Beef 2024 Report

Measure with “forensic integrity” leading Irish farmer urges Aussies

James Nason, 17/05/2024

Professor John Gilliland addressing the Woolworths/Greenstock breakfast at Beef 2024 in Rockhampton last week.


JOHN Gilliland is one of the friendliest people you could meet, and that’s just as well, because you also get the sense that arguing with him would be an exercise in futility.

The cheerful and energetic farmer from Northern Ireland has developed a reputation for proving wrong those who tell him things can’t be done, and doing so with “forensic” levels of measurement and evidence to support his case.

A few years ago, with climate change dominating discussions and the public gaze increasingly falling on farmers, John and several fellow farmers in Northern Ireland embarked on an innovative “ArcZero” project so they could fully understand their numbers.

They measured their soils, they measured their emissions and they measured their trees and hedgerows, they estimated their carbon sequestration and they estimated their net carbon positions.

Along the way they have compiled a compelling body of evidence in support of their case that livestock are essential to healthy landscapes, healthy diets and, in turn, human health globally.

And their work is now being repeated on an unprecedented scale nationally.

Professor Gilliland and a eleven other diverse stakeholders  wrote the sustainable agriculture land management strategy for Northern Ireland, and recommended the Government put forward 45 million pounds to baseline  every single field, tree and hedge in the country.

“Everyone said I have flipped it. I was bonkers. You’ll never get the money.

“What did we get?  37 million pounds.”

More than 90 percent of farmers in Northern Ireland have signed up for the four year project to baseline the entire country and are receiving online training to understand their own data and baselines.

“We intend to  repeat this every five years and measure change,” he said.

“There is no other scheme in the world both as bold or as audacious and which has as much farmer buy-in as this one.

“The key thing we want in Belfast is the recognition that measuring, reporting and verification to one standard is a public good.

“Behavioural change is up to us, the integrity and the cost of that integrity is a public good.

“Northern Ireland has had periods of no Government over  a very long time, yet we still found 37 million pounds to do this, because this makes intellectual sense. and it empowers us as farmers with knowledge to make the right positive changes.”

Prof Gilliland addressed a breakfast at Beef 2024 Rockhampton last week as an invited guest of Woolworths and its meat division Greenstock.

“Laser focus”

John’s advice to Australian livestock producers is to get on the front foot in the climate debate, and measurement and data is the best way to do that.

He also advocates measuring in “forensic” detail so changes made can be picked up and farmers can be credited for the practice changes they make.

While the European Commission wants farmers to uses satellites to measure carbon in the landscape, he has opted instead for the greater level of “granularity” achievable with the use of laser measurement using LIDAR technology from aircraft.

Satellites provide one scan per 10 metres, whereas LIDAR provides 40 scans per square metre.

John uses the laser measurement technology to create a precise carbon asset register of all the carbon that exists both above the ground and below the ground on his farm.

“The resolution is outstanding,” he said of LIDAR.

“It allows me to find out where is my carbon and at what depth, and I repeat it every five years.

“I measure change and I measure credibility.

“Everyone is trying to tell me to do everything with satellite – my satellite does not give me the granularity to give me the accuracy to recognise the consequence of my change that these technologies do.”

John’s own farm, Brook Hall outside the city of Derry in northern Ireland, has five distinct land uses – 250 year old oak woodland, 30 year old oak woodland, 200 year old pasture, 110 year old silvo pasture (the integration of livestock grazing and forest management) and 30 year old short rotation Willow crops grown for woodchips for a renewable heat business, with willows coppiced every three years.

He can say with precision that his farm had, as of its last baseline measurement in 2021, 1349 tonnes of carbon above ground in its trees and hedgerows, and almost 20,000 tonnes of carbon in the soil.

Armed with that level of detail, when members of the public question his environmental impact as a cattle producer, he politely asks them how much carbon they manage.

“It disarms the aggression and passion, then we have a good conversation.”

Prof Gilliland’s work managing the Devenish Lands at Dowth, previously written about by Beef Central in this article last year, revealed a raft of benefits that followed a key behavioural change to break away from synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and reintroduce a diversity of plants into the grazing sward, including:

– A 65 percent reduction of nitrogen fertilizer;

– A 20pc improvement in the average daily live weight gain of beef and lamb;

– A 300pc increase in earthworm;

– A 14 times faster water infiltration rate; and

– A 26pc reduction in greenhouse gas intensity per kilo of meat produced.

That success led to Prof Gilliland and six fellow farmers in Northern Ireland to come together under the ArcZero project, with the aim of baselining so they could know their numbers and benchmark future progress.

“From that we changed our behaviour,” he said.

“And we did it in a way that we could deliver not just the net zero journey, but other public goods as well.”

Behaviour change on the seven farms included focusing on improving efficiency through genetics, age of slaughter, cow size, animal health, improving the nutrition of soil and soil Ph, including a move to legumes to take nitrogen out of the sky and use it to drive productivity, and planting herb and legumes in runoff pathways to retain water and improve quality of water runoff.

Prof Gilliland said the work delivered multiple public goods while also improving each farmer’s productivity and bottom lines.

“Really we need to be smart, and we as farmers need to drive this agenda,” he said.

A commonality among results between different land uses was that land where animals grazed and drop faeces were the clear winners.

“You get rid of animals, you’re stuffed,” he said.

On his own farm, of the five different land uses, silvo pasture came out on top.

“My pasture and my trees are averaging about 120 tonne (of carbon). My silvo pasture is coming up at 173 tonnes –  50 tonne per hectare more.

“Why? Complex root architecture. I’ve got legume roots here, herb roots here, tree roots here, all of those plants are photosynthesising, all of them are laying down carbon.

“So when people tell me you cannot put more carbon into soil, with respect, its rubbish. You can just put it deeper.”

He said conventional wisdom is that about 130 tonnes is about as much carbon that can go into mineral soil under grass in Ireland.

“So why have I got 173 tonnes?

“We can push the boat out, don’t listen to the naysayers.”

‘Don’t bluff it’

Prof Gilliland urged Australian farmers to “baseline, measure and manage with forensic integrity”.

“Don’t bluff it,” he said.

“It is in our interest to do it forensically, because I want to pick up the consequence of my behaviour change.”

Related article:

More productive livestock, not consumers eating less red meat, key to reducing emissions


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  1. Terry Nolan, 20/05/2024

    Amongst a plethora of fantastic speakers at BEEF, John Gilliland was a stand out. Great presentation!

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