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Carbery’s director of sustainability Enda Buckley tells KPMG and the Irish Farmers Journal about the co-op’s aim to develop the world’s first carbon-neutral dairy farm and how it adds value to grass, for the annual IFJ / KPMG agribusiness report.    

For almost a decade now, west Cork dairy processor Carbery Group has had a strong focus on sustainability, particularly within its own supply chain. 

Carbery is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2035 and is already sourcing 100% of its electricity and 5% of its gas supply from renewable sources. 

Since 2012, the co-op has been running its Greener Dairy programme, which is run in conjunction with Teagasc and aims to map the carbon footprint of a number of dairy farms supplying milk to Carbery. 

Originally working with 12 farms spread throughout its supply catchment, Carbery’s Greener Dairy programme started by measuring water and energy usage, mapping biodiversity on farms and measuring nutrient application levels, as well as profit monitoring the financial performance of each farm.

According to Enda Buckley, director of sustainability at Carbery, the Greener Dairy programme has delivered phenomenal learnings for both the co-op and the farmers. 

“For Carbery, sustainability starts at the farm. If you take a block of cheese, 85% of the embedded carbon in that block of cheese comes from the farm,” says Buckley, who grew up on a dairy farm in west Cork. His father, brother, uncle and cousin still farm in partnership and are suppliers to Drinagh Co-op. 

“We’re now actively working with 25 farmers in the Greener Dairy programme. Over the years, we’ve seen a 15% reduction in the carbon footprint of those farms. Not only that but we can show that for every one litre of milk produced on those farms it takes just 6.5 litres of water to produce it. That is honestly best in the world standards. In other countries, the figure for water footprint would be multiples of 6.5,” says Buckley.

Diploma

The practical learnings that farmers have taken from Carbery’s Greener Dairy programme are now being academically recognised by University College Cork (UCC) in what’s known as Recognition of Prior Learning, or RPL.

Under this process, UCC recognises the competencies, experience and skills learned by farmers who participated in the Greener Dairy project. The farmers are awarded over 60% of the credits needed for UCC’s level 7 diploma in environmental science and social policy. Farmers are then given the option by UCC to achieve the remaining credits needed for the diploma in a more formal learning environment. 

“To date, 23 of our farmer suppliers have now completed that course and been awarded diplomas by UCC.Some of them may not have even finished the Leaving Cert and here they are with a diploma in environmental science and social policy. It really gives those farmers huge confidence in themselves for what they have achieved,” says Buckley. 

Despite the obvious success of the Greener Dairy farm programme, Buckley says the co-op is only getting started in what it hopes to achieve in terms of sustainability. In what would be a world-first, Carbery is now collaborating with BiOrbic, Teagasc, UCD, Trinity College, Devenish, IT Tralee, Grassa and a number of ag-tech companies from the US to scientifically measure the world's first carbon-neutral dairy farm. 

Buckley says the consortium, known as Farm Zero C, has recently been awarded €200,000 in competitive research funding by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and is using the Shinagh dairy research farm located near Bandon as its trial farm to try to achieve a zero-emissions dairy farm. Shinagh is a joint research farm established in 2011 by the four west Cork co-ops and Teagasc. It is home to a herd of over 230 dairy cows.  

Emissions

Buckley says the aim at Shinagh will be to follow the approach taken by Devenish in how it mapped a carbon balance sheet at the Dowth research farm by measuring both carbon emissions and carbon sequestration, which will allow them to find the net figure for the farm's carbon footprint.

In this way, the farm can aim to become carbon-neutral with net zero emissions by increasing the amount of carbon being sequestered on the farm to fully offset the emissions created by the herd of dairy cows.

“We think there will be unbelievable learnings from Shinagh and the move to being a zero-carbon dairy farm. We're still at the carbon measurement phase in terms of both emissions but also carbon sequestration on the farm," says Buckley.

"But we've a lot of other areas to work on in terms of sustainability. Biodiversity and animal welfare are the next big areas that we are aiming to tackle. Farmers have a really strong environmental conscience and, in my experience, they really care about the environment and biodiversity," he adds.

Carbery has begun mapping the amount of biodiversity on some farms in its catchment. The results show that about 7% to 8% of the typical farm is considered to be natural habitat or an area of biodiversity.

Again, Buckley says these figures are ahead of international comparisions but more can be done. Biodiversity is being lost across Europe at an alarming rate. As such, the focus for Carbery in the near term is to maintain the existing biodiversity on farms and stop the losses. Only then can it start to help farmers improve those figures towards double digits.

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