Dr Helen Sheridan
Irelands agricultural systems are dominated by pasture-based production of meat and milk. This production is heavily dependent on expensive and often environmentally damaging chemical inputs. Through the adoption of multispecies swards, SmartGrass has moved the focus from using chemical inputs to biological solutions to increase animal performance, biodiversity and profitability and to reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with meat production.
These findings are now being implemented on an increasing number of Irish farms, are influencing national policy to ensure compliance with EU Directives, and supporting indigenous business and rural communities across Ireland.
SmartGrass research, from 2012, has demonstrated that multispecies swards containing grasses, legumes, and forage herbs and receiving 90 kg N ha-1 yr-1 can produce as much and more high-quality forage, significantly enhance: animal performance (growth rates and health); reduce emissions of the potent GHG nitrous oxide from Nitrogen (N) fertilisers, and enhance invertebrate biodiversity (above and below ground) when compared with perennial ryegrass monocultures receiving 250 kg N ha-1 yr-1. The reduced N inputs required for management of multispecies swards also represent a substantial decrease indirect costs of production for farmers. The greatest challenge facing global agriculture is to sustainably increase levels of food production to meet the demand of the growing global population.
As reflected in the increasing body of legislative requirements concerning the protection of habitats, birds, and water and reduction of GHG emissions, protection, and enhancement of natural resources is key to achieving sustainability. SmartGrass was the first nationally-funded research project to demonstrate that the sustainability of grass-based livestock production systems can be significantly enhanced through the adoption of low fertiliser N requiring multispecies swards as opposed to the high N requiring perennial ryegrass systems that have dominated grassland research for the last 60 years. SmartGrass, and ongoing multispecies sward research by our team, continues to provide new knowledge necessary to allow livestock farmers in Ireland and other temperate regions of the world, comprehensively address increasing societal concerns regarding the sustainability of ruminant livestock production systems.
High Input – High Output farming systems have become the accepted norm over recent decades. However, these fossil fuel-driven enterprises are of growing societal concern due to elevated GHG’s and negative consequences for natural resources e.g. water and biodiversity. Legislation requires EU Member States to make very significant improvements with respect to these issues, or face substantial national fines. Fertiliser N inputs also represent a very significant direct cost to farmers. SmartGrass research has, and continues to provide the knowledge to develop Low Input – High Output systems.
Escalating farmer interest in adopting this alternative approach is evidenced by 20+ requests for presentations to various farmer groups. This interest is translating into impact as evidenced by seed merchants who have reported a 3-fold increase in multispecies seeds sales in 2019/20 when compared with 2018/19 (Moloney, DLF Seeds, 2020).
SmartGrass impact is also apparent from the increasing number of large-scale research sites now investigating multispecies sward potential. These include SmartSward – UCD lead project situated on the Long Term Grazing Platform (LTGP) at UCD Lyons Farm. The LTGP is a participating site in the Global Farm Platform; Green Lamb – UCD Lyons Farm; HeartLand – a Marie-Curie Industry Training Network, located on the Devenish farm at Dowth in Co. Meath and collaboration between Devenish Nutrition, UCD, and the University of Wageningen. Teagasc has recently established multispecies swards at their Research Centres in Moorepark, Johnstown Castle and Athenry, as have Waterford Institute of Technology.
The political impact of findings was initiated by a SmartGrass workshop for policymakers and industry representatives in 2017. This was included in the schedule of events for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) Year of Sustainable Grassland. Consequently, the findings were presented at the DAFM symposium ‘Role of Sustainable Grassland in Foodwise 2025’ (an initiative of the FoodWise 2025 Environmental Sustainability Committee) and disseminated to 3000 DAFM personnel via video recording as “a case study of research having a real impact on DAFM’s policy thinking” (Noel Collins, DAFM). SmartGrass findings have been discussed by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Eamon Ryan TD during the Dail debate on Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (10/06/2020). The Programme for Government 2020 includes a commitment to ‘encourage better grassland management and support the use of clover and other mixed species in grass reseeding”. The potential of multispecies grasslands in mitigating Irish GHG emissions is recognised in the Climate Change Advisory Council Report 2019 and in the DAFM Ag-Climatise strategy document 2019.
Two Ph.D., one MSc, and a Postdoctoral researcher completed their studies on the original SmartGrass project. Today there are at least 13 Ph.D. and many more MSc students engaged in multispecies sward research associated with our team. SmartGrass researchers also recognise the importance of disseminating our findings to students. They are now included in lectures across the B.Agr.Sc., B.Agr.Sc (SCAU), M.Sc in Wildlife Conservation and Management and the M.Sc in Environmental Resource Management programs in UCD.