Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit

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19.05.16 Knowledge needs, available actions and future challenges in agricultural soils

"Enhancing soil health is key to providing ecosystem services and food security. There are often trade-offs to using a particular practice, or it is not fully understood. This work aimed to identify practices beneficial to soil health, and gaps in our knowledge. We reviewed existing research on agricultural practices and an expert panel assessed their effectiveness.  The three most beneficial practices used a mix of organic or inorganic material, cover crops or crop rotations. 

This paper which has recently been published in the journal Soil and written by Key et al, aimed to clarify research needs and identify effective actions for enhancing soil health at the farm level.

To read the paper in full please click here.

The benefits of soil management and its relationship with not just farm profitability, but sustainability and environmental resilience are well known.  Enhancing soil health is central to delivering food security and ecosystem services.  In addition to food production, healthy soils also underpin a wide range of ecosystem services, including the carbon sequestration, flood control and biological control of pests and disease which are crucial to underpinning sustainable development goals.

While many farmers are well versed in how to maintain soil health, they are often not aware of the trade-offs that exist between enhancing certain soil properties and maintaining the functions that underpin them.   An example of this uncertainty is the relationship between farming practices and the diversity and functioning of soil microbial communities that help transform nutrients into plant available form. 

As well as these trade-offs there are also discussions around the knowledge needs for policy, especially around the need for evidence based environmental policies for sustainable soil management as well as the identification of knowledge needs for researchers and farmers. 

The research that this paper describes aimed to identify effective actions that farmers could do that would enhance soil health and see where the gaps were in current research.  This was done by looking at a multitude of previous research (718 studies!) around soil management practices that were designed to maintain or enhance elements of soil health.  Once the literature had provided a list of practices, an expert panel was then selected (that included soil scientists and practitioners) that assessed the evidence to highlight actions that were beneficial and detrimental to soil health and actions that needed further investigation.  The expert assessment was based on four factors:

·         How effective was the action at enhancing soil health

·         How certain was the expert that the evidence was correct?

·         The strength of the potential negative side effects associated with implementing the action

·         What soil types or locations did the action cover?

What did it find?

Of the 27 actions that were evaluated, only 3 were considered to be unequivocally beneficial to soil health.  These were


  •   The use of a mix of organic and inorganic soil amendments
  •   Growing cover crops
  •    Crop rotation


There were then 4 actions that were considered likely to be beneficial:

·         Grow cover crops between the main crop (living mulches) or between crop rows

·         Amend the soil with formulated chemical compounds

·         Controlled traffic and traffic timing

·         Reducing grazing intensity

The only action that fell into the ‘likely to be ineffective or harmful’ category was reducing fertiliser and pesticide use, largely due to the consequent reductions in crop yields.

The majority of the rest of the actions, fell into the trade-offs category, where evidence suggested that the actions were either beneficial in specific circumstance or considered likely to be beneficial but with strong negative side effects.  This also suggests that there are a large number of current soil management practices that are based on non-scientific knowledge.

What did it recommend?

The use of both scientists and practitioners helped to identify existing knowledge that should be made more accessible to those who put research into practice and highlighted a wide spectrum of certainty regarding the actions covered in this review.

A key finding of the assessment was that it is not yet clear how effective the majority of the reviewed actions are for enhancing soil health. For actions that are considered to include trade-offs, and where there are clear benefits to implementing, more refinement may be needed to minimise any negative effects. 

What was also clear was that there were actions that weren’t included in the review that needed further research, one example being mob grazing. 

The other important point to remember is that farming is based on biological systems, that are site specific and as such this specificity shouldn’t be lost.  The condition of a site needs to be taken into account when recommending practices, given that the impact of various actions will vary depending on many factors, including soil type, the extent to which the soil is degraded, and local climate. This review could lead to targeted best-fit approaches that would be more beneficial to local soil health. 

The review identified that there were some major areas of uncertainty in relation to the effectiveness of certain actions and interventions that, if developed may help to remove the barrier to implementing action at the farm level.

Agricultural intensification is required to improve food security however this needs to be done in a sustainable way if we are to have more resilient agricultural systems in the face of climate change.

To read the paper in full and to look in more detail at the actions that were studied please click here.

17.05.16 Improving emissions performance - the Australian Experience

Source: Meat and Livestock Australia, News bulletin, 13th May 2016

Doing good for the environment can also be good for your hip pocket, according to recent research into strategies to reduce methane emissions in northern Australian beef herds.

Led by Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Sustainable Grazing Scientist Dr Steven Bray, the research team found management decisions that improve beef productivity, in most cases, also improve on-farm greenhouse gas emissions performance. The research was carried out under the Climate Clever Beef project, which was supported by MLA in its first phase.

“This is a win-win for most northern producers, with the potential to improve their business’ productivity and profitability, their environmental sustainability and to position themselves to take advantage of any carbon trading opportunities,” he said.

The research points to three key areas producers can focus on to improve environmental outcomes while lifting profitability. They are:

Assess your business

Steven and the team found that although broad farm management principles apply for improving productivity and improving emissions performance, each property is different.

Each farm business should be individually assessed for what works best and to ensure that any management changes are cost-effective.

“This is particularly so when talking about how animal genetics best suits certain types of country and also what turn-off strategies work best,” Steven said.

“It pays for grazing businesses to work with the strengths and limitations of their environment.”

Steven said for most grazing businesses the benefits of reducing their emissions intensities will be in improved productivity and profitability and being able to demonstrate to the community they are improving their environment.

“Emissions Reduction Fund methodologies are available to generate carbon income from changing that emissions performance, however, participation needs to be carefully considered to ensure the additional income – taking into account carbon price fluctuations – will cover the costs of being involved, which presently is unlikely without very large herds.”

Improve reproductive efficiency

Research outcomes revealed it is crucial to make every cow count.

By increasing weaning rates, breeders are more productive over their lifetime, producing more calves or kilograms of beef for their total methane emissions.

One of the most powerful tools for identifying low-performing breeders is pregnancy testing. By identifying and culling empty cows and/or out-of-season calvers, the producer will grow more kilograms of beef per hectare as well as conserve valuable pasture and water for those more productive animals.

Culling unreliable breeders also improves the herd’s maternal genetics, leading to better reproductive performance in the future.

Go for growth

Steven said improving growth rates through targeted supplementation or by providing better quality feed leads to a higher proportion of feed intake contributing to growth.

“In practical terms this can mean running a lower stocking rate, enabling livestock to select a better quality diet and/or being able to better match stocking rates to feed on offer and a property’s long-term carrying capacity,” he said.

“Both of these strategies will help reduce turn-off times for heifers and steers and reduce overall emissions.”

Steven said the use of improved forages (such as legumes or oats) and supplements can also improve livestock growth rates and reduce their turn-off time, thereby reducing the number of days cattle are emitting methane.

Another useful strategy is dividing the herd into stock classes such as weaners/lactating cows/dry cows, and prioritising their feed management.

This will not only improve growth but also help breeder cows to get back in calf within a 12-month cycle.

Where pasture improvement is an option, the establishment of legumes, such as leucaena or stylos, can deliver significant productivity gains while lowering a herd’s emissions intensity. Steven said previous MLA-funded research has shown leucaena improves liveweight gain, reduces turn-off times and increases a property’s average annual livestock turn-off.

“Leucaena has also been shown to have anti-methanogenic properties potentially reducing methane emissions per head per day,” he said.

The research was funded by Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries and the Australian Government.

More information: Steven Bray T: 07 4923 6209 E: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

16.05.16 Greenhouse Gas Action Plan's progress report published

SOURCE: NFU Climate Change

At the end of April the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan published a report which demonstrates the contribution that can be made by agriculture in England towards meeting the UK’s and the world’s challenging goals.

The report which can be accessed here highlights the actions taken by the agricultural industry which have had a positive effect on production efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions.

Increased professionalism across the industry, the launch of the Feed Advisers Register, the addition of new GHG mitigation training into the Fertilisers Advisers Certification and Training Scheme (FACTS), famers signing up to Dairy Pro and the pig industry Professional register, are all paying dividends and have been delivered despite the challenging economic climate and the impacts of significant weather events in recent years.

Richard Laverick, Chief Technical Officer from the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) said: “The work of AHDB focusses on supporting farmers and the supply chains across all sectors, to improve productivity and deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. We aim to make our industry more competitive and sustainable through factual, evidence based information and activity.”

More soil sampling from grasslands and the adoption of renewables also show the large range of activities undertaken by famers to help deliver climate change mitigation whilst being good for the farm business.

Guy Smith, Vice President of the NFU said: “Farmers are committed to improving their businesses whether it’s fine tuning nutrient management on arable farms so reducing nitrous oxide emissions or tackling infections on livestock units, so decreasing methane emissions.

“But if farming is to fulfil its future potential, the food chain must support profitable farming, backed by the government providing the right regulatory framework and fiscal incentives. The irony is that with exciting current developments in technology such as robotics, GPS guidance, remote sensing and camera recognition, farmers increasingly have the ability to farm more precisely and thus reduce their GHG footprint, however without a profit margin, the necessary investment cannot be made.”

The GHGAP is also looking towards the future. It has identified some significant next steps to keep it on track to meeting its 2020 targets and beyond.  This will require the application of new science and incentives to drive the uptake of key practices and technologies and a continuation of the collaborative approach already established. 

Head of Environment Policy at the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), Jane Salter said: “The  support and openness of the GHG Research Platform has been exemplary and we look forward to incorporating its research into the next phase of our work. We have also benefitted from the expertise within Defra statistics and the wealthy of survey data has been the bedrock on which we’ve built our report. It is critically important that this collaborative approach continues.

To read this article in its original format, please click here.

13.05.16 Soil Farmer of the Year announced

Clive Bailye, an arable farmer from Staffordshire has won the UK Soil Farmer of the Year, organised by Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit (FCCT) and Innovation for Agriculture (IfA).

The inaugural competition aimed to find farmers and growers who were engaged with, and passionate about managing their soils in a way which supported productive agriculture, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and built soil organic matter and carbon.

Clive fought off stiff competition from a talented field of farmers and growers to take the top prize.  The panel of judges which included scientists, industry experts, farmers and the project team were incredibly impressed not only by the standard of entries and the diversity of practices being trialled, but the resounding commitment of all entrants to soil management and continuous learning.

Clive Bailye runs a large scale arable combinable crops operation in Staffordshire, and has spent the last six years transforming the way that he farms to focus entirely on soil improvement.  He has changed his cultivation strategy and his rotation which has resulted in the development of productive soils that are far less dependent on artificial inputs.  This has also achieved financial savings for the business, making it more resilient against future risk and volatility.

David Gardener, IfA CEO explains, “Clive is a very worthy winner in a competition that included some of the country’s leading farmers.  His comprehensive approach to managing soils susceptible to drought was most impressive and included a mix of cover crops, direct drilling, spring cropping and the re-introduction of livestock.” 

Second prize was awarded to Iain Tolhurst, a horticulture business from Berkshire.  Iain impressed the judges with his impressive knowledge and understanding of how to maximise soil biodiversity and his innovative use of composts and green manures within his rotation as well as his agro-forestry system. Whilst the business has been established over 40 years, it continues to innovate, push boundaries and educate others.

The accolade of third prize was taken by Jeremy and Heather Dale, dairy farmers from Shropshire.  This herd which is run on a spring calving system, and is certified as 100% pasture fed is achieving fantastic grassland management through attention to detail and making the use of data.  All data on grass growth and cow performance is logged and costs of production are scrutinised regularly.  This is all possible, by ensuring that the soil conditions are right to grow quality grass that supports this production system.

Jonathan Smith, FCCT Director said “As this was the first time we've run the competition, we didn't expect so many good entries. We appreciate the effort all entrants put in to this and hope to run the competition again later this year. These farmers and growers are demonstrating the benefits of building soil organic matter – healthier, more productive soils, increased carbon sequestration and better yields. It's a win-win approach, and a message we would like to spread far and wide.”

The top three farmers will all receive prizes of fertility building or green manure seed from the sponsor Cotswold Seeds.

The top three farmers will also all be hosting farm walks, where their prizes will be presented and there will be a chance to see, understand and dig a bit deeper into what they are doing.  The walk at Clive Bailye’s farm will be taking place on the 13th June, from 6 – 8.30pm, and at Iain Tolhurst’s on the 8th July. Further details will be available on the FCCT website.

Another four farmers were shortlisted, Nigel Griffiths, David Miller, David Walston and David White who were felt to have shown exemplary soil management and were running innovative production systems.


09.05.16 Methane-reducing drug for cows

Source: Dan Nosowitz, Modern Farmer

Methane emisisons, a major component of greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change, come from a variety of sources and cows (and other domestic livestock) are near the top of that list. A dairy cow produces around 200 litres per day of methane, thanks to enteric fermentation (or the digestive system), which enables plant materials like grass to be fermented in a cows gut.  This fermentation produces some good stuff (like fatty acids which the cow needs), and some waste, (mostly methane which is expelled by burping).

Short of simply reducing our total consumption of cow-based products, scientists have been trying to come up with a way to reduce methane emissions for decades. Since 2014, one particular molecule has shown incredible promise, 3 - nitrooxyproponal, sometimes called 3NOP or 3NP. Studies have indicated that when this molecule is added to a cow's feed, it can reduce methane emissions by up to 30 percent, repeatedly without seeming to cause any problems at all for the cow. For more reading on the science that has been published on this subject click on the papers below.

The new study which has been published in 2016 and is accessible here looks in more detail about how this molecule works (which was a mystery before this study) and provides a better understanding, which could offer help in getting some sort of 3NOP supplement to market.  Few regulatory agencies would approve the use of a drug about which little is known besides "it works" especially when the economic downside of some unforeseen problem would be as huge as it would be with the cattle industry.

The new study, tracks the way 3NOP binds to enzymes in the cow's gut and how it affects them. Its a huge step  forward in getting this drug to market in whatever form it'll eventually take.

To read the original article please click here.

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