Farmers with an eye to fertiliser use now harvesting benefits

‘Roots now go down in search of nutrients ... not up to get them from a fertiliser spreader’

Dairy farm manager Kevin O'Hanlon is obsessed with the earthworms he sees on 160 acres he manages in Ballywilliam on the Wexford-Carlow border, since they offer the best clues to the soil's state of health.

Milking 160 cows, O'Hanlon and farm owner Marie Pascale Pollard switched finally to organic farming, following three years where they reduced the amount of fertiliser used from 120 tonnes in 2108 to nothing today – a boon in a Ukraine-fixated world.

Low emission slurry spreading (Less) cuts atmospheric ammonia by up to 60 per cent. “We harvest rainwater by turning all the gutters into the slurry tank and then spread very watery slurry, we don’t want to drown the worms,” says O’Hanlon.

The four-year effort to “wean” the Ballywilliam farm off fertiliser gave the biology and micro-organisms a chance to adjust, says O’Hanlon.

“The roots now go down in search of nutrients rather than looking up to get them from a fertiliser spreader. It’s been a bit of a learning curve and there have been a few things, including getting used to the different slurry spreading, but so far it’s working well for us,” he adds.

Extensive spreading

The farm has bought its own Less slurry spreader to ensure the muck is put out “little and often”, ensuring each field is topped up with nutrients after grazing rather than facing irregular and extensive spreading, as happens on most farms.

Instead of the commonly used rye grasses found generally on Irish farms, Ballywilliam’s fields are slowly being planted with a variety of swards that improve the natural levels of nitrogen, without the need for chemical fertiliser. In time, 55 per cent of the grassland will be planted this way.

With two-thirds of Ireland's animal feed and soya imported from countries at risk of deforestation such as Brazil, Pascale Pollard is passionate about ensuring Ballywilliam limits use of bought-in feed.

Having lost her husband (John died in a farm accident in 2015), the switch to organic is part of fulfilling his legacy and ensuring the farm’s future. Tillage has always been harvested, but this is the first year it will be fully self-sufficient in feed.

Now, there are plans to grow 84 acres of a protein-rich pea, oat and barley combination crop this year.

“You do get extra money in terms of the organic payments, but we didn’t do it for the money,” says O’Hanlon.