Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit

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17.07.2014 Reducing emissions from livestock: challenges and adaptation

Central to the debate around climate change and agriculture has been livestock’s contribution to emissions. Livestock play a part in agriculture’s carbon footprint; this fact is indisputable but the production of livestock brings many benefits to the UK food chain.

The Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) commissioned a piece of work looking at reducing emissions from livestock. This article, written by Dr David Garwes looks at the contribution livestock makes to the UK food chain, the environment and the farming industry in the UK. This report has examined various strategies that could be adopted in the coming years to help reduce GHG emissions and that may need further research. Some of these measures are summarised below, but to read the full report click here.

Reduced animal numbers

The most cost effective approach is to make every animal more productive, whilst continuing to meet food production needs.

Increased yield from each animal

Improving the genotype of cattle can generate increased yield (kg of meat or litre of milk). It may be possible to include selection traits that bring about a reduced environmental footprint. This would improve the cost of production.

Reduced breeding stock numbers

Improvements in reproductive performance of breeding stock will reduce the numbers of animals that are needed to generate productive offspring. A study from Nottingham University found that if dairy cow fertility returned to the level documented in 1995, methane emission from the national herd would fall by 11%.

Improved feed conversion

Feed is a significant proportion of rearing costs.  Data highlighted in sector specific roadmaps show that there are significant differences between management practices and species in terms of efficiency.

Optimise feed intake

Selection of stock that consume only what is needed for optimal production will reduce pollution from excess nutrients.

Improve nutrient balance in rations

Better ration formulation will allow a balance to be met between nutrients produced and animal demand.

Feed sources that reduce methane and ammonia emissions

Increasing the availability of fermentable carbohydrates in dairy feed promotes higher milk yields and reduces the amount of Nitrogen lost through urination. Examples of plants to add to rations include clover and chicory (high in tannins) and red clover (high in polyphenol oxidase).

Manage manure

Reducing leaching losses and covering slurry storage can be options to consider. Future developments include using nitrification inhibitors and scrubbing effluent air from production units to reduce emissions to the atmosphere.

Use manures as a resource

Apply manure precisely based on nutrient content and crop requirements. The faster slurry can be incorporated into the soil, the lower the nitrous oxide emissions will be,

These points above are expanded and explained in more detail in the full report available here. For more information on reducing emissions from livestock enterprises click here.

14.07.14 Sustainable Organic and Low Input Dairy

The SOLID project is an EU wide initiative that is concerned with promoting sustainable dairy production. It aims to improve the technical performance and economic competitiveness of organic and low input dairy systems in Europe while maintaining their potential to deliver environmental goods and enhance biodiversity.

The project is looking at how feeding, breeding and technology can be used to improve profitability and sustainability through constructing new research, as well as looking at what farmers are doing by producing in-depth case studies.

In the UK a Welsh dairy farm has been put under the spotlight, focussing on managing grassland and herd breeding to improve margins. Click here to read more about it.

If you are interested in finding out more about what the project is up to, and how to assess sustainability in dairy systems the Organic Research Centre is putting on an event on the 24th September. This project workshop will look at sustainability assessments and the various carbon footprinting tools available for dairy farmers, as well as new methods for including soil carbon changes and biodiversity indicators.

If you are interested in attending, click here to download the flier and here for the booking form.

11.07.14 Low methane emitting cattle

Enteric emissions and respiration in the form of methane, together with the losses from manures and land use changes comprise the majority of livestock related greenhouse gas emissions.  Technologies that increase rumen efficiency and lower methane emissions form a vital mitigation strategy to reduce global warming impacts.

The Ruminomics project

Methane from cattle makes up 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and 1% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions according to Phil Garnsworthy professor of dairy science at the University of Nottingham. He is part of Ruminomics, an EU funded research project that is looking at how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. The project is looking at connecting the genetic research, with knowledge on the gastrointestinal microbiomes and feeding to improve the efficiency of rumination (and as such lower methane production and improve environmental impact).

The project has discovered that the amount of methane that cattle produce during rumination can vary. It is investigating whether combining different dietary and breeding options make it possible to produce the same volume of milk with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Current science suggests that there are three issues that determine how much methane the cow emits, the diet, genetics and the rumen microbiology. “It is possible to image cutting emissions from cattle by a fifth, using a combination approach including breeding from lower emitting cattle and changing their diets” explained Garnsworthy.

Interestingly the science also suggests that reducing methane emissions may also have the capacity to increase milk production as the methane is “lost energy” that could go into producing milk. So if the right genetic mix can be found, it is possible that cattle could be bred that are less polluting, more productive and ultimately more profitable. To read the project report please click here.

What can I do now?

In terms of what this means for farmers we will have to wait a while for the scientists to finish the research. However while we wait, do check out the dairy and beef pages on the FCCT website which highlight current research and practical options concerning reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The roadmaps produced over the last few years by EBLEX, DairyCo and BPEX have all suggested that efficient production systems are a good strategy when managing our livestock. DairyCo advocate concentrating on improving the efficiency of milk production through improved feed efficiency. This will benefit the bottom line and reduce GHG emissions per unit of production. Paying attention to improving overall herd health, to increase growth rates, improve fertility and reduce culling rates will all contribute to a healthier and more productive herd.

To read the livestock section of the Toolkit please click here

03.07.14 Theme of the month – Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock

So the theme that we are going to be looking at here at FCCT this month (while hopefully the sun will continue to shine down gloriously!) is GHG emissions from livestock production systems.  This subject has lots of controversy surrounding it, from ex Beatles members encouraging everyone to eat less meat and save the world, to the levy bodies doing some research into economic benefits to be had from reducing emissions from dairy, beef and sheep production. During the month we will be exploring some of these areas in detail and looking at what we can do on-farm to help reduce costs and at the same time improve sustainability and reduce emissions.

So to kick the month off (although will try and stay away from the football puns due to the amazing results from Brazil), here are some stats on livestock’s contribution to emissions to get our teeth into. These initial statistics come from the FAO’s report Tackling Climate Change through livestock which can be downloaded here if you are interested.

The contribution to global emissions of livestock


Emissions from livestock are estimated to be 7.1 gigatonnes of CO₂e per year. This represents 14.5% of human induced GHG emissions.

Below this is broken down into the different sources.


Sources of emissions

If this is broken down it equates to:

  • Feed processing and production (45% of total)

  • Enteric fermentation of ruminants (39%).

  • Manure storage and processing (10%)

  • The remainder is attributable to processing and transportation of animal products.

However its not all bad news. There is massive potential to improve the sector’s environmental performance. The wider adoption of best practices and technologies in feeding, health, husbandry, and manure management could help global livestock sector be more efficient, reduce energy and waste and cut emissions.

The link between efficiency and emissions reduction

There is a direct link between GHG emissions intensities and the efficiency with which producers use natural resources. For livestock production systems nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide emissions effectively represent losses of Nitrogen, energy and organic matter that have an effect on productivity and efficiencies.

This topic of improving efficiency and reducing emissions has been the subject of lots of research and study over the last few years. A couple of things to think about in terms of the effect of reducing emissions on productivity (courtesy of EBLEX) are:

For Sheep – Every 1kg of CO₂ reduction / kg of liveweight equates to an extra 28p/kg increase in gross margin.

For beef cattle – every 5kg of CO₂ reduction / kg of liveweight equates to a 50p/kg increase in gross margin.

With dairy production systems, efficiency and emissions reductions are possible through concentrating on managing feed, manure, fertility, fertiliser and energy use. These will all be looked at throughout the month.

For more information, why not look at our Toolkit section on Livestock?

01.07.14 Under cover farmers

The link below is to a video produced in the US by the USDA National Technology Support centre and looks at the issues surrounding cover cropping and its fit into current cropping practices.

The benefits of cover cropping to the soil ecosystem

This system of “soil friendly farming” that we have been looking at over the last few weeks on the blogs relies more on understanding how soil functions and the importance of soil organic matter and biological function, rather than cultivation. The video looks at what it describes as “keys” to soil health. These are:

  • Limit soil disturbance

  • Cover the soil

  • Increase plant diversity

  • Keep a live root

The move towards using a diverse species mix in cover cropping is being adopted in some areas of the US. This video follows three farmers in America as they start to use multispecies cover crops and how they were able to realise economic returns on their investment in the first year.

This meant that these farmers took a new look at cover crops and how they would fit into their farm management system. Many farmers in the US view cover crops as an erosion control measure, nice but expensive and a hassle, rather than an asset.

One of the farmers explains: “We always saw the opportunity that we could improve something with these cover crops, to help get additional nutrients for our next crop, but in years past, inputs were relatively cheap so the opportunity was never really sought out. But with rising fuel and fertiliser costs, any way we could shave off some of the expense of fertiliser was a great thing.”

The video walks viewers through the farmers’ journey from establishing the cover crops, planting, terminating, planting the cash crop, how the crop responds through the growing season, and harvest. The importance of cash crop yield is not underestimated, as one farmer explains; “Ultimately the yield of the cash crop is a major part of the success of the cover crop strategy, as to whether its worth it or not.” The results from the video are quite interesting.

The decision to include cover crops

One farmer commented on why he has chosen to use cover crops; “You reap what you sow,” he explained. “It takes money to make money. These cover crops with we put in this year or last year is going to work down into the soil and its going to be with us for a long time. I can see lots of benefits coming from this, other than just a one year trial.”

The farmers in the video (if you don’t make it all the way to the end of the film!) are convinced that this is the way forward, and are philosophical about the potential to save costs in the future, in terms of reduced input costs, as well as the benefits to the soil ecosystem from feeding the biological populations. The concluding comment is below and summarises the importance of understanding how your soil system functions.

“When farmers view soil health not as an abstract virtue but as a real asset, it revolutionises the way they farm and radically reduces their dependence on inputs to produce food and fibre.”

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