Catchment News

Smart Farming – addressing the dual challenges of improving farm returns while enhancing the rural environment

| in Get involved, Science

What is Smart Farming?

Smart Farming is a voluntary resource efficiency programme led by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The programme collates existing knowledge and expertise from Ireland’s leading academic and advisory bodies, state agencies and technical institutions. It communicates this knowledge in a targeted way, to deliver on the double dividend of improving farm returns and enhancing the rural environment through better resource management.

The development of the Smart Farming resource efficiency programme and identification of the eight focus areas (Figure 1) of the programme were strongly influenced by Teagasc research.

This research and Four Well-Beings of Community Sustainability (Figure 2) continue to be at the centre of all Smart Farming’s activities. This community sustainability model advocates that society can have a long-term positive impact on the wider environment and their own well-being when environmental needs are better aligned with the economic, social and cultural needs of individuals, in this case – farmers. Thus, Smart Farming is focused on improving farm returns and enhancing the environment by operating through accepted cultural communication norms such as discussion groups, IFA branches and purchasing groups.

Smart Farming – improving farm returns

Each farmer who participates in the Smart Farming programme receives a Resource Efficiency Assessment (REA) of their farm, which is also called a cost saving study. These assessments are completed by a qualified agronomist who has a minimum level 8 qualification and is an agricultural science graduate.

In preparation for the Resource Efficiency Assessments, the participating farmers submit the following information to the Smart Farming agronomist:

• House & farm electricity & fuel bills (heating & diesel) for the previous 12 months

• Results of any soil samples that may have been taken in recent years and the farm map showing where soil samples were taken

• Any Nutrient Management Plan completed in the last 2 – 3 years

• Copy of the most recent Basic Payment Scheme application form (without details of the value of the Basic Payment, as this is not required)

• Copy of BPS Maps sent from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine

• Land Parcel Identification Numbers

• Water: o Water bills for previous 12 months (if using water supply other than own well) o Results of any water quality tests

• Feed – dockets for the previous 12 months

• Results of the most recent silage tests Using this information, the Smart Farming agronomist prepares a draft desktop Assessment, which focuses on identifying average cost savings on each participating farm of €5,000. This is delivered by concentrating on the eight themes of soil fertility, inputs and waste, grassland, feed, energy, machinery, time management and water – as identified in Figure 1.

The net cost savings identified often require an initial investment. For example, an expenditure on lime may be required to address underlying soil pH issues, in order to maximise grass growth and reduce more expensive concentrate requirements. Therefore, the cost savings identified in the draft Resource Efficiency Assessment will also include the likely payback period, so that the farmer can determine whether it is reasonable when considered against the investment required.

The agronomist then completes a farm walk with each participating farmer. This is used to examine the information provided and to get a more complete understanding of particular areas of farm management including the grassland reseeding plan, approach to feed purchasing, energy management and nutrient management.

The Resource Efficiency Assessment is then finalised and discussed with the participating farmers in advance of the Assessment being disseminated to the host farmer’s discussion group, IFA branch or purchasing group.

At the discussion group meeting, the completed Assessment is presented by the Smart Farming agronomist and the host farmer. Robust and challenging exchanges usually take place during which the recommendations in the Resource Efficiency Assessment are questioned and debated.

Smart Farming – enhancing the environment

As part of the Resource Efficiency Assessments, participating farmers receive a suite of environmental indicators for their farms.

A carbon reduction strategy for each farm is developed by using the Carbon Navigator (Figure 3) decision support tool developed by Teagasc and Bord Bia. The Carbon Navigator provides an estimate of greenhouse gas emission reductions that can be delivered on each participating farm, by achieving the targets which are set.

Soil tests are also taken and a nutrient management plan for each participating farm is completed, using the Teagasc Online Nutrient Management Planning tool. Maps are generated which indicate the existing soil fertility levels, as well as the liming and fertiliser requirements.

The quality of the water from the domestic water well and quality of the silage are also analysed. Recommendations are provided regarding feed management strategies based on the results of the silage tests.

Smart Farming – stakeholders collaborating to make a difference

A unique aspect of Smart Farming is the enthusiastic willingness of farmers, representative organisations, academia, advisory bodies, technical institutions and state agencies (Figure 4) to collaborate and share their knowledge and expertise in a targeted way to deliver change. The focus of all this collaboration is a desire to improve farm incomes and enhance the rural environment, through better resource management.

Smart Farming experts from these organisations continue to significantly enhance the efficacy and standard of resource efficiency messages communicated to farmers. These individuals devised and developed the scientific, agronomic and economic content of each of the eight themes on the Smart Farming website, www.smarttfarming.ie

They also contributed to a comprehensive Smart Farming guide, which provides top-tips on how to save money on feed, fertiliser, energy and water bills; as well as ideas on reducing waste and the environmental impact.

Smart Farming – farmers making the real difference

The most important part of the Smart Farming programme is that farmers themselves continue to lead the programme’s evolution.

The National Environment Committee (Figure 5) of the Irish Farmers’ Association, which comprises of farmer representatives from every county in Ireland, has taken an adaptive leadership approach when developing this programme and dealing with the agri-environmental challenges facing the sector.

They recognise the issues in terms of air, water, soils, climate and other areas within farming and have moved beyond a standard enforcement and compliance approach. The Committee established the eight focus areas (Figure 1) of the Smart Farming programme; expanded the initial cost saving focus of the programme to incorporate environmental indicators; proofed the guide and all national communications; as well as participated in the studies. They also supported the Smart Farming Programme Leader and Manager in continuing the collaboration with others to deliver on better resource management, which will improve farm returns while enhancing the rural environment.

Smart Farming results for 2017

In October 2017, Smart Farming’s Progress Report 2017 was published. Figure 6 provides a summary of the results, with the average cost savings target of €5,000 being exceeded by 74% and the target to identify greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 5-7% also being exceeded.

Are you ready to take the Smart Farming challenge?

Are you ready to take the Smart Farming challenge? We are currently recruiting farmers, who may be interested in taking part in 2018. Let’s talk – smartfarming@ifa.ie and 01-4260343

Thomas Ryan, IFA

You can watch Smart Farmer Andrew McHugh make a presentation to the Citizens Assembly meeting on Climate Change on the Smart Farming website: www.smartfarming.ie/case-studies/andrew-mchugh/ – we’ll be including details of Andrew’s Case Study in the next Catchments Newsletter.

Who is involved?

Quite simply, everyone in Ireland has a role to play. This can be from something as simple as making sure you don’t pollute your local stream, or a local community working together to establish a Rivers Trust to enhance the rivers and lakes in their area, to a Government Department or Agency helping a Minister implement a new policy to help protect and enhance all our waterbodies.

This website has been developed and is maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency, and is a collaboration between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Local Authority Waters and Communities Office.

LAWCO

Local Authority Waters Programme

The Local Authority Waters Programme coordinates the efforts of local authorities and other public bodies in the implementation of the River Basin Management Plan, and supports local community and stakeholder involvement in managing our natural waters, for everyone’s benefit.

EPA

Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is responsible for coordinating the monitoring, assessment and reporting on the status of our 4,829 water bodies, looking at trends and changes, determining which waterbodies are at risk and what could be causing this, and drafting environmental objectives and measures for each.

DECLG

Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government

The Department is responsible for making sure that the right policies, regulations and resources are in place to implement the Water Framework Directive, and developing a River Basin Management Plan and Programme of Measures that will be implemented after public consultation and sign off by the Minister.