Teagasc: Sharing best practice knowledge and innovation at farm level

Pioneering agri-environmental scheme underway in the Burren


The Government has identified knowledge transfer between farmers as a key element of the new Rural Development Programme – part of the overall €12.5 billion agriculture programme for the period to 2020.

The knowledge transfer initiative is estimated to be worth €20 million per annum and is aimed at underpinning farm viability, sustainability and growth through the adoption of best practice and innovative solutions.

In addition, the programme is supporting a new beef data and genomics measure worth up to €52 million per year aimed at improving the genetic quality of the beef herd.

One means of achieving the desired knowledge transfer outcomes will be the establishment of European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs) which will bring together farmers, researchers, advisors, business and others to advance innovation in agriculture. Priority areas include environmental and climate change challenges and on-farm efficiency enhancements. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has identified the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme as an example of how an EIP might work. This is a pioneering agri-environmental scheme designed to conserve and support the heritage, environment and communities of the Burren.

It grew out of the findings of the earlier BurrenLIFE Project (BLP) which developed a new model of sustainable agriculture for the Burren to conserve and renew its priority habitats. BLP’s success in bringing together farmers and other stakeholders, and its impact on habitats led to the establishment of the current programme which involves over 100 farmers working together to ensure the sustainable agricultural management of high nature value farmland in the Burren.

“These schemes have proven that the Burren can be a lot more sustainable if it is managed properly,” says Teagasc director of knowledge transfer Tom Kelly. “The knowledge of how to do this tends to be in the communities already and these partnerships can help people share that knowledge and help them deal with the various new regulations which are coming at them.”

There is also a proposal for an EIP based on beef data and genomics improvement. The objective is to improve the quality of the national beef herd. This measure will use the science of genomics to improve the cattle quality and increase the productivity and efficiency of the Irish suckler beef herd.

“The Suckler Beef Genomics Scheme is a great opportunity to bring the advantage of genomic technology to suckler farmers as has been demonstrated in the dairy industry, and we will work closely with Irish Cattle Breeding Federation in developing the cutting-edge science needed for the implementation of this technology,” notes Teagasc director of research Dr Frank O’Mara.

According to Tom Kelly, the EIPs will be able to take on any issue. “The idea is to take a topic and try to see how we as an industry can get behind it and take a team approach to resolving an issue or problem. The Agricultural Catchments Programme, which is ongoing, is an example of how this approach might work. It’s up to the farming and professional organisations to make proposals on the areas they would like to tackle.”

The new knowledge transfer groups are aimed at improving farmers’ skills and changing behaviour to address competitiveness and sustainability challenges. Among the areas identified for them to concentrate on are financial management, animal health, grassland management, carbon efficiency and breeding.

“While we might call these knowledge transfer groups they will really be knowledge exchange groups,” Kelly points out. “There is a gap between the knowledge which is out there in relation to best practice and what’s actually happening on farms. Sometimes you just have to get people together to talk about it.”

He gives the example of soil science as a case in point. “All farmers understand the basic principles of soil science and soil nutrition and the optimum balance of nutrients required for different soil types. However, soil analysis on farms reveals that very few of them tick all the boxes. By getting the farmers together we can encourage best practice in areas such as this and help them get the response from fertilisers and so on.”

These groups will provide valuable opportunities to communicate its latest research findings to farmers. “It has been proven that peer-to-peer interaction is a very effective and powerful way of communicating research information and best practice,” says Teagasc assistant director of knowledge transfer, Paul Maher.

“We would see ourselves as a technical facilitator in these groups in that we will be bringing technical and scientific information to them and facilitating discussion on how best it can be used by farmers.”

According to Maher, the objective is to get as many people engaged with the latest techniques and practices as possible. “by bringing these different types of farmers together to share information and experiences we can help them all to become more efficient and profitable.”

And this is not just a theoretical outcome. Tom Kelly points out that an earlier knowledge transfer scheme, the Dairy Improvement Programme (DEP), was notably successful in terms of farm income. “Dairy farmers who participated in the DEP experienced considerable improvement in their margins, between 2 cent and 3 cent per litre in many cases,” he notes. Highly significant given that the top milk price being paid in the country is somewhat less than 40 cent per litre.