Farming for the future: How one Irish dairyman is working to protect the planet

Farming for the future: How one Irish dairyman is working to protect the planet

The Atlantic Ocean has long inspired adventures and expeditions in search of a brighter tomorrow. It has been the playground of many historic pioneers, who ventured into the great unknown with no idea where they would weigh anchor. Standing at the edge of this vast body of water is Ronan Síochru’s (Shuck-roo) family farm, Dingle Holsteins, which Ronan himself is on a quest to make more efficient and sustainable by reducing the environmental impact of cattle.

“Our farm is probably unique,” Ronan said. “We’re surrounded by water.”

That’s no exaggeration: The Síochrus’ land rests in the village of Burnham on the Dingle Peninsula at the very southwest tip of Ireland, with the town of Dingle to the east and the ocean to the west. The region’s misty skies and craggy hillsides evoke a sense of otherworldliness — one that millions of people encountered when the nearby Skellig Michael island served as an iconic setting in the most recent “Star Wars” films.

“It’s a really nice part of the world,” Ronan said. “There’s no place else we’d rather be farming.”

Ronan is among the fourth generation of his family to farm on this land, where he grew up understanding that farming is a group effort.

“The term ‘family farm’ was certainly the case,” he said. “We were all expected to pull our weight. It just instills this work ethic in people, you know — you just have this drive to make your family and make the farm better.”

Just as he cherishes his agrarian heritage, Ronan is also proud of his heritage as an Irishman — specifically as one of the 39% of Irish citizens who speak the Irish language (and the 4% who speak it on a daily basis, according to the 2016 Irish census). It helps that the Dingle Peninsula is one of the few remaining Gaeltachts (Gwail-tock-t; a predominantly Irish-language-speaking area) in the country.

“We just grew up with Irish,” Ronan said. “I suppose I can thank my grandfather; he taught us all Irish when we were young. We’re proud that we speak Irish. It’s part of our identity.”

 

Ronan-Síochru

Return of the farmer

Despite the fact that agriculture had been part of Ronan’s life from a young age, he did not originally plan to join the dairy industry, striking out instead for London at the age of 19. However, after three years, he felt himself being called back to Burnham.

“Like most fellows my age at the time, I suppose we (thought) were meant to get away from home,” Ronan said. “It took me going away to realize that I did want to farm full time.”

Since returning to the family farm in 2014, Ronan has grown the operation significantly, transforming it from a 60-animal suckler herd (or cow-calf operation) to a dairy farm with 85 pedigree Holsteins. Ronan and his family are proud of the milk they produce — and of where it will eventually end up. 

“The majority of our milk will go to cheese, butter or infant formula,” he said. “We take extra pride in that we’re producing a very high-standard product. And the product we’re producing is traveling — it’s a worldwide product. (We have) a reputation to uphold.”

Sustainable Farm Ireland

Partnering up for the good of the planet

In the years following his return to farming, Ronan has made significant improvements to his family’s operation as part of his commitment to sustainable dairy farming.

“We’ve invested heavily in the farm and in the future of the farm,” he said. “Whether it’s the production or the quality of the soil, the yard, there’s always something to improve. I’m just trying to make the farm better.”

The farm currently includes 10 acres of woodland, and Ronan hopes to expand that woodland in the future to serve as a haven for wildlife and to potentially offset some of the emissions naturally produced by dairy farms. Being environmentally friendly is important to the Síochru family.

“We’re just trying to farm in the most sustainable way possible,” Ronan said.

In 2018, Ronan entered a partnership that has allowed him to take his sustainability efforts to new heights. Alltech, a global animal nutrition company, reached out with an interest in helping him on his quest toward greater sustainability.

“I was delighted to be asked,” he said.

Along with other industry partnersAlltech Ireland is working to help Ronan and dairy farmers like him gauge the efficiency of their farms and implement new measures and techniques to improve that efficiency, thereby establishing more profitable and sustainable production. To achieve this goal, Alltech Ireland representatives visited Ronan’s farm and deployed several assessment tools that provide farmers with important metrics and information. Those tools included:  

  • InTouch, which monitors herd performance and provides nutritional advice based on cows’ body condition scores (BCS) and offers a review of their feed, including its fiber and protein levels, as well as suggestions for diet reformulation, grassland management and more.
  • Alltech IFMTM, which assesses the nutritive value of the diet and monitors the amount of methane produced in order to help increase the rumen efficiency of the herd.
  • Alltech E-CO2, which monitors the carbon footprint of the farm, evaluates the farm’s efficiency based on its cattle emissions and offers suggestions for how to mitigate the farm’s environmental impact.

 

Big changes for a smaller environmental impact

Over the course of the past year, Ronan has utilized these resources to make “some big improvements here on the farm,” he said, adding, “Not only have I reduced my carbon footprint on the farm, but I’ve also become more profitable.”

As he mentioned, the farm’s carbon footprint has decreased by a significant 30% — which, in terms of the greenhouse gases that are no longer being emitted by the farm, is equivalent to taking 167 cars off of the road or cancelling 47 around-the-world flights. The rumen function of the herd has also improved, leading to higher percentages of milk solids produced.

Ronan credits an increased feed efficiency as the cause behind these environmental and operational achievements.

“We’ve worked a lot on the cows’ diet,” he said.  

That may be an understatement: To achieve this increased efficiency, Ronan strove to improve the quality of the forage by improving the protein levels of the homegrown silage, diminishing the need to supplement protein from outside forages or with soybeans. He also paid more attention to the cows’ BCS and took measures to strengthen the quality of the farm’s grass and encourage it to grow. 

Even with all of these great results, Ronan refuses to rest on his laurels, already thinking about what more could be done.

“I think there’s still a lot of gains to be made here on the farm,” Ronan said. “(There’s) a lot learned, but a lot left to learn.”

Feeding the world from the Irish coast

What all of these improvements really add up to is an even greater ability to provide food to the global population and, in the process, create a Planet of PlentyTM — which both Alltech and Ronan are committed to doing.

“The population of the world is increasing at a rapid rate, and people will have to be fed, and that’s our responsibility: to feed the world,” he said.

That responsibility might weigh heavily on the shoulders of some, but Ronan and the rest of the Síochru family take it on with pride and incorporate it into the everyday activities of the farm.

“It’s always constantly on our minds,” Ronan said of sustainability and the environment. “In any management decisions that we make here on the farm, all those things are in the back of our mind.”

With three generations of Síochrus having worked this land before him, Ronan deeply understands the importance of taking care of the land as long as it is in his hands — and he hopes to pass this charge on to another Síochru in the future.

“As landowners, we have responsibility to the land, to the generations gone by and the generations ahead,” he said. “Our aim is to farm in a sustainable way so we can pass on the farm to the next generation, in good condition.”

Taking in the vista from the vantage point of Dingle Holsteins — from Dingle town to the bay to the ocean beyond — makes it all too obvious why Ronan cares about protecting the Earth.

“It’s a really beautiful part of the world,” he said, “and we’re trying to look after it as best we can.”

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Cows keep the lights on: Using methane digesters to turn waste into watts

Cows keep the lights on: Using methane digesters to turn waste into watts

sunrise at Fiscalini Farms

When the sun rises each morning and we turn on the lights to start our day, many of us are unaware of exactly where the electricity lighting our homes originates or how it is created. For many homes in California’s San Joaquin Valley, that electricity is being powered by an unexpected source: cow manure.

At Fiscalini Farms outside Modesto, California, Brian Fiscalini and his family are practicing sustainable dairy farming by using a dairy methane digester. The methane digester converts the manure created by their dairy cows into electricity by combining the manure with high levels of heat.

“We have two tanks that store cow manure,” said Brian. “We heat those tanks up. If you think about heat and cow poop together, you’re going to make a lot of methane gas. The unique thing that we do is we capture that gas and we pipe it to an engine. That engine converts methane gas into electricity.”

The electricity created via the methane digesters powers the entire Fiscalini dairy farm operation, and beyond.

“The power that we produce is enough electricity to run our cheese plant, our dairy farm, and then we also have excess power that powers about 300 homes in the community,” said Brian. “We also take some of that excess heat and heat our water to wash our milk barn, to wash our equipment in our cheese plant.”

In addition to these impressive benefits, in the 10 years since they were first installed, the methane digesters have allowed the Fiscalini operation to reduce its propane usage by around 70%.

Despite these remarkable statistics, Brian believes that the people living in the suburban homes of the San Joaquin Valley may not know the interesting source of their electricity.

“I would guess that most people that live in our surrounding areas, in the suburban areas, would be very surprised to know that their electricity actually came from a renewable source and was cow manure at one point — powered by poop,” he said.

Photo of cows eating out of trough

For Fiscalini Farms, sustainability is personal

Milking parlor at Fiscalini Farms

Brian and his coworkers milk 1,500 cows three times a day. A portion of that milk is used to create their own Fiscalini-branded cheese and dairy products, while another portion is sold to Nestlé to create evaporated and condensed milk.

The land on which this dairy operates has been farmed by the Fiscalini family for more than a century. Although much has changed over the years, some critical ideas have stayed the same.

“My great-grandfather bought some land back in 1914 and started milking cows, and we’ve been fortunate enough to continue to farm on the same piece of ground that he purchased,” said Brian. “Sustainability is kind of a newer buzzword, but when you think about it, we’ve been sustainable for over 100 years. My grandfather had a very thorough intention of keeping this land around for further generations.”

Brian is adamant about continuing this legacy, and he is helping ensure the farm’s existence by turning methane into something useful.

“If we were to just have this pile of cow manure out there and we weren’t able to apply it to the land, it would give off greenhouse gases,” said Brian. “What we’re doing is we’re trying to reduce them as much as we can and use the manure for another process.”

This transformation of carbon dioxide into a positive source of electricity might contradict a common misconception that many consumers have about the farming and agriculture industry: that it is the source of a great amount of pollution. As a farmer, Brian has a heightened awareness of this disconnect between farmers and non-farmers, and he is actively working to close that gap by dispelling some long-standing myths about who farmers are and what they do.

“One of the most challenging things about what we do is, how do we tell our story?” asked Brian. “So, how can I connect with my neighbors and let them know that, ‘Hey, when you woke up this morning and flipped that light switch, we helped do that. We were a part of that process’?

“As people move further and further away from the farm, physically and emotionally, what we as farmers need to do is to bridge that gap again,” Brian continued. “We need to include consumers in what we’re doing. We need to let them know what we’re doing. And I think that, if the average consumer knew that there was this 100-year-old dairy farm that was converting methane gas into electricity, they would probably look at farmers in a little different way.”

Harnessing agricultural innovation for a more sustainable future

photo of Brian Fiscalini with dairy cows in pen

Farming may have been passed on to Brian as a family business, but he is extremely passionate about farming both as a vocation and how it can impact the world.

“I take farming very seriously, and I think that most farmers do, because we know someone has to do this work,” he said. “We all know that we have a pretty important task of producing food in a safe manner for the world to consume. Someone has to feed the planet, and if we don’t do it, who is going to?

“I think we have a nice challenge ahead of us,” Brian continued. “We need to figure out how we’re going to feed a growing world. We’ll figure out how to do it, and we’re going to provide some of the safest and healthiest foods people have ever had. If we’re not committed to that, then we shouldn’t be farming.”

Just as his own operation evolved by using methane digesters to turn waste into energy, Brian believes that the agriculture industry can — and will — continue to grow, change and become more sustainable, just as he thinks every industry must in order to stay relevant.

“We need to continue to innovate. We need to continue to tell our story and use the right platforms to connect with consumers,” said Brian. “Consumers are going to end up telling us what they want. And if we don’t listen, then we’re going to be in big trouble. So, if the environment is really important to consumers, then we need to make sure that’s what we’re focusing on. If the way that we care for our cows is important to consumers, then we need to make sure that we’re letting them know that it’s been taught to us from a very young age that taking care of our cows and our land and the environment is important.”

Equally significant for Brian is the legacy of sustainability that he will leave for his children.

“I think, when they get a little bit older, my kids are just going to have a huge appreciation that, ‘Dad’s not just a farmer. Dad is caring about the environment, he’s caring about his cows,’” said Brian. “I have every intention of making this farm better, more sustainable, more friendly to the environment.”

As the Fiscalini family continues their dairying tradition of more than 100 years, they are committed to finding new ways to improve, not only for their farm, but for the good of the planet.

“Our family — maybe it’s just our genetic makeup — we’ve always wanted to try new things,” said Brian. “We haven’t succeeded every single time. We’ve learned a lot of lessons, but I think that’s what keeps farming fun.

“We wake up, we have new ideas, we want to try things, and the intention of trying those things is to make the farm better every day,” he continued. “Better for the next generation. Better next week. Better tomorrow. Whatever we can do to keep improving and making things better for our people, for our cows and for our land. We take it very seriously. And that’s how all farmers are. We’re committed to this. That’s why we get out of bed.”

photo of the Fiscalini family

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