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Wicklow dairy farmers urged to explore all avenues to reduce carbon footprint


Breeding more efficient cows will help reduce the footprint.

Breeding more efficient cows will help reduce the footprint.

Breeding more efficient cows will help reduce the footprint.

Breeding more efficient cows will help reduce the footprint.


Breeding more efficient cows will help reduce the footprint.


If Wicklow dairy farmers are to reduce their carbon footprint they must improve their breeding and switch to a greener fertilizer, says Wicklow IFA Dairy Committee member Jack Keenan.

It starts with breeding more efficient cows,” said Jack. “You have to look after your EBI, that’s the index farmers use to identify profitable cows for a breeding dairy herd. Ideally, you want cows that can convert less grass, using less concentrates, to produce more milk.

“Fertilizer usage is also a major key opponent of course, and that just has to be reduced. We’re all pushing towards spreading the more environmentally friendly protected urea now, instead of straight calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN). Protected urea is far more carbon friendly.”

Protected urea is a urea nitrogen fertilizer which is treated with an active ingredient designed to stop ammonia loss called a urease inhibitor. By comparison, CAN fertilizer is made up from combination of ammonium nitrogen and nitrate nitrogen. According to Teagasc research, CAN produces 71 per cent more harmful nitrous oxide emissions compared to protected urea.

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The agricultural research body has also shown that protected urea achieves the benefits of protecting nitrogen loss and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while still yielding as well as CAN over the growing season. A win-win outcome both economically and environmentally.

“Beyond the other changes, you’re looking at measures like using more red and white clover in your grass wards while you’re reseeding,” Jack continued. “That’ll cut down on your chemical nitrogen usage.

“The practice has become a lot more popular recently. Teagasc have done the research, it’s all out there. A lot of farmers are starting to buy into it now, and we can see the benefits of it already. My herd are healthier and producing more efficiently.

At the recent ARCZero agricultural science event, College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) senior advisor, Alan Agnew noted that keeping cows in milking groups beyond the end of their second lactation is important.

Jack agreed, saying, “An older will produce more milk. If you had 20 cows between one and two lactations, they won’t give you the same amount as 10 cows with two to five lactations. If you can get a higher lactation animal, you should.

“You ideally want to breed a longer lasting cow but, unfortunately, underperformance and health issues are a factor. That's where your breeding and your fertility in the herd comes into it.

“If you don’t have a cow calving every 365 days, she’s not going to last in the herd and she’s not going to reach her third lactation. It’s all about the breeding.”

Asked if he thought more Wicklow farmers could be doing more to reduce their carbon footprint, Jack replied, “A lot of farmers are doing it already and don’t even realise it.

“You have your low emission slurry spreading (LESS), which gets far more value out of your slurry. You retain most of your nitrogen compared with the broad, splash plate spreading.”

Splash plate slurry spreading has been highlighted in recent years as a major contributor to air pollution. Splash plates have been banned in Denmark since 2001, while, earlier this year in Northern Ireland, farmers with over 200 cattle livestock were required to use LESS equipment.

Though a ban has been discussed seriously over the past decade, southern Irish farmers have been slow to follow suit. They are however, at the very forefront of research aimed at the solving the broader issue of reducing polluting emissions.

“There is a lot of different research going on at the minute,” Jack said. “There’s Lyon’s farm in UCD, their systems herd are trialling feed additives at the minute. So it’ll be interesting to see their results.

“Then there’s the research on mix species grass, with all different types of deep-rooting legumes that can fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere.”

“A lot of the research is there already. The future is definitely in agri-science, both in terms of improving the efficiency of our milk farms and in reducing their carbon footprint.”