There is a real buzz in the office here in Wageningen as we are getting ready to bring all our Lighthouse farmers together again. Not on Zoom this time, but in real life. And no better place to bring them together than to our Irish Lighthouse Farm at the Lands of Dowth in Co Meath. It will have been two-and-a-half years since we first came together in Wageningen.

Since then, we have treasured the fond memories of the diverse backgrounds, unique stories, and the optimism we all shared – it has seen us through the COVID-19 times.

That is not to suggest that we will be returning to that pre-COVID-19 era. Today’s buzz is laced with a heavy-heartedness about how the world has changed since we met last.

As Europe is sliding into war once again, the tide on global collaboration is going out. And agriculture is one of the first sectors to feel the shockwaves. Energy, feed and fertiliser prices have shot up to levels unimaginable 12 months ago, sparking fears of food (or feed) insecurity.

So, this time the gathering will come with a weight of responsibility – more than ever, we need the lighthouse farmers to guide us through the tumultuous tides.

And that is what the Lands at Dowth does for ruminant farmers. Cattle, dairy and sheep farmers worldwide have found themselves in the spotlight of concerns on climate change and human health, giving rise to heated debates.

In 2019, our partners at Devenish Nutrition teamed up with UCD and ourselves to take this challenge head-on – can we design ruminant farming systems that contribute positively to the environment and human health?

No mean task, but funding from the European Commission allowed us to recruit five PhD candidates to study this, from soil to society, in the HEARTLAND project.

Soil to society

From soil to society – what does that mean? It means that we are redesigning beef and lamb production systems from the ground up. Dr Cornelia Grace, who manages the HEARTLAND project, explains: “All the elements of a farm are connected, so it is not possible to change just one element at a time.

“Take, for example, the use of multi-species swards (MSS) that we are piloting here. We already knew that MSS hold promise – they can fix nitrogen from the air and add nutritional diversity for animals.

“But it made no sense to simply sow these MSS and hope for the best – the seed mixtures are expensive and many of the plants disappear quickly under our normal grazing regimes. So, we had to change everything we were doing, from soil management to animal grazing,” she said.

In fact, it took five years to set the farm up for success. Years of neglect had left the soil compacted, acidified and depleted of nutrients. The team embarked on a five-year soil health programme to improve the physical, chemical and biological soil conditions, through a combination of liming, aeration and precision fertilisation.

Once the new mixtures were sown, the grazing rotation needed to be adjusted to nurture the new swards. The traditional pastures were grazed from 1,500kg of herbage down to 4cm; now the cattle are turned out on to the MSS at 2,500kg, grazing down to 6cm.

Results speak loudly

Three years into the project and the results coming out of UCD speak for themselves.

Annual grassland production has increased from 10t to 13.5t/ha, leading to higher daily gains in the cattle and a 40-day reduction in the finishing time of the lambs. At the same time, nitrogen inputs were reduced from 170 to 70kg/ha.

This has changed the equation for farmers. Adjusting all components of the farm simultaneously has turned the use of MSS from a pricey ‘green nice-to-have’ into an engine of farm profit and sustainability. And what’s more, it has insulated the farm from current and future shocks in input prices.

All of society harvests the benefits of this new equation for livestock farming, not just farmers. In the words of Dr Jean Kennedy, head of research resources at Devenish: “Our new farm configuration has significantly reduced the greenhouse gas emissions and improved soil biodiversity. That allows us to meet our environmental targets, but equally important, it shows that livestock farming can be a legitimate part of the solution.”

The vision

Speaking of the future – I will never forget the first time I visited Dowth in 2014. I arrived at an overgrown, somewhat forlorn site.

At least, that’s what it looked like before John Gilliland, (director of global agriculture and sustainability at Devenish and Professor of Practice at Queens University Belfast) painted his vision to me – his narrative brought 6,000 years of agriculture on the banks of the river Boyne to life. Six millennia of humans working with their environment to produce food and improve their quality of life.

Now, as we return in June eight years later, John will share the fruits of his team’s work with the other Lighthouse farmers and show that even in this new era, new stories of inspiration continue to shine their light for farmers across the world.

In brief

  • The innovation on the farm at Dowth is showing that meat production can be part of the total climate solution.
  • Our production system requires multiple simultaneous changes to help make it not just neutral, but good for the environment.
  • Results from the research at Dowth substantiate claims that multispecies swards help output and animal performance.
  • The second meeting of the Global Network of Lighthouse Farms will take place at the Lands of Dowth (Co Meath) in June. Watch the Irish Farmers Journal for reports.
  • The HEARTLAND project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under grant agreement No. 814030.