Stitching in clover to swards to help reduce the amount of manufactured nitrogen (N) fertiliser applied is just one of the innovative ways that Co. Down dairy farmer, Ian McClelland, has employed to help reduce his carbon footprint.

For the last two years McClelland, who runs a 90-cow dairy herd with an average yield of around 10,000L/cow, has been on a journey to reduce his carbon footprint while maintaining production and reducing costs.

McClelland who farms near Banbridge, has 90 Holstein Friesian cows in a grass-based high yielding and autumn-calving system.

In 2015, he converted what was previously a beef and youngstock farm into a successful dairy enterprise and today he is part of a European Innovation Partnership (EIP) project that aims to “empower farmers to make positive change towards carbon zero farming”.

Accelerating Ruminant Carbon Zero (ARCZero) is the farmer-led partnership project that is made up of a co-operative of seven farms across Northern Ireland.

They are from a diverse range of enterprises seeking to measure and manage carbon flows at the farm level.

The McClelland herd at grass

The importance of technical efficiency and animal health to low-carbon farming was highlighted at an ARCZero Farm walk hosted by McClelland on his Co. Down farm.

The focus of ARCZero is to produce an accurate, individual, whole farm carbon balance sheet, through the precise measurement of the on-farm carbon stocks within soils and in trees and hedges.

These stocks are then combined with the results of the farm which have been put through a whole business life-cycle analysis (LCA) calculator, to allow an accurate creation of a base-line greenhouse gas (GHG) position.

Carbon zero

The key objective of the project is to inform how farms across Northern Ireland could accelerate the move towards net carbon zero.

​It plans to achieve this by assessing the current carbon stocks and annual greenhouse gas position and examine and prioritising management practices to identify the most impactful positive behaviour-change needed.

ARCZero is also seeking to make each business more economically resilient.

Attending the ARCZero farm walk, (L-R) Crosby Clelland and Allan Chambers, from Co. Down

It plans to take the experiences of the seven farm businesses involved in the project and use them to inform other farms across Northern Ireland on how they might accelerate their journey towards net-zero carbon farming.

ARCZero chair, Professor John Gilliland said:

“The last six weeks have not been easy for farmers across Northern Ireland. At the core of this journey to net zero is a commitment on the part of the farmers involved to know our own numbers.

“And, in the case of Ian, it’s not just knowing about how much milk his cows produce.

“It’s about knowing how much carbon is in his soils and his hedgerows. And this is only the beginning. If you can’t measure, you can’t manage.”

Prof. Gilliland said the project wants to gather data around carbon farming and take in both emissions and sequestration.

Climate change

According to Prof. Gilliland, some media talk about livestock production as “the villain of the piece” when it comes to climate change.

“This is because agriculture is reported on from the point of view of gross emissions only,” he said.

“Yes, farm business use fossil fuels. This creates carbon dioxide (CO2). And when our ruminant animals belch, they also produce CO2.

“During wet weather, and we have had plenty of this to cope with over the past few weeks, our soils produce nitrous oxide. This is another greenhouse gas.

“Adding up these carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide values brings us to a gross emission value for a farming business,” he added.

However, he said it must also be remembered that farms are also centres of carbon sequestration.

“Trees, hedgerows and grass swards are continually taking carbon dioxide form the atmosphere courtesy of photosynthesis. Our soils are also amazing repositories of carbon,” Prof. Gilliland said.

ARCZero, he said, is trying to turn the dial of the narrative from gross to net emissions and to ensure that there is “full recognition” of both the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and the amount of carbon sequestered within a farming business.

Prof. Gilliland believes that “the care taken by farmers” in managing landscapes is also crucial in this context.

He is confident that farming has a positive story to tell when it comes to mitigating the impact of climate change on behalf of all communities.

ARCZero host Ian McClelland (right) with CAFRE advisor Robert Patterson

Dairy adviser Michael Verner, from the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) also highlighted during the ARCZero Farm walk hosted by McClelland how the host switched the focus of his farm to milk production.

“While Ian is quite a recent entrant into dairy, he has made tremendous progress over the past seven years,” he said.

“He fundamentally questions himself on a continuous basis and takes the same approach with everyone who comes on to the farm.

“In my opinion, every farmer should be taking the same approach. Moving forwards has got to be the priority for us all.

“The reality is that standing still in today’s world is akin to moving backwards.”

Verner outlined that the McClelland farm will have a maximum number of 100 cows that are milked and measuring the various aspects of cow performance is a key priority for McClelland.

This includes monthly milk recording, the year financial performance of the business plus the regular measurement of grass and animal growth rates.

The McClelland herd is currently averaging 9,800L of milk sold from 3.2t of concentrates fed.

According to Verner, the winter of 2022/23 had been difficult. Silage quality had not been as good as might have been expected and meal feeding rates were increased slightly by way of compensation.

Despite this, milk yields dropped by an average of 300L/cow over the past number of months.

The McClelland herd is winter calving and they are also bred in the house, which means that they are back in calf when they reach the spring grazing paddocks.

“Despite the cold, wet spring, every effort was made to get the herd out to grass as soon as possible,” Verner said.

“The cows were turned out for the first time this year on April 6.”

He described during the walk how one of the key challenges presented by the late spring has been the fact that cows were turned out into very heavy paddocks and that silage remains uncut.

According to Verner, the herd is currently averaging 35L of milk, 14L of which are coming from grass.

“The decision to put the cows out to grass reflects Ian’s commitment to manage his grazing swards well and to optimise the performance of the business overall, using this approach.

“Ian is proof positive that it is possible to secure high volumes of top-quality milk from the same cow. He is currently securing 700kg plus of milk solids per year from the cows,” he said.

According to the dairy adviser, McClelland has achieved this by breeding the right cow for the farm while grass and silage quality are also important factors and the use of a targeted feeding regime.

The replacement rate on the McClelland farm over the past three years has averaged 23%. From a breeding point of view, he is seeking to use sires that will maintain overall yields while, at the same time, improving butterfat and protein percentages.

Verner said that the farm only needs 25 heifer replacements coming through every year.

Clover now features prominently across all the swards on the McClelland farm

McClelland carbon bench marked his business in 2021 and CAFRE senior technologist, Gary Haslem also discussed the implications this has had for the dairying operation.

He said that the carbon footprint for the business had been calculated in terms of its gross emissions, adding:

“Three gases come into play: Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. And the impact of all three must be quantified when ti comes to determining a carbon footprint value.

“The end game is to arrive at a carbon dioxide equivalent that reflects the overall global warming impact of the business,” Haslem added.

Carbon inventory

He said that agriculture has accounted for 27% of Northern Ireland’s total carbon inventory in 2021.

“As a consequence, farming is a major player when it comes to the actual production of greenhouse gases here.

“So it’s important that farming is seen to be reducing its gross emission levels moving forward.

“Government policy is already driving the issue of climate change mitigation at farm level. Farmers must be able to clearly demonstrate that they are meeting the various environmental sustainability targets,” Haslem said.