The Footprint Farmers Programme has now been running since spring 2021.

The aim of the programme run by the Irish Farmers Journal and supported by Macra Agrcultural Skillnet is to showcase what can be done on farms to improve sustainability, and gather information to show the good Irish farmers are already doing on their farms.

Here’s a little reminder of some of the innovative things these farmers have done so far, along with some of the amazing figures that show the good they are doing for the environment.

Soil sampling

Soil sampling has been carried out twice so far in the programme. Soil pH levels saw a good improvement when farmers took the simple and cost-effective move of applying lime to the soils that needed it.

In 2021, 45% of soils were at a pH of 6.3 or above. In 2023, that percentage figure increased to 68%. In 2021, 33% of soils were below a pH of 6. In 2023, 19% of soils sampled were at a pH below 6. Soil should ideally be at a soil pH level of 6.3 to 6.5.

Phosphorus (P) indices also improved from 2021 to 2023. However, potassium (K) levels declined on average across the results – most likely because farmers cut back on fertiliser spend.

Storing carbon

In summer 2022, soil carbon was measured across all of the Footprint farms. This equated to almost 900ha of sampling.

We hear a lot about carbon and possibly getting paid to store carbon in our soils, but there is no detail available to farmers on this.

As a result, the Irish Farmers Journal invested approximately €20,000 into this sampling programme (all sample locations marked using GPS).

  • Total hectares sampled on farms: 899ha.
  • Sampling depth: 30cm.
  • Maximum sampling area: 4ha.
  • The results showed soil carbon levels ranging from 21.9t/ha to 313.9t/ha. The average carbon level stored was 74.2t/ha – equating to about 67,000t of carbon being stored by all farms.

    The lowest level of carbon stored on land was in continuous tillage, which is now in grassland. The highest level of carbon stored was in the soil on the grazing platform of a dairy farm.

    Pádraig Connery rolling cover crops on his farm in Co Waterford. This avoids using glyphosate.

    Soil will be sampled again to see if soil carbon levels increased. If levels do increase, then this means farmers have taken carbon out of the atmosphere and stored it in the soil to reduce greenhouse gases in the air.

    Measuring to manage

    One thing that has helped a lot of farms has been measuring to manage; taking samples to find out what is actually happening.

    Soil samples are a big part of this, but what has shown up the most unexpected results has been slurry and silage testing.

    In the first year of silage testing, quality was poor and while the farmers had little control of this, as the weather dictated much of the quality at harvest-time, there were some things that could have been improved upon, and changes were made to improve for the next season, but also to diets to suit the silage being fed.

    Measuring habitats

    At the beginning of 2023, the quality and quantity of habitats on the Footprint farms was measured.

    These measurements were carried out by ecologist Laura Hynes in the BRIDE (Biodiversity Regeneration in a Dairying Environment) project.

    The Farmland Biodiversity Index, developed as part of the BRIDE project, was used as the measure on the Farms.

    The index gives a percentage space for nature on the farm (a number) and a quality rating (a letter), with ‘A’ being the highest quality score that can be achieved. The minimum target score is 10B.

    The results (in the box titled ‘Farmland biodiversity index results’) show the average across each farm, and it should be noted that some farms scored well in some areas and poorer in others.

    In some cases, a newly planted hedge could actually deliver a low score if it had a low level of native species in the hedge.

    Farmland biodiversity index results:

  • Ciara Kinsella, sheep, Co Wexford: 28C.
  • Kenneth Reid, beef and contract rearing, Co Limerick: 17B.
  • Pádraig Connery, tillage and beef, Co Waterford: 10B.
  • Martin Crowe, dairy, Co Limerick: 8C.
  • Barry Powell, dairy, Co Tipperary: 6C.
  • Andrew Mulhare, beef and tillage, Co Laois: 15B.
  • Garreth Culligan, tillage, Co Louth: 3C.
  • Tullamore Farm, beef and sheep, Co Offaly: 5C.
  • What have farmers done to improve habitats on farms?

    Some farmers have planted hedges, increased cover crop area and planted multispecies swards. These are all great steps. Others have gone as far as creating ponds on their farms, like Martin Crowe and Kenneth Reid have done on their farms in Co Limerick.

    What’s good for your pocket can be good for the environment

    A phrase we often use in the Footprint Farmers Programme is that what is good for the environment can often be good for your pocket too.

    Many farmers have planted multispecies or red clover swards on their farms. Multispecies swards can help improve soil structure with different rooting depths, which may lead to soils coping better in extreme weather conditions, like drought.

    Red clover and multispecies swards with a high clover content can help with cutting back on nitrogen use, because these swards receive nitrogen at planting. A multispecies sward may need a small bit of nitrogen in the spring time, but other than that, artificial nitrogen is cut from these areas of the farm.

    Clover scoring was carried out on the Footprint farms to examine what nitrogen levels could be cut or where reseeding was needed. This was a useful exercise, particularly at a time when fertiliser prices are high.

    Spreading lime on Kenneth Reid's farm in Co Limerick.

    The scores were based on clover distribution, not percentage. Any swards with a clover distribution of less than 40% – where there was no clover in 60% of the field – needed high rates of nitrogen, or else the field needed to be reseeded with clover.

    Where clover distribution was between 40% and 70%, it could be oversown into the sward. If clover distribution went over 70%, some farmers decided to cut nitrogen out completely when growth was good in May.

    Clover has a job to do and that is to fix nitrogen from the air, which the plant can use, and remove it from the atmosphere. If clover is not needed to fix nitrogen and artificial nitrogen is being applied, then it can disappear out of the sward.

    Tillage farmers in the programme have embraced beans, which do not need any artificial nitrogen and cover crops.

    Some have brought animals in to graze these cover crops as well. This helps the soil organic matter and also provides feed for the animals over winter.