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01.07.16 New research on carbon sequestration and grassland

Huge amounts of soil carbon have been discovered up to 1 metre below grassland in a recent UK study.  Yet most carbon inventories do not assess soil deeper than 30cm.  Furthermore this research suggests that intensive management of grassland, involving high rates of fertiliser use and livestock grazing may deplete carbon at these depths.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy briefing, 24th June 2016

Globally soil contains more carbon than all the Earth's plants and atmosphere combined.  Much of this carbon can be found in soils beneath grasslands, which are estimated to cover 20-40% of the Earth's surface.  Amongst biomes, grasslands are the third largest global store of carbon (after wetlands and boreal forests). 

Grasslands and the carbon they store, can be influenced by human activities, including intensive farming. However there is uncertainty over the effects of land management and land use change on soil carbon stocks, partly because most studies only consider the top 30cm of soil, which is easier to access. The IPCC's 2006 Guidelines for Greenhouse Gas Inventories recommend soil carbon accounting for the top 30cm, but also advocate sampling beyond 30cm. However this deeper sampling rarely happens.

To help address this gap in knowledge, the researchers measured carbon in grassland soils at different depths of up to 1 metre across the UK. They assessed soil taken from 180 sites which represented a range of grassland types: acid, calcareous, mesotrophic and wet. At each site they took samples from three different fields which were of the same soil type, but managed in different ways: intensively, extensively or intermediately.

Intensively managed fields typically received over 100kg of nitrogen fertiliser per hectare per year (N/ha/yr). They were heavily grazed by animals (stocking rate of 2-3.5+ livestock units per ha), cut two or three times a year for silage and had low average plant diversity of just 10 species per m2. They had been managed intensively since the 1950s.

In contrast, extensively managed field received less than 25kg N/ha/yr, were lightly grazed (less than 1 LU/ha), were cut just once a year and had high plant diversity (average of 21 species per m2). They had been managed in a traditional way for many decades.

Intermediate land received 25-50kg N/ha/yr, had stocking rates of up to 1.5LU/ha, were also cut just once per year but had middling plant diversity (average of 15 species per m2).

Total percentage carbon in soil (organic and inorganic) was significantly lower in soils from intensively managed fields - 19% lower than in intermediately managed fields and 25% lower than in extensively managed fields. The researchers estimated that intensively managed grassland soil contained around 40.3kg of soil carbon per m2 going 1m below the surface, compared with around 41.4kg of soil carbon per m2 in extensively managed land and around 44.6kgCm2 in intermediately managed land.

Based on their figures, the researchers estimate that 2097 teragrams (teragrams - 1million metric tonnes) of carbon is stored in all UK grassland soils to a depth of 1 metre. This is over double the amount of carbon estimated if only the top 30cm of soil is considered.

Soil carbon stocks were higher in intermediately managed land than extensively managed land; the researchers suggest that this can be partly explained by differences in soil bulk density, likely due to compaction and to fertiliser application rates. High levels of fertiliser reduce soil carbon through over stimulation of plant decomposition rates, whereas modest levels of fertiliser allow plants to accumulate carbon by not over-stimulating decomposition.

There are many complex factors which influence soil carbon, and the study did not directly explore these; they include the impact of soil cultivation during reseeding of perennial ryegrass on intensively managed grassland, which releases large amounts of carbon (usually every 10-20 years) and also the findings of recent studies into the importance of considering sampling depth when investigating soil organic carbon sequestration.

Other factors which affect how much carbon is in the ground include: the release of carbon dioxide by plants to the atmosphere, soil erosion, leaching into waterways and removal of grass by harvesting or grazing animals.

The study supports the IPCC's recommendation for deeper soil testing in carbon accounting. It also suggests that reducing the intensity of farming in the most highlight managed and fertilised grassland would bring future benefits for carbon sequestration.

Source: Ward, S.E., Smart, S.M., Quirk, H., Tallowin, J.R.B., Mortimer, S.R., Shiel, R.S., Wilby, A. and Bardgett, R.D. (2016). Legacy effects of grassland management on soil carbon to depth. Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13246


28.06.16 First experience of the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture

A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual forum of the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, in Rome. 


What is Climate Smart Agriculture?

This information is from the CSA website

Climate smart agriculture (CSA) is a systematic approach to agricultural development intended to address the dual challenges of food security and climate change from multiple entry points, from field management to national policy.  CSA aims to:

1.       Improve food security and agricultural productivity, and

2.       Increase the resilience of farming systems to climate change by adaptation, while

3.       Capturing potential mitigation co-benefits."

What is GACSA?

GACSA, is the Global Alliance for climate smart agriculture, and at the Food and Agricultural Organisation headquarters of the UN in Rome. The alliance, which is voluntary, is made up of partners that are dedicated to addressing the challenges facing food security and agriculture under a changing climate. In particular, the alliance has the objective of up-scaling the climate smart agriculture approach. It was launched in 2014, and has members from across the globe.

In June this alliance held its annual forum, and was an opportunity to reflect on progress achieved in the first year of action and to see what was going to be prioritised for the upcoming year. The meeting, which was attended by over 150 delegates from around the world, represented different countries, farming systems and challenges from climate change.  For me, this meeting was a really interesting opportunity to understand some of the issues that are occurring around the world, from dealing with prolonged droughts in sub Saharan Africa and the devastating impact that that can cause to smallholder farmers, to empowering women and investing in people development through advancing knowledge and skills it was a jam packed couple of days. 

I attended not as a member of GACSA (it’s mainly governments, research organisations and a few NGOs) but to see what was being talked about and whether this diverse group of people had any common ground.  To see whether we were all facing the same issues, and whether collectively we could work together to solve them and what projects and initiatives were going on around the world, that I could gain fresh ideas from or collaborate with. It was a long way away from a normal farmer meeting that I attend, but a good experience none the less to understand and share experiences.

As I alluded to earlier, the conference was very busy with sessions on partnerships, case studies (at a country level rather than at farm level), metrics, finance (which I can’t really begin to explain, as it was all a bit over my head and another language of acronyms), knowledge (which I was very interested in), regional alliances and opportunities ahead.

I am not going to write up all that happened over the two days, otherwise this would be an incredibly long blog, however the key points from both days are below.

Day1  - things that stuck with me.

Great quote – The most dangerous phrase that we use is “we’ve always done it this way”

The importance of metrics – metrics help us to document impact and the journey on which we have been.  However there is a need for co-ordinated use of metrics, and to find metrics that are practical and usable and tell us meaningful results.  Also the need for everyone to use the same metrics – so comparisons are possible.

Related to metrics was the idea of business – if we are wanting farmers to change their management and adopt these climate smart practices – then we have to look at where the economic benefits are, and show where there are opportunities to be more productive (and profitable) and more climate smart.

Finance – all I can say from this session is that there is a need for finance to enable action on the ground.

Knowledge transfer – this is the key to accelerating action on the ground, especially farmer to farmer and from the research community to the farmer (it was good to know that we were on the right track!).  The other thing which was discussed here, is the importance of scale.  In the day to day work that we do, we understand the individuality of our farms, and as such there is a massive need to have local communication that is based on local knowledge and conditions, however we also need to engage the network and our policy makers to ensure that there is also a global strategy that allows for consistent national and global communication to ensure that our messages are heard.

The importance of farmer participation and ownership of projects – considering that this was a meeting about climate smart agriculture – there were very few people who were actually involved in day to day agriculture there.  This was a shame and would be something to think about for the next forum, how to get more farmers engaged in the discussions as this will inevitably help with the action on the group that was mentioned time and time again.  Through involving farmers in the creation of projects, not only will they have practical merit and be actionable, the farmers will have a vested interest and as such will want to deliver it.

Another quote of the day came from a farmer who was taking part in the case study session and was from the Irish farmers association.  He told the room full of policy makers:

Stop talking about climate change and start talking about the enablers that I can use to solve the problem – let me be part of the solution and achieve the desired outcomes.”

Another big thing was that although this is a great alliance, and the meeting of different cultures, systems and nations should be celebrated, what was needed was action on the ground.  Care was needed to make sure that action was the priority and there was an appetite to get things started!

Day 2

The second day included a whole section on knowledge for climate smart agriculture.  In the inception year of the alliance, a knowledge  action group was formed to look at where the current gaps in knowledge were and see what could be done about them.

The goal of the knowledge action group is to (again quoted from their documents) “provide actionable information of those looking to operationalise CSA, enabling evidence based decision making and calling out unknowns and uncertainties when they obstruct transformation to a climate – smart system."

The major knowledge priorities that were identified from an online consultation were:


  • Technical interventions and practices in climate smart agriculture
  • Evidence base and support, services and extension for CSA
  • Inclusive knowledge systems for CSA
  • Integrated planning and monitoring for CSA


This group while spending a proportion of its first year doing all the ground work which accompanies global collaborations have found some key points which they want to address (and seem like pretty good sense to me!).

Peer to peer learning is key – if we want to achieve change on the ground then we need to work with our farmers to get there.

The importance of metrics – we need to generate evidence (that is comparable between systems) to show impact of the management on the ground (and that can be scaled up to demonstrate regions, nations and global action.

We need to demonstrate clear economic benefits – make the business case to change practices at the farm level

Research – where are the climate opportunities for agriculture? Also to enable the conversation between research and farmers to allow the farmers research questions to be answered

Extension – the importance of investing in people through enhanced skills development and increased knowledge

Indigenous and local knowledge – we can’t ignore the importance of local knowledge

So what did I come away with?

A sense of optimism that although the mechanism is a bit clunky and these things take time to gain momentum (especially when you are dealing with this number of countries) there is a desire to address climate change and agriculture at a global level and work together.

A big question though that I am still grappling with is the one of scale.  There are multiple levels in this puzzle, and when we are looking at practices that we will be recommending farmers to adopt, we can’t be doing this on a global level.  Each farm is unique and there is a need for focussed technical information for the farmer which shows the economic benefit, and then there is a requirement for reporting on how sectors of our industry are doing, as well as regions, and nations.  At each of these scales there is a different knowledge need and for some of them a different audience.

This led me onto thinking about how this alliance could be best used – and where are the areas where global co-ordination is needed.  A few things sprang to mind:

Metrics – if we are to demonstrate progress we need to be talking in the same language which means using the same metrics that are regarded as being scientifically rigorous to enable policy change and show the effect of changing management.  This is something that will need global action to achieve as its not an easy task!

Knowledge – Although specific practices that we are advising may vary, this alliance could be a great vehicle to share ideas and information about what works and what doesn’t in engaging farmers in climate smart agriculture. 

Communication to the public – co-ordination of messages to the public about the issues around agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions.  Lets provide a united front which shows all the positive steps that farmers are taking in terms of environmental management, and show how we are working on the issues that need sorting. 

Collaboration and strength in numbers – continuing this alliance means that we can all share research and innovation and ideas which might mean that we can make progress faster.

As was said in the meeting, I’d better go and get on with it!

24.06.16 From broken to teaming with life

The old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," only works if the "it" isn't broken. In the case of agricultural practices in Brazil, Cristiano Magalhaes Pariz realised something was broken. 

"About 15 years ago, our research group began to see that crop and livestock activities, when wrongly conducted were compromising the sustainability of a tropical agricultural system," Paris explained.

Over time, crop and livestock activities had degraded the soil. The soil had fewer nutrients and was eroding away. It couldn't produce as large number of crops or sustain as many animals. This meant farmers weren't making as much food, or as much money. So Pariz began researching a way to fix the problems caused by these broken crop and livestock practices.

Pariz, a researcher in the Department of Animal Nutrition and Breeding at Sao Paulo State University, Brazil, knew that solbing these problems would take a team effort. So he and researchers from different fields of study developed a solution. Their solution also required teamwork, from plants.

The teamwork they explored between plants is called intercropping. Intercropping is the practice of growing two crops together in the same field. Pariz's plant team consisted of sorghum and perennial grasses. 

In places like the Brazilian Cerrado, winters are very dry. Pariz needed to pick plants for the team that could handle the conditions but also be useful to the farmers. Sorghum which tolerates dry conditions and is sold for grain, fit the description. Pariz then selected two types of perennial grasses to team up with sorghum. Farmers can use the grasses as forage for livestock and cover the soil surface to prevent erosion. However the researchers weren't sure which grass would work best with the sorghum. Researchers set up an experiment to  determine which crop team worked together best, Team A (sorghum and palisade grass) or Team B (sorghum and guinea grass).

The researchers planted crops of Team A and Team B in Botucatu, Sao Paulo, Brazil. They analysed the leaf nutrient concentration and the land uses efficiency. They calculated each team's sorghum grain yield and forage dry matter production. They determined the crude protein and revenue produced. Finally they looked at how the teammates competed for nutrients which is very important in intercropping systems.

Pariz explains, "Competition for nitrogen may occur, which may compromise the sorghum and / or forage yield." Nitrogen is often added to soil to help plants grow, but no one knows exactly how much nitrogen is needed to make sure both crops can develop and produce. So another aspect of the experiment was to apply different amounts of nitrogen to rows of the crops to see what amount worked best for both the sorghum and its grass teammate.

It turns out sorghum is an excellent choice for an intercropping team. It adds diversity to the farm and grows better than other crops in areas with unhealthy soil or dry conditions. The researchers also discovered Team A (sorghum with palisade grass) with added nitrogen is the best combination for increasing sorghum grain yield, revenue, and forage dry matter production.

With this team of sorghum and palisadegrass and just the right amount of nitrogen, Pariz hopes to reverse the damage that had been done by broken crop and livestock activities. in time, the teamwork of these plants could help Brazil's degraded pastures team with life.

For more information please click here to access the journal paper.

Source: American Society of Agronomy, Danielle St Louis, May 2016  

24.06.16 Farm Composting Made Easy

This article comes from the Practical Farm Ideas blog, written by Jason Allan and Mike Donovan, back in 2013.  To read the article in its original form click here.

Composting is not a regular farm activity. Conventional farmers get nutrients from chemicals and through crop rotations, as well as spreading dung from their livestock enterprises, should they have them. Organic farmers, who are forbidden the use of chemical fertilisers, have to rely entirely on crop rotations and mixed farming systems which produce quantities of dung and farm yard manure. Composting, the accelerated rotting of organic material, is mostly associated with smallholders and allotment keepers. 

Full scale farmers are finding compost a good source of soil nutrient and a wonderful soil condition.er  Composting dung and farmyard manure produces something far more beneficial than fresh or rotted dung. Material such as straw, green waste from council collection, waste from vegetable and fruit growing and processing, this and more can be converted into compost. Apart from its value to farmers, there's an increasing commercial market, created by the future ban imposed on the digging and use of pear. In the next two years, the horticultural industry will be searching for a substitute to go in the pots of bedding and other plants. 

Composting is set to become far more main stream that at present.

  • Farmers and advisors are recognising that the condition of soils is deteriorating, both on arable and grassland. Soil is losing organic matter. The contribution of farm yard manure, or cattle slurry is a fraction of what happens when the manure is turned into compost. The elements of phosphate and potash are both made more accessible to plants, and the compost makes a big improvement in soil structure, leading to increased worms and other biological activity. 
  • The rising cost of chemical fertilisers is making compost and other natural sources of plant nutrients increasingly valuable, and therefore popular.
The current issue of Practical Farm Ideas magazine features a home built compost turner - one which would suit a farm with up to 600 acres. The project requires:
  • general workshop skills
  • parts which can be sourced locally for scrap metal prices, the main component is a heavy duty lorry axle
  • a week or less of work
So instead of starting the farm composting with a substantial investment in a machine to turn and aerate the material - its a tedious and poorly done job using a loader and bucket - a turner can be made with a few components and a few days in the workshop. The machine we feature has turned 25,000 cn metres over the last few years and has the ability to turn more. 

As chemical fertilisers become increasingly expensive, farmers who are wanting to reduce costs and save money will be turning to ideas such as compost and other methods to improve the fertility of their land through biology rather than chemistry. 

Building a compost turner in the workshop is the kind of project which will pay huge dividends over the next few years. The home made machine can be replaced by something bigger and more costly when composting experience is gained. 

For more information on the home built machine described in this article, click here

To subscribe to Practical Farm Ideas click here

22.06.16 A new service offered measuring soil organic matter content

Source: Tillage Magazine, 18th June, Marion King

The decline in soil organic matter levels in UK arable rotations has been well documented over the past few years, to the point where scientists from Sheffield University predicted in 2014 that if current cropping practice continued, the UK had just 100 harvests left.

Although the loss of organic matter is only part of the story, and there are moves afoot on some farms to turn things around, the message cannot be ignored. With all this in mind, for the past three years, Agrovista has been examining the use of cover crops and alternative rotations to help farmers improve their own particular situations, says head of precision technology Lewis McKerrow.

"One key point to note is that basing decisions on average field levels of organic matter isn't good enough," says Mr McKerrow. "Over recent decades, fields with quite different soil types that would have been managed quite differently have been amalgamated. "It is unusual to find a completely homogenous field in the UK; often organic matter levels can vary significantly across a field. The problem is that we have been unable to quantify this variation without resorting to impractical levels of laboratory analysis." However a new service from the Plantsystems technology arm of Agrovista is about to change all that. The service uses a novel machine from US firm Veris Technologies called the MSP3 that can measure pH, electro-conductivity (an indicator of soil type) and organic matter. These three components are key indicators of the yield drivers within a field and indeed across a farm. The machine can also be used to produce detailed zones of nitrogen leaching and water holding capacity.

"The beauty of this MSP3 is that it collects all this data as it is towed along behind a tractor," says Mr McKerrow. "The job is very quick - the machine is pulled at up to 16km/hr, typically in 12 m bouts, so a massive amount of data can be captured in a day:"

Electro-conductivity and organic matter readings are measured constantly, while the pH is read about 15 times per hectare via a shoe that is raised and lowered into the soil. At the end of each field a number of locations are selected within it where pH / electro conductivity / organic matter readings were among the lowest and highest. These areas are sampled by hand and sent to the laboratory. "This ground truthing enables accurate calibration of the remote- sensing data, enabling it to be interpreted and analysed as precisely as possible," he explains. "The  data  can then be assessed and used for either variable rate applications or management decisions about where to target inputs such as organic manures and cover crops."

There is a strong case for organic matter being correlated to yield, although other soil parameters can be as significant, or greater, drivers of yield, says Mr McKerrow. Soil Variations highlighted by electro-conductivity maps are often very close to where yield variations occur. That said, one soil with a high electro-conductivity and high organic matter can perform very differently to the same high electro-conductivity soil which has low organic matter, he adds.

"There is no doubting that knowledge is power," he concludes. "But to gain that knowledge, information has to be analysed correctly and managed well. The risk of data overload is very real for many, but the evolution of better software solutions such as Agrovista's MapIT Pro software helps make sense of it all."

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