From Milk to Net Zero: A Dairy Farmer’s Journey to Combat Carbon Emissions

Co. Down Dairy Farmer Implements Innovative Methods to Reduce Carbon Footprint

Co. Down dairy farmer Ian McClelland has been employing innovative methods to reduce his carbon footprint whilst maintaining production levels and reducing costs. McClelland, who runs a 90-cow dairy herd with an average yield of around 10,000L/cow, has been on this journey for the last two years. He farms near Banbridge and converted a beef and youngstock farm into a successful dairy enterprise in 2015. Today, he is part of a European Innovation Partnership project, Accelerating Ruminant Carbon Zero (ARCZero), which aims to “empower farmers to make positive change towards carbon zero farming”.

ARCZero is a farmer-led partnership project 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 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 calculator, to allow an accurate creation of a base-line greenhouse gas position.

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. 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.

At an ARCZero Farm walk hosted by McClelland on his Co. Down farm, the importance of technical efficiency and animal health to low-carbon farming was highlighted. 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.” He added that the project wants to gather data around carbon farming and take in both emissions and sequestration.

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 from 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.

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 maturity.

McClelland has been stitching clover to swards to reduce the amount of manufactured nitrogen (N) fertiliser applied, as one of the many innovative ways he has employed to reduce his carbon footprint. The ARCZero project is a valuable tool for farmers to make positive changes towards carbon zero farming. It is encouraging to see farmers taking the initiative to reduce their carbon footprint and make their businesses more economically resilient whilst maintaining production levels. The project aims to inform other farms across Northern Ireland on how they might accelerate their journey towards net-zero carbon farming.

Categories: Agriculture