Sustaining farms for the future

Agriculture’s role in enhancing environmental sustainability and contributing to the fight against climate change has emerged as one of the key challenges facing the agri-food industry.

Tuesday, 10th August 2021, 8:31 am
Hugh pictured with his father Thompson Harbison.
Hugh pictured with his father Thompson Harbison.

With farming very much in the spotlight, producers across Northern Ireland are participating in schemes that quantify agriculture’s contribution to the environment, measure the overall carbon footprint of their farms, and implement new farming systems that are sustainable both environmentally and financially.

One example of such a farm is the Harbison family’s farm in Aghadowey, six miles south of Coleraine. Thompson Harbison took over the farm shortly after it was acquired in the early 1960s, and today Thompson’s son Hugh runs the business.

A member of dairy cooperative Dale Farm, Hugh is currently milking 180 cows twice daily, farming on some 100 hectares of grassland.

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Aghadowey farmer Hugh Harbison,

Last year, Hugh got involved with the ARCZero project, a partnership between industry, government and academia that is carrying out research to investigate practical ways to measure, manage and reduce carbon emissions from dairy, beef and sheep farming.

“The initial stage of the project involves testing the farm to set a baseline for the farm’s carbon footprint and testing soil across the farm to see how much carbon it can capture,” Hugh explains.

“LIDAR technology is being used to measure the green area of our trees and hedges to see how much carbon we can sequester. Additionally the whole business has been carbon audited to work out how much carbon we emit. As well as quantifying the levels of carbon sequestration to date, the research being carried out here and at other farms across Northern Ireland, will provide really valuable insights into how we can further reduce our carbon footprint going forward.”

For Hugh it is important that farmers demonstrate their environmental credentials and get involved in initiatives that seek to improve sustainability and reduce emissions.

“Unfortunately, the cow and the farmer are often seen as the problem. The reality is that farming can be part of the solution on climate change,” Hugh said.

Sustainability, conservation and encouraging wildlife are areas the Harbisons have been interested in for decades. On farm is an area of woodland and two old mill ponds – a legacy of a linen mill that had been on the site in the early 20th century – which have been developed into a wildlife area. 
Across the farm, many hedges have been planted, and the farm has won awards for its countryside management and conservation efforts.

“We are fortunate to have this woodland and lots of hedges and trees around the farm,” Hugh continues.“We feel the woodland is as much a part of the farm as the cows are and it’s important to maintain these ecosystems throughout the farm.

“By managing the countryside, planting trees and letting them grow, we are also helping to lower our overall carbon footprint on the farm.”

This woodland also serves a renewable energy function. “We cut up wood that has fallen or been blown over by the wind and in wintertime we burn it in a biomass boiler, so the water we use for cleaning the milking parlour for example is heated in a sustainable way.

“Going forward we are also exploring the idea of using solar energy to provide electricity.”

Dale Farm’s Head of Farmer Services, Neville Graham points out that well managed, efficient farming practices benefit both the environment and the financial performance of the business.

“Thompson and Hugh’s farm is an excellent example of a sustainable farm business. They are technically efficient and the farm is a tight autumn calving herd.

“They are yielding over 8,000 litres per cow, their feed rate is 0.28 kilos per cow and they have excellent milk quality results. Most of the milk on the farm is produced from high quality grazed grass and siled forage, and that’s why they score so highly.

“Thanks to their well managed grassland, woodland and hedgerows they are also doing great work in terms of pulling carbon from the atmosphere.

“Dale Farm provides a number of services that help the farmer financially and in the long run help to reduce the farmer’s carbon footprint. Through Dairy Herd Management, farmers can get individual yields and quality results, and test the health of their herd.

“We are also in the second year of our soil sampling service, which we are now taking to another level - looking at the soil biology and the carbon fixing ability of the soil. Three years ago, we launched an initiative looking at measuring feed efficiency on farm. If you use that efficiently, yes it improves your financials, but it is also good for the environment.

“We’re very impressed and encouraged by the forward thinking farmers in our cooperative like Thompson and Hugh who are taking measures today to protect their farms, and the land, for tomorrow.”