The first of seven ARCZero farm walks was recently hosted by Roger and Hilary Bell, who hail from Kells, Co. Meath and Co. Antrim. Approximately 150 people attended the event.
Two fundamental drivers are now in place, which many believe will kickstart the response of agriculture in Northern Ireland to the challenge of climate change.
One is the recently launched Soil Nutrient Health Scheme (SNHS); the other is the ARCZero programme.
ARCZero is a European Innovation Partnership project made up of a cooperative of seven farms in Northern Ireland.
It seeks to measure and manage carbon flows at individual farm level to empower farmers to make positive change towards carbon zero farming.
The project is independently led by John Gilliland, alongside seven commercial farms and industry partners including AgriSearch, Devenish, Queens University Belfast and Birnie Consultancy.
According to ARCZero chairman, Prof. John Gilliland, the new soil testing programme will provide every farmer in the province with the opportunity to have the carbon status of their soils accurately assessed.
“The soil testing programme will include a representative carbon analysis of the soils that predominate across Northern Ireland,” he explained.
“In turn, this will help farmers establish the baseline carbon value from which they determine how best to manage their business as they commit to securing a carbon net zero position.”
Meanwhile, the ARCZero project will play a path-finding role in allowing farmers to identify what management change options are available to them in meeting the carbon targets set for agriculture in Northern Ireland, in the recently enacted Stormont Climate Change Act.
Significantly, John Gilliland believes it is possible to meet these targets without the need to sacrifice production outputs.
“We already know that improving efficiency levels will help farmers improve their net carbon emission levels,” he said.
“And, no doubt, technological advancements that are already in the pipeline will help to improve this situation further.”
Bell farm and ARCZero
The Bell Springmount farm is home to 500 lowland and hill ewes, which are managed on a rotational grazing system.
Over the past 15 years, the grassland areas of the farm have been reseeded. The liveweight gain of every animal on the farm is recorded.
Hilary and Roger commit to annual benchmarking and operate a veterinary health plan for the Springmount flock.
One of the most significant trends to have already emerged from the ARCZero programme is the confirmation that significant numbers of farmers are already well down the road in achieving a ‘net carbon zero’ position within their businesses.
John Gilliland said: “This is because the combination of soil testing and LiDAR analysis is providing a full picture, above and below ground, of a farm’s true carbon status.
“It is this information that will allow farmers to pan their own course towards net zero in the most efficient way possible.
“In the case of Hilary and Roger, we know that they are already 53% of the way towards the attainment of carbon net zero position.
“They have achieved this position on the back of four key management priorities: Improved use of organic manures; establishment of multi-species swards; regular weighing of lambs; and better management of the farm’s network of hedges.”
While the use of trailing shoe and other improved forms of slurry spreading techniques is fast becoming the norm in Northern Ireland, the push towards multi-species swards is still in its infancy.
“It’s an approach that has worked for us, very much from a grazing perspective,” Roger Bell explained.
“We have two areas of multi-species sward on the farm. One was sown out four years ago, the other was established in the spring of 2021. The seed mix at both locations included plantain, chicory, red clover, white clover and perennial ryegrass.
“Both swards have established well and the sheep find them very palatable to graze. Traditionally, we would have sown out 40kg/ha of nitrogen on our pure grass swards, both in the spring and at the back end,” Roger added.
“Now, we have the scope to reduce these levels of application by almost 50% on the multi-species swards while still retaining the normal level of lamb output.”
John Gilliland is quick to confirm that farmers should actively endorse the principle of securing a carbon net zero target for their businesses, rather than being afraid of it.
“The seven participating farmers are proof positive that it is possible to secure significant improvements in carbon footprint through the implementation of very straightforward decisions,” he said.
“It is already known, for example, that driving down age at slaughter will significantly improve the carbon balance on all farms.
“And significant reductions in this regard are extremely attainable. It is all about improving the efficiency of tour production systems.”
Gilliland also believes strongly that farming for carbon will become a significant income stream in its own right for farmers, not just in Northern Ireland but throughout the rest of Ireland and beyond.
“Carbon credits will have a real value moving forward. And this is a business opportunity that every farmer should be availing of,” he said.
“However, this will only happen when farm businesses can clearly confirm the values of carbon they are actively sequestering on an annual basis. In other words, they must know the baseline carbon storage figure for their farms and build accordingly from that point.
“The ARCZero project is helping to raise awareness of this fundamental principle,” Gilliland added.
ARCZero will run through until the middle of 2023. At that stage a report will be produced, highlighting the progress made by the seven participating farmers in their respective journeys towards carbon net zero.
“But we have to build on all of this for the future. We need full political buy-in to the principles espoused by ARCZero,” Gilliland continued.
“Farmers will need a continuing reference point for advice and guidance as they develop their businesses for the future.
“There are tremendous technological changes coming down the track, which will further accelerate farming’s journey towards a carbon net zero position.”