Farmers Must Embrace Collective Action for Positive Change

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Over 300 farmers attended the ‘Farming for the Future’ water quality event on the farm of Donal Kavanagh near Baltinglass on Friday the 21st of June.

The event showcased Donal Kavanagh’s sustainable practices and aimed to influence other farmers to take similar actions. A key focus was on retaining the nitrates derogation at 220 kg N/ha and enhancing water quality. Outlined below are the core messages discussed at the event.

Bridget Lynch from Teagasc provided farmers with an overview of the Agricultural Catchments Programme (ACP) and how it is an integrated research and advisory programme sharing science-based solutions to meet Ireland’s environmental targets on water quality, greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions. ACP works across six catchments (representative of Irish farming systems), with over 300 farmers involved in the programme, covering 7,466 ha, where staff closely monitor losses of nutrients, water quality, phosphorous and nitrate losses. The programme also evaluates the biophysical elements such as soil science, hydrochemistry hydrology, and socioeconomic aspects. Bridget stressed the critical importance of timing nutrient applications correctly to mitigate impacts on water quality.

Sandra Hayes, co-ordinator of the Teagasc Tirlán Future Farm Programme, provided farmers with valuable insights during her discussion on Nitrogen use efficiency (NUE), emphasising its role in assessing a farm’s potential nitrogen pollution. Sandra stated:

“NUE is what I would call the new key performance indicator (KPI), as you’re very familiar with grass grown and utilised, milk per hectare, milk solids/cow but NUE is a new one that you are going to have to become familiar with”.

Sandra used her board to demonstrate the steps Donal has taken to achieve an NUE of 26%, such as focusing on soil fertility and incorporating clover to reduce chemical fertiliser.

The table below outlines the steps that Donal and his fellow monitor farms in the Teagasc Tirlán Future Farm Programme are currently implementing to achieve a target NUE of at least 35%.

Measures taken by Donal Kavanagh to improve his farm NUE

Soil pH

·      70% of soils Ph 6.2+

·      Lime applied: 124t (2022) 266t (2023)

Soil Fertility

·      P & K

·      34% soils optimum for pH, P&K


·      10% - High                    23% - Medium

·      31% - Low                     35% - None


·      Slurry analysed, excess slurry storage

·      Spread in Spring using LESS

NBPT (Protected Urea)

·      66% of N applied as NBPT (Protected Urea)

·      + Sulphur

Precision application

·      GPS

·      5 & 10m buffer zones

Using the fertilizer plan

·      Shopping list of fertilisers

·      Target fields using soil maps, use clover map

Better NUE

·      171 kg chemical N per hectare (down 33% since 2021)

·      26% NUE (up from 19.3% in 2021)


One particular step Sandra emphasised was soil fertility and its importance in achieving a better NUE. During the event,  Sandra demonstrated how Donal used the pH, P and K maps to ensure the correct nutrients are applied to the right fields at the appropriate times.

Through soil testing, Donal gained insight into his soil’s nutrient requirements, which facilitated easier slurry spreading and the correct application rates of lime, phosphorous (P) and potassium (K). Donal tests his slurry annually to determine the N, P, K content per 1,000 gallons. Sandra highlighted that this approach has enabled him to reduce his chemical N usage by 33% since 2021. Additionally, incorporating clover and understanding when to reduce chemical N on these paddocks are other steps Donal has taken.

Sandra concluded her discussion by voicing to farmers the importance of collective action to bring positive changes to farms, stressing that it is not solely the responsibility of monitor farmers like Donal.

Sandra stated: “ It’s all about everyone now doing a percentage extra, maximising their nutrient efficiency, spreading slurry only at optimal times. There is no one silver bullet to sort this. It’s not just the monitor farmers who will make our case”

Tirlán Farm Sustainability Advisor, Matthew Moylan discussed the Tirlán programme designed to enhance water quality and biodiversity on farms. He provided farmers with information on the free, confidential advisory service offered by Tirlán’s sustainability advisors. He also highlighted the financial and environmental advantages of consulting with the farm sustainability advisor in their respective region. Within Tirlán, the Sustainability Action Payment stands at 0.5c per litre, and Matthew explained that farmers are required to declare seven actions from a menu of twenty options in order to continue to receive the payment. The options available for farmers to chose include grass measuring, genotyping, engaging in an ASSAP water quality visit, and the spreading of protected urea.

Matthew also addressed Tirlán’s River Slaney Project, emphasising its key focus areas for this initiative such as on farm critical source areas, slurry storage facilities, and improving milk solids. Further, Matthew touched on the Sustainable Farming Academy which is a fully funded part-time Diploma in Environment, Sustainability and Climate delivered through academic partners UCC. This programme offers suppliers an opportunity to enhance their knowledge and learn strategies for achieving both economic and environmental sustainability.

LAWPRO Catchment Scientist, Mairead Shore provided farmers with an overview of the new Water European Innovation Partnership (EIP) project which is being managed by LAWPRO in conjunction with Teagasc and Dairy Industry Ireland. The €60 million project aims to enhance water quality by implementing targeted actions to reduce losses of nutrients, sediment and pesticides from agricultural lands, i.e. ‘breaking the pathway’. The funded measures as part of the programme include nutrient management planning, multi-species swards, tree planting and sediment traps. A significant point emphasised by Mairead was that not every farmer will qualify for funding, as their farms might not be located in areas where local waterbodies are deteriorating or are in poor condition. She highlighted the use of a prioritisation approach in allocating resources.

The theme of the final stop of the event was “Nitrates Derogation and what’s happening next?”. Speakers at this board were Assistant Agricultural Inspector with the DAFM, Noeleen McDonald, and Head of Agri Sustainability in Tirlán, Thomas Ryan.

Noeleen initiated the discussion with farmers by explaining the nitrates derogation and potential forthcoming changes if water quality does not improve. She said that the number one thing we can do to ensure we secure the next derogation is follow compliance and in particular around the storage and spreading of slurry. Noeleen clarified that water quality must remain stable and improve if it is less than satisfactory, as derogation is granted under the condition of maintaining or enhancing water quality. 

Thomas assured  farmers on the day that Tirlán is dedicated to retaining the nitrates derogation through initiatives like ASSAP, Living Proof and the Sustainable Farming Academy for example. He expressed gratitude to farmers already implementing positive on farm practices and acknowledged those going above and beyond. However, he urged farmers to encourage their peers and neighbours to avoid negatively impacting water quality. Lastly, Thomas highlighted Tirlán’s investment by expanding the farmer-facing sustainability advisory team and encouraged farmers to collaborate with them if needed.

First Published 8 July 2024


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