Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Sunday 19 February 2017

Winning the war on water

We travel to Macroom to find out how good drainage has transformed Con and Neilie Lehane's farm

Published 27/05/2015 | 02:30

Billy Cronin, Dairygold, host farmer Con Lehane, and Teagasc's Pat Buckley, James O’Loughlin and John Maher at the Heavy Soils open day in Ballinagree, Macroom, Co Cork . Photo O'Gorman Photography.
Billy Cronin, Dairygold, host farmer Con Lehane, and Teagasc's Pat Buckley, James O’Loughlin and John Maher at the Heavy Soils open day in Ballinagree, Macroom, Co Cork . Photo O'Gorman Photography.

In wetter regions, farmers talk about ‘winning back’ land. It’s not a reference to high-stakes poker – rather a phrase used when talking about the never-ending battle to wrest land back from the paralysing effects of water.

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One third of Ireland’s 4.4m hectares of lowland mineral soils is classified as wet land. Combined with the 0.8m hectares of blanket and basin peat, heavy soils account for a huge proportion of the milk and meat produced in this country.

Con and Neilie Lehane are a father and son combination that have spent their entire lives fighting the good fight against the elements that surround their farm at Ballinagree 10km north of Macroom in the foothills of the Boggeragh mountains on the Cork-Kerry border.

They are one of the nine farms located throughout Munster and up into Connacht that are being used by Teagasc to demonstrate best practice in their Heavy Soils Programme.

The farm runs at altitudes of between 500-1,000ft, with high annual rainfall rates of up to 1,600mm. Despite volumes that are double that of drier farms on the east coast, one of the biggest eye-openers on a recent open day on the farm was the revelation that new drains were carrying 10 times the total volume of rainfall.

“Some 90pc of the water that these drains are required to take away from the field is ground water that is welling up from the water table underneath,” said James O’Loughlin, head of Teagasc’s drainage programme.

However, the Lehanes are obviously good operators. Despite the physical challenges, they still produce 475kg of milk solids per cow, with a stocking rate of 1.42 livestock units (LU) per hectare.

The Lehanes typically drain a few hectares every year, with Con estimating that 40pc of the 150ac farm has been tackled over the years.

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The proof of the benefits were seen first-hand during the prolonged wet years of 2012 and 2013, when the farm was one of the few in the area that had surplus silage to get them through that tough spring.

Grazed

The 2ha field that was tackled with Teagasc’s Heavy Soils team in 2013 has also proven its worth, despite the €5,450/ha cost of the work undertaken.

“We grazed the field about nine times last year, compared to barely three grazings during the wet year in 2012,” said Con.

“You wouldn’t be able to get into the field for 10 days after heavy rain. This year, it didn’t really matter how heavy the rain has been.”

While the success of the project is obvious to all now, the Lehanes and their long-time local contractor were dubious of the measures that the Teagasc team wanted to implement.

“The first thing that was suggested was the deepening of the existing open-drain that runs along the eastern side of the field.

“It had filled up over the years to the point where it was only about 2.5ft deep. Normally I would have only gone down about 4ft, but because we went to almost 6ft inside in the field, we needed at least that at the outlets into the main drain.

“I thought it was a daft idea going that deep in the field. But that was the depth at which the Teagasc lads said the most permeable layer was – so it was the natural way to channel the water out of the field.

“I have to say that I’ve been very impressed with how well it worked. I’d say that the drains are taking at least three times the volume of water away from the field compared to other drainage work we’ve done around the place,” said Con.

And the battle continues, with another 8ac slated for drainage work lined up for this summer.

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