Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit

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12.09.14 Theme of the month – attitudes to climate change

In the general stresses that surround farming including making business decisions, not annoying the RPA, looking after stock and crops and coping with the weather, worrying about what is the carbon foot print of your business and how it will affect the climate in fifty years’ time for most farmers and growers doesn’t seem immediately relevant.

Indeed one of the challenges for anyone concerned about the impact of climate change is not only that it seems a long way off from whatever it is that we’re doing at the moment and but also that there’s no tangible reward for possibly changing what we’re doing and making our lives any more complicated or hard work than they are currently.

The statistical report compiled by Defra recently (that we have done a few blogs on last month) that looks at issues surrounding climate change has asked some questions regarding attitudes to climate change and to start the month, I thought it would be a good starter for 10.

Research outcomes

The report highlights some of the problems with adaptation and attitudes. Indeed it reports that “many farmers, but not the majority, recognise the importance of GHG emissions, but most remain unconvinced about the business benefits of reducing emissions. Ensuring a greater understanding of GHG emissions, whilst not a pre-requisite for changing practices and reduced emissions, is likely to be an important driver for change for some farmers. A greater understanding may also lead to the adoption of more measures and cost effective solutions for reducing agricultural GHGs that fit with the farm business.”

There are numerous research projects that suggest practices that will reduce GHG emissions and provide a business benefit (win win situations). There is even now the terminology of “win win win” situations where not only are you reducing GHG emissions, and saving money, you are also sequestering carbon (who knows how many wins we could end up with?!). Practices advocated include better use of organic manures (and integrating their use with fertiliser applications to avoid over application), ensuring efficient livestock production, managing soil structure, tillage management and energy usage.

The problems with GHG emissions

The issue comes that all these practices that are advocated are long term solutions and results are  not visible immediately. If you have a cow that goes down with mastitis, you can treat her, and she will recover over a short time period, she returns to being productive with saleable milk and you can immediately see the business benefit. With management practices concerning GHG reduction, there is less immediate effect and sometimes the benefits are not so clear cut. If we return to our cow example, if cow A has mastitis (providing you know what strain it is and what antibiotic to treat it with), the cow will respond to treatment and return to production. It doesn't make much of a difference as to whether the cow is in Scotland or Cornwall, whether she is being fed a TMR or forage based diet or whether she is a high or low yielder the results will be the same. If we compare this to soil management, the scale of benefits you will see will depend on your soil type, its current state in terms of compaction and what you are growing (along with a whole other host of factors). Its much less clear cut.

Most farmers are likely to be influenced to change behaviour and practice because it makes business sense; and so it is important when we are communicating research outputs that we highlight the practical and financial considerations.

The other barriers

Even considering all this, there are several key barriers to uptake which are non-financial, or not directly financial. Some of these aspects include a lack of willingness to undertake practices advocated, which could be due to limited trust in what is being asked and the outcomes that result, or a lack of ability to undertake (through a lack of understanding, skills, time or capital).

The latter part (a lack of ability to undertake), can be addressed by making sure that we have effective dissemination of options available, and, if necessary, funding options available to farmers to implement them. Making sure that the information that goes out to farmers on how to reduce emissions is clear and considers all the impacts that the change will have on-farm (for example the effect on existing management, financial implications, suppliers and end market) is imperative. It does rely in part on two way communication, and farmers asking questions and challenging the researchers to get more information.

The first part which involves a deeper level of trust from farmers and growers and a willingness to engage with the climate change agenda and reducing GHG emissions, is trickier, and will be one of the things that we will be considering this month.

A call to arms

Moving forward however, the very real risk is that because of the confusion over potential benefits or drawbacks of implementing one form of management or another, and the range of possible actions available, we are impassive to the whole thing and do nothing. And because we do nothing, and don’t pose the questions that we need answering and switch off from the whole thing, the mistrust and apathy continues.

Doing nothing is not an option anymore.

So the challenge this month is to do something. And even if that something is just to tell me that I’m talking a load of codswallop, that’s great too. Communication is the key, to enable us all to ask the questions to the right people and start to normalise discussions about emissions, to highlight practical implementation problems with research, to demand answers and get excited about it. Join in now.

09.09.14 Why measure carbon emissions on your farm?

Greenhouse gases are much talked about but are inherently intangible. You can't smell, see, taste, hear or touch them; they're all gases that are released in relatively small quantities on a continuous basis. So how do we understand what is going on with them, and how do we talk a common language?

Greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions are commonly talked about as 'carbon emissions'. In farming the main GHGs are carbon dixoide, methane and nitrous oxide, and all have different 'warming potentials' – i.e. how much they cause the planet to warm, or how potent they are. But by converting them all to CO2 equivalents (described as CO2e), we can talk in a common language about kilos or tonnes of CO2e.

Benefits to your business

Reducing carbon emissions in a farming business makes sense on many levels. High carbon emissions tend to be linked to high use of resources, and/or wastage, so reducing emissions also tends to reduce costs. This makes the farm more efficient and should improve profitability.

Collectively, the UK Government has committed to an 80% reduction in GHGs by 2050, and farming has to play its part in that. Agriculture is directly responsible for nearly 10% of national carbon emissions, so it's a very important sector. Farming businesses of all sizes are realising that reducing emissions is not just a moral obligation, it also brings a very positive public image.

Furthermore, farmers and growers are able to sequester (absorb) carbon in biomass and soils on the farm. This unique attribute enables farms to play a hugely important role in reducing carbon emissions. More on this later.

How to get started

Before being able to reduce emissions, you need to know where they're coming from. Are the largest emissions coming from livestock, soils, fuels, fertilisers? It is vital to get a picture of your business, and this is what happens when we do carbon footprinting.

The first step is to gather all the input data, including details such as fuel use, livestock numbers, fertiliser inputs, use of materials, waste produced, etc. In order to be accurate you need to be comprehensive in your assessment. The list can look daunting at first, but if your record keeping is reasonable then this process should be achievable in a few hours. Once you've done it once, the next time will be quicker.

Once your input data is assembled you are ready to enter data in to your chosen carbon calculator. There are quite a few of them online, free to use and designed for farmers and growers. The Farm Carbon Calculator is designed by farmers for farmers, is comprehensive and user friendly.

The process of entering data shouldn't take more than an hour, after which you will have a breakdown of carbon emissions by sector, both in amounts (kg of CO2e) and percentages of the total. Armed with this data you are then ready to be able to think about how to reduce emissions.

Taking action

The Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit has specifically designed a Toolkit to enable farmers and growers to understand how to reduce emissions on their farms. It has background information, helps you understand processes and has specific advice on taking action. There are also links to further information and case studies of farmers who have already taken steps to reducing emissions.

When carbon footprinting, doing it once is great as it gives you a snapshot of where you are at that time. But to really understand whether your emissions are increasing or decreasing it's important to repeat the process at regular intervals – we recommend annually. When you do this you can start to see what direction the farm is moving in and whether the actions you're taking are working.

Your farm as a carbon sink

Farming and forestry are almost unique industries in being able to sequester (absorb) carbon on very significant scales. When CO2 is absorbed by trees (and other perennials), the carbon is locked up in woody material. If the amount of woody material is increasing on a farm – through more planting and/or natural increases in age structure, then the farm will be continuously drawing down more CO2.

Even more significant is what happens in the soil, and this is where the real win-win situation happens. Any organic material that decomposes and becomes part of stable soil organic matter, is essentially locking up carbon in the soil. If soil organic matter increases then more CO2 is drawn down out of the atmosphere. The best part is that soils that are high in organic matter are also better to work, have higher fertility levels, are more stable and should produce healthier crops of a higher yield.

The Farm Carbon Calculator is the only carbon calculator that fully measures carbon sequestration on the farm. We think this is very important as it makes a large difference to the overall carbon footprint.

It's important to consider that farms can not just reduce emissions, but that the soils and biomass can actually absorb more CO2 than the rest of the farm emits. This is surely the goal that all farmers should be working towards.

05.09.14 A view across the pond: A global perspective on emissions

For one of the last blogs on this month’s theme of calculators and metrics, I thought that I would have a look at the emissions situation from a global perspective. The data below comes from the recently released Agricultural Statistics and Climate Change report compiled by Defra.

The report provides international comparisons of agricultural productivity and the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of agriculture. Anyone who has delved into the complex methodologies and models that are used to produce the figures quoted on emissions (and emerged unscathed!) will know that it is not an easy task. Couple this with the amazing diversity of production systems that exist within UK agriculture and it is all made more complicated. So you can imagine the fun that occurs when comparing the UK’s results with other countries. Cue loads of caveats and information on what’s included and what’s not (click here for more info). Put simply its difficult to make comparisons. For this report the results have been calculated by assessing GHG emissions on the basis of emissions per unit of output (either GDP or unit of production). To be honest moving forward, assessing whether there is a way of simplifying the terminology and ironing out a common method for measuring emissions may be something that needs to be addressed by policy makers(but that is a subject for another blog).

International comparison results

International comparisons of GHG emissions per unit of agricultural production.


The graph above shows agricultural emissions (as CO2 equivalent) per unit of gross agricultural production. The results are a result of the different crops grown under different climatic conditions across the world. The countries at the top of the list in terms of lowest emissions (in this calculation) are ones that tend to be growing high value crops (for example olives and grapes), whereas countries with a high proportion of grass fed livestock tend to have higher emissions.

Yields and GHG risk factors

Cereals

In the UK, the main cereal crops produced are wheat and barley. In 2012 the UK accounted for 2% of the world’s production of wheat and 4% of barley. The advances in yield for different countries over the last 20 years are shown in the graph below. UK yields have risen by about 10% in this time period. However in terms of emissions, focusing on yields is limited as nitrous oxide emissions are produced from sources other than cereals. It therefore might be better to consider the effectiveness of nitrogen use within the production system (how efficiently the crops use available nitrogen) and manage the nitrogen balance by optimising fertiliser, soil and manure management.


Milk

The graph below shows international comparisons of milk yields. Whilst the milk yield figures don’t measure GHG emissions, a positive correlation has been found between yield and levels of input. This can be seen with predominantly grazed systems (as found in NZ and Ireland) having a lower average yield per cow than systems based on a high level of concentrates (as found in the USA.


Obviously within all the statistics there will be a massive range depending on management efficiency, system set up and feed quality. This also concurs with what is advised by levy bodies in terms of minimising emissions; to make your production system as efficient as possible, so that an optimal level of production is achieved from the inputs (feed, fertilisers etc).

In terms of optimising production, this is where potentially looking at oversees data may help. It has already been achieved to a degree by adopting New Zealand management in grass based dairy production by using spring calving herds maximising the production of milk from grass.

In terms of future climate and weather patterns, looking at management of crops in other countries that experience the conditions that may become prevalent in future UK agriculture, may allow us to get new ideas.

02.09.14 Caplor Farm

So in preparation for our second field lab event looking at practical ways to reduce GHG emissions from farming, here is a blog written by our second host farm Caplor Farm, explaining a little bit about where they have come from and what inspired them to delve deeper into sustainability and issues surrounding carbon management on-farm.

Gareth Williams’ had been leading a 100 acre mixed farming family business, when in 2007 floods severely affected his potato crops. The farm, in Fownhope, Herefordshire has been run by the family since 1923. The extreme weather lead him to re-evaluate how best to manage his farm to ensure the future generations of the Williams’ family will be able to manage it successfully.

Image: Potato sorting on the farm

He found himself reading about Triple Bottom Line accounting and incorporating this approach into his business, providing him and his young family with a sustainable future whilst making the world a better place.

Image: Gareth Williams and Caplor Farm Solar Thermal and PV Array

Renewable Energy was a natural way for Caplor Farm to diversify after a 70kWp Solar Panel system was installed on the farm in 2009. Gareth Williams was so impressed with the returns and satisfied that the new approach was saving 15 tonnes of carbon on average annually, that he wanted to spread the word and help others achieve success from renewable energy installations. Caplor Farm now enjoys the benefits of additional renewable energy technology such as Solar Thermal production of hot water, Biomass heating for several buildings on site and even a Wind Turbine. Combined, these technologies see less money being spent on electricity, less farm waste going to landfill and more control over on-site energy production.

Image: Gareth Williams and Schoolchildren see animals on Caplor Farm

Since the beginning of this journey, Caplor Energy and Caplor Farm have been involved with the local community environment collective - Fownhope Carbon Reduction Action Group, speaking at corporate events and inviting School children to experience Renewable Energy in action on the farm.

From this integrated approach to environment, social and financial matters, Gareth Williams hopes to enable Caplor Farm to react proactively to changing climates and farming practices ensuring a commercial future for his family and community who it involves.

To find out more about the event which is taking place on the 5th November, and to book your place, please click here.

26.08.14 - The business benefits of benchmarking

In recent years benchmarking has been seen of paramount importance in improving the performance of UK agriculture. Huge amounts of money have been invested in developing software packages and research to allow farmers to critically assess the performance of their business, to compare with other producers in a similar situation and develop tools to help them appraise management decisions to move the business forward.

Benchmarking and the benefits that it brings to farm business management fit into our theme this month here at FCCT of calculators and metrics. Simply speaking, benchmarking involves the comparison of performance indicators derived for one business with the same performance indicator derived for one or more other businesses. However benchmarking also incorporates a focus on the production (physical and technical husbandry), ecosystems, resource management, human resources and business management practices and processes used in the business. Benchmarking focusses on the key variables that influence productivity, profitability, liquidity and solvency. It is an on-going process aimed at continuous improvement. Completing benchmarking at whole farm, enterprise and margin level helps focus on-farm and business performance allowing managers to identify areas of success and where improvements and changes are needed.

There are many tools available to producers to help to benchmark production and assess areas for improvement. A couple are listed below:

HGCA Crop Bench

Crop bench plus was launched in 2014 by HGCA to enable arable farmers to benchmark their arable enterprises to help them improve their efficiency and profitability. The software allows farmers to compare a whole range of data with other growers in their region. Reports cover physical and financial aspects of crop production systems and can help farmers discover best practice and develop new techniques as well as increasing profits.

Dairy Co – Milk Bench

Milkbench was designed as a benchmarking tool specifically for dairy farmers. The software produces six cost cluster reports including feed and forage costs, labour costs, herd health and herd replacement costs, machinery and power costs, property, rent and financing costs and overheads. The software produces a Dairy Enterprise Cost report which provides a breakdown of all costs incurred in the production of milk as well as a breakdown of dairy income.

Stocktake

For beef and sheep producers, EBLEX offers Stocktake, which provides more detailed benchmarking figures and extra data on physical performance than previous Business Pointers. These figures produce data which producers can use to benchmark their performance on costs of production and look at areas where there is scope for improvement.

Benchmarking environmental sustainablilty

But where does environmental and carbon footprinting benchmarking come into all of this? We all realise that it presents a complex picture. Farmers and land managers are engaged in multifunctional activities, with environmental management and sustainable land stewardship central to core activities. Whilst there is an often held perception that farmers prioritise profit above all else, in reality profit and efficiency drivers sit alongside other objectives in a farm business. There are potential win-wins that can exist where strong technical and business performance can occur alongside environmental outputs, and potentially this is where focus should be moving forward in terms of minimising emissions and decreasing the carbon footprint of agriculture.

Looking at research that has come out of Defra, this seems to be what the scientists are advocating moving forward. Metrics can help in the diagnosis of areas of weakness in a business, but also in identifying solutions and driving technological changes in a direction that supports more solutions.

Results from research spanning different agricultural production systems seems to suggest a broadly similar short term conclusion. Improved efficiency in terms of breeding and feeding livestock, optimal use of resources (including fertiliser and manures), and higher levels of farm management (including measuring and benchmarking) will all help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as drive efficiency and profit, and create a sustainable and resilient agricultural industry.

For more information on practical measures to reduce emissions click here to access the FCCT Toolkit with sector specific information on what to do now.

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