The reason I enrolled at Waterford IT (now called SETU) as an undergraduate was to separate some of the noise from reality regarding climate change and its impact on agriculture.
o better understand our role as farmers in the context of the challenges ahead. To learn how we can build resilience in our farm system to cope with change.
That’s what I learned – change is coming.
October delivered a 100 percent increase in precipitation in the area over the long-term average for the month.
Springs have gushed through our farm’s sieve soils like never before for the past week as the water table has been inundated by twice the amount of rain.
Last week I attended a catchment field event. A group of students – we are all involved in different aspects of farming – followed a river from its source high up in the thick peat cover of the Comeragh Hills to its mouth.
As we watched thunder, lightning and torrential rain from the top of the mountain, the overland river played out in front of us like a theatre.
It became clear how fast flowing water can gain momentum and bring sediment and nutrients with it. We could see further down the catchment how these rapid currents result in saturated field runoff and flooded low-lying areas.
These intense precipitation events are becoming more frequent.
Ireland has already seen a 5 per cent increase in average annual rainfall over the last 30 years compared to the previous 30 years. Forecasts indicate an increase of about 20 percent in the frequency of intense precipitation events in autumn and winter.
We as farmers have to pay attention to that.
Water quality is hugely important and something we in agriculture need to take responsibility for.
The three big problems are sediments, nitrates and phosphorus entering watercourses.
The new nitrates action program for 2022 puts an increased focus on compliance, with the Environmental Protection Agency coordinating a renewed program of inspections by local authorities.
The four-year nitrate exemption applicable to farms with an organic stocking density above 170 kgN/ha has been secured until 2025, pending a review in 2023.
In catchment areas with declining water quality that do not meet nutrient loss and eutrophication criteria set by the European Commission, organic N load reduction may be required.
The 2023 review is critical as water quality trends are declining in all bodies of water; While there have been improvements in certain areas, these have been offset by declines in others.
Just like in the Netherlands, the derogation will not be granted in the future unless we can quickly demonstrate improvements in water quality.
The impact of this will be significant and the urgency of making changes in water, sediment and nutrient management on farms cannot be overstated.
Simple facts about nitrogen and phosphorus losses need to be emphasized.
On freely draining soils there is a linear relationship between excess nitrogen and nitrate leaching.
Loading rates on milking platforms of 4-5 cows/ha lead to increased N losses.
Phosphorus is a non-renewable, finite resource: that should be on every bag 18-6-12 like warnings on cigarette packs.
The EU has no indigenous mineral phosphate reserves, with 37 percent of the world’s rock phosphate found in Western Sahara and Morocco.
China, Algeria and Syria have the next largest reserves, and given the political landscapes in those countries and the diminishing supply of this resource, P is likely to become prohibitively expensive or even unattainable in our lifetime.
With Ireland being the ninth largest consumer of fertilizers in the EU, Teagasc has looked at the research to see how technology can recover P from waste to use as fertilizer and make up the deficit that will arise in the long term.
But I haven’t heard this level of caution needed about the use of P at many discussion group meetings.
Becoming a student again in an environment that combines scientific expertise with agriculture is an eye-opening experience.
When we consider sustainability in agriculture – meeting the needs of the present in a way that does not compromise the ability of future generations to do the same – the question arises, have we found too little?
Gillian O’Sullivan farms with her husband Neil near Dungarvan, Co. Waterford
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/comment/climate-change-is-already-affecting-farmers-and-we-need-to-raise-our-efforts-to-make-irish-agriculture-more-sustainable-42133303.html Climate change is already affecting farmers – and we need to step up our efforts to make Irish farming more sustainable