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A sign of progress

Teagasc’s Signpost programme has been in existence for a relatively short time, but already great progress has been made in reducing the emissions figures on farms operating under the programme. And this, in turn, is impacting overall animal health, writes Irish Farmers Monthly editor, Matt O’Keeffe

Teagasc is wasting no time in widening the scope of Signpost management practices and technologies to involve a wider audience. One of the first regions to develop a strategy to roll out the programme to the general body of farmers is the Carlow/Wexford/Wicklow region under the remit of Teagasc regional manager, Ger Shortle.
As part of this, a new Signpost Advisory Programme was recently launched at farmer, Joe Hayden’s Orchard Centre in Tinahely, Co. Wicklow. The advisory programme will, Teagasc said, ‘complement existing advisory services and programmes already being provided to farmers in the region’. It is designed to support and enable farmers to farm more sustainably with an emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their individual farms,

On livestock farms, farmers are encouraged to create a herd-health plan, including an annual vaccination programme, all carried out in consultation with their vet

Explaining the thinking behind the initiative, Ger said: “Signpost started out on a research basis in Teagasc. Then, we involved over 100 demonstration Signpost farms to provide practical examples of what could be done on commercial farms. Now, we are at the next phase where we are extending the programme and our ambition is to get aspects of Signpost into 50,000 farms across the country.
“In our region that equates to 5,000 farms over the next five years. Our approach is to engage with 1,000 farms every year to get to our overall target. That will be done through a combination of individual and group engagements. The idea is that each farmer will start the process with a plan that is tailor made for his or her farm.”

Proven principles

The rationale for this approach is clear, Ger explained: “We have proven the principles on the 130 Signpost farms around the country. Those farms are adopting management practices and technologies that work well and suit their farm circumstances. They have delivered positive results. This is not only about reducing emissions. There are also benefits for productivity and profitability. Efficiency gains are well identified and established from many of the farm initiatives undertaken. It could be described as a dual winning strategy in that regard.”

Health improvements

Initiatives being adopted on Signpost farms are delivering improvements across a range of areas including improved soil fertility and increased grassland productivity as well as animal-health status. On livestock farms, farmers are encouraged to create a herd-health plan, including an annual vaccination programme, all carried out in consultation with their vet. Adopting these measures, many of them with a distinct emphasis on preventative as distinct from curative approaches, has delivered tangible results in terms of animal health status. On dairy and beef farms, there are direct and indirect animal-health benefits from adopting many of the Signpost directives.
Use of the Dairy Beef Index, for instance, produces earlier finishing cattle. That reduces overall methane emissions while also improving profitability, often through eliminating or reducing an expensive second wintering period. Keeping cattle healthy throughout their lives through the adoption of comprehensive vaccination programmes, ultimately, adds to the bottom line. Reducing the age of first calving delivers tangible financial returns and leads to lower replacement rates on both dairy and suckler farms. There are lower culling rates for infertility and other health challenges. Using high EBI bulls on dairy farms as well as sexed semen delivers emission reductions and raises health, productivity and longevity figures in dairy herds.
On sheep farms in the Signpost Programme, there are incremental gains in productivity and profitability as well as verifiable emissions gains from adopting many of Signpost’s health-related recommendations. Adoption of the Eurostar Sheep Index has a significant and positive impact on ewe replacement quality with all the downstream benefits that deliver over time. As with cattle farms, sheep farmers are encouraged to create a flock health plan to improve a range of health challenges on sheep farms. Vaccination again plays as role as well as selective use of wormers and worming strategies to reduce worm resistance in flocks. The encouragement of rotational grazing has direct productivity gains on dairy, cattle and sheep farms as well as reducing parasite challenges, especially for younger animals.

Practical approach

Ger puts the changes in management practices on Signpost farms in context: “We need to be careful even in the use of the word technology. It gives an impression of a flashy new gadget. In many cases, it really refers to the adoption of practical measures on farms.
“Getting the pH right across your farm, for instance, is a practical technology or management practice. It’s not a new concept, it has been done to a greater or lesser extent for generations on farms. However, many farms still have sub-optimal soil fertility, and a soil analysis and remedial application of lime is the first step to improvement. Making better use of on-farm nutrients is a second step to improving productivity and reducing emissions. Protected urea use delivers measurable gains as well as reducing the potential for losses to the environment. A combination of simple, straightforward actions has been proven to deliver positive outcomes, as we are seeing on our Signpost farms.”

Using high EBI bulls on dairy farms as well as sexed semen delivers emission reductions and raises health, productivity and longevity figures in dairy herds


A key element of assessing farm sustainability is in allowing farmers to measure their progress, and to this end, a Signpost sustainability self-assessment profile is available. Among the questions dairy farmers are asked is whether they have a health plan in place and whether they use bulk milk screening to monitor their herds for infectious diseases. A variation on the same question is available for cattle and sheep farmers.
They are also asked whether they have a herd/flock health plan in place and whether, in the case of cattle farmers, they complete the Beef HealthCheck report. For cattle and sheep farmers, the question around the use of faecal egg counts to monitor herds/flocks for parasites is particularly stimulating. Lower use of drenches, pour-ons or injectables where appropriately based on clinical analysis, in turn, reduces resistance and cuts application costs and workloads. It is ‘a win-win on several counts’ according to Ger.

Widespread engagement

The Teagasc regional manager is positive about the future: “Our sector has a plan to achieve the emissions target set out. It is being implemented and is delivering results. Sometimes farmers can be too hard on themselves. We are making progress.
“It won’t only be those farmers with a laid-out plan that will adopt some or all of the practices required. Neighbours often see something that is working for another farmer and enquire and adopt it themselves. I don’t want to minimise the task facing us all. What I find is that whether you talk to someone in the milk-processing sector or the supply side or someone in the local authority, everybody is starting to think along the same lines. We have momentum building more so than previously and I’m confident that we will make a lot of progress in the coming years.”

The Signpost Advisory Programme is a free advisory service and available to all farmers across all enterprises. The overall aim of the programme is to give all farmers the confidence to adopt new and existing technologies and production systems that will allow them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining and improving farm profitability. The programme will utilise a new sustainability digital platform, called AgNav, which is being developed collaboratively by Teagasc, ICBF and Bord Bia. This new AgNav platform will allow farmers to ‘Know my Number’ by calculating and assessing the sources of emissions on their individual farms. The AgNav platform will also provide a way of comparing the impacts of different technology and farm practice options on reducing these emissions and for a farm to make a talored plan by selecting actions that can be implemented on the farm in the future that will reduce emissions.