Alan Clarke at his Killinkere dairy farm.

‘Someone has to start somewhere’

2021 is the first of the five year Signpost programme

Killinkere dairy farmer Alan Clarke is happy to embrace change when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of his enterprise.

“We’re all going to have to do it, so we might as well try to get ahead of the game, and get going on it.”

The father of three was approached by Teagasc advisor, Niamh Lynch, about joining the Signpost programme, earlier this year. It’s billed as the sector’s flagship project to lead the transition to environmentally sustainable farming. It involves almost 50 companies and organisations, and in addition to Alan, there’s fellow Cavan man Shaun Maguire and 98 other Signpost farmers.

Upon visiting Clarkes’ farm at Beagh, you suspect Niamh was pushing an open door when she approached Alan. Mindful of biodiversity, and eager to plant hedgerows, he expresses concern over the environment, isn’t very intensively stocked, and had already undertaken changes such as swapping from CAN to protected urea.

“It’s better for the environment,” he says tapping his hand on a wrapped ton bag of protected urea in the shed. “This is my third year using it, and it works 100%.”

2021 is the first of the five year Signpost programme so Alan readily admits, “I’m learning as I go along”. In this regard he welcomes guidance from Owen McPartland of Teagasc/Lakeland.

On paper at least the Signpost to-do list is ambitious. According to Teagasc it aims ‘to achieve early progress in reducing gaseous emissions... while also improving water quality, enhancing bio-diversity, improving farm incomes and creating more sustainable farming enterprises. It will also act as a test bed for on-farm carbon sequestration measurements.’

While still in the programme’s infancy, Alan and his father Thomas, with whom he runs the farm as a limited company, have already made changes to reduce nitrogen use.

“The biggest change for us will be incorporating clover. Over the years, any time we seeded it was just grass, no clover at all. We seeded 10% of the farm this year, which was a good chunk for us in one year.

“We’ve been at it April, May, June, July – a few fields every month. Ploughed it and a full reseed. It’s taken off,” he said noting the fine weather up to late July as a help, as were students from Ballyhaise.

In terms of fertiliser he’s spreading “about 165 units per acre”, and surmises: “If we get that down 10% it would be a good help as a start.”

While he’s intrigued to see how the clover perform.

“I would be sceptical whether in five or ten years time that clover is still there, working. That’s what my concern would be. With heavy land, in wet times of the year, if it gets damaged, will it survive and keep coming back? That I don’t know. It’s still up in the air.”

The Clarkes have also invested in a dribble bar for the slurry tanker, to replace their splash plate.

“By spreading our slurry now with this, we’ll get more nutrients out of our slurry, rather than lose them. That will be saving as well on fertiliser use, if we are getting 100% out of our slurry rather than say, 70%.”

We head over to a hilly field, the summit of which offers a fantastic view of the surrounding drumlins and he points out a river in the distance where this spring he planted 500m of hedging along its banks. He did this off his own bat, not because of Signpost.

“Something I always wanted to do was plant more hedging. Part of the farm would be bare, so I planted a lot of it along river banks, where it’s a good corridor for the wildlife.

“Apple trees, rose bushes, alders, birch I put in 10 or 12 different varieties, for a mixed hedging,” he says.

It’s the kind of positive action a farmer may undertake, yet had the Celt not visited at this time, may have gone unseen.

“Farmers are getting blamed a lot in Ireland,” he observes, and notes the lack of rancour over emissions from the airline sector.

While he acknowledges Irish agriculture is responsible for generating a lot of carbon, he weighs that up against “huge output” of high quality milk and beef produced efficiently in Ireland for export.

“When you work out everything we’re providing per person, it’s not much, but per country it is. So we’re not getting fair reflection. We’re good at what we do, producing milk and beef. We shouldn’t stop that either I don’t think. We can do it economically.”

His view may best be summed up as: “What we do in Ireland is only a drop in the ocean, but you have to do your part.”

Despite the ever increasing pressure on agriculture to meet ever more exacting environmental standards, and the pressures of climate change, Alan expresses confidence in the sector. He has two sons Sam (4) and Max (3), and earlier this year he and his wife Rachel welcomed daughter Jane into the fold.

“I’m the fifth generation and hopefully there’s a sixth there anyway, I’d like to think so.”

With any luck Signpost will contribute to the future prospects at Beagh, and across Ireland. He’s excited by the prospects of the programme.

“It’s a bit experimental starting off too,” says Alan. “There’s not many in the area at these things, but someone has to start somewhere, to show if it works or not.”