?

Measure the carbon footprint of your farm and put a carbon reduction plan in place to reduce emissions. A carbon footprint identifies the source of emissions on farm and allows you to identify changes that will save you money and benefit the environment.

CAFRE’s Phelim Connolly continued: “You should carry out soil testing because by understanding the soil’s nutrient requirements we can reduce our dependence on chemical fertiliser. Targeting soil acidity levels to an optimum pH can lead to up to 30 per cent more efficiency from applied slurries and fertilisers. Less money spent on fertiliser will make your farm business more sustainable, improve water quality and help the environment.

“Also, spread slurry early in the season when it can be fully utilised, spread on a day that is not too warm or windy and use Low Emission Slurry Spreading Equipment (LESSE) where possible. LESSE releases less gases into the environment allowing more nutrient to be used by the growing crop.

“When spreading urea choose a protected form. Stabilised or protected Urea products are gaining more and more interest with NI farmers. Research has shown that ammonia emissions are reduced by 78.5 per cent when stabilised urea (urea with NBPT) is used instead of straight urea whilst also maintaining yields similar to Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN). (AFBI and Teagasc research 2017)

“Furthermore, sow clover into grassland swards. Clover fixes nitrogen from the air above it, giving you a free source of fertiliser and also removing excess nitrogen from the atmosphere. This will reduce your reliance on artificial fertiliser and save you money in the process.

“Investigating the use of multispecies swards could work for you. Multispecies swards have the potential to thrive better in wet conditions and in drought conditions due to their deeper rooting depths. They also include nitrogen fixing plants and herbs which provide more trace elements and can have anthelmintic benefits for sheep and cattle. However they will require different management to traditional ryegrass swards. Multispecies swards can be adapted to suit your specific soil type.

“Plant hedgerows and trees to capture carbon from the atmosphere, improve biodiversity and increase biosecurity on your farm. By allowing your hedgerows to be cut one in three years more carbon will be sequestered from the atmosphere.

“Adoption of any of the above practices will help reduce your environmental impact, and benefit the environment and the sustainability of the agricultural industry that you live and work in. Efficient farming has already resulted in local agriculture reducing emissions by 11 per cent from peak GHG production in 1998. Carbon foot printing of farm businesses will help farmers to continue to reduce Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions and will be offered to Environmental Business Development Group members as a free service during the current scheme.”

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