Farming on the west coast on heavy land brings its challenges in a conventional system, but in an organic system even more so.

At a recent organic farm walk in Co Clare, Teagasc organic adviser for Mayo, Galway and Clare, John Noonan said: “One of the first questions a lot of farmers interested in organics ask me is ‘how will I control rushes and weeds on my farm?’”

With chemical herbicides and pesticides for weed control not allowed in an organic system, farmers must rely on other methods.

Eanna Canavan, the host farmer of the walk from Doolin, Co Clare, knows all about the battles in keeping rushes controlled.

Eanna operates a paddock grazing system for his suckler herd which is run on the 41ha grazing block. Topping is done as required to improve pasture quality and to control weeds, with plots liable to encroachment with rushes topped twice this year.

With rushes enjoying a wet, acidic environment, creating the opposite of this was listed as one method of limiting the cover of rushes on organic grassland.

Liming is allowed in organics, provided soil samples prove that the pH is below optimum, which goes some way towards control of rush, as does the mentioned rotational grazing and topping.

Removing excess water from the ground will also help limit the impact of rushes on sward quality, which is where agroforestry may come in to play.

Agroforestry involves incorporating forestry in to traditional arable and pasture land.

It aims to achieve additional benefits in comparison to keeping agriculture and trees separate.

Trees can be spaced out in to lines or groves, or can also be fenced into specific blocks. The minimum number of trees that must be planted is 400 tree/ha.

Farmers can receive €975/ha of an agroforestry grant for up to 10 years, with an establishment grant also given.

Rushes on the farm of Eanna Canavan require frequent topping in order to control them. Through removing excess water, agroforestry may play a role in limiting rush prevalence on organic farms.

The grant period has recently increased from five years to 10. Unlike commercial forestry blocks, agroforestry can still retain its organic status as livestock grazed or crops continue to be harvested from the land surrounding the trees, thus retaining organic payments. In essence, a farmer can draw down their BISS, organic and agroforestry premium from the one plot of land.

The benefits

The benefits of agroforestry are not limited to the annual premium. Teagasc organic adviser Joe Kelleher noted the positives that have been seen where alder trees have been incorporated in to wet organic pastures and have resulted in lower prevalence of rushes and improved pasture quality through removal of excess water from the soil.

“Water can move three ways; down, which is hard to do in a heavy clay soil, sideways, which involves drainage and the associated costs, or upwards through establishing trees and agroforestry on your farm.’’

Additional revenue could be gained from selling high-value timber from agroforestry plots in the future

Paul Butler, Teagasc forestry liaison officer, pointed out to attendees that the shorter grant period (10 years) was due to the land not being out of production.

“Additional revenue could be gained from selling high-value timber from agroforestry plots in the future, should a suitable market be developed here for it.”

While mainly made up of broadleaf trees, Scots Pine is also allowed and 15% of the trees planted must be fruit or nut trees.

With the planted trees soaking up water, Butler noted that grazing could be extended by up to six weeks through drier land and less poaching, while the established trees would also give shelter to grazing livestock.

“We are planting hedges now in Teagasc Athenry for this purpose alone, to create shelter belts for our ewes and lambs when they are turned out in spring.’’

Butler also highlighted the Native Tree Area Scheme, which allows farmers to plant small areas of native woodland without the need for a licence, though approval from the Department is necessary.

Up to two separate 1ha plots of land could be planted on a farm, with an establishment grant of €6,744/ha (to exclude fencing) and annual payments of €2,206/ha for 10 years.

The scheme can be used to protect water quality through the establishment of native forests, which carries a marginally higher premium.

Example one

  • Plant 5ha (12.5 acres) of agroforestry (pastoral).
  • Annual premium= €4,875.
  • Total premium (10 years) = €48,750.
  • Example two

  • Plant 1ha (2.5 acres) of Native trees without a licence through NTA1.
  • Annual premium=€2,206.
  • Total premium (10 years) = €22,060.