Sometimes you have to aim low to aim high. For a flagship project at the BiOrbic Bioeconomy SFI Research Centre, the goal in their sights is zero: zero net carbon production from farms. The Farm Zero C project looks to enable dairy farms to become carbon neutral and resilient in a commercially viable way. As part of the SFI Zero Emissions Challenge, which supports interdisciplinary teams as they develop solutions for Ireland to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, it is exploring changes to farm practices that boost biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gases, and it brings together academic researchers, the dairy industry and dairy farmers themselves. 

“Farm Zero C looks at the farm in a holistic way,” explains Professor Kevin O’Connor, one of the Principal Investigators on the project. “We work in the lab and we work on the farm, we carry out trials and studies at Shinagh Farm in West Cork, a well stocked dairy demonstrator farm owned by the four West Cork Coops that make up Carbery Group. It is very rewarding to see the research move out onto the farm.”

The project research includes studies on how planting different types of grasses and clovers on pastures and supporting hedgerows can boost biodiversity and soil health, on using renewable energy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and on how changing what we feed livestock affects how much methane gas they produce. 

Dairy farming is economically important for Ireland, but it is also a leading contributor to climate change, emitting 5% of global greenhouse gases, explains Dr Fionnuala Murphy, a lead investigator on Farm Zero C an Assistant Professor in the School of Biosystems & Food Engineering at UCD. “We are identifying strategies to reduce those emissions while improving the economic health of the sector,” she says.

Dr Murphy and PhD student Luis Alejandro Vergara are carrying out ‘life cycle analyses’ of farm activities. They carry out experiments at Shinagh to use renewable energy, plant different species for grazing so the ground needs less fertiliser and adding seaweed to animal feed to reduce methane emissions from cattle. 

“We integrate the experiment results into an environmental life cycle assessment model, thereby quantifying achievable emissions reductions for each strategy and for the farm as a whole,” explains Vergara.

“We hope to create a proof-of-concept for farms in Ireland and worldwide that shows that dairy farming, and our agricultural system as a whole, can provide food security while being environmentally sustainable.”

Professor O’Connor and Dr Murphy co-lead the Farm Zero C project with Enda Buckley, Head of Sustainability at Carbery. “We came up with this proposal because a zero emissions farm is the ultimate way for Carbery to ensure a secure future for our farmer suppliers, and with the SFI Zero Emissions Challenge call we have brought together the dream team to do it,” says Buckley.

“Sustainability has always been at the heart of how Carbery does business. Taking our lead from the farmers who set up and own the co-op group, we have respect for our resources, we prioritise operating efficiently and we think long-term. We want the next generations after us to be able to farm and for agriculture to be a viable and sustainable option. 

He sees the Farm Zero C work as addressing important needs. “There’s certainly a need to show that very low emissions dairy farming can be possible, and a need to develop this in a very practical way for farmers that is replicable on every farm,” he says. “And we want to show consumers that they can source dairy products that have been produced in a way that is sustainable and carbon neutral.”

The mix of frontier and applied science in Farm Zero C is not new for Carbery – the company has a rich history of collaboration with research partners – and Buckley is positive about the partnership approach being taken by Carbery, BiOrbic and SFI. 

“Our engagement strategy is very simple, we look to find partners with a similar mindset to ours – open, innovative and in it for the right reasons. We have regular calls with all the partners and we do our best to ensure everyone is heard and new ideas and approaches are broadly welcomed. It’s early days in our project, but we have already seen both the farmers involved in the project and the academic researchers change their pre-conceptions about each other through finding common ground. This is exactly what partnerships like these can achieve.”