After two years of virtual events, the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition returned to the RDS on Wednesday, 11 January. In his opening address, President Michael D Higgins encouraged students to ‘stay curious for life and protect it.’

One of the founding members of the exhibition, Dr Tony Scott, told Irish Country Living, “After two years of being virtual, we are back together. It is great; there is a tremendous buzz.”

The idea of a science fair in Ireland came about when Tony and a colleague were on a research trip to a similar exhibition in New Mexico in 1963.

“We said - here is a chance for young people to take an interest in science, because the future of our country would depend on science,” Tony says. “We took the American idea and modified it for Ireland. The first one was held in 1965 and the 59th one is held here today.”

While in the RDS, Irish Country Living couldn’t help but check out some of the agricultural science projects on display. Here is just a taste of what these talented students researched for the event:

If in drought, wool will help out

An investigation into the possibility of sheep’s wool increasing crop yields when incorporated within soil.

Rebecca Harris and sisters Keira and Rachel McLaughlin are second-year students in Co Monaghan who decided to turn wool into a solution for drought in crop production. The Castleblayney College students are from a rural area, where sheep farmers were faced with a drought problem last summer.

Rebecca says, “Last summer there was a drought in Ireland and a lot of farmers were forced to start feeding their winter stockpile in August, so we were thinking of different ways we could help out with drought and crops.

Rachel McLaughlin, Rebecca Harris and Keira McLaughlin at BT Young scientist and Technology exhibition 2023

“We chose wool because it is sustainable, biodegradable and a lot of the time it is costing farmers a lot more to shear their sheep than what they are getting for it.”

Kiera explained how planting a layer of wool three quarters of the way up allows water to remain in the soil. The results showed plants with the layer of wool “had a greater biomass, were healthier, stronger and contained a higher level of germination.”

Sheep’s wool is hygroscopic (absorbs moisture from the air), so they also tested the infiltration rate and found the soil with the wool retained more water. Science teacher Celine Keith adds, “The students wanted to contribute in some way to sustainability, [so] they came up with this idea to see if putting wool into soil had an impact on the growth of the plants.”

The students plan to present their findings at the next sheep discussion group in Monaghan.

Producing baking flour in Ireland

Lucy Murray, a TY student from St Mary’s Secondary School in Macroom, Co Cork, carried out an investigation into whether Ireland could produce its own baking flour with triticale (hybrid of wheat and rye) - without using imported fertilisers or pesticides. With increasing food, fertiliser and pesticide prices and the war in Ukraine, Lucy (who lives on her family’s cattle farm) was inspired to seek out an alternative way to combat these challenges. She says: “Grain is going to be expensive – especially wheat – due to the increase in prices, so I wanted to find a solution.”

Lucy grew triticale samples on a small area on her farm. She followed the official sampling method the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) use, with one meter squared plots. This resulted in a positive yield of three tonnes to the hectare being produced. She milled the grain using a small mill she purchased turning it into baking flour. She tested the flour by baking different loaves of bread.

Lucy tells Irish Country Living, “My hypothesis was that triticale would perform well in Irish conditions. I think my hypothesis was correct. It grew well and stayed resistant to all diseases without the use of pesticides or fertilisers, and it was grown on land that represents Irish conditions.”

Ire­land imports virtually all its white bread flour. Following her research into the topic, Lucy claims it would only take 1.9% of agricultural land in Ireland to become self-sufficient in flour production.

Armed with this information, she wants DAFM to “to set up a scheme which would encourage farmers to grow this crop. It’s important to also educate farmers on how to grow [triticale] and to re-establish our milling industry in Ireland; making ourselves more self-sufficient [in flour production].”

Bull Accelerates

Students Caroline Fitzgerald and Katie Halpin, from John the Baptist Community School in Limerick, designed an app to help farmers identify profit margins and become more efficient.

Bull Accelerates is a financial assistance app aimed at helping farmers identify input costs associated with any animal, so they can reduce cost margins and become more efficient.

Katie Halpin and Caroline Fitzgerald with their stand at BT young scientist and technology

Caroline tells Irish Country Living, “The idea came from us both having farming backgrounds.” Katie’s dad is a beef and dairy farmer and Caroline’s grandad is a dairy farmer.

On a farm walk last summer in Tipperary, Katie noted that costs (feed and other inputs) don’t correlate with the price farmers get during a sale.

“Our main aim is to have a tighter margin on the inputs and outputs of farmers’ businesses,” she explains. “By the time a farmer is selling their animal at the end of the year, they will know an accurate cost price for that animal.”

The app provides farmers with easy access to information on their input and output costs, calculating margins for them. Caroline explains “You can put in your herd profile, along with input costs such as labour, diesel, petrol and feed. The app also links Mart Bids and the latest cattle prices to help farmers put a price on their animal before sale.”

The students carried out an analysis on five farmers who used the app and five who didn’t. The results showed farmers who used the app had a lower difference in price ranges compared to those who didn’t.

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