Environmental measures as part of new support schemes should not be solely aimed at farmers in the uplands, a leading land use expert has said.
According to Dr John Gilliland from Devenish Nutrition, all farmers in NI will need to implement measures to reduce carbon emissions as part of the overall UK aim of achieving net zero by 2050.
“Not all farmers will get there, but all farmers need to do something,” Gilliland said during the YFCU conference on Tuesday evening.
The former UFU president, who led a review into sustainable land management for DAERA in 2016, said that just focusing on planting forestry on hill ground will not address all environmental issues.
He pointed out that planting trees and hedgerows can capture carbon from the atmosphere, while preventing issues with ammonia emissions and nutrient run-off into waterways.
“It is not just the responsibility of upland farmers. For example, 80% of the problems with water quality come from the lowlands, so the lowland farmers need to engage with us,” he said.
Gilliland also offered some practical advice on improving soil fertility by recommending that soil pH levels are addressed first and foremost.
He drew from his experience on Devenish’s research farm in Dowth, Co Meath, where average soil pH was 5.5 when the land was purchased by the animal nutrition company in 2014.
Despite the general advice being for grassland to have a pH above 6.0, Gilliland aimed for a soil pH of 6.5 because he wanted to grow legumes and multispecies swards.
In the first year, all land across the farm received lime at two tonnes (t) per acre and more lime was spread two years later at variable rates, depending on soil analysis results. The most recent soil analysis found that average soil pH on the farm is now 6.6.
“It is better to go a little and often. A lot of Dowth needed 4t to 5t per acre of lime, but you should never put that on in one go because you will put the soil into chemical shock,” Gilliland said.
“On our permanent pasture trials, in 2014, we were getting grass yields of 4tDM/ha/year. In 2020, we were getting 7.5tDM/ha/year and the only thing different that we done on that land was apply lime,” he said.
Tree planting a “disaster” in the wrong area
Tree planting in Scotland should be targeted at lowland areas, not carbon-rich upland soils, a leading academic has said.
Speaking at a webinar on biodiversity in grassland on Tuesday, Professor Robin Pakeman from the James Hutton Institute, pointed out that where trees are planted in peat type soils, the carbon gets moved from the soil into the tree. The carbon is then at risk of being lost to the atmosphere if the tree falls, or is cut down. “Tree planting is a disaster in certain areas,” he said.