Living and working sustainably on the Fitzgerald farm
‘Good for the family, good for the cows and good for the environment’
It is possible to achieve the holy trinity on farm – you can work with nature, have a good work/life balance and turn a profit, says third generation dairy farmer Shane Fitzgerald.
The Waterford man farms 93 hectares with his father John, his fiancé Kate, and her brother Seán in the shadow of the magnetic Comeragh Mountains in Portlaw and is one of ten farmers taking part in the Teagasc/Tirlán Signpost Future Farm Programme.
“We love to travel, we love going to matches. We enjoy going out for meals and meeting up with friends. It’s a great lifestyle and we wouldn’t have it any other way. None of us wants to be slaves to the farm. It’s set up in an efficient way so it’s an attractive place to work.
“We do work hard but we can get away and we’re not fully tied into the farm. We work hard, but we play hard as well when we’re away. Getting away motivates us and we’re more productive when we come back.” Shane reveals.
“Sustainability is at the core of everything we do. We always focus on the three pillars – the economics, the environmental and the social. We strive to get the balance between the three of them. We aim for productive and profitable herd while leaving room for nature, protecting water quality and reducing our emissions, as well as having a work life balance.
“It’s not always an easy thing to do but we’re showing it here on the farm – that they can go hand in hand. You can have a productive and profitable herd, make the farm sustainable and streamlined. We enjoy a break away from the farm as well. If myself and Kate want to get away, my Dad and Seán are here.
“Farmers get a lot of the blame for increasing emissions and polluting the waterways. We don’t have any streams or rivers on this farm but have a number of open drains. They obviously get into a watercourse somewhere along the line so we are very conscious of that.
“Starting from the farmyard, the biggest investment we made was in a road sweeper. We keep our concrete yard clean all year round so any dirt or muck is swept away and only clean water goes into drains. We resurfaced our silage pits due to cracks which could easily lead to effluent losses from the silage pits.
“We’ve created buffer zones too along the farm, creating a 3 to 4 meter corridor away from watercourses where no slurry or pesticides or fertiliser. It’s really protecting our watercourses and is a fantastic corridor for wildlife. We’re also using protected urea which is more environmentally friendly than traditional fertiliser. We’ve put in a few owl boxes and recently dug out a pond which will hopefully attract further wildlife onto our farm.
“Some of the bad publicity farmers get can be very frustrating. I became very aware of this when I was studying at college. I studied business and a lot of my friends were not farming. I quickly became aware that not a lot of people are aware of where their food comes from. It made me get interested in educating people about what farmers do.
“Some people get their information from social media. Others get frustrated with farmers when they see a tractor holding up traffic on the road or spreading slurry. It gives a bad perception of farming and some people don’t see it as an attractive way of life. When things are done efficiently, when things are done right, farming is very sustainable.
“All farmers are doing their best to farm the land, we are the custodians of the land. If you ask any farmer in the country about the future, no farmer wants to leave it in a worse place than when they got it. That perception is completely wrong and it’s up to us as farmers to tell our stories, to open up our gates and show the public the reality beyond the farm gate. We got people onto our farm with the support of Agri Aware and Tirlán during the summer. Lots of people are now three or four generations removed from the farm and it opened their eyes about the reality and the way farmers farm.”
Improving the soil
Shane is a firm believer in sowing multi-species swards. They include 6 different types of swards, all of which help to improve and enrich the soil in different ways, reduce the potential for soil erosion while also providing key nutrients for his 215 cows. It also reduces the farm’s dependence on fertiliser. Shane can see a huge improvement in the biodiversity below the soil where he has multispecies sown with huge earthworm activity present. Shane also places a large emphasis on soil fertility ensuring the nutrients are balanced within the soil.
The buffer zones Shane has introduced throughout the farm are not wasted spaces – they provide extra grazing space for smaller numbers of animals later in the year.
“We graze our field margins in September/October. You could cut them or graze them. We have about 2,000 metres that is grazed off once a year. We have more than enough space for nature by allowing these field margins and the buffer zones give a corridor for wildlife that can live there and in our hedgerows. More different and diverse plants will grow back after they have been grazed, bringing benefits for all of nature throughout the year.”
Shane hopes that consumers will begin to understand the extra lengths that farmers are going to each and every day to farm with nature.
“I do hope that down the line consumers will take on board that farmers are farming to a higher environmental standard and that they can get paid more as a result.”
So what are Shane’s plans for the future? He hopes to plant more hedgerows but other than that, it’s all about keeping a close eye on the simple things and ensuring that when it’s his time to hand over the farm, it’s in even better shape than it was when his grandfather first worked the land in Portlaw in the early 1950s.
The Living Proof Future Farm Programme is the third evolution of the Teagasc and Tirlán knowledge transfer programme. It will harness advancements in technology and farm practices to support farmers to make the necessary changes for a profitable and sustainable future.
Over a 5 year programme in which 10 farms have been identified as Future Farms. The joint Teagasc/Tirlán programme will provide leadership to Tirlán milk suppliers in the context of continued expansion in milk, while promoting sustainable, profitable, enjoyable & safe dairy farm systems.
A key objective of this programme is to help farmers implement changes to ensure that their environmental footprint is in line with the aims of the national Climate Action Plan. For more info please click here .