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Green technology on farms grows bottom line, survey shows

Sustainability strategies linked to farm profitability, Teagasc report shows

The latest Farm Sustainability Report from Teagasc has provided valuable information on the economic, environmental and social sustainability of Irish farms. The report also evaluated Irish farmers’ adoption of innovations which may be important in driving the sector towards increased sustainability.

The report is based on data collected as part of the Teagasc 2015 National Farm Survey, and uses this information to quantify the performance of Irish farms over time in a number of areas relevant to agricultural sustainability.

"It's built around Teagasc National Farm Survey data which has been collected for the past 40 years and is based on a representative sample of 1,000 farms around the country," said Dr John Lynch of Teagasc. "It's a requirement of the EU for member states to find out how farmers are doing from an economic and financial point of view but for the past seven or eight years we have been adding sustainability and social data as well. Ireland is ahead of the curve on this."

This resulted in the publication of the first farm sustainability report two years ago which was based on the 2013 data. Innovation has been added to the 2015 report. “We are looking at how farmers are adopting innovations and new technologies,” Lynch added.



In this respect, the report demonstrates the clear link between sustainability and farm profitability, showing how the adoption of new technologies and management practices can reduce environmental impacts and increase profitability.

It shows that the most profitable farms tend to have lower greenhouse gas emissions per unit of milk or meat produced. This highlights the positive impact of sustainability practices promoted by Teagasc. Similarly, the report shows that the most profitable dairy farms are achieving more milk production for every kilogram of excess nitrogen applied, illustrating the importance of good farm nutrient management.

"The report reveals considerable variation between farms, for all sectors and at all levels of profitability. Bringing more farms in line with the top performers will help ensure that the overall sustainability of farming in Ireland continues to improve," said Dr Emma Dillon of Teagasc.

“The report shows that a lot of the efficiencies and practices being promoted by Teagasc do deliver increased productivity as well as improved environmental performance for farmers. This is part of the wider sustainability debate. The carbon footprint of every kilo of meat or litre of milk we produce in relation to other countries is very important.”

Turning specifically to innovation she said a lot of innovation is happening on Irish farms but there is room for improvement. “Dairy farms are particularly innovative. Things like milk recording and grassland management systems are very important. The farm survey had already been recording key performance indicators and we can now see that Irish farmers are doing really well in achieving targets and a lot of this has to do with innovation and technology uptake. There is always scope for improvement, of course.”

Green image

The use of advanced technology need not have negative implications for the green image of Irish food products, according to Lynch: “The image of Irish agriculture as green and pastoral is very important. But it is also important to understand that there is no conflict between that and that use of innovation and the latest technology to achieve improved productivity. For example, farmers are extending the growing season and maximising grass growth by spreading slurry in spring.”

Innovation is not only confined to dairy and beef farmers, however. Sheep farmers are also engaged in innovative practices. “There are two different systems of sheep farming,” said Dillon. “Lowland sheep farmers are quite productivity focused and maximise grass production and weight gain. Hill sheep farmers tend to utilise their land the best they can. There are clear economic benefits in adopting a certain amount of innovation and we need to demonstrate that to farmers.”

She said the report pointed to very positive results for Irish agriculture. “We have only just begun to think about innovation within the sustainability framework. Recording these sustainability indicators over time is important to show continued improvements and monitor the impact of suggested practices and technologies on real farms. We might also be able to see which innovative practices have the highest payoff for farmers.”

Lynch pointed to the implications for Ireland’s climate change obligations. Agriculture is the largest contributor to Irish greenhouse gas emissions by sector, with 32 per cent of the national total in 2013. Maintaining or even increasing food production will be very difficult while reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions.

“Ireland is in a tricky position in relation to this,” he said. “It is important to be able to show that we are improving. We need evidence to show that practices and innovations to improve the situation are being taken up on real farms.”

“We are really just starting out in terms of recording data on innovation,” Dillon added. “We will continue working to show farmers that you don’t need to spend a large amount of money to make significant gains. It’s a real win-win situation in terms of environmental and productivity improvements.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times