Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit


22.01.17 New Year, same goals

So although Christmas and the New Year seem like a lifetime ago, its still January and as such, a (tenuous) opportunity to take stock of where we are as farm managers in terms of our sustainability goals and aspirations. 

Even though we all know that (for the most part) we will all have long forgotten about the plans to be healthy, exercise more, be kind and all the other things by this time of year, there is something quite exciting about that opportunity to start over afresh. This year, I vowed that this was the year that I was going to learn how to run in the winter (I am usually a fair weather runner, not starting until March time), and as such I courageously laced up my trainers and went out into the frost and started trudging round the path down by the river (attempting not to fall in). There was ample opportunity to smile encouragingly at other intrepid joggers who had the same idea as me (and admire all the christmas present running attire that a lot of people were wearing). 

Indeed I was also amazed by the speed in which the shops cleared the Christmas excess away to stock the shelves with healthy food and new gadgets and gizmos that we all needed to embrace 2017. 

Apart from attempting the winter running, which has got a little less frequent since the first week, my other ambitions for the year were to try and be more organised with work and get things planned well in advance. 

When transferring our attention to farms, and especially carbon management, it is easy to put it in the same pot as new years resolutions. We all know its the right thing to do, but sometimes its difficult to work out what to do, what will have an impact and what's worth it and what's not. As such, I'm not going to wax lyrical about a checklist of stuff for you all to go off and do. 

One of the challenges that we have as a network is to provide the tools and resources that make it easy to achieve at the farm level. The key concept seems to be, that putting sustainability at the heart of the business makes good business sense and provides resilience for the future.  So the more that we can integrate new metrics and tools with existing systems the better (that's one of my challenges for this year).

Interestingly when thinking about some of the great farmers that I have met on my Nuffield travels over the last few months, who have changed the way that they are managing their land to improve carbon sequestration or minimise greenhouse gas emissions, being efficient hasn't been the main driver. It's a bit like being on a diet - we know its right, and not really rocket science, but its easier to just do what we have always done. 

However doing what we've always done, isn't going to solve this one. Each of those farmers that have changed their management have had their moment of inspiration. What sparked their inspiration has varied massively from droughts and floods, personal circumstances, financial hardship, stock diseases, a training event the list could go on. But in that moment of being open to new ideas and looking for a solution, things have changed. And for most part, they've changed for the better.

So I'm not going to naively finish this blog by telling you all to go and carbon footprint your business using the FCCT calculator or change everything at once. That, like a new years resolution, won't last and wont help. Just take a moment to think about future proofing your business, and how that might work. That's it. 

If you have any questions or ideas about future events or resources that would help, let us know, that's what we are here for! Get in touch by email on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or by phone on 07875 356611. 

Happy 2017!

10.01.17 New Year. Big Goals. Better Soil

Source: Nurture, Grow, Give, Repeat Blog, click here to access.

A New Year with new health goals - for soil, at least.

Kansas State alumnus Michael Doane has left his 16-year career with Monsanto Co. to join a charitable environmental organization to see if he can make a difference in the fight for sustainable agriculture and a healthier earth. Doane, now director of working lands at the Nature Conservancy, has landed as the project leader on one of the largest environmental initiatives ever undertaken by the organization.

This non-profit project called reThink Soil, a Roadmap to U.S. Soil Health, hopes to transform the way farmers approach and protect the quality of their soil. The ReThinkSoil project will work to inform farmers of the importance of practices like cutting back on tillage, making use of cover crops, and engaging in considered crop rotation. The Nature Conservancy said reThink Soil plans to use their outline of 10 key steps, covering science, the economy, and policy priorities, to achieve widespread adoption of adaptive soil health systems across America. So widespread, in fact, the Soil Health Roadmap plans to be used on more than 50% of U.S. cropland by 2025.

“Drawing upon respected analyses in soil health literature, The Nature Conservancy estimates the annual societal and environmental costs of the status quo are up to $85.1 billion annually through unintended effects on human health, property, energy, endangered species, loss of biodiversity, eutrophication, contamination, agriculture productivity, and resilience,” the non-profit organization told Food Business News, explaining its focus on improving soil health.

The organization also explained that adaptive management for soil health involves minimizing soil disturbance while increasing plant diversity, which allows more continuous plant and residue covers to create important living ecosystems in the soil.

“In turn, the soil nurtures a complex web of microbes with the healthiest soils often being those with the greatest diversity and abundance of life,” said the Nature Conservancy. “Healthy soil more efficiently stores and recycles carbon, water, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.”

The Conservancy emphasized that good soil science backs all of the soil management practices being highlighted by reThink Soil.

Preservation, protection, and restoration also seem to be Doane’s main interests. He told Milling & Baking News his move to a non-profit environmental organization from Monsanto was driven by the opportunity to deepen his involvement in conservation. With his last 20 years working in that private sector, combined with the reThink Soil initiative, Doane feels now is a great time to join the Conservancy’s mission.

“I have always been interested in conservation, starting by growing up on a farm and studying environmental issues in college…” he said. “The Conservancy really came at a time when I was open to trying to think about where I could make a greater contribution on the issues that I felt were most at my core.”

Another inspiration for Doane and reThink Soil is the farmer. Doane feels working on soil health will have bottom-line benefits for producers, big and small.

“What has inspired our focus on soil is that we think is can be economically beneficial for farmers,” he said. “That’s what makes it special. Farms today are small businesses, and some are not small businesses. They’re actually large sophisticated businesses by almost any measure. They’re businesses, nevertheless, and they have to recoup investments and turn a profit.”

The reThink Soil project has estimated a very positive return on investment associated with the commitments to soil health that they recommend.

With big goals come big challenges. Like all new agriculture advancements, getting more traditionally-minded producers on board can be difficult – especially those in doubt of climate change. This threat to agricultural productivity comes at a time when the world’s population is continuing to grow, hitting an expected nine billion by 2050. Adopting technology, climate change and other issues gather urgency when faced with the scenario of growing enough food for an increasing world population later this century.

“The models show that food production will be more challenging in several significant breadbaskets around the world,” Mr. Doane said. “Improving soil health could provide a solution.”

Ms. Vollmer-Sanders also emphasized that reThink Soil wasn’t designed to create a confrontational atmosphere between environment concerns and agriculture.

“At the Nature Conservancy, we like to be the ‘and’ solution: environmental and agricultural,” she said. “so when we’re looking for people to fill different roles in the agricultural arena, it’s good to have a background in agriculture; it’s good to understand the industry and come at it with a ‘how can we do both together’ — how can we help the environment and keep agriculture healthy.”

For Doane, the background in agriculture from his upbringing in Kansas, involvement in AGR and work at Monsanto, will help in the goal of a win-win result; healthy soil and profits for farmers, businesses and communities.

For more information on the reTHink Soil initiative click here.

03.10.17 The living soil: tread carefully

A blog from the Royal Society of Biology Archive, by Professor James Prosser, chair in molecular and cell biology at the University of Aberdeen, who discusses the living world of soils.

As you walk around your farm, you may not realise it, but you’re treading on a dense and diverse community of many different life forms. This community creates and sustains the soil and performs the many, varied and essential functions that enable plants, shrubs, trees and, of course, weeds to grow. This blog discusses the concept of soil as a living ‘meta’ organism, rather than lifeless dirt, the ways in which soil benefits us and the threats that we pose to its sustainability. It coincides with the International Year of Soils, which also celebrates the importance of soil in the production of food, fuel and fibre and in environmental and human health.

The most obvious signs of life in soil are plant roots and soil animals, such as earthworms and mites. One of their functions is as soil engineers. Earthworms, for example, tunnel through the soil, transporting material in their guts and creating channels that facilitate movement of water and air.

Microscopic organisms, the single-celled bacteria and archaea (0.001 mm in size), filamentous fungi and predatory protozoa, are ‘invisible’ and therefore frequently ignored, but their biomass, diversity and activity are substantial. A single gram of soil, little more than a pinch, can contain many kilometres of branching fungal filaments and several billion bacterial cells (as many cells as there are people on the planet), belonging to 100,000 species. The mass of microbes in an acre of agricultural soil may be equivalent to 10 – 15 sheep.

This microbial community is fed by organic compounds exuding from plant roots, which are consequently surrounded by dense bacterial populations, equivalent to towns. Other areas, where nutrients are scarce, are less populated and equivalent to rural areas or even deserts. Root exudates include signalling compounds that attract beneficial microbes. For example, nitrogen-fixing bacteria trap atmospheric nitrogen and make it available for plant growth, while root colonising ‘mycorrhizal’ fungi supply phosphorus, which plays a role in photosynthesis and respiration.

High microbial diversity is reflected in enormous physiological diversity – meaning a range of size, shapes, features etc – and microbes provide a wide range of essential soil functions and services. They degrade dead animals and plants, and their own dead microbial relatives, cycling their chemical constituents and releasing plant nutrients. One microbial product, the compound geosmin, gives soil its typical odour. Microbes ‘clean’ soil, by degrading pollutants, and store carbon by producing complex organic compounds that degrade very slowly.

Soil is a reservoir for commercially valuable organisms, notably antibiotic producers, but also, on the negative side, for plant pathogens. Some microbes can be costly: nitrifiers convert fertiliser ammonia to nitrate, which washes out of soil rather than supporting plant growth, leading to annual multimillion pound global losses. Soil microorganisms also produce 60 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide and large amounts of other greenhouse gases nitrous oxide and methane, thereby contributing significantly to global warming.

In natural ecosystems, the dynamic biological processes within soil sustain its structure and its ability to support agriculture and forestry, but these processes cannot be taken for granted and our activities can seriously threaten this balance. Intensive agricultural management, to increase food production, can disrupt soil structure, leading to erosion and desertification, and global warming may increase decomposition of the store of soil carbon.

The physical, chemical and biological complexity of the soil environment makes it difficult to understand and predict how activities will influence the many interacting processes required to sustain essential soil processes. This complexity is also a major reason for the diversity of organisms that inhabit it. This makes soil an exciting and challenging ecosystem for biological research that is essential for future prediction and management of soil activities and processes to avoid current threats to soil sustainability and preservation of this invaluable resource.

14.12.16 Where there's muck, there's money, (lots of money)

British farmers could save millions of pounds a year by regularly analysing their slurry and manure, according to a recent review carried out by NRM Laboratories. With nearly 90 million tonnes produced on farms every year the average value of nutrients supplied by livestock manures equates to almost £304 million a year - but nutrient contents can vary significantly, underlining the value of laboratory analysis for accurately predicting manure nutrient supply.

The Bracknell-based firm, which carries out a significant proportion of the UK’s agricultural analytical tests, examined the nutrient content of thousands of samples analysed since January 2011. “The range between samples is staggering,” says Managing Director Nigel Patrick. “Farmers might rely on ‘typical’ figures such as in the Fertiliser Manual (RB209) when estimating the nutrient value of organic manures, but our analysis shows that they could be way off the mark.”

RB209 guidelines put the typical nitrogen content of cattle farmyard manure at 6kg/t, with phosphate and potash at 3.2kg/t and 7.2kg/t, respectively. But NRM’s analysis reveals that nitrogen contents in cattle FYM ranged from 1.3kg/t to 32.6kg/t, phosphate contents from 0.5kg/t to 21.9kg/t and potash from 0.2kg/t to 35.0kg/t. “When looking at crop-available nutrient levels, the value of that manure could be anywhere between 44p/t and £28/t,” says Mr Patrick. “This means that farmers could either be under-supplying crop needs; and thereby hampering yields, or over-fertilising and wasting both money and precious resources, while increasing the risk of nutrient losses to the environment.”

Similar results can be seen in livestock slurries as well as in solid pig and poultry manure. “In fact, the range in broiler and turkey litter is even greater than in cattle manure, with a £54/t difference in value between the highest and lowest samples,” he adds.

Nutrient levels can vary according to the dry matter content of the manure and the way in which it is handled, he explains. “Readily available nitrogen such as ammonium nitrate-N and uric acid-N is particularly susceptible to loss through leaching or volatilisation, so storage, management and application practices will have a significant impact on the ultimate value of your manure."

The mean value of an autumn application at 50m3/ha of pig slurry to winter wheat has been estimated at £161/ha, with the same application of cattle slurry worth £124/ha – although those figures will vary depending on the actual nutrient content of the muck. However, manure only carries a financial value if the soil and crop require the nutrients, warns John Williams, Principal Research Scientist at ADAS. “It’s therefore important to match crop requirements with the nutrients present in your soil and manure before drawing up a nutrient plan.”

Unfortunately, only a very small percentage of the nation’s farmers analyse their manure, so the potential for improvement is vast. “Inorganic fertilisers are expensive – and when over-used can be damaging to the environment - so no farmer would willingly apply too much to their crops,” says Lord Curry, chairman of NRM, one of the divisions of Cawood Scientific. “But by not analysing their slurry and manure, they could be doing exactly that. This research is a real wake-up call to the industry: Manure is a valuable resource and we’ve got to start treating it as such. It really does confirm the old adage; where there's muck there's money."

Source: NRM, 13th December 

08.12.16 More sustainable dairying practices: Precision agriculture for pasture nutrient management

Source: Farming Futures, 22nd November

Precision agriculture refers to the adoption of practices that try to increase the scale of resolution at which the needs of crop units (e.g. fields or zones within fields) or livestock units (e.g. groups of similar aged animals or even individual animals) are measured and managed. 

Precision nutrient management requires farmers to

1. carefully plan the crops that they will grow and the necessary soil physical and chemical conditions for optimal growth 

2. measure the existing soil parameters

3. respond to these through precise management of fertilisers and

4. regularly review progress and repeat this process.

Most dairy farms are managed in a uniform way, yet pastures can exhibit enormous variability in their yield, even within a single farm. Accordingly, much of the fertiliser that is used on the farm is wasted, despite the fact that fertilisers comprise a large proportion of the variable costs in modern farming. New technologies allow precise measurements of within pasture variation in nutrient needs and also provide the means to respond with tailored amounts and types of fertiliser.


Although no studies were available for precision agriculture on dairy pastures specifically soils under a precision agricultural system will be managed for optimum fertility and structure to maximise crop quality and yield.


Precision nutrient management will be expected to reduce the amount of nutrients applied in excess of pasture requirements, thereby reducing nutrient losses through leaching and runoff and subsequent decreases in water quality. 


Aquatic biodiversity in particular will be expected to benefit from reduced fertiliser runoff into water supplies which can lead to eutrophication in local streams and lakes.


Precise nutrient management is expected to maintain or increase yields whilst decreasing variable costs of fertiliser use.

Other considerations and notes on best practice

  • the more variability there is in environmental conditions (particularly soil), the greater the potential rewards for a more precise fertiliser regime
  • Maximum improvements will be made when different precision agriculture tools are used in conjunction with one another
  • It is less about the specific technologies adopted and more about the careful gathering and interpretation of pasture data

08.12.16 Nutrient management, Nitrate Vulnerable Zones

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) are areas designated as being at risk from agricultural nitrate pollution. They include about 58% of land in England. Defra reviews NVZs every 4 years to account for changes in water pollution.

NVZs for 2017 to 2020 start on 1 January 2017. They include new areas of NVZs, and exclude areas that have been de-designated.

Find out if your land is in an NVZ

Use the What’s in your backyard? map to find out if your land is in an NVZ . You can print a map of your local area using this tool. This tool is continually updated to show any changes to NVZ designations.

Your farm may be completely or partly in an NVZ. An NVZ boundary is drawn around whole fields, so there are no fields that are only partly in an NVZ. Restrictions apply for each field on your farm that’s in an NVZ.

The NVZs method statement shows how the NVZs were decided for the 2017 to 2020 designation. The National Environment and Agricultural Procedure - Nitrate (Neap-N) report gives the estimates of average nitrate leached from agricultural land used in the analysis.

If you can’t print a map from What’s in your backyard then contact the Environment Agency.

Telephone: 03708 506 506 (Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm) This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Designation notices

Defra will be sending written notices in early 2017 to any person who owns or occupies land completely or partly within an NVZ. This tells the owner or occupier of the designation and their need to comply with NVZ rules.

Help and Advice

Contact the Farming Advice Service for more information on using nitrogen fertilisers and manures in NVZs and other requirements of cross compliance.

Telephone: 0345 345 1302 (Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm) This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

07.12.16 New grants available for beef and dairy farmers

Source: Defra 

Defra have announced a new grant, The Farming Ammonia Reduction Grant, which allows funding for covers to existing slurry stores to improve as a fertiliser and reduce ammonia emissions from beef and dairy farms in England.


You can apply for this grant to help pay for covers to existing slurry stores on dairy and beef farms in England.

Slurry store covers provide the benefit of:

  • protecting the store from rainwater and reducing storage and field application costs
  • Reducing the loss of nitrogen and increase the quality of slurry as a fertiliser
  • reducing ammonia emissions and improving air quality
  • minimising odour emissions
You'll receive one to one advice from a farm adviser on ways to reduce ammonia emissions and conserve nitrogen which could increase the efficiency and reduce costs of your farm system

You'll get:
  • £61.00 per square metre for self supporting covers for slurry stores
  • £11.20 per square metre for floating covers for slurry stores and lagoons


You can apply from the 1st December 2016 to 31st January 2017. Late applications will not be accepted.

If you need help with the application form please call Natural England on 0208 026 2018 or for general enquiries please call 0300 060 3900.

Application forms and guidance is available on the Defra website here.

01.12.16 Australian National Farmers Federation modernises climate change thinking

Source: Farm Online National Australia

FIONA Simson’s ascent to the National Farmers’ Federation presidency has coincided with a powerful shift in climate change policy that she says represents “significant modernisation” of the peak farm lobby group’s thinking on the hot topic.

Previously, the NFF’s policy questioned the legitimacy of climate change and its scientific basis which was viewed as a regressive social and political stance. But last week the peak body’s members’ council approved a policy update that now offers an important statement of acknowledgement on the vexed political topic by the farm sector.

It says the NFF recognises that climate change poses a significant challenge for Australian farmers but there’s also great opportunity for the agriculture sector to contribute to national emissions reduction goals.

Ms Simson said there was little debate at last week’s meeting on the policy shift, with members viewing the move as being “pretty straight forward”.

She said the NFF’s Natural Resource Management Committee did its home work to help provide back ground discussion on the policy debate which was then put to members’ council and they “very much acknowledged that this was the modern view of the NFF”.

“The NFF is recognising climate change and the challenge it poses to farmers and we also recognise that we’re at the forefront of dealing with it,” she said.

“That’s policy that we haven’t had before and in the past our policy has questioned the science of climate change and those sorts of things.

“But this is now putting climate change on the map, saying that we understand climate change is a real challenge and that we need to work proactively around dealing with it and farmers can play a huge role in that.

“I think it captures the current thinking of the NFF and shows that we have progressed significantly in our thinking about climate change.”

Ms Simson said that new thinking on climate change and policy position would now be included in the NFF’s policy conversations and related political discussions or public debates.

“It will enable us to go into the room in Canberra, with a view about how best we can tackle climate change,” she said.

"“It’s about talking about the elephant in the room when we’re talking about agriculture and climate change and what we can do.

“I think it’s important that we modernise our policy and rather than perhaps being a significant change it’s a significant modernisation of our thinking and a reflection of that shift, in our policy.”

Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce said the NFF was its own independent body but he welcomed the shift in policy position, on climate change.

He said both he and the NFF would be working to make sure they looked after the agriculture sector to ensure it doesn’t become “the whipping boy of other policies” that lump added costs onto farmers, to try and tackle climate change.

“Everybody else seems very eager to say, ‘we’ve got a problem with climate change and the way that we’ll deal with it is to put a caveat on people in the country’,” he said.

“But you can’t say that you’re going to fix the problem that you’re ventilating, with my private asset.

“That is, you don’t fix climate change by taking away my vegetation rights because that means that you don’t want to do it with your money, you just want to do it with mine.

“If you truly accept responsibility you need to show your acceptance by paying for it out of your own wallet, not somebody else’s.”

The policy shift also coincided with Farmers for Climate Action joining the NFF as an associate member where they are not permitted to vote at meetings but can sit at the table and be part of committees.

Ms Simson said she welcomed the group‘s members into the NFF’s national policy discussions which aimed to be inclusive.

She said the merits of the single interest group were debated after they formally applied to become NFF members and the board then made a final decision to allow membership.

“We’d much rather have the conversation around the farmers’ tables than out in the community,” she said.

Peter Holding, a member of Farmers for Climate Action and mixed crop and sheep farmer from Harden in NSW, said his group’s membership of the NFF was “really exciting” along with the recent shift in policy.

Mr Holding said the NFF had been “sitting on the fence for 10 years” on climate change and denying its existence but were now showing the type of leadership needed to address core policy concerns and be proactive.

“The NFF have decided to change their policy to accepting that climate change will cause significant damage to farmers and rural Australia and that’s very encouraging,” he said.

“It’s the sort of leadership we need to put the proper messaging out there about what‘s happening so farmers can make the right financial decisions about what the future might hold for them.”

Mr Holding said his group’s survey on climate change attitudes, of more than 1300 farmers released this week, showed that whether they believed in climate change or not, they accepted and acknowledged that “things” were happening on their farms and wanted something done about it.

NFF climate policy endorsed at Members’ Council last week.

The NFF recognises that climate change poses a significant challenge for Australian farmers.

As a nation, we must act to ensure that our economy is well placed to cost efficiently reduce our national greenhouse gas emissions profile.

Australian agriculture has always operated in a varied and challenging climate.

The continued success of the Australian agriculture sector will depend on our ability to build on this foundation, and continue to innovate and adapt to best manage future climatic risks and to reduce the emissions intensity of our production systems.

There is great opportunity for Australian agriculture to contribute to our national emissions reduction goals.

This opportunity requires innovation to reduce the emissions intensity and to enable farmers to efficiently participate in carbon markets.

It is critical that the suite of government policies that seek to address the challenge of climate change are fully examined, to ensure that the policy levers of government work cohesively to achieve our national objectives, while minimising the risk of unintended or perverse outcomes.

30.11.16 Australian Farmers demand the Coalition government does more on climate change

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, Fergus Hunter 

A thumping majority of Australian farmers have concluded they are witnessing the effects of climate change, urging the Coalition government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare the country for a future that is drier, less predictable and more prone to bushfires.

This is according to a survey of 1300 primary producers across states and agricultural sectors, conducted by advocacy group Farmers for Climate Action with the co-operation of the National Farmers Federation.

It found 88 per cent of respondents want rural and regional politicians to start advocating for stronger climate change action. Two thirds have seen changes in rainfall over their time on the land and half have seen an increase in droughts and floods.

Nine in 10 are concerned about damage to the climate and eight in 10 support Australia moving towards 100 per cent renewable energy.

A delegation of six farmers visited Parliament House on Monday and Tuesday to convey the findings, meeting with politicians of all persuasions to make their case for emissions reductions, global leadership and boosted research on new technology.

Derek Blomfield, a beef producer from the Liverpool Plains in Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce's New South Wales electorate, has observed increasing unreliability of weather.

He now finds managing his property more difficult and wants to see "strong leadership" from the Coalition government and thinks farmers shouldn't be scared of initiatives like emissions trading schemes and carbon taxes.

"For our industry, it's critical that we don't let this thing get out of hand. When I say for our industry, it actually means for everyone. Because we all need a farmer three times a day."

To some of the MPs more sceptical of climate change, including Mr Joyce and other Nationals, "we just try and point out how critical this is for our industry," he said.

The survey found changes to rainfall had been observed by 67 per cent of respondents, more frequent and worse droughts by 47 per cent, floods by 46 per cent, increased temperatures by 42 per cent, changing planting times by 41 per cent and more frequent and worse bushfires for 22.5 per cent.

They were most concerned about less reliable rainfall, higher temperatures that increase evaporation, heatwaves, pollution from mining, bushfires, rising costs and invasive species.

Karrinjeet Singh-Mahil, a dairy farmer from Crossley in Victoria, wants boosted climate change research funding and improved access to the Emissions Reductions Fund for farmers to pursue new initiatives.

"We want them to get over the ideology and to accept that change is happening, for whatever reason, and we want them to have a consistent message that it is and that it is affecting farms," she told Fairfax Media.

Ms Singh-Mahil said her property is suffering from increased erosion and pastures not surviving the season. She is satisfied with the reception from Canberra MPs, especially the understanding of those who have real experience on farms.

Climate change, which scientific consensus has found to be a unique threat driven by the human-generated increase in greenhouse gas emissions, gradually lifts air and ocean temperatures, making weather more unpredictable, raising sea levels and undermining critical environmental processes.

The average global temperature has already risen one degree celsius above pre-industrial levels and 2016 is set to knock off 2015 as the hottest year on record.

23.11.16 The Woodland Carbon Fund

Applications for the Woodland Carbon fund opened on the 10th November 2016.

The Woodland Carbon Fund is a simple, demand-led grant scheme to boost the rate of woodland creation and to visibly demonstrate how, by taking a natural capital approach, woodland creation can help to meet government's future carbon targets alongside delivering other benefits. Successful applications will be for large scale (more than 30ha with a minimum block size of 10ha) predominantly productive woodland and, where possible, have sought opportunities to improve public access and achieve wider environmental outcomes in line with the UK Forestry Standards.

What is it?

A grant to support the planting of multipurpose woodlands over 30 ha in size, providing opportunities to work in partnership at a landscape scale, to improve public access to woodland and achieve wider environmental outcomes by:

  • contribution to future carbon budgets
  • Maximising natural capital benefits (by providing community access);
  • Acting as a pathfinder for large scale woodland creation;
  • Encouraging partnership approach and landscape-scale projects.
The Woodland Carbon fund is not part of Countryside Stewardship grant funding but sits alongside the grant support avialable via Countryside Stewardship and the recently re-opened Woodland Creation Planting Grant.

Maximum grants available will range between £6,800 and £8,500 per hectare depending on the site's location, with the higher rate available in 'peri-urban' (those areas surrounding urban areas) locations and if you provide permissive access to the public on foot. Additional support is available as a contribution to the installation of infrastructure such as footpaths to support recreation.

Is my land eligible? 

Click here to see whether you are eligible.

Source: Forestry Commission

22.11.16 Mix plants for healthy soils

Source: Simon Parfey

The solution to deteriorating soil health ... biodiversity!

According to a new paper in the Journal Ecology Letters, the best way to maintain proper soil structure is to increase the diversity of plant species.

It is widely accepted that plant roots play a key role in keeping soil together, making it resistant to erosion and helping water flow through the soil, helping to prevent floods. However, until now little was understood about how the roots of different plant communities affect the physical condition of the soil.

A group of scientists from the UK, Netherlands, and Germany has produced new evidence that increasing plant species diversity can protect soil in grasslands by improving soil structure, maintaining its overall health.

When experimenting with different rations of grasses, herbs and legumes in vulnerable grasslands, researchers found maximizing diversity yielded the healthiest soil. At field sites in both England and Germany, plant biodiversity proved the most effective way to maintain soil health.

"Impriving the physical structure of soil is vital for conserving water, reducing flooding and water pollution." According to John Quinton of Lancaster University Environment Centre, "Increasing plant biodiversity improves the physical properties of soil and has the potential to help us develop new, greener, solutions for these issues."

PRofessor Richard Bardgett of the University of Machester, another collaborator on the project said, "Soils are severley degraded in many parts of the world and these findings suggest that enhancing plant diversity could be an important way of speeding up their restoration to bring back fertility. It is almost like different combinations of roots can be used to engineer the soil, working to enhance its physical structure which is key to soil health."

Source: Simon Parfey, Soil Bio Lab, November 2016

21.11.16 Four unexplored big wins in agriculture

Four unexplored big wins in agriculture - tackling climate change through landscape restoration

Source: CIAT Blog, Georgina Smith, 15th November 2016

Four solutions lie in how we farm our food and treat our landscapes, this report summarises a session held at COP22 in Morroco looking at some of the tools that can tackle climate change head-on.

During this session, the group were called upon to consider these opportunities to tackle climate change:

The first big win - trees on agricultural land could sink four times more carbon.

Recent studies show that carbon sequestered by trees on agricultural land is not well accounted for. If it was, researchers argue in this study: "Global Tree Cover and Biomass Carbon on Agricultural Land: The contribution of agroforestry to global and national carbon budgets," total carbon estimates from agricultural land could be more than four times higher than they are.

Yet while carbon stored and sequestered by forests is widely recognised and land cover changes well monitored, carbon stored by trees on agricultural land needs to be measured better. Growing more trees on farm land could be a fast and easy route to increasing carbon sequestration, above and below ground, with a myriad of other benefits.

That entails mapping landscapes to guide decision makers about where to invest in certain management practices over others, and policies that enhance carbon sequestration on agricultural land to benefit farmers and society as a whole.

The second big win is that carbon can be absorbed back into the soil

The stock of carbon in the soil is twice as high as that in the atmosphere. Small changes in soil carbon can have big impact on atmospheric carbon. 

This session discusses new research from CIAT and The Nature Conservancy, presenting an initiative that could offset all CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning that are not already absorbed by oceans and land.

Data and maps show the most up-to-date soil properties from World Soil Information and Food and Agriculture Organisation, and illustrate where carbon could be sequestered if practices to enhance soil organic matter were widely adopted.

Since agricultural soils, already managed actively, have lost significant amounts of carbon, they could also re-absorb carbon based on soil type and climate.  What's needed are site specific tools for decision makers presenting the bigger picture on where soils are degraded, and where to invest to improve soil carbon stocks.

A third big win looks at protecting wetland and peatland ecosystems

These ecosystems contain around 20% of global soil organic carbon stocks. But tropical peat fires are a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, producing transboundary "hazes" impacting human health, regional economies and ecosystems.

Huge opportunities to mitigate climate change lie in protecting these lands. But they are often under threat from commercial and development interests. Combined with contemporary agricultural practices on peatlands - land clearance, burning, drainage and fertilization - these landscapes and the carbon they store are at risk. How can they be climate -proofed?

The fourth big win shows how improving grasslands

Can provide a triple climate win. Brachiaria grasses sequester significant amounts of soil organic carbon - conservation estimates indicate a 2-3 fold higher annual sequestration rate than in other annual cropping systems.

A growing body of research shows that some varieties of brachiaria reduce N2O emissions from soils, a phenomenon known as biological nitrification inhibition. New research also finds 40% more milk and tens of millions of dollars in revenue are possible for African farmers adopting drought resilient brachiaria varieties

Wider adoption of brachiaria grasses to improve grasslands has a tremendous potential to mitigate climate - especially in sub-Saharan Africa. But further research is needed to investigate commercial - quality seed in Africa, and tackle climate related challenges like new pests and diseases. 

21.11.16 How to increase the uptake of environmentally friendly fertilisers in Germany

Fertilisers have boosted crop yields but at the same time can have negative effects on the environment. This study investigates fertiliser 'eco-innovations' with reduced environmental impact, in Germany. By gathering the views of experts, producers, traders and farmers the researchers make recommendations for increasing uptake of environmentally friendly fertilisers, including increasing knowledge and awareness among traders and farmers.

Source - Science for Environment Policy, 18th November 2016.

Over the past century agricultural productivity has increased significantly. Almost half of the increase in agricultural output can be attributed to the use of fertilisers, which supply essential plant nutrients to soil and crops. While fertilisers have helped food production to keep pace with population growth, ther are growing concerns that their increased use has negative effects on the environment, including generating greenhouse gases, increased leaching of nutrients and using finite natural resources. 

As a result of these concerns, there is a growing movement to develop new agricultural practices that enhance food production without such costs to the environment. These can be classed as eco-innovations, which results in a reduction of environmental risk, pollution and the negative impacts of resource use. 

This study investigated fertiliser eco-innovations in Germany. The researchers assessed three innovations that have been around for some time, but have not been widely adopted in Germany. 

These eco-innovations were:

1. Stabilised Nitrogen Fertilisers (SNF)

According to the authors, the use of SNF can reduce nitrogen leaching and increase the efficiency of nitrogen use. They can also reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide both of which are greenhouse gases.

2. Fertigation (FG)

FG is the application of soluble fertiliser via irrigation water. Applying nutrients in a water - soluble form and just before they are needed can reduce nutrient losses and give producers more control over plant nutrition. 

3. Fertilisers made from secondary raw materials (FRSM)

Fertilisers can be made from secondary raw materials such as sewage sludge, compost or leftovers from meat or food production. These are expected to become more important as non-renewable materials (such as rock phosphate) become scarce.

To investigate these eco-innovations, the researchers first held interviews with experts in the field, including CEOs of fertiliser producers and plant nutrition experts. Based on the results of these interviews, they developed a questionnaire which was answered by 57 people in the German fertiliser supply chain, including fertiliser producers, traders and farmers. Questions addressed the drivers for eco-innovation: market pull / technology push, perceived need for action to mitigate climate change, regulation awareness and knowledge of eco-innovations. Additionally three open questions were used to get a deeper insight into the ideas of the respondents about environmental challenges and solutions.

The results showed that groups perceive eco-innovation differently. Farmers were overall the most sceptical of new technologies. This indicates that the adoption of eco-innovation is more likely to be due to 'technology push' than 'market pull' driven by farmer demand, although results suggested this could change if consumers increased their willingness to pay for crops grown using environmentally friendly fertilisers. 

All groups generally agreed that extreme weather will increase and that fertilisation management has to adapt. All groups were also aware of regulation as a driver for eco-innovation. However while producers anticipate regulatory changes in order to remain compliant, traders and farmers appeared to be less pro-active. All supply-chain partners agreed that environmental regulations are likely to become stricter, and especially farmers expected further restriction on the use of nitrogen and phosphorus which should increase eco-innovation adoption.

Although experts were aware of general developments, such as an increased use of organic fertilisers, knowledge of specific eco-innovation was limited and decreased along the supply chain. SNF was the best known by all partners in the supply chain. While FG was well known by producers, only 65% of traders and 30% of farmers were aware of it. FSRM was known by over half of producers but fewer than than 30% of traders and farmers. Of concern, farmers - those who apply the eco-innovations - had the lowest knowledge overall, which may be caused by the low market diffusion of these products.

The researchers conclude that each fertiliser faces specific problems, but that the main barrier for all of them is cost; they are simply more expensive that their conventional competitors. As well as reducing cost, the researchers make several recommendations to stimulate the development and use of fertiliser eco-innovations. For example they suggest that regulation could limit the acceptable nutrient surplus in farms.

They also suggest that plant-nutrient experts could improve knowledge and awareness of eco-innovations among traders and farmers, for example by organising seminars and workshops for them. They also conclude that the different stages of the fertiliser supply chain in Germany are not well connected and recommend creating local networks of peers, suppliers, customers and institutions to increase trader and farmer awareness of eco-innovations.

Source: Hasler, K., Olfs, H-W., Omta, O. & Broring, S. (2016) Drivers for the Adoption of Eco-Innovations in he German Fertiliser Supply Chain. Sustinability, 8(8): 682. DOI: 10.3390/su8080682 

11.11.16 European Agroforestry Conference Report

The report below was written by Niels Corfield.

In late May, 250 Delegates, from as far away as China and Brazil, with a large contingent from France and Europe gathered in Montpelier for the 2016 European Agroforestry Conference. Research, practices and experiences were shared from academics and managers alike were shared across 2 days of conference and 1 day of tours.

The conference began with an inspiring opening talk by Mark Shepard from Wisconsin USA, only briefly over-shadowed by the presence and address by the French agriculture minister (who is an advocate of agroforestry).

Integrated Closed-Loop Wood Pasture and Biomass Agroforestry

Without doubt the highlight of the event was the farm tours. On day 2, we visited innovative farms across the region, including: examples of silvopasture (wood pasture), silvoarable farming and an olive grove/market garden agroforestry system.

Perhaps the most innovative of all of these was a 250ha mountain farm, working to regenerate landscape and livelihood by controlling and utilising scrub growth on the farm. As well as sheep they keep 100 pigs on the farm, which historically were fed 80% from off-farm inputs (grain). 100 pigs require an area of 50ha of arable land in this area to keep them fed.

Historic over-grazing and mismanagement, followed by years of neglect, has meant that the upland landscape is dominated by box under-storey growth that chokes canopy trees and shades out grasses and other valuable forages and wild flowers. Although it's a legal requirement in the area to control scrub, this farm (and a group of 4 others) has taken it to a new level by developing an ingenious multi-stage process to mechanically control (and harvest) the box growth, shred it, and up-cycle this material into bedding for horses as well composting it (using it as a heat source for central heating in the farmhouse) and finally using it as a feed stock insect larvae that are high value pig/poultry fodder. The clearance work then opens up new "glades" within the existing wood pasture complex that provides diverse forage for sheep and also pigs. These opened pastures are rich in species.

This is an excellent contemporary example of the "Jean Pain" system in action (in fact, they have incorporated one of the patented chipper machines in their harvesting rig and count one of his family members amongst the design team).

The harvester unit is a beast of a machine, based around a giant pair of secateurs, modelled on the pincers of a beetle, (biomimicry in action). And the giant hydraulic arm it's mounted on is reminiscent of elephants trunk, and as Mark Shepard commented the machine is "doing what the mastodon used to do in the ecosystem", it's a shame these great beasts are no longer around to do this work (since they would do it with no need for fuel or repairs) all the while, making clearings for browsing and grazing animals to occupy.

The harvester yields around 1600m3 of biomass per year, with a fairly small fuel budget, since most of the work is done with hydraulics. Surplus biomass is arranged into large piles/windrows, roughly 100m3 in volume. As composting takes place the pile heats up to between 50 and 80oC. Water-filled IBCs are inserted into the pile and water from the farm house’s central heating system is circulated through the tanks, providing 50oC hot water for 6-12 months!

The icing on the cake for this system, even apart the nifty way that heat from large compost piles is harnessed, is the way that the partially composted wood chip is then used as a feed stock for insect culture. Driven by a desire to make best use of the woody biomass and derived from a simple question (what creature naturally actually eats wood chip?) as well as observation/knowledge of the indigenous fauna, this lead to a solution that makes it a truly sustainable (some might say permaculture) system. Instead of just being spread on beds as a soil conditioner/fertiliser, now, the partially composted wood chip is used to feed beetle larvae, that are fat and juicy, these are then fed to pigs directly, replacing 60% of their grain ration. According to the farmer, 10 larvae are equivalent to 2kg of grain! And what's more, they are self-rationing when it comes to the larvae, rather than eating the grain until the feeders are empty. Now the pigs are 80% fed from on-farm resources. This work is saving 50ha of grain land from another location, just by some clever thinking. One day we might eat them directly - this would definitely reduce the need for "off-farm inputs". Once ingested by the grubs, the residual biomass is the most friable matter, like high-grade worm castings.

A variation on this system would be to grow edible/medicinal mushroom using the woodchip. Either in grow rooms or in mulch beds, the latter would integrate well with market garden- or orchard systems. Both providing cash crop yield responses while boosting soil health and suppressing weeds.

Standard Silvoarable Alleycropping - Hybrid Walnut and Cereals

Next we visited a silvoarable system, at a chateau where we had lunch. The farm contains a large block of 10-year-old hybrid walnut and arable alley cropping plantings. Trees are planted in narrow strips of grass with arable rotations carried-out in the alleys. Here we saw an interesting selection of hybrid cultivars with very different leafing times, some having not even broken bud! These late leafing varieties will allow more light into the arable intercrops for longer in the year. These black walnut hybrids have been bread for timber, and as such provide little in the way of a nut crop. In this case the nuts are not harvested. What was starkly clear was how poor the state of the trees was, badly formed and harshly pruned. This illustrates clearly the importance of focus and attention from the farmer on the health and most importantly the form of the trees in an agroforestry system. Since these trees are mostly destined for veneers then the lack of straight trunks will likely be less of a concern, when compared to timber (saw log) applications, for which they would be largely unsuitable, or at least low value.

Some discussion on the causes of the poor shape of the trees. With the local agroforestry extension advisor pointing to the issue of strong and variable winds in their region, incidentally both known as the Cevennes. This in mind ideas were offered from the group about the efficacy of planted shelterbelts around the site. There was some concerns from locals about the unpredictability of wind direction, and that they are not widely utilised in this region, unlike the neighbouring region of the Loire valley. That said, there was much agreement in the group that shelterbelts would be an avenue worth investigating. 

Especially as it is an established agroforestry system, widely practice in other wind-prone regions, like the US Mid-West. There were other trees noted, to do with the southerly and continental climate. IN this case issues with bark damage due to sun- and wind-burn. 

Currently, the main remedy sought is to apply white washes to the bark, to reflect light and shield the bark. Some delegates put forward the idea of planting shrubs close to the tree row. Thus shielding the tree bark from wind and sun. There's good experience of this in areas with long snow periods. One commentator proposed the idea of a row of currants on the sunny side of the tree row and a row of raspberries on the other. With sufficient clearance between the tree and shrub rows, this set-up will facilitate easy mechanical harvesting.

It was also pointed out that, as well as only making limited use of the tree strip itself the planting lacks diversity, another key intent of agroforestry. It was suggested that one way to add diversity, would be to plant wine grape vines on trellises attached to trees (perhaps above raspberry supports). This would tie-in with the vineyard wine-making activities currently taking place on the farm. This idea combined with the shrub plantings would make fuller use of the vertical space and the ground below the tree (the tree strips).

Market Garden and Olive Grove Alley Cropping

The final stop was a refreshing (and welcome shaded) end to the day. A market garden alley cropping system in an existing olive grove. The market garden was conceived- and is run by Odile and is a great example of how creative thinking can be brought to the subject of land access, utilising otherwise unused land, that otherwise would be a cost to manage, between long-term cash crop species. Odile has created a lovely synthesis of two distinct cropping systems - organic (biodynamic) market gardening and commercial olive production. 

The system is an example of some of the complimentary aspects that agroforestry can bring, in the semi-arid Mediterranean climate of southern France, her lettuces and tender crops have protection from the sun and the air in the alleys is cooled from the dappled shade of the olive branches, and the ground below the competition for the olives from weeds and grasses is minimised.  She is demonstrating what can be done with initiative and innovation, she is utilising cover crops and worm composts, as well as a reduced weeding regime that minimises the amount of soil disturbance and bare soil, whilst saving work, she says it works for her. And hers is not the only market garden alley cropping system currently working in France the idea seems to be getting some traction, we heard of another few examples from different parts of the country.

It’s always a pleasure to go on farm visits, and “have a nose”. Seeing what people are doing on the ground is always the best way to learn. There's always more to ask and about and enquire of but never enough time. My thanks to the organisers of the event and the farmers for sharing their work and their time and commend them for their commitment and passion in what they do. They are showing what can be achieved with trees and agroecology in practice.

What you can do

If you have a farm or smallholding with secure tenure then trees can form a part of a diversification programme. Offering protection for: cash crops, pasture and livestock. Provide additional income. Provide habitat for beneficial wildlife, and form part of an integrated pest management (IPM) strategy. Supply fertility for soil and crop. Produce biomass for: compost, heating/hot water.

The Woodland Trust is currently offering full grants for agroforestry plantings on-farm.

Niels Corfield is a consultant specialising in on-farm trees, soil improvement and integration. 

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Links/Further Reading to French Agroforestry

SAS Buxor (Insect Culture Farm)

Market Garden agroforestry research project

Agroforestry training and research


Videos & Presentations

Mark Shepard presentation

11.11.16 2016 Soil Farmer of the Year

So we are now at the end of the farm walks associated with our first ever Soil Farmer of the Year Competition.  The competition, which was run in association with Innovation for Agriculture, and kindly sponsored by Cotswold Seeds has been a great success, so much so that we are just in the process of sorting out the forms for next year's competition.

While you wait for the application form, why not look at the infographic below, which captures some of the highlights from this year.

10.11.16 COP22: what's happening?

You would be forgiven this week for forgetting that the next climate change talks are happening with all the other stories that have been dominating the media.

But, in Marrakech, the 22nd Climate Chance conference is going on from the 7th to the 18th of November, where world leaders will continue their work on the fundamental question of how we are going to respond to the threat of climate change collectively, and how we are going to turn the promises of last year’s famous Paris agreement into reality. 

Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC explains: “The UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakech is the crucial next step for governments looking to operationalise the Paris Climate Change Agreement adopted last year. While the Paris Agreement gave clear pathways and a final destination in respect to decisive action on climate change, many of the details regarding how to move forward as one global community in that common direction still need to be resolved. With the entry into force happening just days before COP22, the dialogue and decisions in Marrakech hold immense potential to accelerate and amplify the immediate response to the challenge recognised in the Paris agreement.” (Source, UNFCC)

The other important thing that has happened recently is that the Paris Climate Change Agreement has come into force (as of the 4th November). This is a momentous occasion, as it is the first time that governments have agreed legally binding limits to global temperature rises. Under the agreement, all governments that have ratified the agreement, (including the US, China, India and the EU) now carry an obligation to hold global warming to no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. That is what scientists regard as the limit of safety, beyond which climate change is likely to become catastrophic and irreversible.

So the ink is dry on the paper signing us all up to the agreement, the question is what do we actually have to do? This is the difficult question that will be tackled to some degree during the discussions in Morocco.  Governments will be making concerted efforts in Marrakech to support domestic action that will give effect to nationally determined contributions combined with collaborative initiatives as part of an intensified Global Climate Action with non-state actors.

One thing that is clear, is that agriculture (and us as farmers) have a big part to play in the doing part to ensure that we meet our requirements in terms of emissions reductions and improved sequestration.  As global stewards of the land, we have a unique role to play in getting action happening on the ground. We have a part to play in explaining the impact of climate change on our businesses, the importance of local sustainable food production and all of the other benefits farming brings, in terms of ecosystem services, clean water, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. 

So what is my wish list to come out of the talks in Marrakech?

Metrics – let’s get all the clever people that are out there working on documenting the impact of agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions to work together to develop methodologies that highlight the diverse nature of our farming system, have worth at the farm level, and inform where efforts might be best placed in terms of actions.

Knowledge transfer – How do we all work together to highlight best practice where it is happening, allow researchers and farmers to work together, and develop a national and global strategy that allows for consistent communication to ensure that messages are heard by the right people.

Farmer participation and ownership of projects – We need to ensure that farmers are involved in the conversations and can take ownership of the problem (and potential solutions). Our farmers are key knowledge holders and provide that unique local knowledge that needs to be part of the solution to develop long term change.  

Where are the gaps in knowledge and research? This is a great opportunity for all the people that are working on climate change around the world to look at where are the gaps in knowledge? What do we need to know – and more importantly – can we work together to try and find solutions?

So that’s my (potentially naive) wish list, what is actually happening in the real world?

Ceris Jones is there for the NFU and has reported on meetings that she has been involved with. You can read her blog here, but the highlight for me was that the World Farmers Organisation is calling for:

Urgent next steps to enable the delivery of significant improvements in agricultural productivity and resilience and

That global finance mechanisms assign a higher priority to agriculture in their funding programmes

(Source NFU Blog – Enthusiasm for change at COP22).

Indeed yesterday (9.11.16) was Farmers day at COP22, so it will be interesting to see what has come out of the talks. I will keep our blog up to date with any new developments.

Watch this space, but one thing is clear, the time for action is coming, and we all need to join in.


09.11.16 Crop evaluation at Reaseheath

Source: Tillage magazine, Marion King, 5.11.16

The evaluation of groundbreaking companion cropping trials, aimed at conserving the environment while improving land productivity, have been revealed at Reaseheath College in Cheshire.

The trials, being held for the first time in the UK, have been run in partnership with machine manufacturer Pottinger, agronomy company Agrovista and seed companies DLF, Germinal and Pioneer. The aim is to find the most viable companion crop, suitable for UK growing conditions, which will establish and maintain quality maize forage while responding to potential legislation.

Twelve plots of different varieties of grass, clover, vetch, peas and other legumes were sown under early maturing maize. The growth and vigour of the companion crop were then evaluated by Agrivista agonomists, who presented their findings to an audience of industry professional at an on-farm demonstration event. 

Fescue 'Kora' was the clear winner of this intial trial, showing excellent rooting structure and growth plus the ability to establish under dry conditions and remain hardy under winter conditions. 

The trials will be repeated and re-evaluated next year.

Agrovista's John Ball told visitors: "Cover crops are going to become regulation. Leaving soil bare under maize is not going to be an option for us in future. We have to do something to prevent soil erosion and nutrient loss while still getting the best yield."

Undersowing grass and legumes under maize is a widespread practice in Europe where farmers on comparatively small mixed units use the system to keep within the environmental regulations and avoid being left with unproductive maize stubble.

To enable the simultaneous planting of maize and grass, Pottinger used its Pottinger Aerosem 3002 ADD drill which features a Precision Combi Seeding (PCS) system combining a precision maize drill and a conventional pneumatic seed drill on the same unit.

Reaseheath agriculture undergraduate Robert Yardley made the inital links with Pottinger at Agritechnical last November while he was at the show on a scholarship from the Oxford Farming Conference.

To read the article on the Tillage website click here.

07.11.16 New tool opens world of climate finance to dairy sector

By unlocking carbon credit markets, first of its kind methodology looks to boost financing for smallholder farms, green the livestock sector. 

Source: FAO, news release, 4th November 2016

The dairy sector will soon be able to participate in international carbon credit markets thanks to a new methodology that lets farmers and project designers reliably document how they are reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions - a step that will open up new sources of finance for the livestock industry and help promote investment in smallholder operations. 

FAO's new Smallholder dairy methodology tackles two major challenges facing agriculture today: the need to make agriculture more productive by increasing yields, while at the same time cutting agriculture's carbon footprint. By opening up new sources of finance, the methodology addresses the critical question of how to finance the necessary transition to a greener livestock sector.

The new methodology, developed by FAO and partners for the first time clearly identifies areas within dairy production where greenhouse emissions can be curbed for example by changing feed composition or feeding practices or improving the energy efficiency of equipment and explains how those reductions can be measured and reported.

Importantly, it has been certified by Gold Standard, an independent body that evaluates climate projects under the UN's Clean Development Mechanisms and ensures they deliver genuine emission reductions.

This certification is key to allowing smallholder dairy operations to receive internationally accepted carbon credits in exchange for emission reductions. Thes can be sold on carbon markets - a potential revenue stream that creates a financial incentive for the dairy industry to go greener and opens new opportunities for small-scale producers to access investment funding for their farms.

"Investing in ways to make smallholder dairy systems more productive  is an efficient way to simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure food security," said Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO's Livestock Information, Sector Analysis and Policy Branch. "This methdology will help to channel finance to projects that have real impacts on the livelihoods of millions of smallholder dairy farmers," he added.

He estimated that milk production will have to grow by 144 million tonnes by 2025 to meet rising demands.

Strategic changes in housing and feeding animals, in managing their manure and selecting breeds that produce more milk with equal inputs, hold the key to meeting those demands with the least possible environmental damage.

Why it's a game-changer

Under current carbon credit schemes, project developers, such as governments, businesses and NGOs, can apply for permits that allow their projects to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, or methane. If a project manages to emit fewer gases than the full allowance it received, developers can trade the remaining "carbon credits" on the open market - meaning there is a financial incentive for project developers to adopt environmentally friendly technologies and management practices.

But until now, climate finance - and carbon markets in particular were closed to the livestock sector, partly because there was no methodology for calculating credits and certifying emisison cuts. The new tool now sets a global standard that fills a gap.

Enhancing Kenya's dairy sector

Inn Kenya, which served as developing ground for the new tool, the methodology is already part of the country's effort to sustainably intensify its dairy industry under the country's climate action plan.

Because Kenya's livestock sector is dominated by smallholder farmers who have limited access to productivity - enhancing technologies, productivity in dairy has been low and emissions per unit of milk high. This means there is great opportunity to make Kenya's dairy sector more productive and environmentally friendly by introducing new technologies and resource management practices.

With the new tool, the Kenyan government is able to track, quantify and certify that its interventions indeed result in lower emissions intensity - in other words, fewer greenhouse gases per unit of milk. This is essential for involving the dairy sector in the country's international climate commitments and has allowed Kenya to extend its Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action to the dairy sector.

There are additional benefits, beyond emissions reductions as well. For smallholder dairy farmers, some 750 million around the world - changes at the farm level that increase milk yield also bring stronger food security and more income. Increased investment in agriculture also tends to drive development of rural areas at large.


Greenhouse gas emissions from milk production vary greatly across the world. Some countries have production systems that emit as little as 1.7kg of carbon dioxide of milk (CO2e/kg) while in others it can be five  times as high, reaching up to 9kg of carbon dioxide equivalent for each kilogram of milk. But these large variations don't just show in comparisons between countries - they can also be very evident within countries. As a case in point, Kenya's average emissions from milk are 3.7CO2e/kg compared to the global average of 2.8 - but emissions range from 3 - 8t CO2e/kg depending on the farm. This underscores the significant impacts different production methods can have on carbon emissions and the potential for climate mitigation.

A great deal of attention will be dedicated at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakech (COP22) to finding innovative ways to fund climate action and mitigation work, and make good  on the commitments made under the Paris Climate Treaty, making this new tool particularly relevant.

The new methodology was developed by FAO, in partnership with the International Livestock Research Institute, the State Department of Livestock in Kenya, Unique Forestry and Land Use, and Climate Check Corporation.

07.11.16 Soil fauna: key to new carbon models

The information below comes from a new paper that has just been published in Soil Journal and looks at the importance of soil fauna in the movement and cycling (dynamics) of soil organic matter. To read the full article please click here.

Soil organic matter (SOM) is key to maintaining soil fertility, mitigating climate change, combating land degradation and conserving above and below ground biodiversity and associated soil processes and ecosystem services. In order to work out which management options are recommended for maintaining these essential services provided by soils, policy makers need robust and predictive models that identify the key drivers of soil organic matter dynamics.

Existing SOM models and suggested guidelines for future SOM modelling are defined mostly in terms of plant residue quality and input and microbial decomposition and overlook the significant regulation provided by the creatures that reside in the soil (the soil fauna).

This fauna is incredibly important (but often not very well understood) and control almost any aspect of organic matter turnover, foremost by regulating the activity and functional composition of soil microorganisms and their physical –chemical connectivity with soil organic matter.

This paper builds on work completed previously by Schimdt in 2011 which developed eight key insights to enrich models that were predicting the persistence of soil organic matter.  They used these key insights and then looked at the (until now) overlooked component of soil organic matter dynamics – soil fauna and then fundamental role that they play in these insights.

The insights that they looked at concerning SOM were:

  • Molecular structure
  • Humic substances
  • Fire-derived carbon
  • Roots
  • Physical heterogeneity
  • Soil Depth
  • Permafrost
  • Soil Microorganisms

They also looked at the process of soil aggregate formation and the relationship of aggregates with the stability of organic matter. Soil aggregation is the process by which aggregates of different sizes are joined and held together by different organic and inorganic materials. 

What did they find?

This paper presented information that highlights the importance of the soil fauna in controlling almost any aspect of organic matter turnover, foremost by regulating the activity and functional composition of soil microorganisms and their physical chemical connectivity with soil organic matter. The paper found a very strong impact of soil animals on carbon turnover, increasing or decreasing it by several dozen percent, sometimes even turning C sinks into C sources or vice versa. This is demonstrated not only for earthworms and other larger invertebrates but also for smaller fauna such as Collembola. 

The recommendations from this work suggest that including soil animal activities within these models can fundamentally affect their predictive outcome.  It also highlights the massive importance of not just their function, but also of our enhanced understanding of soil fauna and their activities in future research. 

Understanding direct and indirect impacts of soil fauna on nutrient availability, carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas emissions and plant growth is key to the understanding of SOM dynamics in the context of global carbon cycling models. 

To read the full paper, please click here.

Source: Filser, J. et al (2016) Soil Fauna: key to new carbon models, Soil (2) 565-582

02.11.16 The When, Whys and Hows of Land Drainage

A free event taking place in Liskeard with Catchment Sensitive Farming looking at the When, Whys and Hows of Land Drainage.

Since the loss of grant aid on drainage in the 1980s there has been a significant decrease in areas of land drained in the UK. Appropriate field drainage can result in a significant increase in farm productivity and bring environmental benefit. 

Come along and find out more...

Booking is essential: phone 01270 616800, or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

02.11.16 New practice brief released on achieving genetic improvement in ruminants.

Practice Brief - Climate smart agriculture, Improved ruminant genetics


Genetics makes use of natural variation among animals. Selecting preferred animals as parents can yield permanent and cumulative improvements in the population. More efficient animals can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and feed costs. Breeding, including cross-breeding between indigenous and imported species, can also improve resilience to diseases and heat stress and increase reproductive performance. 

Key messages

1. Improved genetics results in permanent and cumulative changes in livestock productivity.

2. Breeding can increase the resilience of livestock to climate -related stress and diseases and increase reproductive performance

3. Methane emissions intensity (emissions per litre of milk or kg of meat) can be improved by breeding for productivity in many countries.

4. In 10 years an 11-26% reduction in methane emissions intensity can be achieved by targeted breeding

5. In some systems, breeding must integrate multiple purposes for livestock in addition to milk and meat production.

Improved livestock genetics

The global livestock sector, particularly  ruminants, contributes approximately 14.5% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions (Gerber et al. 2013). At the same time, the sector supports about 1.3 billion producers and retailers and contributes 40-50% of agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) (Herrero et al. 2016). The livestock sector is vulnerable to impacts of climate change through increased heat and reduced pasture productivity especially in drought -prone dryland areas. Animal breeding exploits natural variation between animals (both within and between breeds) to increase productivity, reduce emissions and to improve resilience to environmental stresses. This strategy is cost-effective, permanent and cumulative. Improved livestock genetics can thus contribute to mitigation and adaptation strategies and support other development goals, but requires individual information on many animals.

What are the benefits of improved livestock genetics?

Genetics works as an effective mitigation strategy and adaptation tool because selection is cumulative and permanent. This means that the effect is directly transferred from generation to generation and the effect is there every day in the life of an animal. Tailor-made breeding schemes are important, as the focus on how to achieve this is different in each country, in each production system for each farmer.

In some regions in developing countries livestock serve multiple purposes in addition to producing meat and milk, such as sources of draught power, manure, capital, insurance and social status (Rivera-Ferre et al 2016). The value placed on targeting breeding for productivity and reduced emissions intensity will depend on the extent to which improved productivity also serves such wider social and environmental objectives in specific contexts.

Interactions with other management practices.

Farmers face many challenges as they seek to increase food production, adaptation to climate change and reduce emissions. Emissions of livestock can be reduced by, for example providing dietary additives, updating health management or by changes in the manure management. However in many situations, particularly in pasture based production systems, these interventions may not be feasible due to expense and / or the extensive nature of the production system.

Genetic improvement as a cumulative permanent and cost effective solution to future challenges goes beyond those limitations offering viable targets. In most instances, gains derived from breeding should be additional to gains that can be made by other mitigation options. 

However as mentioned before, genetic improvement is a slow process, so synergies with other livestock management practices have to be built in order to tackle the challenge both on the short term and in the long run. The most obvious synergies are between feeding and genetics, animal health and genetics and productivity and genetics.

To read the full document please click here.

31.10.16 Agroforestry delivers more ecosystem services than conventional land use

Source: Science for Environment Policy, 28th October 2016, Issue 475

Authors: Torralba, M., Fagerholm, N., Burgess, P., Moreno, G. & Plieninger, T. (2016). Do European agroforestry systems enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services? A meta-analysis. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 230: 150-11. DOI: 10.1016/j.agee.2016.06.002 

Agroforestry - managing trees alongside crop or animal-production systems - has been proposed as a means of protecting biodiversity and enhancing ecosystem service supply. A study bringing together evidence has confirmed that agroforestry does have an overall positive effect over conventional (separate) agriculture and forestry. Its environmental benefits, which should be considered in rural planning policy, include reduced nutrient run-off and soil erosion and biodiversity protection. 

Agroforestry, defined by the EU as 'land-use systems in which trees are grown in combination with agriculture on the same land', can help meet the needs of a growing population and protect the environment. It can be used with both crop and animal production systems and may enhance the supply of regulating ecosystem services, such as nutrient retention, carbon storage, pollination and pest control, as well as cultural services, such as recreation and landscape aesthetics. To promote these benefits, in 2005 the EU provided an opportunity for national and regional governments to support new agroforestry systems.

This study assessed the evidence that agroforesry systems enhance ecosystem services and biodiversity compared with conventional systems, taken from over 20 years of research in Europe. The EU-funded researchers assessed all scientific publications that compared agroforestry with an alternative land-use system in Europe and which included quantitative data and indicators that assess biodiversity and ecosystem services. In total 53 publications were assessed, which included 365 comparisons across 10 European countries.

The effects of agroforestry were measured in two ways: 1) response ratios., which are a measure widely used for ecology meta-analysis, based on the difference between the value of an indicator (e.g. soil erosion) in an agroforestry system compared to the same indicator in a conventional system; and 2) Hedges' used on a subset of studies to analyse the effect on biodiversity, based on the differences in biodiversity between plots in agroforestry systems and other land uses. All studies in the biodiversity subgroup were included in the rest of the meta-analysis to assess the overall effect of agroforestry.

To calculate the overall effect of agroforestry on ecosystem-service provision and biodiversity, 'effect sizes' were used to construct a random-effect model (a statistical model for meta-analysis), and calculate the average effect size. Effect size is a way of quantifying the difference between two groups, in this case agroforestry and conventional management. Positive values suggest positive effects of agroforestry, while negative values indicate negative effects.

Results of the analysis suggested that agroforestry significantly improves ecosystem service provision, (average effect size (aes) =0.43). Compared to conventional agriculture and forestry, agroforestry has a significant positive effect on soil fertility and nutrient cycling (aes+0.26), biodiversity (aes+0.3) and especially soil erosion (aes=2.23).

However there was variation within the findings. For example, while both silvopastoral (agroforestry with grazing animals), and silvoarable (agroforestry with crops) systems have benefits for soil fertility and reducing erosion, only silvopasture systems have a significant positive effect on biodiversity, the results suggest. Among the tree types studied, olive trees, chestnuts, walnuts and cherry species provide the biggest benefits.

The researchers also found differences between regions, which underlines the importance of tailoring management to the local context. For example in the Meditarranean, rowing cover crops (non cash crops planted for ecological benefit) or legumes in vineyards and olive groves is particularly beneficial for soil fertility and nutrient retention.

Additionally positive effects of agroforestry were more evident at the landscape and regional scale that at the individual farm scale. This may have important policy implications as agri-environment measures are mainly focused at the farm scale in Europe. The researchers also stressed the importance of nurturing existing silvopastoral systems, such as meadow orchards. They also say that landscape features, such as hedgerows should be promoted as they can help to conserve biodiversity, create barriers to wind, increase soil fertility and control pests and diseases.

The researchers say agroforestry could be a strategically beneficial land use in rural planning and particularly effective in addressing biodiversity loss, run-off, soil erosion and nutrient loss. However its complexity needs to be properly considered by policy. While the Common Agricultural Policy encourages national governments to support new agroforestry systems, many have been reluctant to do so, perhaps becuase funding is less than for afforestation projects, the study's authors suggest.

25.10.16 Feeding cows seaweed could slash global greenhouse gas emissions, new Australian Research

Source: ABC news, 20th October, 2016

Seaweed could hold the key to cutting greenhouse gas emissions from cattle, according to new research.  The research, which was carried out in North Queensland, Australia, could drastically reduce the impact that the agricultural industry has on the global environment.

Professor of aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville, Rocky De Nys has been working with the CSIRO studying the effects that seaweed can have on cow's methane production.

They discovered that adding a small amount of dried seaweed to a cow's diet can reduce the amount of methane that a cow produces by up to 99%.

"We started with 20 species [of seaweed] and we very quickly narrowed that down to one really stand out species of red seaweed," Professor De Nys said.

The species of seaweed is called Asparagopsis taxiformis and JCU researchers have been actively collecting it off the coast of Queensland.

"We had an inkling that we would get some success from this species, but the scale or the amount of success and reduction that we saw was very surprising," he said.

Professor De Nys said methane gas was the biggest component of greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry and the findings could help alleviate climate change.

To test the effectiveness of each individual seaweed species, the CSIRO created an artificial rumen.  "You create the conditions that you would see in a cow's stomach, in a bottle," Professor De Nys explained.

"You do that by collecting a little bit of the cow's stomach to start with.

"They get a little bit of material from inside the rumen that has all those microbes, and then they add them to different grasses or substrates, and then you add a little bit of seaweed to that.

"As they ferment, just like you would see in a compost bin or somewhere else, the gas is created and its creates pressure."

He said that by measuring and sampling the pressure of the gas, they were able to determine how much methane gas there was in it.

"Once you establish that works then you can go to whole animals," he said.

"We have results already with whole sheep; we know that asparagopsis is fed to sheep at 2 per cent of their diet, they produce between 50 and 70 percent less methane over a 72 day period, so there is already a well-established precedent."

"When the seaweed is harvested, it is dried, and it can be added as a sprinkle essentially to the diet just as you would add a mixture of herbs and spices to chicken," he said.

Mr De Nys said trials would be underway at the CSIRO Lansdown facility near Townsville until mid-next year to analyse the effects seaweed could have on cattle production.

"We will feed animals and measure more carefully how the seaweed affects both the production of methane and any increase in weight gain in those animals," he said.

Getting enough seaweed to feed millions of cows

Research scientist with Agriculture and CSIRO Rob Kinley has been heavily involved in the research project.

"All sectors are trying to be responsible and reduce their contribution to climate change, which in many instances relates to reducing their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions," he said.

"Agriculture stands to be one of the first to make dramatic reductions if we can get this to market."

However while their research was promising, Mr Kinley was concerned about access to seaweed.

"That is the number one barrier, getting enough seaweed to feed to millions of cows," he said.

"Wild harvesting isn't going to do it because its far too expensive and the resources aren't enough, so we need to get partners on board who can produce the seaweed in a cultivation process.

"Whether that be in South-East Asia where they are already farming millions of tonnes of seaweed, or beginning a new industry somewhere through the southern or western side of Australia."

Although, according to Mr Kinley, time was less critical than money in this case.

"Money will decide how quickly we can move, the sooner we have more money to move forward with the research, the sooner we will be able to get it out," he said.

"Three years isn't outside the realm if we can get enough support to move with it."

Source: ABC news, 20th October, 2016

03.10.16 Farming, Soil and Water in the time of Climate Change

Source: New England News Collaborative, August 24th, Jill Kaufman

In the Northeast, according to the USDA, about 175,000 farms produce more than $21-billion a year in food, hay and flowers. But not this year. Many fields are bone dry, with extreme drought conditions in parts of Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire and severe conditions across much of the region. The climate — and how it’s changing — has many farmers thinking about how to manage their land, their animals and available water.

Having an irrigation system on your farm doesn’t mean you escaped this summer’s drought. Mike Wissemann at Warner Farm in Sunderland, Massachusetts, knows from experience. On a hot mid-August day, Wissemann stood in the shade of barn, pointing to a a dry, unplanted field a few hundred feet away.

“Irrigation is irritation,” Wissemann said.

Pumps break. Hoses kink. “We just couldn’t work the land [because] we were so busy trying to put out irrigation pipe. We depend on getting second crops in [and] we were unable to do two to three crops of sweet corn and another planting of summer zucchini, he said.”

Warner Farm, which Wissemann runs with his family, is right on the Connecticut River in Sunderland, where glaciers thousands of years ago left behind a mix of silty clay. It’s loam-rich soil, and tends to hold water well. That can only help so much in a drought.

Irrigation from the river, Wissemann said, can’t be a primary source of water. To get hydration to one field, another has to go without. Building a larger system would be prohibitively expensive. Wissemann thinks his tenth-generation farm lost tens of thousands of dollars this year.

Help, or at least advice, is on the way, from soil and crop researchers like Masoud Hashemi at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On a hot summer morning, Hashemi, some students, and a few new farmers have just come back in to the barn from research fields in South Deerfield. The UMass farm is picturesque, laid out between a river road and towering Mt. Sugarloaf. In this dry season, it is surprisingly  green.

“We got a lot of farmers calling us, asking for some information about transitioning  to no-till,” Hashemi said, referring to a land practice of leaving fields unplowed, and planting crops on top of leftover vegetative matter from preceding crops. It’s a practice researchers at many agriculture schools in the United States are preaching, to prevent soil erosion. The unturned earth can take on the qualities of a sponge.

Even some states are pushing the practice. In Vermont, new mandates go into effect by the end of the year, meant to encourage no-till farming. While the state decision is more an attempt to keep fertilizers from leaching into lakes and rivers, no-till farming, Hashemi will tell you, is “sustainable farming.” By definition, it is the Hippocratic oath of farming: grow food for people and don’t cause environmental harm doing so. It is, Hashemi said, the future.

“How we manage the soil is the key the sustainability of farming, and it remains for generations to come,” Hashemi said.

Soil is something cattle farmer Bill Fosher is also thinking about. He grazes his animals at Edgefield Farm in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, and also lived through this summer’s protracted dry spells, interrupted by heavy downpours. That’s “climate change” in the Northeast, Fosher said.

Fosher chose to sell some of his animals when he saw the way the season was going, so his bottom line is not as bad as some other nearby farmers. He said he knows farmers who wonder if this year’s drought will put them out of business. The fields don’t have enough forage with the lack of rain, and that’s causing farmers to dip into their feed-reserves.

“People are having to feed the hay that they were expecting to use this winter in order to get through the drought,” Fosher said.

Without rain, hay fields that usually yield two or three cuttings are yielding only one. Fosher said farmers will have to buy hay from farms in the Mid-Atlantic, if it’s available. It won’t be cheap to truck up.

Beyond this season’s drought, Fosher is among those pushing farmers to manage their land more proactively. For instance, don’t let animals graze fields down to the ground. Fosher said farmers need to rotate their animals between fields after a few days, and make sure to leave some growth on the land. Bare dirt isn’t good to see, Fosher said. It doesn’t hold water if rains do come.

These annual weather patterns aren’t going to change anytime soon and Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, sees many farmers already adapting to a new climate, but he said, it’s on an as-needed basis.

“You’ve got this apathy when times are good, and then you panic when you’re in the middle of a drought,” Svoboda said.

The satellite-activated U.S. Drought Monitor, which Svoboda monitors from the University of Nebraska Lincoln, is the go-to online map for farmers, tourism officials and governors alike, in the Northeast and beyond.

The satellites can detect if a drought is on its way. Cropland and pastures have their own drought signatures, Svoboda said. “And these satellites can see that even before the human eye can see it.”

Advance warning is good. So is thinking ahead, farmer Bill Fosher said. Farmers can’t just wait for the rain anymore. They need a plan. Is three months of reserve hay enough? Are farmers prepared to move their animals to find grass? It’s not going to be easy.

“Drought is a very demoralizing affliction for a farmer to face because — with drought — even if you did do everything just right, it still wouldn’t matter,” Fosher said, because all the processes farmers need to produce food start with water.

In general, large-scale irrigation in the East is not an option, like in the West, and some of the new farm management methods being encouraged by farm bureaus and educators are still considered kind of “out there.” But Fosher said he did hear that next spring, a few farmers near him may give no-till a try.

03.10.16 Would you like to increase the health and productivity of your land and animals?

An Introduction to Holistic Management with specific focus on Financial and Grazing Planning with Tony McQuail, and Rob Havard

Co-sponsored by Holistic Management International (HMI)Holistic management international

Three Parishes Hall, Grafton Flyford, Worcestershire, WR7 4PG - plus various holdings in the area

21st-23rd November, 2016

Would you like to increase the health and productivity of your land and animals?

As a farmer or land manager you know that one of your greatest assets is the land you work with, and managing that land can be tough due to weather conditions, environmental pressures and high input costs, and farming is still a business.  This course was designed to help you regenerate your land for better soil health, bio-diversity, productivity and profitability through the practice of Holistic Planned Grazing and Holistic Financial Planning.  We know that to create a sustainable, healthy agricultural enterprise, you need to run it like a business and we've created this course to give both new and experienced farmers and land managers the knowledge and tools they need to do just that.

Holistic Management is a farm planning and decision making process developed to help farmers and land managers achieve a triple bottom line of healthy land, people and profits. It has a full toolbox of planning resources to help farmers reach this goal. In this three day workshop we will be focusing on the Financial Planning and Planned Grazing systems and will highlight the key features of each which make them so effective.  This is an active hands-on course and by the end of the three days you will have completed a draft financial plan and grazing plan.

This is a participatory workshop. Registrants will be encouraged to bring questions and information about their own operation which they can use during the workshop to develop resources they can use when they return to their farm.

Tony McQuailTony McQuail is the workshop leader. He and his wife, Fran, have operated a mixed livestock farm since 1973 in the rolling hills of Huron County, Ontario, Canada inland from Lake Huron ( They are in the process of transitioning their farm to their younger daughter, Katrina.

McQuail credits the Holistic Management Course they took in 1995 as being transformative for their farm family and a major reason their daughter wants to return to the farm.

“The course helped us develop a farm that was profitable, enjoyable and improving ecologically. We were able to manage the farm so that it felt like the farm was working for us – not us slaving for the farm.”

McQuail is a founding member of the Ecological Farmer’s Association of Ontario which has been providing farmer to farmer education, farm tours and courses for over 35 years.

HMI will be issuing certificates to those who demonstrate competence in the material covered

Thanks to the support of HMI, we also have a limited bursary fund. The intention of these scholarships is dual purpose:

- To train those who would like to first learn and apply, and then share with others their Holistic Management experiences (perhaps by hosting a future training program) for the purpose of spreading the regenerative practice of Holistic Management.

- To allow spouses or partners of paying registrants to attend with their partner.

For those who both enroll before the Early Bird deadline (10th October) and fulfill the requirements for certification, HMI is additionally offering a free online‘Getting Started’ class - note that there will also be a new Cropping Planning module available in early 2017. 

The Course will include:

Financial planning

- Introduction to the key concepts and steps in financial planning.

- Planning for profit and paying yourself first.

- Using the enterprise weak link analysis to prioritize expenses to generate new wealth.

- Develop an appreciation for the power of “planning, monitoring, controlling and re-planning” as an approach which can keep a financial plan on track to meet a farm family’s larger goals.

Planned Grazing

- Introduction to the key concepts in Holistic Management Planned Grazing.

- Discussion of recovery periods and how to manage livestock to improve both pastures and livestock performance.

- Use of the Planned Grazing Chart and how to use the concept of Animal Units to evaluate pasture productivity and plan paddock utilization and moves.

Please bring: appropriate clothing for the weather (remember that we will be outside for a significant amount of time - a hat is no doubt a good idea); clean boots (think biohazards); notebook and pens; flask.

HM Tony McQuail

Fees (Booking Essential):

All fees include a £15 per day charge for full refreshments including lunch; we will do our best to cater for medical diets when given appropriate warning.

Early Bird Rate is applicable for bookings paid in full by 10th October.

Early Bird Rate (for independent individuals): £295

Standard Rate (for independent individuals): £345

Organisation/Institution/Business Rate (for representatives of larger organisations - those which will be taking their learning back to benefit a larger organisation, who are claiming the cost on the expenses of that organisation): £495 (or £395 Early Bird rate)

Fee includes a substantial lunch plus refreshments through the day; closer to the time we will evaluate whether it is feasible/desirable to have shared meals in the evening too (in which those who partake will be expected to help with the preparation and clear-up)

Booking: email Natasha or call 07866 674 205

28.09.16 Carbon reduction in Australia

So you might have guessed from the title, that I am in Australia for 3 weeks, for the first long trip of my Nuffield experience. I have been here for a few days now, and apart from still waking up ridiculously early due to jet lag, it has been pretty good so far.  Having spent the last few days in Sydney and now in Melbourne for a couple of days for meetings though, I am looking forward to seeing some countryside (I’m not really a city girl at heart). 

However while in Sydney I got the chance to go to meet with Irene Sobotta, who works for Meat and Livestock Australia on sustainability research.  She was also part of the team that developed the Farm 300 project (which initially inspired my Nuffield) so I was very pleased to be able to have a meeting and find out more about how the project was designed, and how it had been taken up by farmers.

The Farm 300 project

Funded by the Australian Government the key objective of this project was to improve knowledge and skills of Australian livestock producers leading to a 10% increase in on-farm productivity and profitability and a 30% decrease in GHG emissions intensity.  Those are quite big targets and especially given that the timescale for projects was a little over a year. 

What initially interested me about this project was the fact that instead of training the farmers, they were training the advisors, and then letting the advisors adapt that knowledge to local conditions that their farmers were facing.  The basic process of the project was to work with advisors and producers, and then find and support coaching programs developed  by advisors which are relevant to local needs and which increase profitability and decrease GHG emissions intensity. This is based on the research that there is no universally applicable list of mitigation practices; practices need to be evaluated for individual agricultural systems and settings. The advisors task was to interpret materials and the wider challenge of lowering emissions into regionally adapted programmes that can be used with producers at a local level. 

The project was very much focussed on business and really making the link between productivity and lower GHG emissions. This focus on business was necessary to get farmers interested in the process.  It was business that was the priority for the farmers, as such the environmental messages had to be communicated in such a way that they could be directly linked to the impact on profitability and productivity.

Farmers were given one to one coaching as well as the opportunity to benefit from farmer to farmer learning through peer discussion groups that were managed by advisors as well as the use of benchmarking to document impact.

The use of coaching

The reasons from the MLA for using coaching were simple.  “Livestock farming is complex,” Irene explained, “coaching has been proven to be an effective method of developing farmer skills and achieving practice change at a systems level, which is what we need.”

This continual learning allowed the farmers to build their skills and knowledge. The advisors became the farmer’s coaches, as in sport, helping them see what needed doing and giving them the skills to work out how to make it better.  , to practice and adapt depending on what works. This process is called supported learning.

The overall objective was to improve the farmer’s skill level. By taking small steps and gradually working through issues and by sharing experiences with other farmers there is an opportunity to gain inspiration as well as motivation to keep going. 

The benefits of benchmarking

Benchmarking is also a key part of the puzzle, understanding why things are the way they are and where things can change. The research MLA have done shows that the longer that the farmers are in a skills development programme the higher the return on capital becomes within the business.

The peer to peer element of the programme also allowed for a supportive environment in challenging environmental conditions.  “We’ve seen floods, droughts and wildfires during the program” Irene explained, “and these totally devastate farm businesses and livelihoods.  Having a supportive social environment created through the groups helped the farmers cope with what was happening.”


The GHG emissions intensity were calculated using models and it is this modelling approach which has helped to shape the next phase of the project.

The Farm 300 project has now finished and has been replaced with the Carbon Farming Initiative.  What’s exciting about this initiative is that there is now an approved methodology for beef (and soon to be sheep) producers to join in with the scheme and get payments for adopting certain management practices that have been shown to reduce emissions.  This is a great step forward.  I’m due to be meeting another person from MLA next week that makes all the models for calculating emissions reduction potential as well as leading on the methane reduction programme over here, so there will be more on this soon!


The project finished last year. However the methodology that MLA piloted in this project, was such a success, it is to be rolled out through the other research strands that are funded. The premise of the approach was putting the emphasis on continual learning, and teaching new skills through a combination of one to one advice on-farm, discussion with farming neighbours including benchmarking progress, and sharing ideas and knowledge.  

The project allowed the formation of discussion groups with the overarching subject of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but the farmers in the groups set the topic that they wanted to focus on, thus investing their time and efforts into the scheme.  The advisors, who were trained on climate change, also got access to the latest research to disseminate to farmers, but needed to switch dissemination method from one of ‘telling’ to one of ‘showing.’ This recognition of the need to include farmers in generating solutions and equipping advisors with the most up to date knowledge about the subject so that they can suggest locally relevant mitigation measures and then facilitate rather than lead discussions should enable a longer legacy of these practices on-farm. 

28.09.16 Are farmers in the UK taking climate change seriously enough?

Source: Business Green

More than half of 2,000 farms in England surveyed by Defra do not consider greenhouse gas emissions in their decisions on crops, land and livestock.

Only 9% of respondents to Defra’s annual Farm Practices Survey 2016 covering larger holdings in England believed it was ‘very important’ to consider greenhouse gas emissions in their decision making, while just 39% thought it was fairly important.

In contrast, 43% said they did not attach importance to emissions in their decisions and 9% claimed their farms did not produce any greenhouse gas emissions whatsoever the survey revealed.

Furthermore, the results show a slight decline on the previous year’s survey in terms of the proportion of farmers attaching some importance to emissions, although there has been little overall change in farmer’s attitudes in recent years, with the 2016 results broadly similar to those in 2013 and 2014.

The survey was sent to approximately 6,000 farm holdings in England over a specified minimum size, from which Defra received responses from around 38% or around 2,280 farms.

The findings have prompted concern from environmental groups over a lack of awareness of climate change issues in the agricultural sector, an industry that is already struggling to deliver emissions reductions even as other sectors start to decarbonise. But Defra and the NFU say there has been significant progress on reducing emissions from the sector and they are working towards cutting them further.

According to the latest government statistics, total emissions from the UK agricultural sector have fallen since 1990 but there has been little change over the past decade. 

In 2014, emissions from sources such as livestock, agricultural soils, stationary combustion sources and off-road machinery were responsible for 9% of UK greenhouse gas emissions.

GHG reduction practices in farming

First published in May, the latest Farm Practices survey results were this week compiled in the seventh edition of Defra’s Agricultural Statistics and Climate Change report which brings together all emissions data from the sector collected since 1990.

The survey also reveals some of the practices undertaken by farmers towards reducing their emissions and highlights why some farmers may not be undertaking these practices. 

According to the findings, 57% of farmers were taking action to reduce emissions in 2016, which shows a slight decrease in the previous year’s figures. 

Of these, larger farms were more likely to be taking action on emissions (73%) than smaller farms (49%) while grazing livestock farms were less likely to be taking action than other farm types.

The most common action taken by farmers towards reducing emissions was recycling waste materials from their operations, followed by improving energy efficiency and improving nitrogen fertiliser application.

And, of those farmers taking such action, 85% considered it good practice to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with 65% citing the environment as a strong positive motivator for their actions. A slightly smaller number 55% were motivated to take such actions to improve profitability or to meet market demands. 

Behavioural change

According to the survey document, “behavioural change can be a long process” but it also stresses that “farmer attitude is not the only driver for adoption of mitigation processes” pointing to research suggesting understanding business sustainability and financial implications are also important drivers for changing farmer behaviour.

With better targeted and measured action, Defra estimates a reduction of around 10% in England’s agriculture emissions is possible by 2020 through improvements in production and management efficiency.

19.09.16 Caring for 'underground livestock' is key to Colorado Farmer's Success

This article below comes from the magazine No-Till Farmer and can be seen in full through clicking this link

It was written by Ron Nichols, from Natural Resources Conservation Service at the USDA. 

He’s 28-years-old, doesn’t own a single acre of land and farms using principles that are virtually unheard of in northeastern Colorado.

So why are landlords entrusting John Heermann with 1,600 acres of their land?

Heermann offers this explanation: “By improving their soil and improving the land that they own, I’m putting money in their pocket essentially by increasing the value of their land.” 

Despite the fact that his farming principles are unconventional for this part of the country, Heermann said landlords are increasingly realizing the value of improving the health of their soil. 

But Heermann, himself, only recently discovered the untapped potential of soil health. After he graduated from the University of Nebraska with an Ag Economics degree, he came back to the farm where he grew up and farmed with his father for another 5 years. During that time, he started attending workshops and learning from other farmers like soil health advocate Gabe Brown. 

What he witnessed at one of those workshops, presented by the NRCS, completely transformed his farming philosophy.

“Watching the NRCS rainfall simulator in action is what turned me 180 degrees,” he says. “Seeing how water would not infiltrate in a conventionally tilled or even a no-till soil with no ground cover was eye-opening. In my area where we get 17 inches of average rainfall, water is one of the most limiting factors. So if I can do anything with my farming practices to capture more moisture or utilize that moisture more efficiently, ultimately I will have better yields and a better bottom line.”

Now farming on his own, Heermann is using an approach that’s completely rooted in improving soil health.

“We have been trying to farm growing things in ‘dirt’ and I think we need to change that attitude and look at the soil as what it is — a living ecosystem,” he says. “If you don’t have anything growing out there, you’re not feeding your soil biology.”

To more fully enable that soil biology, Heermann has transitioned to no-till plus diverse cover crops and rotations, which keeps living roots in the soil year-round, feeding the microbes that feed his plants.

“Every farmer has livestock,” Heermann says. “It’s just some of us might not have livestock with four legs. We all have livestock underground. But if you’re not growing anything on your fields, then you are not feeding your livestock a diverse diet. That is where cover crops come into play.”

By using cover crops, Heermann has also been able to improve soil aggregation and structure to capture and retain more of the precious precipitation falling throughout the year.

“By improving soil structure, I can actually use the precipitation that falls,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what your precipitation average is, or your total is, if half of that runs off and is in the corner of your field, or in the ditch.”

The resulting improvement in water infiltration has resulted in an immediate pay-off for both Heermann and his landlords.

“Before the landlords were only seeing a crop once every 2 years, whereas through this continuous system, they are getting a crop off all their acres every year, so there is a bump of income as well,” Heermann explains.

But farming using no-till, cover crops and diverse cropping rotations in a 17-inch precipitation zone is not without its challenges and its risks, so Heermann is continuously educating his landlords about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

“Some of my landlords live off the farm and others never lived on the farm, but they are really open to the idea [of improving soil health],” he says. “For all of them, I just try to educate them and give them tidbits on what I’m doing and why it’s important.”

Another key point Heermann tries to convey to his landlords, is the notion that soil health restoration takes time.

“One of the biggest things I try and tell them is to be patient. I’m still kind of in the transitioning phase and I’ve had some setbacks and things that haven’t gone my way, but I think in the next 2-3 years, my landlords will really start to see a change.”

To help ensure that longer-term success, Heermann has 5-year leases with his landlords.

“I have to invest a lot of upfront money and time to figure out how to do this out here, so the 5-year lease provides some certainty,” he says. “But as I figure things out, I think the results will speak for themselves.”

Heermann’s focus on soil health has not only changed his farming system, but it has also fundamentally changed his business model — to one that values efficiency over size.

“When I first came back I thought the only way I could be a viable producer was to acquire more acres. But now I think it has more to do with utilizing what you have more efficiently,” he says. “If I can intensely manage what I have now, and start reducing my input costs and start turning my ‘dirt’ back into soil I think we can do a lot more with a lot fewer acres.”

While his soil health management efforts make good business sense, the young farmer is also harvesting another benefit that you won’t find in his financial ledger: An appreciation for the abundant and continuous life in his fields.

“For me it is just fun to drive by my fields and see something growing out there,” Heermann said. “Growing these cover crops and seeing things start to change, seeing wildlife and animals and seeing the soil structure start to change, that’s just fun for me.”

09.09.16 Mob Grazing a farmers guide

Cotswold seeds have just released a great new farmers guide all about Mob Grazing.

Mob Grazing - what is it?

Mob grazing, sometimes referred to as cell-grazing, intensive rotational grazing or strip grazing is a term used to describe a method of frequently moving livestock systematically around a field to graze different sections in rotation.

It's based around the concept of allowing a large number of animals to graze a small area, allowing a diverse sward to grow to a significant height and moving the animals at regular intervals.

The livestock are usually moved daily and are excluded by back-fencing from the area they have just grazed, allowing it to regrow.

The system is getting a lot of attention in the UK, and has been popular in the US for a decade and is based on the natural grazing patterns of migratory herding animals.

It's an alternative to set stocking and rotational grazing that is dependent on maximising the production of a grazing animal.

The mob-grazing system goes hand in hand with growing diverse leys.

Read the rest of the guide here.

Source: Cotswold Seeds 

06.09.16 Cows in glass boxes help scientists reduce methane emissions

Source: The Beef Site, 31st August 2016

FINLAND - A recent study using cows in glass boxes to measure their emissions found that methane emissions can be linked to genotypes, which may allow scientists to speed up the breeding of more climate-friendly cows.

Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and one third of it is produced by the world's cattle, making it a key target for climate change mitigation.

As part of a project named RuminOmics, led by the University of Aberdeen and funded by the EU, the Natural Resources Institute Finland, in collaboration with ten other European research institutes, investigated the interaction between a ruminant’s genotype, feed, and the microbial make-up of the rumen. The scientists examined the role these factors played in the energy-efficiency of dairy cattle and their methane emissions.

One hundred Ayshire cows visited a glass metabolic chamber, where their methane emissions were measured, as well as their digestion, production characteristics, energy-efficiency and metabolism, and microbial make-up. 

Some cows with low emissions were found to be inefficient, due to their poor digestion of fodder, so the researchers said maintaining cows with better production in the herd for longer was a better solution to the problem of methane emissions than just breeding from low emission cows.

However, the study did identify areas of genetic variation linked to the amount of methane produced per kilo of milk produced, which warrant further investigation.

Johanna Vilkki, professor at Luke, Finland's Natural Resources Institute, said: “We will investigate whether these genes affect the variation in the microbial make-up of cows’ rumen or other characteristics of cows such as the size of their rumen, production level or capability to use fodder.”

06.09.16 New survey for vegetable growers on the use of compost

What is it all about?

This survey has been designed by researchers to find out more about how smallholders and vegetable growers use manures, composts and fertilisers so that we can help you improve the way that you use nutrients to grow your vegetable crops.

This project follows on from the successful Farm Crap App. We have been working with farmers for several years on improved manure management and how to use manures better. We developed the FarmCrapApp to help them better understand the nutrient quality of manures and how to spread them most effectively while minimising environmental damage.  If you would like any more information on this app, please click here to find out more.

Vegetable growers have approached us about developing a similar application for the various home-made and proprietary composts and farm yard manures they use, and also how the effectiveness of these is influenced by season, soils and how we apply them.

For us to do this, it is important that we have a good understanding of what growers do and what information they need. This is what this survey is all about - we want to know what you do on your farm and what information would be helpful to you when you are planning your cropping and composting.

The survey is quick and should only take 5-10 minutes of your time.  The link to access it is here.

 A bit more information

The team behind the app are based at Duchy College Rural Business School and Rothamsted Research North Wyke.  The project is not for profit and is being funded through a research grant to look at ideas which are innovative and will provide on the ground results.

 Data and privacy

All the data that is being collected through the survey will be kept confidential, and is being collected to ensure our work truly represents what is happening on the ground.  You are able to stop filling in the survey at any time, and if you have any further questions, please contact the project team.

 Any more information

05.09.16 Tillage and emissions, ploughing through the science

Tillage has received considerable attention from researchers and policy makers concerned with climate change mitigation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  As farmers and growers we have choices as to how we prepare the soil; reduce weed growth, incorporate fertiliser, manures and organic matter, and ultimately the growing system we use to produce crops.  The effect of reducing tillage on the emissions of greenhouse gases has been studied by various research organisations over the last few years.  One of the reasons for this may be that if it is possible to find a method of tillage that sequesters carbon and reduces greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time growing profitable crops, then it would be a fierce weapon in agriculture’s armoury against climate change.

Emissions from tillage

The emissions that are concerned with tillage are mainly carbon dioxide and then to a lesser extent nitrous oxide and methane.  When soil is cultivated, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. This is principally as a result of the oxidation of the soil organic matter (SOM) by microbial activity that is stimulated by available oxygen following a mechanical cultivation.  As well as the release of carbon dioxide from the soil, there are also the associated emissions with the machinery and fuel use (which we will look at in more depth next week).

Over the last few years there have been a growing number of farmers and growers who are adopting reduced or zero tillage systems, (see East Hendred Farm case study as an example).   Reduced (sometimes called conservation) tillage has been suggested as a management strategy that offers many benefits to farmers in terms of sustainability credentials.  These benefits include increased soil organic matter levels, increased carbon sequestration, mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, greater aggregate stability and biological activity, and prevention of soil erosion and runoff.  One study has concluded that across Europe, if 50% of farmers adopted a no till approach, 0.4% of all anthropogenic CO₂ emissions could be offset.

However with the diverse nature of farming, it is not as simple as it first seems.  With variations in soil type and structure across the UK, reduced tillage is not suitable for all farming systems.

Reduced tillage: the science so far

Under appropriate conditions reduced tillage systems may improve yield performance as well as energy and resource efficiency and may mitigate CO₂ emissions and increase the level of Carbon that is sequestered in the soil.  However the benefits of reduced tillage are soil specific.  Research has shown that particularly on soils with a high loam or clay content and where the climate is cool and wet, then the soil may end up with increased dry bulk density and reduced aeration of the soil, which will stimulate the release of nitrous oxide which will then offset the benefits in terms of CO₂ reduction.

With the associated benefits of reduced tillage in terms of fuel and time savings, less wear and tear on machinery as well as the benefits to the soil structure in terms of productivity and reduced emissions, then you would think that there would be a lot more farmers doing it.  However ploughing still remains widespread.  The major reason as to why this is, it that, reduced tillage has been shown in some studies to have a negative impact on yield.  Further causes for negative effects on yields in no-till systems compared to reduced or conventional tillage systems can be aggravated disease and pest development resulting from large quantities of crop and root residues close to the soil surface.

Management of Nitrogen in different tillage systems

Nitrous oxide emissions from soils after the use of N fertilisers can be higher in zero tilled than conventional tillage systems.  Indeed some studies are now showing that while reduced tillage systems may result in the accumulation of more carbon in the soil compared to conventional tillage, there is an increase in nitrous oxide and methane emissions.  As such if reducing tillage also results in increased nitrous oxide and methane emissions, the benefits of increased soil carbon sequestration in relation to greenhouse gas emissions will be offset.

However the results are not consistent.  In some studies, conversion from conventional tillage to no till, can significantly reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions, and in some research when high levels of N fertiliser are applied the emissions from nitrous oxide are much higher than in a conventionally ploughed system.  As such looking at the Nitrogen fertiliser policy, and planning applications to only apply what the crop needs, when the crop can take it up will help to reduce these losses.

Moving forward

The research does all seem to conclude that in the right soil conditions, reducing tillage will result in reduced CO₂ emissions and an increased level of soil carbon sequestration.  However what is still not clear is what the effects are of other management practices on these fields, for example applying N fertiliser on the emissions.  The two aspects of soil management that seem to have the largest effect on emissions are tillage and fertiliser management.  As such moving forward, we need more research to allow us as farmers to get the best result from reducing fuel and input costs, and reducing emissions as well as growing profitable crops.

04.09.16 Ten critical steps to no-till adoption

The information below comes from a longer piece of work by a no-till consultant from Paraguay.  The blog below brings together the abridged highlights, but if you want to read the full article click here (its well worth a read).

Adoption of a no-till system cannot be accomplished without planning beforehand and in order to be successful, the system needs to follow certain steps.

The most common reason for failure with no-till systems on farm is lack of knowledge on how to do it. As farmers we need to acquire the basic knowledge before attempting to try the technology on-farm, and we also need to plan the change well in advance.

The rise of no-till systems

After a slow start in the 1960s to the 1980s no-till has taken off and today there are more than 100 million hectares under this technology. Pioneer farmers in the early days had little information available on how to do it, the manufacturing industry had little experience on how to build appropriate machines and only a few herbicides were available to control weeds.  Today the situation has changed so that experience, knowledge, research results, machines and adequate herbicides at reasonable prices are available to farmers to allow them to achieve a no-till system that works.

In order for the system to be successful, there needs to be an adequate level of knowledge and understanding. There is a tendency to initiate no-till by buying a nice new drill, however, according to the author, buying the drill is step 7 out of 10 (rather than step 1).

So what are these 10 steps? They are explained in more detail below.

1.Improve your knowledge about the system, especially weed control

Every person that wants to succeed in implementing this system needs to learn as much as possible. To change from conventional tillage to no till requires careful planning at least 1 year before implementation.  The last tillage operation before changing over has to be performed in such a way that the surface of the fields is level. Consideration is also needed in terms of previous crop, including its harvest to leave enough of a residue on the surface, crop rotation, spreading out of trash, and starting no till after a crop in which god weed control can be achieved.

No-till is a completely different production system and one of the biggest challenges can be weed control.  In terms of knowledge this means learning about the different weeds, herbicides, using and maintaining spraying equipment and crop rotation.

Learn from others who are doing it already, agronomists, researchers and wherever you can find useful tips!

2. Analyse your soil

Routine soil inspection and analysis with the aim of a balanced nutrient and pH status is a crucial element to achieve good results in no-till.  Nutrient deficiencies have to be corrected before starting no-till.

3. Avoid soils with poor drainage

It is well known that no-till doesn’t work on badly drained soils, or if soils suffer from waterlogging.  If your fields tend to lie wet, invest in an adequate drainage system before starting no-till.

4. Level the soil surface

Whatever the reason for an uneven surface the soil has to be levelled before starting no-till. If this is not done, you will soon realise that most no-till seeding machines do not perform well in uneven soils, resulting in a bad stand because the seed deposited in the lower parts are left on the soil surface or planted to shallow for good germination and on ridges the seeding depth will be too deep. Good planting practices require seeds evenly spaced at an even depth and this requires a level soil surface.

5. Eliminate soil compaction issues before starting

After many years of tillage with the same implements, pans can develop. Starting no-till without breaking up soil compaction will result in poor yields and low profits. Therefore wherever compaction is present, it needs to be removed before going into a no-till system.   Once using a no-till system, the best way to avoid compaction is to produce the maximum available amount of soil cover, use green manure cover crops and good crop rotations so that roots and biological activity as well as earthworms and insects etc loosen the soil resulting in biological soil preparation. Good soil cover is also essential to maintain higher moisture content on the soil surface and this will result in better penetration of cutting elements of planting equipment as well as the roots.

6. Produce the largest possible amount of mulch cover

Almost all advantages of the no-till system come from the permanent cover of the soi and only a few from not tilling the soil. For those implementing the system, aim to maximise biomass production in a no-till system, through choosing crop varieties with higher biomass than others.

The benefits of large amounts of mulch on the surface are:

  • Good weed suppression
  • Positive effects on soil moisture (especially important in drier areas)
  • Favourable effects on soil temperatures

All this results in improved chemical, physical and biological soil conditions, improving soil fertility and yields.  It is important to also remember to not just look at the amount of mulch but how it is distributed as well.

7. Buy a no-till drill

Only after having met all previous requirements mentioned above should you go out and buy a drill.  All too often it is seen that some farmers hear about the no-till technique get excited about it, go to the shop and buy a no-till drill and start the system without considering the previous six steps that have been described above.  This leads to a failure of the system and the failure is often blamed on the machine or technique.

When choosing a no-till drill make sure that the machine chosen is adequate for your soil conditions.  Again finding other farmers using a specific drill and seeing it working helps as well.

8. Start on 10 percent of your farm

No-till is a completely new production system.  When changing from conventional to no-till the whole system has to be changed. It does not help to change the different components one by one because then it will take years before the complete system is adopted. With so many changes taking place at once this is a challenge for everyone, even for excellent farmers with many years of experience and good management skills.  Therefore the recommendation is to start small and not change the system on the whole area of the farm at once.

Before starting gather knowledge from other farmers who are already doing it. Don’t start until you have enough basic knowledge of the system. Start on about 10% of the farm to gain experience and avoid failures. Depending on the confidence of the farmer, it could be expanded to 30-5% in the second year and only after mastering the system should it be increased to 100% of the farm. 

To start on the whole farm area in the first year is a very risky venture which may result in poor crop establishment, failure in adequate weed and pest control and in significant financial losses.

The rule is therefore to start small and increase the area under no-till as a farmer masters the system and is able to solve new issues that appear.

9. Use crop rotation and green manure cover crops

Bare fallow is the worst thing that can happen to a soil. Living plants and roots, if possible all year round are important to change from soil degrading production systems to new systems that improve soil fertility.

The aim should be to establish an optimum rotation from the point of view of yield, weed suppression, amount of residues left on the surface, economics and risk management. When this stage is reached farmers can sell their tillage equipment.

In a no-till system crop rotation is much more important than in conventional tillage and a diverse rotation should always be the goal when applying no-till techniques.  The greater the biodiversity, the better no till works. Diversification has to be economic and can be best achieved by the use of crop rotations and green manure cover crops. Cover crops are the missing element in the no-till system in most parts of the world, and managing them is completely different in a no-till system than in a conventional one.

10. Be prepared to learn constantly and watch for new developments

The adoption of no-till is a continuous learning process and even after many years of practising the system there is always something new to learn.

Even with the many millions of hectares of no-tillage being practices by farmers worldwide, it can be said with considerable confidence that knowledge is one of the main constraints to expanded no-till adoption.

Final thoughts

When new technologies are being extended to farmers, the conditions for the utilisation of technology have to be met. It should be taken into consideration that if farmers are to adopt innovations, they must want to, they must know how to and they must be able to follow recommendations.

To read the full paper click here.

Do you agree with the key 10 points? Have you experienced something different?  Let us know what you think!

Source: Derpsch, R (2008), Critical steps to no-till adoption, In: No till farming systems. Goddard, T., Zoebisch, M.A., Gan, Y., Ellis, W., Watson, A. and Sombatpanit, S., Eds 2008 WASWC. p 479 – 495.



24.08.16 Alternative arable cropping systems: A key to increase soil organic carbon storage? Results from a 16 year field experiment

Source: Food Climate Research Network

Alternative cropping systems such as organic or conservation agriculture are often expected to lead to enhanced soil carbon storage as compared with conventiaonl systems, and therefore to hold potential to contribute to climate change mitigation via carbon sequestration.

However existing reviews comparing them to conventional agriculture report contradictory results. To resolve this uncertainty, this study presents the results of a 16 year experiment in northern France which carefully compares the development of soil organic carbon levels for four cropping systems: conventional, low-input, organic and conservation agriculture.

The results find that only conservation agriculture and to a lesser extent organic cropping systems significantly increased soil carbon storage. For temperate climates, the authors conclude, this suggests that alternative cropping systems can make a contribution to climate change mitigation.

For each of the four different cropping systems considered (conventional, low-input, conservation and organic), this study aimed to calculate the inputs and outputs of carbon within the system as a whole (both above and below ground) and importantly to measure and explain the causes of soil carbon storage. The different cropping systems studied were characterised as follows.

Conventional (CON): regionally representative cropping system, with inputs used at levels designed to maximise yields.

Low input (LI): Limitation of external inputs, with reduced soil tillage, better targeted fertilisation and reduced pesticide use as compared to conventional agriculture.

Conservation (CA): Suppression of soil tillage, more diversified crop successions and permanent plant cover (direct seeding with permanent plant cover called cover crop)

Organic (ORG) minimising impacts on soil, water and air quality. Systemic prevention of weeds, pests and diseases combined with nutrient self sufficiency.

To see the crops used in the rotations, click here

In each of the experimental plots for the cropping systems, after harvesting, crop residues were left on the soil surface. To ensure that the results captured only carbon inputs from plant growth on the experimental plots and not from carbon imported from outside the system, no organic fertilizer (i.e. manure) was used. Data on soil properties, including organic carbon, was collected on each plot, down to a depth of 30cm (the base of the plow layer). These data points were then used to parameterise a soil carbon model, which then provided a means to quantitatively evaluate the flows of carbon within each cropping system.

Between the cropping systems, considerable differences in yields and carbon storage were observed. Conventional wheat yields were similar to the regional averages. In comparison, wheat yields for low-input, conservation, and organic system reached, 91%, 66%, and 55% of this respectively. For soil organic carbon, after the 16 years, levels did not change significantly in either the conventional (+3%) or low-input systems (+1%). However, significant increases in soil organic carbon were observed for the conservation agriculture (+24%) and organic (+12%) systems. This equates to a rate of 0.63 and 0.28 tons per hectare per year.

Based on the modelling, the authors concluded that between the cropping systems, there was no evidence to suggest a difference in the rate of soil organic carbon decomposition (i.e. soil mineralisation). This is despite the fact that for the conservation agriculture system, no ploughing took place. Therefore, the differences in soil carbon storage were predominantly (although not entirely), the result of different levels of carbon input from crops grown as part of each system.

The level of carbon input to the system from cash crops grown was considerably lower for conservation agriculture and organic systems, due to their comparatively lower yields. However, this was compensated for by carbon input from alfalfa and in the case of conservation agriculture, catch and cover crops. Total carbon input from all crops (above and below ground) was greatest for conservation agriculture (5.41 t ha-1 yr-1), followed by conventional (4.09 t ha-1 yr-1), low-input (3.81 t ha-1 yr-1), and organic (2.87 t ha-1 yr-1). With conservation agriculture and organic at either end of the carbon input ranking, what this shows is that total carbon inputs were only weakly correlated with soil carbon storage. Rather, what distinguishes them both, is the larger below ground carbon inputs generated over the study period, which for conservation and organic systems were 1.86 and 1.07 tons of carbon per hectare annually, whereas for both conventional and low-input systems, below ground inputs totalled 0.82 tons per hectare

Ultimately, the researchers conclude that alternative arable systems do have the potential to sequester organic carbon in temperate climate conditions, but that this potential is driven primarily by the carbon inputs to the system, rather than by the effect of reduced soil decomposition through lower tillage.

24.08.16 Precision in everything drives large scale arable success

The article below comes from Tillage magazine, and was written by Marion King. To access the original article, please click here.

Precise attention to detail in every aspect of growing every crop in every part of every field certainly isn't easy when you're managing 2400ha in 40 separate parcels of land up to 25 miles apart under 17 different contract farming agreements.

But this is exactly what father and son, Bill and Eric Wright and their six-man Wrights Agriculture team are doing across nearly 2000 square miles of north Leicestershire and south Nottinghamshire by making the very most of modern farming and communication technologies.

From Gleve Farm, Saxelbye near Melton Mowbray, they've grown and developed the family business over the past five years, in particular with a tightly managed recipe of precision, performance, efficiency and accountability based firmly on long term land care.

Working closely with Agrii agronomist Harry Abell, the Wrights insist on Soil Quest scanning and management zoning of all the land they farm as part of each new contract agreement. Variable rate fertilisation, sowing and increasingly now, spraying is managed through the Agrii Precision Services portal integrated with Gatekeeper and John Deere's Greenstar system.

All agronomy recommendations are made, application information transmitted to the field team and operating records automatically updated to the management computer at Glebe Farm through individual iPads using the simple Dropbox system.

"The technology allows us to manage our scale of operations with the individual field care and attention we've always seen as vital," stressed Bill Wright. "Our landowners entrust us with their most valuable asset, As well as generating the best returns from it, with the greatest economies of scale, we treat it as we would our own and are fully accountable for everything we do."

"Understanding the actual variations in soils across our fields has enabled us to be very much more precise in our phosphate, potash and lime applications," Eric explained. "Accounting for them effectively in our fertilisation strategy makes a big difference when we're managing such a large area.

"More recently, we've been moving to variable seed rates for all our crops, varying winter wheat sowing from 100 to 400 kg/ha in some fields as much to combat grassweeds as to even-up establishment. We're also using satellite imagery through the Agrii Precision Services portal to vary our nitrogen applications.

"Harry and I are now starting to employ the satellite images to fine-tune our wheat and OSR fungicide and PGR rates too," he added. "This season, for instance, we've been increasing our To, T1 and stem extension applications in the thicker areas of the crops carrying greater risks of disease and lodging while reducing rates in the thinner areas, applying 90-120% of the prescribed average application rate of 100l/ha.

"Confidence in and close-working with Agrii and other key partners is central to the recipe we've developed. Careful monitoring and management of all our operations, the versatility of our high capacity fleet and well-integrated support from our suppliers ensures we maintain the attention to detail as well as scale so essential to success."

Source Tillage Magazine, Author: Marion King

18.08.16 Solar Farms offer bonus for tropical crops

Source: Climate news network, July 17th 2016 Paul Brown

Research in England shows that solar farms reduce local temperature and provide shade enabling crops in hot and desert climates to flourish.

By soaking up the sun to make electricity, solar farms also alter the local environment - changing the temperature and the diversity of plant species.

How this affects soil productivity and the food supply is becoming increasingly important as thousands of solar farms are being built across the planet, and even more are planned.

Research carried out in the temperate conditions of England shows that the temperature under solar panels is reduced by 5 degrees C. While this may not be good for growing plants in a cool climate, it could be a major boom in hot and desert climates where too much sunshine and heat kills plants.

The research reported in Environment Research Letters was carried out in a large solar park in Swindon, by scientists from Lancaster University and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Using microclimates

The scientists believe that the lessons learned could help countries gain benefits by using the microclimates created by solar farms to grow crops in cooler, shadier conditions.

Dr Alona Armstrong, a terrestrial carbon cycling scientist at Lancaster University, says that understanding the climate effects of solar parks will give farmers and land managers the knowledge they need to choose which crops to grow and how best to manage the land. “There is potential to maximise biodiversity and improve yields,” she says.

This is particularly important as solar parks take up more space per unit of power generated compared with traditional sources.

"Water losses may also be reduced and water could be collected from the large surfaces of the solar panels and used for crop irrigation."

Dr Armstrong says: “Until this study, we didn’t understand how solar parks impacted on climate and ecosystems. This understanding becomes even more compelling when applied to areas that are very sunny and that may also suffer water shortages.

“The shade under the panels may allow crops to be grown that can’t survive in full sun. Water losses may also be reduced, and water could be collected from the large surfaces of the solar panels and used for crop irrigation.”

The scientists measured temperature, wind speeds, humidity, soil carbon, species diversity and other points of difference under the panels, between panels, and in control areas a distance from a solar farm.

They found that the temperature under the panels averaged 5.2°C lower in summer because of the shading. There was also less difference between night and day temperatures. The soil was also drier, leading to less vegetation and fewer species, dominated by grass.

Diversity of species

In contrast, the area between the panels supported a higher diversity of species in the warmer temperatures in summer, despite the fact that this land became cooler than the control areas in the winter.

The extra cooling of the land in between the solar arrays, compared with controls in open fields, was 1.7°C, which was a surprise to researchers. Their theory as to why this happens is that the area between the solar arrays was more shaded in the winter because of the low angle of the sun − something that did not happen in the control plots.

The report concludes that since land for producing food and crops is in short supply, the costs and benefits to agriculture of solar farms must be researched further. This needs to be done in many places, because radiation and temperature are substantially different than in England.

The wider environmental costs and benefits of large-scale solar farms need to be evaluated everywhere because in some cases there could be considerable “co-benefits”. For example, in hot climates there could be a potential for new crops grown under the protective shade of the panels. – Climate News Network


Paul Brown, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former environment correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, and still writes columns for the paper.

18.08.16 Third farm walk for soil farmer of the year dates announced

The farm walk with the final prize winner for this years Soil Farmer of the Year has now been arranged.  Farmers and growers are invited to come along and find out more about the farm that was awarded third prize.

Jeremy and Heather Dale farm in Shropshire, and run an 120ha organic dairy herd, with 290 spring calving cows which are 100% pasture fed and totally antibiotic free.

The farm walk will take place on Monday 17th October starting at 10.30am

Farm Address: The Park, Minsterly, Shropshire, SY5 0DH

Delegates will be able to get an insight into the management of grassland and soil on this farm where attention to detail and the use of data to make evidence based decisions play a key role.The event will include a farm walk.

The event is FREE to attend and lunch will be provided.  If you would like to come along, please contact Becky to book your place on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or by phone / text on 07875356611.

17.08.16 Write up of Farm Walk at Tolhurst Organic Soil farmer

Click here to watch the videos from the event.

Click here to see the pictures from the day.

On Friday the 8th July, the farm walk with Iain Tolhurst from Tolhurst organic was held in glorious sunshine.  Iain had been awarded runner up in our Soil Farmer of the Year competition due to his commitment to soil management and his innovative approach to maintaining soil fertility and his use of rotations and green manures.

After the presentation of Iain’s award, and an amazing lunch, the tour began.

The walk started in the walled garden, which is focussed on small area cropping, including growing carrots and beans. The veg are supplied to local customers and the crops are grown on a 9 year rotation.  Alongside the walled garden are the greenhouses and tunnels.

The tunnels are cropped very intensively, often producing 3 crops per year, to provide a continuity of production for the business and to reduce the ‘hungry gap’ which is so often a problem time in vegetable growing.  The greenhouses and tunnels work on a 5 year rotation with woodchip compost being used to maintain soil fertility.  The greenhouse is used for raising plants, which are raised using their own potting compost, the business gave up using peat based compost 20 years ago and developed their own plant raising system.

Vegetables are sold direct to the consumer through a box scheme, and the farm produces 100 tonnes of food, over 100 types of vegetables and usually 300 different varieties and sowings per year.  All this equates to an intensive output business with the aspiration to make the farm self-sufficient.

The foundation behind this is the soil and how we look after it.  The situation here is that we have to grow a wide range of crops in one soil type. 

In the garden the rotation is long, there are no livestock inputs, fertility is built using green manures, and these green manures are fundamentally important, as nothing gets taken.  The rotation has been designed to allow periods of fertility building within it. 

At any one time, 65% of the land is cropped and 35% is growing green manures.

The green manures are also important to protect the soil, Iain explains, “one of the biggest losses of soil nutrient is winter rain, so by growing green manures and not leaving the land bare that nutrient is preserved for the next crop. The nutrient is overwintered in the plant where it is held, rather than washed out in the soil.  This means that we don’t have to bring lots of nutrients in from outside.”

The green manures also encourage the soil biology and micro-fauna to work, making nutrients available for the plants. 

Tolly explains:

“To manage soil you have to look at the whole farm. 

Soil is integral to everything that we do. 

We’ve made mistakes along the way, that’s how you learn, but

at the root of everything is the health and fertility of our soil and how we are going to look after it.”

We are not growing crops, we are growing biodiversity either in terms of encouraging wildlife, but also soil biodiversity and providing the building blocks for life in the soil to thrive.”

The aim of our soil management is to maintain our soil organic matter levels which in horticulture is difficult as it has big demands on the soil and is an intensive system.  We are happy with the fact that we are managing to build soil organic matter levels each year, which is incredible challenging in our system.

However we are also mindful of the fact that although we are managing to build up this soil organic matter, that organic matter can be lost incredibly quickly. 

We are very conscious of the fragility of what we do."

The business hosts numerous research projects each year, looking at different aspects of the farm including biodiversity, soil structure and organic matter, as well as analysis. One of the benefits of being open to this research, is that it has provided a lot of data to draw from, including soil pH, P, K and micro elements as well as the carbon sequestration in the soil.

The soil type is a sandy clay loam with a high stone content (as high as 40-50% stone in some parts).  The advantage of this is that the soil is very free draining, and warms up quickly, and the soil is quite forgiving.  The fields were in a very poor state when they arrived, and fertility has been built through the use of green manures and composts.

The group then moved onto the field and started at the woodchip compost pile.  The compost is never applied to bare soil, only to green manures.  It is applied in this way to break down on the surface, how you use the compost is very important.

“It’s not just how you make the compost, it’s how you apply it.”

Iain continues, “When the compost is applied, you’re not just adding organic matter, your adding bacteria and fungi in the form of biology which allows you to add life to your soil, to work for you, in unlocking nutrients, controlling pests and diseases and maintaining soil health.

The Rotation

The group went to look at the different aspects and crops of the 7 year rotation that is used out in the field which follows the pattern below:

Year 1 and 2 – Red clover / Lucerne / herbs (4-8 varieties) – Cut and mulched, compost applied 50 cubic metres per hectare, 2-3 applications mid-summer and autumn.

The fertility building crops are the most important crops that are grown on the farm, they need to fix the nutrients for the next crops and leave enough fertility behind.  The idea is to maintain fertility throughout the rotation and safeguard the soil structure.  The over wintered green manures protect the soil structure over the winter as well as holding the nutrients.

Year 3 – Potatoes, with overwintered green manure (clover / vetch / ryegrass, if sown by mid-September, cereal rye for later sowing.) Sweetcorn undersown overwinter with green manures.

Year 4 – Brassicas, winter / spring cropping, possible under-sow clover / vetch early September.

Year 5 – Allium. Onion and leeks, Onion is intercropped with clover and yellow trefoil.  Leeks are undersown with cereal rye / oats / vetch. Post onion sown crimson red clover / vetch.

Diseases such as onion white rot are controlled through the rotation. The brassicas that are grown previously suppress the diseases in the soil due to their bio fumigation properties. Once these are turned in, it minimises the risks from white rot.

Year 6 – Carrot after leek, parsnip after onion.  Beetroot / chard late July, undersown overwinter with green manures.  Broad beans sown October.

Year 7 – Broad beans Feb / March, sweetcorn and squash. All crops undersown with red clover / Lucerne.

As such, 30% of the field is in long term green manures (years 1 and 2 of the rotation), while the other 70% is being cropped for vegetables.  As well as this, within the vegetable crops there is 30% of the field that is growing over wintered green manures and 30% is undersown with green manures. 

The result is fields that are growing 100% biodiversity, the aim of the farm.

As well as the veg, Tolly is trialling an agro-forestry system in one of his fields.  The trees provide numerous benefits including a reduction in wind speed as most of his veg crops don’t like the wind, they increase biodiversity, increase associations with mycorrhizae and there is the possibility of production from the trees themselves.  As well as this, they are trialling out different crops directly underneath the trees including daffodils, rhubarb and artichokes.  The potential negatives from the system is a loss of land for cropping, but he is hopeful that the benefits will outweigh the negatives.

The long term vision is that there is potential with the agroforestry system to also produce their own woodchip to make into compost.

In terms of cultivation on-farm, the plough is still used here.  Tolly considers that the best way to get the green manure crop in is to plough them, and a power harrow is used to create a good tilth.

In horticulture you inherently need to move a lot of soil

Tolly has been working on this system for decades, and has focused a lot on trying to get things right in the soil.  After doing all this stuff for over 10 years, he is now beginning to see the benefits, and reaping the rewards in terms of resilience.  He explains further,

“You can’t underestimate the importance of resilience, and building the resilience into the soil, however it takes time to develop, it’s not a quick fix, and some faith is needed that you will get somewhere better than where you are now.”

17.08.16 The role of livestock in meeting emissions targets and keeping carbon in the soil

Below is a blog from our new FCCT director Liz Bowles that was written for the website Agricology.

DECC is no more but our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Agriculture by 80% by 2050 remains. What is even more taxing is that we are expected to have zero emissions thereafter.

With this in mind I have been thinking about what this means for agriculture. At the moment agriculture accounts for 9.5% of total UK GHG emissions, of which 50% is methane, 41% nitrous oxide and 9% carbon dioxide1. Emissions have dropped by 18% since 1990; mainly due to reductions in the population of grazing livestock since then and some reductions in the use of manufactured nitrogen; but there is still a huge hill to climb. 

We need to remember that soil is a major store of carbon, containing three times as much carbon as the atmosphere and five times as much as forests. About 60% of this is in the form of organic matter in the soil. This means that anything we can do to increase the level of soil organic carbon will have a large impact on the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide2.

Whilst it is certainly true  that it takes more land to produce calories and protein from livestock than arable crops, the damage which arable farming is doing in many parts of the world to soil health should not be underestimated in the rush to move to more vegetarian  and white meat diets. Cattle and sheep have been condemned because they produce methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. However methane does break down in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide and water after 7-12 years, and the total amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere is broadly the same as the amount taken out by the growing grasses that grass-fed animals consume. So in the long term beef and sheep production need not contribute to increases in carbon dioxide emissions where livestock are reared on forage which has not received artificial sources of nitrogen3

On the other hand turning over grassland to crop production puts carbon and nitrogen into the atmosphere adding to global warming and reducing soil organic matter levels.  UK estimates in 2009 suggested annual ploughing up of permanent pasture released 1.6 million tonnes of carbon (representing a hidden additional 12% of the UK’s agricultural GHG emissions).

Cereal monocultures replacing more diverse grasslands have been a factor leading to a decline in farmland birds and pollinating insects. In the UK it is acknowledged that soil organic matter levels are becoming dangerously low in regions of the country which are predominantly arable. This is now linked to the lack of available livestock to graze and produce farmyard manure which can be used as a soil amendment. Min and zero till arable systems can help in stemming the loss of soil organic matter, but it could be that we will be looking to grazing livestock to facilitate improvements in soil health in the future. 

It is important to bear in mind that grazing livestock can utilise grass and legumes without a need for artificial sources of nitrogen. Through doing this they can produce quality protein whilst putting enough fertility into the soil at little or no environmental cost to support arable crops in following years.  Grazing livestock can also prosper on land which cannot be used to grow crops and which otherwise would have no productive use. 

If producing livestock is now considered to be less of a threat to our environment we still need to look at whether red meat is a healthy food for us to eat. There have been many health scares over the years associated with red meat consumption. However scientists have recently changed their view on the dangers of red meat and dairy product consumption and now focus on sugars as being possibly more detrimental to health. In addition the recent publication of a review and meta-analysis4 comparing the make-up of fatty acids from animals produced under organic systems with those produced under non- organic production systems  shows that meat and other products produced from animals from organic and grass fed systems have higher levels of beneficial fatty acids and lower  comparative levels  of more saturated fats. This could account for differences found in past studies as no consideration was taken at that time of the diet of grazing livestock. Now, however we appreciate that the diet animals eat will affect the nutrient composition of their products which in turn will have an effect on our health.  

At the moment we are increasing our consumption of poultry meat which by and large is produced intensively (unless organic) consuming large amounts of cereals and proteins. The production of these feeds requires ever more arable production, which it is now clear is having a detrimental impact on our soils and releasing potent greenhouse gases.  All this points to a reduction in our consumption of white meats in favour of red meat fed on extensive diets based on grass clover if we are to reduce the GHG emissions of agriculture and protect our soils and the health of future generations.


1 Methane causes 25 times more global warming over 100 years than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide causes 298 times more global warming than carbon dioxide.
2 Each 1% increase in average soil organic carbon levels could in principle reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by up to 2%. Soil carbon losses account for a tenth of all the carbon dioxide emissions produced by human activity since 1850. However the soil carbon store can be recreated.
3 Manufacturing of a tonne of nitrogen puts the equivalent of almost 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
4 Extensive review on all published research (before 2014) on organic compared with non-organic meat (67 studies)

15.08.16 Sustainable Soil Management - new UN guidelines released

Sustainable soil management is the Holy Grail for farmers, policy makers and consumers – if we can develop a sustainable system that allows us to grow enough food for the growing population whilst safeguarding our most precious resource then we are achieving our goals.

The FAO have just released a new document entitled Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management, which is designed to be a reference providing general technical and policy recommendations on sustainable soil management for a wide range of stakeholders.  Its objectives are:

To present generally accepted, practically proven and scientifically based principles to promote sustainable soil management, and to provide guidance to all stakeholders on how to translate these principles into practice, be it for farming, pastoralism, forestry or more general natural resource management.

For the purposes of this document, Sustainable soil management is defined (as according to the world soil charter) as:

“Soil management is sustainable if the supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural services provided by soil are maintained or enhanced without significantly impairing either the soil functions that enable those services or biodiversity. The balance between the supporting and provisioning services for plant production and the regulating services the soil provides for water quality and availability and for atmospheric greenhouse gas composition is a particular concern.”

What are the guidelines for sustainable soil management?

1. Minimise soil erosion

The recent State of the World’s Soil Resources report identified soil erosion by water and wind as the most significant threat to global soils and the ecosystem services they provide. 

What do they suggest?

Land use changes that cause removal of surface cover and loss of soil carbon should be avoided or carefully planned.

A cover of growing plants or organic and non-organic residues that protects the soil surface from erosion should be maintained

Erosion by water on steep land should be minimised by measures that reduce runoff rates

Where appropriate, buffer strips and cover crops should be used to minimise the risk of soil loss and nutrients downstream.

Wind erosion should be minimised by vegetative or artificial wind breaks.

2. Enhance soil organic matter content

Soil OM plays a central role in maintaining soil functions and preventing soil degradation. Soils contain the largest organic carbon pool on the Earth and play a critical role in regulating climate and mitigating climate change. Soil organic matter is strategic for climate change adaptation and mitigation and global stores of organic matter should be stabilised or increased.

What do they suggest?

Increase biomass production by increasing water availability for plants using methods that maximise water use efficiency and minimise soil erosion and nutrient leaching.

Protect organic carbon rich soils in peatlands, forests, grasslands etc.

Increase organic matter content through practices such as managing crop residues, applying animal or other carbon rich wastes, using compost and providing the soil with a permanent cover.

Avoiding fire

Make optimum use of all sources of organic inputs

Management practices that ensure that the soil has a sufficient organic cover.

Decreased decomposition rates of soil organic matter by practicing min or no till

Implementing crop rotations

3. Foster soil nutrient balance and cycles

Plant nutrition should be based on crop needs, local soil characteristics and conditions and weather patterns. 


Natural soil fertility and natural nutrient cycles should be improved and maintained through the preservation or enhancement of soil organic matter.

Nutrient use efficiency should be optimised by adopting measures such as applying balanced and context adapted soil organic and inorganic amendments.

Plan applications to promote balanced crop nutrient uptake and limit losses.

Soil and plant tissue testing and field assessments should be used

Application of lime is a prerequisite for nutrient use efficiency

4. Prevent, minimise and mitigate soil salinization and alkalinisation

Salinization is the accumulation of water-soluble salts of sodium, magnesium and calcium in the soil. It is the consequence of high evapotranspiration rates, inland sea water intrusion and human induced processes. Salinization reduces crop yields and above certain thresholds completely eliminates crop production.

5. Prevent and minimise soil contamination

Soils may filter, fix and neutralise but also release pollutants when conditions change. Therefore prevention of soil contamination remains the best way to maintain healthy soils and food safety in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals.

6. Prevent and minimise soil acidification

Human induced acidification of agricultural and forest soils is primarily associated with removal of base cations and loss of soil buffering capacity or increases in nitrogen and sulphur inputs (e.g. legume pastures, fertiliser inputs, atmospheric deposition). Soils with low pH buffering capacity and/or high aluminium content are most prevalent when they have a low content of weatherable minerals.


Monitoring soil acidity and minimising surface and sub-surface soil acidity by using proper amendments 

Balanced fertiliser and organic amendment application and

Appropriate use of acidifying fertiliser types

7. Preserve and enhance soil biodiversity

Soils provide one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on earth and soil organisms play key roles in the delivery of many ecosystems services. Little is known about the degree of biodiversity required to maintain core soil functions, but new tools for biochemical techniques and DNA analysis suggest significant progress in this area is possible.

Monitor programme for soil biodiversity, including biological indicators

Soil organic matter levels which support soil biodiversity should be maintained or enhanced through the provision of sufficient vegetative cover.

The authorisation and use of pesticides in agricultural systems should be based on recommendations.

The use of nitrogen fixing leguminous species, microbial inoculants, mychorrhizas, earthworms and other beneficial soil organisms should be encouraged where appropriate, with attention to limiting the risk of invasive processes.

Restoring plant biodiversity in ecosystems, thereby favouring soil biodiversity

In-field crop rotation, inter-cropping and preservation of field margins, hedges and biodiversity refuges should be encouraged

8. Minimise soil sealing

Land conversion and subsequent soil sealing for settlements and infrastructure affect all soils, but are of particular concern on productive arable soils because of their importance for food production and food security and nutrition, and circular economy targets.   Soil sealing and land conversion causes a largely irreversible loss of some or all soil functions and the ecosystem services they provide.

9. Prevent and mitigate soil compaction

Soil compaction is related to the degradation of soil structure due to imposed stresses by machinery and livestock trampling. Soil compaction (reduced or disrupted pore continuity) reduces soil aeration by destroying soil aggregates and collapsing macropore density, and reduces water drainage and infiltration, generating higher runoff.  Compaction limits root growth and seed germination by high mechanical impedance, affecting soil biodiversity and causing surface soil crusting.

Deterioration of soil structure due to inappropriate or excessive tillage should be prevented.

Vehicle traffic should be minimised to the absolutely essential particularly on bare soils.

Machines and vehicles used in the field should be adjusted to soil strength and should be equipped with tyre pressure control systems

Cropping systems should be selected that include crops, pasture plants and where appropriate agroforestry plants able to penetrate and break up compacted soils.

An adequate amount of soil organic matter should be maintained to improve and stabilise soil structure

Macrofauna and microbial activity should be promoted to improve soil porosity for soil aeration, water infiltration, heat transfer and root growth. 

In grazing systems, a sufficient cover of growing plants should be maintained to protect the soil from trampling and erosion. 

10. Improve soil water management

A sustainably managed soil has rapid water infiltration, optimal soil water storage of plant available water and efficient drainage when saturated. However when these conditions are not met, waterlogging and water scarcity problems arise.

In humid areas where precipitation exceeds evapotranspiration, additional drainage systems are needed to provide aeration for root functions like nutrient uptake.

Surface and sub-surface drainage systems should be installed and maintained to control rising groundwater tables

Increase the efficiency of irrigation water through improved conveyance, distribution and field application methods that reduce evaporation and percolation losses.

In dryland cropping systems measures should be implemented to optimise water use efficiency such as the management of soil cover and water harvesting. 

Regularly monitor irrigation water quality for nutrients and potential harmful substances.

To read the full report click here.

05.08.16 Invest in brown gold: Better soil management to deliver sustainable intensification

Source: Farming Futures, 3rd August 2016

Underpinning production

Healthy soils comprise mineral material, organic matter, biological organisms, air and water, and are a vital asset for farmers and land managers. They take millennia to form, but are often taken for granted and sometimes neglected, resulting in degradation over decades. Soils underpin agricultural production by providing a rooting medium for crops and by storing and cycling nutrients and water. Healthy, fertile soils ensure more sustainable and resilient crop production by maintaining high yields and cycling water and nutrients efficiently. Improving soil quality can shift the fertiliser-response curve to the left, supporting higher outputs with lower inputs, and thus delivering “sustainable intensification”.

Delivering ecosystem services

As well as underpinning agricultural production, soils deliver many valuable ecosystem services for which farmers and land owners are not directly paid – although cross-compliance and agri-environmental scheme criteria linked to farm subsidies represent a crude form of “payment for ecosystem services”.

Soils across the globe store over 1500 Giga-tonnes of carbon, twice as much as is in the atmosphere. By keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere, soils play a vital role in regulating our climate, and some scientists argue that soil management to increase carbon sequestration could offset a large portion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from animals and fossil fuels.

Soil management also strongly influences the release nitrous oxide (N2O), a GHG 298 times more potent than CO2 on a weight basis. Soils purify (or contaminate) water infiltrating through to groundwater and flowing into rivers, thus playing an important role in regulating water quality. Good soil structure can help soil to act as a sponge during storm events, ameliorating the peak flows in rivers that inflict expensive flood damage to land, infrastructure and properties.

Finally, among many other ecosystem services, soils also host and support diverse flora and fauna, supporting biodiversity.

Neglected soils

Despite the strong links between soil health, economic returns and wider human wellbeing, soils can sometimes be neglected by farmers and land managers, for a variety of reasons. In grassland systems, soils remain hidden. Soil structure and problems such as compaction may be inferred from grass growth or infiltration measurements, but can most reliably be assessed by digging local test pits.

In arable systems, soil degradation via organic matter oxidation, erosion and compaction occurs at a steady but almost imperceptible rate. By the time soil degradation becomes obvious, full remediation may require a decade or more of adapted management.

For the large areas of tenanted farmland, long-term soil remediation and maintenance, e.g. building up organic matter through compost and manure additions, is a financially risky strategy – who will reap the long-term benefit?

Trends in livestock farming, such as the increasing use of maize silage as a cattle feed, can also change land use in a way that threatens soil quality and increases erosion risk. The extent of soil erosion and degradation across the UK and Europe is well documented, for example in EU scientific reports.

Soil organic matter content is a key indicator of soil health, and has been declining for decades across UK arable land, with implications for nutrient and water cycling, flood protection, resilience to climate change and delivery of multiple ecosystem services. Reversing these trends is essential to assure the sustainability and resilience of UK farming, and requires a long-term view to make the necessary investments in soil quality.

Management practices

A portfolio of management practices exists to maintain and enhance soils. First off, know your soils! Regular soil testing for nutrient availability and structure is crucial to inform appropriate management. Matching stocking densities and cropping to soil types, soil condition and topography can significantly reduce the risk of compaction and erosion. Aeration and subsoiling can remedy compaction problems.

There are various decision support tools available to facilitate good nutrient management planning, such as the Fertiliser Manual RB209 and simple calculators such as MANNER-NPK available from the PLANET website.

Technology is constantly evolving to facilitate good soil management, including precision fertiliser application guided by yield-mapping and GPS-assisted steering. When it comes to delivery of ecosystem services, invaluable information is available via digitised soil databases such as LandIS and the European Soil Data Centre. Reliable sources of free advice on good practice include the Environment Agency’s Think Soils manual, Defra’s Guide to Cross Compliance in England, Natural England’s Catchment Sensitive Farming project and AHDB. But there are also many less reliable sources of “advice”, and it can be difficult to navigate through the mass of sometimes conflicting information pertaining to soil management.

04.08.16 Scotland ranks second in Western European greenhouse gas reductions

Source: 1st August 2016

Over the last 25 years, only Sweden has achieved bigger greenhouse gas emissions reduction levels than Scotland across Western Europe, the Scottish Government revealed on Sunday (31st July).

The latest available figures released by the Scottish Government revealed that the country has reduced emissions by 39.5% in 2014 against a 1990 baseline. Across Western Europe, only Sweden can better the reductions, having slashed emissions by 54.5% in the same time frame.

In regards to the rest of the UK, England reduced emissions by 34.2%, while Wales and Northern Ireland also reduced carbon emission sby 17.9% an 16.5% respectively. Scotland also led the UK in terms of yearly reductions, having reduced emissions by 8.6% in 2014 compared to the year prior. England reduced yearly emissions by 7.4% while Wales and Northern Ireland achieved reductions of 8.2% and 3.1%.

Commenting on the figures, WWF Scotland's director Lang Banks said: "It's great to see more evidence that Scotland is in the vanguard when it comes to tackling climate change in Europe. Thanks to strong Government leadership over the years we've embraced renewables helping to de-carbonise our power sector.

"However looking ahead there is no room for complacency if Scotland is to maintain its position as a leader on climate change and to capture the many social, health and economic benefits of moving to a zero carbon future. Outside of the electricity and waste sectors progress to cut carbon has been far too slow.

"The Scottish Government's new climate action plan, due by the end of the year, is an opportunity to set out transformational plans. Sectors in need of urgent attention include transport, where emissions remain stuck at 1990 levels and housing, with too many families wasting cast and carbon heating the outside of their leaky homes."

Figures released from European countries outside of the European Union also revealed some surprising reduction figures. Both Malta and Cyprus have seen emisisons increase since 1990, with Malta's carbon footprint growing by 150% and Cyprus' growing by 54.8%. 

In total, six countries in the EU-2, including Sweden, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania had higher reductions than Scotland. As a whole, Member States reduced emissions from a 1990 baseline by almost 20%.

New and testing Scotland

The latest Scottish figures are used for UK and international comparisons. When adjusted to account for EU-wide emissions trading measures reductions actually increase to more than 45%. This essentially means that Scotland has exceeded its 2020 target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 42% six years early, and has since confirmed plans to establish a "new and more testing" objective.

Scotland's reductions were largely driven by a thriving renewables sector. The country currently generates 15% of is energy demand from renewables. New figures suggest this could rise to around 25% by the end of the decade.

However the Scottish Affairs Committee has claimed that the country's renewables sector has been threatened by a political cloud of uncertainty with policy amendments to the Renewables Obligation (RO), Feed-in-tariffs (FiT) and Contract for Difference (CfD) auctions all contributing to an uncertain future.

Source: 1st August 2016

02.08.16 #Decisions4Dairy initiative

Source: AHDB Dairy,

#Decisions4Dairy is an industry-wide initiative. It brings together organisations that work with, influence or advise dairy farmers, including AHDB Dairy, banks, farm consultants, the unions, feed advisers, vets, trade associations, farming charities and accountants.

Using this collective approach and working together assistance will be provided to guide dairy farms through the challenges ahead. 

AHDB as part of this initiative has provided relevant resources, farming business templates, efficiency calculators and skills development packages.  The practical assistance has been developed to help your business work through difficult times and become more robust, for the longer term. 

Find out more about the resources on offer here.

01.08.16 Healthy silage event - the importance of understanding mycotoxins and their impact on animal health

Source: Bovmycotox project

Not all of the moulds that grow on animal feeds are toxic, but those that produce mycotoxins are, and they can cause chronic health problems and reduced productivity in livestock.  However the occurrence of mycotoxicosis in cattle can remain undetected due to a lack of specific symptoms and overlapping symptoms associated with other metabolic diseases such as acidosis.

Unlike pigs and poultry, cattle and sheep have a protective mechanism for handling mycotoxins in that microorganisms in the rumen are able to detoxify an array of mycotoxins associated with forage-based diets. However young calves before the rumen has fully developed and high yielding cows receiving high concentrate, starch containing diets, both lack this capability. Research will be undertaken on the efect of diet and binders on ruminal metabolism of mycotoxins so as to inform farmers, nutritionists and vets on dietary risks and the efficacy of preventative measures.

The project aims to research and understand:

The impact of the mycotoxins and their metabolites on the gastro-intestinal cell.

Impact of diet and binders on mycotoxin detoxification, metabolite formation and microbial ecology.

Metabonomic and biomarker identification

The project which is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is led by the University of Bristol.  Duchy College is providing the link with the farming community by providing a programme of knowledge exchange that will keep farmers, vets, and advisors fully informed of the results of the research as it progresses.  

Healthy Silage event
13th September 2016

Click here to download the flier below

15.07.16 The science of soil health - going deeper

The video below comes from the USDA natural resources department and is all about soil.

The interview with Dr Ray Weil looks at the importance of managing soil and why, by digging a little deeper we can start to understand more about how our soil functions and how we can maximise its potential. 

Source: USDA NRCS - click here to read more

14.07.16 UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report

Every five years the government must carry out an assessment of the current and future risks to the country from climate change.  The latest risk assessment has just been released detailing how climate change is impacting on different sectors.  The information below is dealing with how climate change is impacting on the natural environment.

Climate change is already having an impact on natural systems in the UK. Evidence of long-term shifts in the distribution and abundance of some terrestrial, freshwater and marine species due to higher temperatures is now discernible, despite complex interactions. These shifts can be expected to continue and become more widespread, with some species potentially benefiting, but others losing suitable climate space.

Climate change presents a substantial risk to the vital goods and services provided to people by the natural environment. The continued provision of key goods and services provided by the natural environment, including clean water, food, timber, pollination, carbon storage and natural flood alleviation are at risk from climate change.

Climate change risks and opportunities for the natural environment

Cross cutting Issues

Pests and Diseases

Ne9: Risks to agriculture, forestry, landscapes and wildlife from pests, pathogens and invasive species.

Natural carbon stores

Ne5: Risks to natural carbon stores and carbon sequestration

Landscape and Sense of place

Ne14: Risks and opportunities from changes in landscape character

Key risks for natural capital from climate change include:

The majority of agricultural land in the eastern side of the UK is projected to become less suitable for farming due to reduced water availability, increased soil aridity and the continued loss of soil organic matter. 

Reduced water availability in the summer, combined with increased water demand from a growing population, is likely to challenge the ecological health of rivers and lakes.

The loss of habitat and sediment in the coastal zone from sea level rise will have implications for the long-term viability of coastal defences, which often rely on natural buffering to absorb wave energy.

A combination of ocean acidification and higher temperatures is already having an impact and could result in fundamental changes to marine food chains and the fisheries that they support.

Priorities for further action and research include:

More effort to end damaging management practices and deliver the widespread restoration of degraded habitats.

Take more flexible and integrated approaches to managing natural capital. 

Assess the nature and scale of changing land suitability, including research into more resilient crop varieties and farming systems.

Better understand the magnitude and scale of risks to marine ecosystems and fisheries from climate change.

To read the briefing further please click here.

Source: UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report, Natural environment and natural assets, Chapter 3. 

11.07.16 Agroforestry in practice - results from the SOLMACC project

Climate friendly practices applied: Agroforestry

Source: SOLMACC bulletin, Details on implementation

During the past three decades, agroforestry has become recognized as an integrated approach to sustainable land use because of its production and environmental benefits. It is recognised as a greenhouse gas mitigation strategy and has great potential as a strategy for biological carbon sequestration. The perceived potential is based on the premise that the greater efficiency of integrated systems in resource (nutrients, light and water) capture and utilisation than single species systems will result in greater net C sequestration.

At the various SOLMACC farms, agroforestry elements exist as shelter belts of one or more rows of trees planted, as riparian buffers to filter surface runoff, protect stream banks and shorelines from erosion, as alley plantings in single or grouped rows, and with agricultural crops grown in alleys between tree rows.

Click on the link below to read about how SOLMACC farmers in Germany, Italy and Sweden implement this practice and which challenges some of them are facing.

Click here to read the case studies

What is SOLMACC?

SOLMACC is a LIFE co-funded project that aims to demonstrate that by applying optimised farming practices organic farming can be climate - friendly. 12 demonstration farms are therefore adjusting their famring techniques under the close supervision and monitoring of agricultural scientists.  Find out more about the wider project here.

04.07.16 DC Agri bulletin 9 - Compost and digestate resources in your hands

The project DC Agri (Digestate and Compost Use in Agriculture) has come to an end and released it's final bulletin this week. 

What did it find?

DC - Agri has shown that while digestate and compost are valuable renewable fertilisers some straightforward steps should be followed to maximise their benefits.  All these best practice guidelines as well as resources such as videos, training materials and a renewable fertiliser matrix are available through the project website. 

The value of robust evidence

This project's results provided clarity that both compost and digestate have no negative effects on crop quality or safety and that compost can increase soil organic matter more quickly than other organic materials. 

Just as importantly, the results support clear guidance on how and when to apply renewable fertilisers in order to avoid unnecessary cost and potential harm to the wider environment. 

Download the final bulletin here.

To go to the project website please click here.  

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  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."

20.06.16 New climate smart agriculture portal by CCAFS

What is it?

This new website is aimed at farmers, decision makers and researchers who work with or are interested in Climate Smart Agriculture (the collective term globally for farming that aims to maximise productivity, maintain or enhance environmental benefits and be socially inclusive).  The website has different sections on practices (things that we can do), systems approaches (looking at the landscape or regional scale) and policies.

Who did it?

The website was developed by the CGIAR Research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and food security (CCAFS) with contributions from experts at the World Bank, CGIAR and many other institutions working on these issues.

How do I access it?

Click here to see the website.

Source: Food Climate Research Network 

20.06.16 Monitor farm helps cut milk production costs

Source: The Scottish Farmer, 9th June 2016, Gordon Davidson 

Monitor farm projects aimed at reducing Scottish dairy farmers cost of production have been of 'significant benefit' according to participants at the final project meetings at Glennap in the south west and Auchenheath in Lanarkshire.

Glenapp Estate manager, Charlie Russell, cited how the group has helped him achieve significantly lower cost of milk production: "When we first set out as hosts for the monitor farm project here in Glenapp, we were still on a steep learning curve, having only recently established the dairy enterprise. When the project first started our break even costs of production were 26 / 27ppl."

"Thankfully, having implemented many recommendations from the group meetings, I now see how we can get this to 16ppl. We won't get there this year, but I think its achievable," said Mr Russell.

"Making the best use of grazed grass has been key. Profitability is related indisputably to tons of DM utilised per ha, and our job is to maximise that intake. We have focussed on this at the meetings and we are now much more accurate at measuring grass cover and getting the most from our rotational grazing regime. 

"This past winter we also started experimenting with on - off grazing," added Mr Russell. "This meant putting cows out for only three hours per day, sometimes even less in the worst winter weather, but it certainly seems to have cut feed and forage bills.

"The group has helped to ensure that we have not cut costs to the detriment of output, in fact we are now consistently achieving our target of 2.0kg of milk solids. Tightening up calving patterns and importing the best genetics available have helped with this yield achievement."

Gavin Ballantyne, who hosted the central dairy monitor farm on his family's  140 cow unit at Auchenheath, commented: "Being selected to host the monitor farm project came about at just the right time for us. Prior to the project, and our expansion, Auchenheath was performing well, but standing still. The farm probably wasn't sustainable in the long term and therefore we had a get-in or get-out decision to make.

"Throughout the project the group has helped us face up to the challenges of growing herd by retaining home bred heifers," he said. "We have now reached our initial target of 145 cows in mill, erected the new slurry tower, built a new cow shed and bought 40 acres of rough ground into full production. 

"The reality is that if milk prices had stayed at 25ppl, which is what we were getting when this all started, we would now have grown our milk sales by 47%, which is £77k. These are great figures to focus on and hopefully achieve when the price does pick up. Our current milk price of 15-16ppl makes further investment plans very difficult, but no business can afford to stand still."

Looking to the future of the dairy monitor farm project, Glenapp group chairman Neil Wilson stated: "The funding from ScotGov and AHDB, and the support of Sharon Lauder from AHDB Dairy, have been instrumental in making this happen. Hopefully there will be similar support available to carry new dairy monitor farm projects on into the future."

Lesmahagow dairy famer Iain Armstrong summed up the feelings of monitor group members: "The monitor farm project has stimulated a lot of good discussion. I have only missed three meetings out of 17. I have learned a lot and it has made me rethink how we deal with challenges at home."

Source: The Scottish Farmer, 9th June, Gordon Davidson

09.06.16 Calling all solar farmers in the South West!

We are looking for farmers in the south west who have installed ground mounted solar panels on-farm and might be interested in taking part in a research project.

What's it all about?

We are looking at soil characteristics under solar panels, and what impact the panels have on carbon sequestration, soil structure and organic matter.  If you have solar panels on your farm and are based in the southwest and would be up for having some samples taken to provide baseline monitoring, get in touch! 

How do I take part?

At this point we are still in the planning stages, so if you are interested in finding out what could be involved, please contact Becky Willson on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or by phone on 07875356611 or 01579 372376.

09.06.16 Event details for Farm Walk Tolhurst Organic

Farm Walk with Soil Farmer of the Year Runner Up - Iain Tolhurst

Come along to this event to find out more about this organic horticulture business and why they received runner up in our Soil Farmer of the Year competition.

The farm was awarded second place due to their impressive knowledge and understanding of how to maximise  soil biodiversity, and their innovative use of composts and green manures within his rotation as well as an agro-forestry system.  While this business has been established over 40 years, it continues to innovate, push boundaries and educate others. 

Event details

When? Friday 8th July

What time? 12.30 - 4pm


12.15 - 12.30 Arrival

12.30 Award ceremony

1.00 - 2.00 Lunch and discussion

2.00 - 4.00 Farm Walk

How do I book? 

Attendance at the event is free, but booking is required.  Please contact Becky Willson by email or phone / text on 07875356611

Click here to download the flier.

31.05.16 Predicting nitrous oxide emissions from fertiliser applications, new research released

This information comes from a paper entitled “Spatially explicit estimates of N2O emissions from croplands suggest climate mitigation opportunities from improved fertiliser management” which has just been published in Global Change Biology journal and was written by Gerber et al.  To access the paper please click here.

The largest source of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from agriculture are synthetic Nitrogen fertiliser and manure applications to crops, which is projected to increase by around 50% from 2000 – 2050 (FAO, 2012). Between 2000 and 2011, annual N2O emissions from synthetic and manure fertiliser increased by 37% and 12% respectively.  Consequently reducing N2O emissions from croplands is critical for addressing climate change and ozone depletion concerns.

Whats the deal with N2O?

N2O is produced naturally from the processes of denitrification and microbally mediated nitrification in soils leading to emissions rates that depend on soil, weather and cropping conditions and are also highly variable over time. These emissions are classified as direct N2O emissions and are different from ‘indirect’ N2O emissions where N2O is formed from Nitrogen that is leached or volatilised from managed soils, and N2O emissions associated with land use change.

How does this link with reporting data and emissions factors?

Emissions factors are often used to relate applied nitrogen to N2O emissions across broad spatial scales.  Despite the relative ease of applying linear emissions models to estimate N2O emissions from crops, recent synthesis of field observations suggest a highly non-linear response.

What happens in the field is that nitrous oxide emissions accelerate with increased N applications. This superlinear response is due to the relatively greater excess nitrogen which is unused by the crop at higher fertilisation levels, and this extra nitrogen is therefore available to be emitted as nitrous oxide.  What has been missing from the models until now is any sub-national data or crop specific data that would allow a further understanding of what the effect is in different regions and with different crops.  This research therefore aims to try and fill some of these gaps by generating relatively accurate and crop specific nitrous oxide emissions data from global croplands as well as crop specific estimates of manure applications.  

This then provides an updated model and nitrogen fertiliser application rate to allow the researchers to calculate spatially explicit, crop specific global N2O emissions and contrast the results with what we currently have (IPCC Tier 1 accounting data). The aim (for practical reasons) should then allow for the identification of crops and regions where small changes in nitrogen application would generate large changes in nitrous oxide emissions.

What did they find?

By pinpointing crops and regions that were associated with disproportionally high or low N2O emissions it provides an opportunity to ask questions as to what the difference in management is between the two areas or whether it is  a cropping or climate issue.  

A geographical example that this model highlighted is below.

Shandong province in China emits around 4% of global cropland N2O yet comprises just 1% of crop harvested area.  Reducing nitrogen application rates by 5% in this province would cut provincial crop N2O emissions by 9% and global crop emissions by 0.35%.  Comparing this to increasing N fertilise application by 50% over sub Saharan Africa would increase N2O emissions by 2.7%.

Although there are always limitations with modelling studies, this research does provide some interesting policy recommendations.  It does show that increased fertiliser application is not strongly coupled to increased nitrous oxide emissions at low Nitrogen application rates, a major opportunity, given increased crop production is necessary to meet growing food demand. It also indicates that in areas with low N application rates, small fertiliser additions generate the most substantial yield improvements.  Conversely small reduction in fertiliser applications in high nitrogen input regions may result in substantially reduced nitrous oxide emissions from that cropland system.

Full reference

Gerber, J. S., Carlson, K. M., Makowski, D., Mueller, N. D., Garcia de Cortazar-Atauri, I., Havlík, P., Herrero, M., Launay, M., O'Connell, C. S., Smith, P. and West, P. C. (2016), Spatially explicit estimates of N2O emissions from croplands suggest climate mitigation opportunities from improved fertilizer management. Glob Change Biol. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1111/gcb.13341

To access it online, please click here

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.

04.05.16 Estimating soil carbon content of salt marshes with new app

Source: Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Sustainability, CBESS Project Officer, Meriem Kayoueche-Reeve.

We are an island nation, and yet we know surprisingly little about parts of our coastline. An appeal to ‘citizen scientists’ hopes to put this right by encouraging us to collect information about our salt marshes to fill in the gaps.

With the aid of The Saltmarsh App, CBESS is asking interested individuals and groups to investigate the salt marshes which surround our coast.

Once they have downloaded the free, mobile app, individuals can either use the guide to identify the unique plants and wildlife found on salt marshes or they can carry out an interactive plant and soil survey.

The survey will estimate the stored carbon in the saltmarsh soil and show how by preventing carbon from becoming the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide their marsh is helping limit climate change.

We know a great deal about land environments and have a detailed knowledge of the distribution of most soil types within the UK, with the exception of salt marshes. Every marsh survey uploaded will help the scientists at Bangor University learn more about UK saltmarsh soils and how they are helping fight climate change.

Salt marshes are grassland fields that fringe our coastline. They are washed by the tides and are criss-crossed by creeks. They are rich in wildlife and help protect our coastlines against storms and floods. Salt marshes are a great place for a walk, a run and a range of other outdoor activities.

The Saltmarsh App was developed by the University of St Andrews, Bangor University and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. The App will encourage people to visit salt marshes and gain more enjoyment from their visit, by providing a portable visual reference for the plants and animals found there. For the ‘citizen scientists’, the app also guides the user through some simple plant community and soil identification steps, which will be fed back to the scientists.

The Saltmarsh App and its accompanying website will be launched at the start of June, watch this space!

04.05.16 Livestock carbon footprint part 2

Following on from the first part of the blog, this second part explains some of the finer details and differences between GWP (global warming potential) and GTP (Global Temperature change Potential).  Again to read part one of the blog click here or for the link to the original on the Food Climate Research Network, written by Martin Persson click here.

To recap, the argument for favouring GTPs for livestock products, was that for a distant temperature target, it only matters how much warming is left lingering from an emission today at the point when the temperature target is reached (and not how much warming we get leading up to this point).

If this is the argument for choosing GTPs over GWPs, one must also be aware of the other implications of this choice.  First it is not reasonable to adopt a 100 year time horizon in GTP calculations. Instead the time horizon should reflect the time remaining until the temperature target is reached. For the 2 degree C target this is likely to happen sometime between 2050 – 2100. We have shown in a recent paper that if 40-90 years is a reasonable time horizon to use in GTP calculations, the resulting GTP value for methane today is 18, not 4. This is because the temperature impact of releasing a tonne of methane today increases rapidly the closer the point in time it is evaluated.

Second it does not make sense to adopt a constant time horizon for GTPs. (Why should we always be interested in the warming happening at some distant point in the future?).  Instead as we approach the temperature target, the time horizon  over which we evaluate GTPs should decrease, resulting in a valuation of methane that rise rapidly (since the short – term warming effects become increasingly important) reaching a value of 120 when the target is met.

Consequently, the impact of switching from GWPs to GTPs would have a modest impact on the carbon footprint of beef today: a reduction from 23.5 to 18.9kg CO2 – equivalents per kg carcasss weight, for average EU beef production. By mid-century however the carbon footprint calculated using GTPs could potentially rise to 63 kgCO2eq / kg beef, if it turns out that by then 2 degree C warming is imminent. The choice of metric this will have a large impact on the future role of the livestock sector in climate mitigation (more so than in the present).

Finally the discussion on metrics may partly obscure a key difference between emissions of fossil carbon dioxide and other, shorter lived greenhouse gases, while emissions of the latter will eventually be completely broken down and removed from the atmosphere, part of our carbon dioxide emissions (20-30%) will stay in the atmosphere for more than thousands of years. The practical implication of the latter is straightforward: the only way to stabilise carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is to bring down emissions close to zero. This is why we talk about a finite carbon budget; a target for cumulative carbon emissions we cannot exceed if we are to limit warming to 2 degrees C.

For other greenhouse gases, however, it is enough to stabilise emissions in order to stabilise atmospheric concentrations (though the higher the emissions, and the longer the lifetime of the gas, the higher the resulting concentration).  As a result cone can compare the long – term climate impacts of an emission pulse of carbon dioxide with a constant emission rate for more short-lived greenhouse gases. 

Put differently, reducing annual emissions of methane and nitrous oxide will relax the carbon budget compatible with a 2 degree target. Or, conversely for every tonne of carbon dioxide emission mitigated, we can increase annual emissions of shorter lived greenhouse gases forever without affecting long-term warming.

For methane, emitting one kg per year has the same long-term temperature impact as would a one-time emission of around 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide. For nitrous oxide which is both a more potent greenhouse gas and has a much longer atmospheric lifetime, an annual emission of one kg compares to a one-time emission of about 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Using these numbers, the annual emissions from the global livestock sector (some 112 million tonnes of methane and 8 million tonnes of nitrous oxide), if held constant, have the same long-term climate impact as carbon dioxide emissions of roughly 1000 billion tonnes. This is in the same order of magnitude as the total remaining carbon budget under a 2 degree target! 

Seen this way, achieving significant cuts in the global greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector – through productivity increases, technological development and dietary changes – can substantially raise the carbon budget compatible with the climate target currently agreed by the global community, hence increasing the likelihood that this target will actually be met. 

Source: Food Climate Research Network

03.05.16 Livestock’s carbon footprint and the importance of comparing greenhouse gases

This blog was published on the Food Climate Research Network and comes from Martin Persson at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.  This blog looks at the difficult issue of how to measure the climate impacts of the different greenhouse gases.  He begins by explaining what the two most common measurements (Global Warming Potential and Global Temperature Change Potential actually measure.

He also focuses specifically on beef and associated methane emissions. To read the article in its original form on the FCRN site, please click here.

The emissions conundrum

How do you compare the climate impact of, say, eating a hamburger and driving your car to the local supermarket? Making this comparison requires a conversion factor (a greenhouse gas metric) which adds up the emissions of the different gases that doing these different activities produces. In this example, the gases would include carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels, methane from the cow (through enteric fermentation and manure) and nitrous oxide from feed production (fertiliser).  The way that these are most commonly represented is using Global Warming Potential, where clever equations work out the gases different warming potentials over time and apportions them a value.  For anyone who has sat through a presentation on climate change and have heard the statistics about methane being 30 times more potent than carbon and nitrous oxide 300 times, that is what feeds into the carbon dioxide equivalents that are represented by global warming potential.

However, this is not the only way to convert methane and nitrous oxide into carbon dioxide equivalents.  Another option is to use the so called Global Temperature change Potentials (GTPs), according to which methane is just 4 times stronger than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas (when using the same 100 year time horizon that is used in Global Warming Potential).  Not surprisingly given the bad press associated with beef and dairy production when looking at emissions, using a different measure (Global Temperature Change potential, rather than global warming potential) makes the story seem much less dramatic. 

So how do you understand which metric to choose? As is always the case with reporting data, in order to answer that question, there is need for an understanding of what these different metrics actually are trying to measure (and balance).

Global Warming Potential and Global Temperature Change Potential

Global warming potential (GWP) focusses on radiative forcing, simply put a measure of the radiative energy imbalance due to increased levels of the greenhouse gas that cause the atmosphere, land and oceans to warm. To calculate the GWP of a gas, you add up the total cumulative radiative forcing resulting from the emission of one tonne of the gas today over a given time horizon, and then compare that to the total radiative forcing over the same time horizon resulting from emitting one tonne of carbon dioxide (comparing other gases to carbon dioxide in their ability to warm the radiative forcing). Global Temperature change potential (GTPs) compare the temperature change at a given point in the future, resulting from an emission of one tonne of a gas today and compare that to the temperature rise at the same point in time from emitting a tonne of carbon dioxide today.

This has been shown very nicely in a graph, which you can access through the original article here.

Reporting framework 

These graphs show that due to differences in atmospheric lifetimes of carbon dioxide and methane, there are marked differences in the time that the warming from the different gases will persist. Methane’s short atmospheric lifetime, about 12 years, implies that much of the change in temperatures that emissions today cause, will have dissipated in 100 years time (but not all of them). Consequently, when using global temperature potential calculations, the value for methane will be much less than when looking at global warming potential as GWPs reflects the cumulative warming effect of an emissions and as such, accounts for the near time climate impacts caused by the methane emissions.

As such, although emitting 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide or 1 tonne of methane today (remember these have equal emission if you are measuring using GWP), will have the same impact on total radiative forcing over the coming century, it will give very different absolute temperature changes at the end of this period (about seven times higher for carbon dioxide than for methane) as methane’s GWP value is about seven time higher than its GTP value.

This example (if you are still reading!) illustrates a general insight when it comes to greenhouse gas metrics, because of the differences in the atmospheric lifetime across greenhouse gases, there can never be a perfect metric that assures equivalence across all relevant impacts of climate change. Consequently which metric you use, will always reflect value judgement, such as:

  • Which impact to compare (e.g. radiative forcing, temperature change or sea-level rise)
  • Whether to compare these impacts at some future date or cumulative impacts over the whole period up until this date
  • Time-horizon over which impacts are assessed

How to choose which one to use?

This doesn’t imply however that the choice of metric is arbitrary. A common argument is that the choice of metric must reflect the climate policy goal the metric is to serve.  For example, cumulative radiative forcing, as measured by GWPs, relates directly to cumulative warming, which is a crude proxy for climate damages. Hence if our policy goal is to limit the total amount of climate damages over some specified time period, GWPs would be a good metric to use. However it we are simply interested in staying below some climate threshold, e.g. keeping warming well below 2 degrees C and do not care about the path leading up to this target we might favour GTPs.  This is because for a distant temperature target, it only matters how much warming is left lingering from an emission today at the point when the temperature target is reached (and not how much warming we get leading up to this point).

I will post part two of this article tomorrow, which deals with how this impacts on livestock.

Source: Martin Persson, published on the Food Climate Research Network

21.04.16 Reducing food waste could help mitigate climate change

Source: Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

About a tenth of overall global greenhouse gas emissions form agriculture could be traced back to food waste by mid – century, a new study shows. A team from the Postdam Instititue for Climate Impact Research for the first time provides comprehensive food loss projections for countries around the world while also calculating the associated emissions. 

Currently one third of global food production never finds its way onto our plates. 

This share will increase drastically, if emerging countries like China and India adopt Western nutrition lifestyles, the analyses shows. Reducing food waste would offer the chance to ensure food security, (which is well known), but at the same time it could help mitigate dangerous climate change.

“Reducing food waste can contribute to fighting hunger but to some extent can also prevent climate impacts like more intense weather extremes and sea – level rise,” explains lead author Ceren Hic. Avoiding food loss and waste would therefore avoid unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions and help mitigate climate change.

What they did

The research analysed body types and food requirements for the past and different future scenarios accounting for demographic changes as well as food demand and availability, and associated emissions. They found that while global average food demand per person remains almost constant, in the last five decades already food availability has rapidly increased. 

More importantly, food availability and requirement ratio show a linear relationship with human development, indicating that richer countries consume more food than is healthy or simply waste it. Using the model that this research created in terms of future planning, greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste could increase tremendously from today (0.5 Gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year) to 1.9 – 2.5 GtCO2eq.

Their model also indicated the growth of emissions from agriculture, due to demographic growth and lifestyle changes, with projections of a rise of 18 Gigatons of CO2eq by 2050.  The staggering statistic that this model found was that up to 14% of overall agricultural emissions in 2050 could easily be avoided by a better management of food utilisation and distribution.  Cutting food waste at a household (or even individual scale) could be one key to mitigating these emissions.  

How can the food supply chain be made smarter and more efficient, and are consumers ready to be convinced to reduce food waste?  More research is needed, but this study shines a light on the complex relationship between food security and climate change (that will become ever more important in the future with more people to feed). 

The researchers explain, “Avoiding food loss could pose a leverage to various challenges at one, reducing environmental impacts of agriculture, saving resources used in food production, and enhancing local, regional and global food security.” 

20.04.16 Reducing enteric methane for improving food security and livelihoods

This information comes from the FAO and was collated by the Global Research Alliance, and looks at the important issue of reducing enteric methane.  For more information on the Global Research alliance, please click here.

What is enteric methane?

Enteric fermentation is a natural part of the digestive process of ruminants where microbes decompose and ferment food present in the digestive tract or rumen. Enteric methane is one by-product of this process and is expelled by the animal through burping. Other by-products of the fermentation process are compounds which are absorbed by the animal to make milk and meat.

The amount of enteric methane expelled by the animal is directly related to the level of intake, the type and quality of feed, the amount of energy it consumes, size, growth rate, levels of production, and environmental temperature. Between 2 – 12% of a ruminant’s energy intake is typically lost through the enteric fermentation process. 

Why is enteric methane important?

Enteric methane is a Short – Lived Climate Pollutant (SLCP) and has a half-life of 12 years in comparison to carbon dioxide, parts of which stay in the atmosphere for many hundreds to thousands of years. Methane traps 84 times more heat than Carbon dioxide over the first two decades after it is released into the air.

Even over a 100 year period, the comparative warming effect of enteric methane is 28 times greater than carbon dioxide (per kg). Therefore reducing the rate of enteric methane emissions would help reduce the rate of warming in the near time, and if emissions reductions are sustained, can also help limit peak warming. 

Ruminants are responsible for 30% of global methane emissions.

Globally ruminant livestock produce about 2.7 GtC02 eq. of enteric methane annually, or about 5.5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

Cattle account for 77% of these emissions, buffalo for 14% and small ruminants for the remainder. 

What can farmers do?

Getting farms to improve the productivity of ruminants is a key way to improve rural livelihoods and improve food security. Farming systems that are much more productivity generally also reduce enteric methane emissions per unit of animal product. There are three key areas to focus on.

Feed and nutrition

Improving feed quality can be achieved through improved grassland management, improved pasture species, forage mix and great use of locally available supplements. Matching ruminant production to underlying grazing resources, ration balancing, undertaking adequate feed preparation and preservation will improve nutrient uptake, ruminant productivity and fertility.

Animal health and husbandry

Improving the reproductive rates and extending the reproductive life of the animal will increase their productivity and generally reduces methane emissions intensity. 

The most relevant method of achieving this is to limit the incidence of disease within the herd / flock, as healthier animals are generally more productive and have lower emissions per unit of product. 

Animal genetics and breeding

Genetic selection is a key measure in increasing the productivity of animlas. Breeding can help adapt animals to local conditions, and can also address issues associated with reproduction, vulnerability to stress, adaptability to climate change and disease incidence. Improved breeding management practices (using artificial insemination for example and ensuring access by farmers to wide genetic pools for selection) can accelerate those gains.

What the scientists / policy makers / industry need to do.

Care is needed ot identify the most effective package of interventions that fit local farm systems, resources and capabilities, and to avoid inadvertent trade-offs. 

Methods need to be practical and usable on the ground in order for them to be taken up, and communicated to farmers in a way which conveys their use.

Win-win opportunities for farmers

Rumninant production systems with low productivity lose more energy per unit of animal product than those with a high productivity (not rocket science I know). This energy that is lost per unit of product includes methane, so the more productive we can make our systems, the more of that energy will be going into producing meat or milk and not being expelled from the cow and lost to the environment.

There is a strong correlation between animal productivity and methane emissions, which implies large opportunities for low cost mitigation and widespread benefits.

Ruminants are essential to the livelihoods of millions of farmers and critical to human health, global food and nutritional security. Ruminants convert their feed (from a diverse range of sources and production systems) into high value products for humans through fermentation.  They also produce important components such as asset savings, traction, manure for fuel and fertilisers and fibre. 

Relative to other global greenhouse gas abatement opportunities, reducing enteric methane through productivity gains is the lowest cost option and has a direct economic benefit to farmers. 

What is happening?

Efforts to address enteric methane emissions in developing regions is relatively new and fragmented with a number of on-going initiatives each targeting a single component of the challenge.  The project which is a collaboration between the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, and the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhous gas Research Centre funded by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the New Zealand Government in support of the Global Research alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse gases.

What are they going to do?

Analyse and prioritise opportunities for improved food security and resource use efficiency and the identification of production systems / countries for detailed assessment.

Develop packages of appropriate cost – effective technologies; recommend policy options that improve resource use efficiency.

Identify demonstration sites and partners for Phase 2 on-farm testing of the technical packages.

Communication, dissemination and outreach.

For more information on what’s happening click here.

For more information on reducing methane from ruminants and production efficiency click here to go to the Toolkit section. 

19.04.16 Adapting to climate change

How communities can work together to achieve change, whilst adapting to a future climate.

Last week, I went along to a talk given by the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce at Bridgwater College looking at adapting to climate change. I was fairly excited about going along to this as the main speaker was Professor Lord John Krebs who is fully involved in the 'climate change agenda,' chairing the Adaptation Subcommittee which advises on the steps that Government should be taking to prepare for the impacts of climate change.  The session was ably chaired by Matthew Taylor, a fellow from the society with extensive experience in policy and public engagement. 

Somerset had first-hand experience of severe flooding two year ago, and its proximity to the sea makes it exposed to risks in the future.  Flooding has devastating consequences that don’t just cost in terms of finance, but also bring with it personal loss, and in the case of farmers complete upheaval and devastation that can take a long time to recover from.  This was a talk that tried to  look at how we can change our thinking and behaviour now to make our communities more resilient against future weather events and risks.  

In terms of our legislative requirements, the UK government (on the surface) are committed to the ‘climate change agenda.’ The 2008 Climate Change Act which received all party support provided the legal basis which committed the government to act, however how it is translated into on the ground action is open to interpretation. 

Lord Krebs structured his talk around three key questions which were:

Is climate change actually happening?

What are the impacts on the UK?

What should we do about it?

Is climate change really happening?

Lord Krebs highlighted that although the media still has doubts about the existence of climate change, there are some facts that remain including:

During the 150 year period when temperature has been measured by thermometers, the temperature has gone up by just under 1 degree C. 

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone up because of burning fossil fuels.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.

The well-publicised climate change talks in Paris last year did provide us with some positive indicators, the sign up of 192 countries with intended contributions including the USA and China, which is a great step forward.  For the pessimists, however, even if all countries achieved their goals, it still isn’t enough to stop temperature rise and impacts.  

What are the impacts on us here in the UK?

One of the big issues comes with future predictions of climate change and weather patterns, as it stretches the limits of climate models.  It is important though to look at how we prepare ourselves to risks.

What are these risks? The government publishes a climate change risk assessment periodically (the next one is due in July), and it is likely to say that the biggest risks are:

Flooding (including riverine, flash and coastal flooding)

Natural environment – declining soil fertility

Transport – higher temperatures

Water shortage – especially in the south east (which can cause issues for farming)

For agriculture, arguably all of these risks affect us, to a greater or lesser extent.  

What should be done about it?

Whose responsibility is it? The answer to this question, was much easier and simpler.


Yes everyone is responsible.

It’s not up to one group of people, everyone has to engage and commit to building resilient communities.  

Interestingly Lord Krebs looked (unsurprisingly due to the location of the talk) at flooding and came up with some interesting statistics around individuals protecting their properties from damage.  At the current rate of action it will take 400 years to introduce enough features to protect our properties.  Add to this that as a nation we are not investing enough in flood defences and it paints a bleak picture. 

Lord Krebs alluded to two government reviews that are happening at the moment, to try and help with the issue.  One is looking at short term measures around flood protection, including how we can protect critical infrastructure from extreme rainfall, how to increase spend on flood defences in core cities and how to communicate flood risk to people better. 

The other review is looking at longer term strategies (and is more applicable to farmers) is looking at how we can manage water on a catchment scale.  This review is focussed in Cumbria and is setting up three pilot catchments which are being managed differently and mapping the impact on water flow and infiltration. The key point here, was that when water falls out of the sky, it has to go somewhere, and we need to treat that water with respect.

Following the talk, there was interesting debate and questions that followed a few key themes.

Communication – there was interesting discussions about communication on a couple of different levels.  Firstly communication by scientists – and the confusing use of terminology.  The key question is how to express probability and uncertainty without highlighting the unknown.  There is a need to develop smarter ways of communication which reinforce the key points without getting bogged down in the detail. 

This need for clear and consistent communication is still evident, (including in this talk).  It seems to me, that we are getting more and more up to date on the ‘why’ we should do something, but what we are (still) missing is the ‘how’.  Certainly in the talk, when pressed, there was very little clear direction (from a very receptive audience) into what they should be doing different.  The message was ‘we are all responsible, don’t leave it to someone else’ but then at the crucial point, stopped short of telling us what we should be doing. More information required please!

Another key point which was more relevant to farmers, was that catchment scale management of water is critical.  Although this wasn’t a purely farming audience, this resonated with me, and a few of the farmers that were present in the room.  How we look after and manage the water that falls on our farms has much wider impact than just on our land.  We have a responsibility to respect that water, use it to grow our crops and hold it in our (well structured) soils for so it can be released slowly.  Lord Krebs also suggested that we look out for the hotly anticipated Defra 25 year Environment Strategy to see whether anything about flooding is included. 

Another discussed question was 'ownership' and whether the small act of switching off a light or one household becoming more energy efficient really makes a difference against the emitting force of some of the powerhouse countries.  The point was echoed again that:

It’s about all of us doing our bit.

So all of us were challenged to inspire the nation to act.

I was impressed by the number of people that attended the talk, and by the speakers and the depth and intensity of some of the questions.  As I said above, what I felt was slightly lacking, from an audience who had voted with their feet and turned up, was where to go next.  What was the one thing that they could go home and do, to start ‘doing their bit’ which was what was being advocated.

On the drive home I was thinking that maybe they had stopped short of that because it isn’t a simple answer, and, like we find in farming, it all depends on your set up, soil type and what you are doing in the first place. But for how much longer can we hide behind ‘its not simple’ and when do we have the courage to stand up and say, although this isn’t going to achieve everything it’s a start? 

That’s all we need.

A start.

So what did I take home from the meeting? 

A couple of points really.  One which corresponds to what we try and do here at FCCT, and that’s what do we actually need to do?  What are those actions that although won’t make a difference at a global or national scale, will make a difference to me, and (as echoed in the talk) potentially make a difference at a catchment scale? I am going to make sure that we have the courage to give you the information that you need to do the HOW as well as appreciating the WHY.

Secondly, it made me realise that while I spend a lot of my day job looking at what agriculture can do to reduce emissions and improve resilience, I had fairly little clue what I personally could do, so I’m off to ‘climate-proof’ my life. 

18.04.16 France's 4 per 1000 Initiative developed further

France's 4 per 1000 Initiative is due to be scrutinised at the International Level to determine the future steps on April 28th at the International Agricultural Show in Morocco.

This meeting which will include the French Ministry of Agriculture along with the Moroccan Ministry will aim to set out the framework for the international governance structure of the initiative and determine what the next steps should be before the next international climate conference COP22 which takes place in Morocco in November.

For farmers interested in this initiative what this meeting should hopefully provide is clear direction and a roadmap as to how it is going to be managed and rolled out between May of this year and the COP22 in November.  

What is encouraging with this initiative is that it puts soil health and the need to provide farming systems that are resilient right up the agenda, while at the same time (hopefully) providing a robust method of measuring results.  The paragraph below comes from the recent release announcing this new meeting and reads:

"In 2050, global agriculture will have to produce a sufficient amount of food for a planet composed of 9.5 billion people in the context of climate change. Faced with this challenge, we must keep our soils alive because agricultural production is strongly correlated with soil health. Increasing carbon stored in soils is one of the major levers to respond to the triple challenges of food security, the adaptation of food systems and populations to disruptions linked to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

For more information on the project click here.

Source: French Food in the US news update

15.04.16 Climate smart soils may help balance the carbon budget

While farm soil grows the world's food and fibre, scientists are examining ways to use it to sequester carbon and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

"We can substantially reduce atmospheric carbon by using soil. We have the technology now to begin employing good soil practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Johannes Lehmann, Cornell University professor of soil and crop sciences, co-author of the Perspectives piece, "Climate-smart Soils."

Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, sequestering carbon and using prudent agricultural management practices that tighten the soil-nitrogen cycle can yield enhanced soil fertility, bolster crop productivity, improve soil biodiversity, and reduce erosion, runoff and water pollution. These practices also buffer crop and pasture systems against the impacts of climate change.

Currently, Earth's atmosphere holds about 830 petagrams (1 trillion kilograms) of carbon and humans add about 10 petagrams of carbon to the atmosphere every year, because of industrial and agricultural waste, and fossil-fuel burning vehicles, according to Lehmann. Soils, however, hold about 4,800 petagrams of carbon to a depth of 2 meters.

The good news is that soils have the potential to hold even more. "Improving prediction models, finding 'big data' approaches to integrate land use, soil management and technology to engage land users are key parts to realizing greenhouse gas mitigation from climate-smart agricultural soils," said Lehmann, a faculty fellow at Cornell's Atkinson Centre for a Sustainable Future.

One strong mitigation strategy includes avoiding degradation of native ecosystems, while restoring marginal land to perennial forest or grassland.

It's not all about science: Realizing the potential for climate change mitigation through global soil management requires understanding cultural, political and socio-economic contexts, said the scientists.

Land users, farmers and producers can abate greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon using several methods, but these stakeholders must be educated and need the decision tools to choose the most appropriate approach tuned to their situation.

Practices to minimize greenhouse gas emissions include reducing tillage; improving grazing management, crop rotation and nutrient management; applying biochar; adding cover crops; and providing perennial vegetation for inactive production fields.

"The mitigation potential of existing and future soil management practices could be as high as 8 petagrams per year, but how much is achievable depends on the implementation strategies, and socio-economic and policy constraints," said Lehmann.

Journal Reference: Keith Paustian, Johannes Lehmann, Stephen Ogle, David Reay, G. Philip Robertson, Pete Smith. Climate-smart soils. Nature, 2016; 532 (7597): 49 DOI: 10.1038/nature17174

Source: Farming Futures

15.04.16 Final report released on methods of assessing sustainability

The final report of the Ekhaga Sustainability Assessment project has been published.

The project which was run by the Organic Research Centre aimed to provide practical recommendations on the suitability of the available sustainability assessment frameworks, themes, tools and indicators for the organic sector and to help consider and further develop sustainability assessment approaches. 

This was a much needed project.  Sustainability and the need for sustainable production systems is ever more important in a world of global challenges (and that is however you define sustainability).  However the big issue has always been, although its a great and noble ambition, how do you actually measure its happening on the ground? And what can we use as suitable indicators that we are making progress?

The old adage of you can't manage what you don't measure is important as well.  Does it mean that we will all be managers of sustainable farming systems and how will we know if we get there.  Although we may be making progress in modelling and defining indicators that cover the economic and environmental pillars of sustainability where do we stand on the social indicators? And who is setting the targets about where we should be, and whether its achievable to get there?

This report, goes some way into trying to answer some of the questions around methodologies that are specifically applicable to organic and ecological systems and tried to answer some of the questions around any existing trade-offs and relationships between the themes of sustainability.

The report, which can be read in full here, provided some key points.

  • There is need for more work on assessing the synergies and trade offs within sustainable farm practices and whether these are adequately represented by the tools available
  • There is also need for farmers to accept some of the trade offs between economics and the environmental and social factors. This may need to be pushed by policy.
  • The encouraging aspect of this report was the recommendation (and realisation) that priorities need to be set depending on the specific context of the farm (not one size fits all blunt policy).

What did the report see as the strengths of the organic sector in sustainable farm management?

These included:

  • biodiversity
  • ecosystem diversity
  • soil quality
  • greenhouse gas emissions

The final recommendation explained that further development of the evidence base to these factors would help publicise the results further.

07.04.16 Best GHG mitigation opportunities from livestock sector

The global livestock sector supports about 1.3 billion producers and retailers around the world, and is a significant global economic contributor.

New analysis estimates that livestock could account for up to half of the mitigation potential of the global agricultural, forestry and land-use sectors, which are the second largest source of emissions globally, after the energy sector.

The lead author of this study, CSIRO’s Dr Mario Herrero, said this new account of the mitigation potential for the global livestock sector is the most comprehensive analysis to date as it considers both the supply and demand sides of the industry.

A key finding is that we can get the best mitigation potential from the livestock sector if we take an integrated view of land use and practice change that considers the whole of agriculture and forestry as well as looking at dietary patterns and how we address the needs of global nutrition.

“Livestock has a role in a healthy and sustainable diet, and the sector has an important economic and social role, particularly in developing countries,” Dr Herrero said. “We need to balance these health outcomes and the economic and social benefits, while also capturing the mitigation potential the livestock sector can offer.”

Dr Herrero said sustainably intensifying livestock production is one way this can be done. “We’ve found that there are a number of ways that the livestock sector can contribute to global greenhouse gas mitigation,” he said. “New management practices such as rotational grazing and dietary supplements can increase livestock production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need to increase the adoption of these different strategies by making sure that we have the right incentives. If appropriately managed with the right regulatory framework, these practices can also achieve improved environmental health over and above the greenhouse gas benefits delivered, for example through improved ground cover and soil carbon.”

Journal Reference: Mario Herrero, Benjamin Henderson, Petr Havlík, Philip K. Thornton, Richard T. Conant, Pete Smith, Stefan Wirsenius, Alexander N. Hristov, Pierre Gerber, Margaret Gill, Klaus Butterbach-Bahl, Hugo Valin, Tara Garnett, Elke Stehfest. Greenhouse gas mitigation potentials in the livestock sector. Nature Climate Change, 2016; DOI:10.1038/nclimate2925

06.04016 New IBERS research to boost grassland efficiency and improve prospects for livestock farmers

New IBERS research will give livestock farmers the opportunity to produce quality forage with lower nitrogen and phosphate fertiliser inputs, thereby saving costs whilst reducing any negative environmental impact caused by nutrient leaching, run–off and potential greenhouse gas emissions.

“IBERS has led the way in developing and applying innovative plant breeding techniques over the last three decades, producing many of the leading forage grasses and clovers now on the official Recommended Lists,” says Paul Billings, managing director of Germinal GB.

“This latest project will build on that heritage, drawing on this established genetic material as well as new germplasm, to create new varieties with the added advantage of nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) and phosphorus use efficiency (PUE).

“This is an example of vital near–market research that will deliver tangible benefits, not only for livestock farmers but also for the environment. Both aspects are important in the context of long term sustainable livestock farming.”

IBERS plant breeders will use a combination of conventional and innovative marker–assisted (MAS) approaches to improve the speed and precision of selecting varieties for NUE and PUE. The work will apply to both perennial ryegrass and white clover, where the potential for greater NUE and PUE has already been identified.

Source: Germinal Seeds

25.03.16 Good agricultural practices reduce soil erosion in Italy

Soil erosion in Italy could be reduced by 43% if Good Agriclutural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) were fully adopted, a recent study has found. Reducing soil erosion would also increase soil organic carbon stocks, particularly on cultivated sloping land.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, March 2016

Protecting European soils from erosion is therefore a priority under the European Commission’s soil protection thematic strategy 1 . To encourage environmentally sound agriculture, actions to protect soil are included in the cross compliance mechanism attached to pillar 1 farm subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Under the CAP Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) requirements, Member States are obliged to prevent soil erosion and maintain soil organic matter through national or regional standards, such as minimal soil cover maintenance (GAEC 4); minimum land management reflecting site specific conditions to soil loss (GAEC 5); and maintenance of soil organic matter level (GAEC 6). Should farmers not comply with these requirements, they are liable to a small penalty (approx. 5%) on their subsidy.

The concept of GAEC includes protecting soils against erosion and maintaining soil organic matter and soil structure (other GAECs are aimed at protecting water, biodiversity and animal health). It is up to Member States to establish standards which are appropriate to their conditions. Example actions include minimising the area of bare soil (e.g. by leaving  vegetable matter on soil surfaces); limiting soil loss through methods such as growing crops across or perpendicular to a slope; and maintaining soil organic carbon stocks (e.g. by residues management including restrictions on burning crop residues).

Although Member States must notify the commission on how they implement the GAECs, little is known about the effect GAEC standards have had on reducing soil erosion and increasing soil carbon stocks in Europe. In the first study of its kind, researchers, including from the European Commission’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability, have assessed the impact of the GAECs at the national level. They chose Italy as a case study because arable land there often has steep slopes with soil that is particularly susceptible to being eroded by heavy rainstorms.

The researchers linked an erosion model with an agro-ecosystem model to calculate the impact of GAEC practices on soil losses and soil organic carbon stocks. Average annual soil erosion losses due to changes in climate, land cover, soil properties, landscape features and agricultural practices were assessed using data from climate, land cover and agricultural databases, as well as satellite images.

The researchers looked at three scenarios. The first, ‘baseline’, represented the absence of any specific national policy on erosion prevention and carbon conservation and was based on conditions prior to the GAECs on soil being included in the cross compliance mechanism. The ‘current’ scenario is based on the implementation of compulsory GAEC standards, beginning in 2005. As a result of changes to practice, this scenario had different soil erosion rates to the baseline. Finally, the ‘technical potential’ scenario reflects the avoided erosion and the amount of soil organic carbon that could be stored by 2050, if GAEC standards were to be implemented across all arable land.

In short, the three scenarios represent: no GAECs; current GAEC implementation; and application of GAECs to the entire surface of arable land in Italy.

For the baseline, the researchers estimated that soil is being lost at 8.33 tonnes per hectare per year (t/ha/yr) across all arable land in Italy. Around 29% of the arable land had losses

greater than 10 t/ha/yr, which is the water erosion threshold indicator for tolerable soil losses in Mediterranean environments, at which point the rate of soil erosion becomes unsustainable.

 The researchers estimate that approximately 73% of soil erosion is occurring in 25% of the Italian cropland. Farms located on slopes (greater than 10%) experience around 64% of the total annual soil loss, as they are the most exposed to soil erosion.

For the current scenario, soil loss was estimated to be 7.43 t/ha/yr.  Approximately 25% of the arable land has losses greater than 10 t/ha/yr, which is around an 11% decrease compared with the baseline scenario. The ‘technical potential’ scenario could significantly reduce soil losses to 4.1 t/ha/yr, a 51% reduction compared with the baseline scenario and approximately 43% compared with the current scenario.

Top-soil organic carbon stock varied in the three scenarios depending on the location of arable land and land management practices. The study suggests that current GAEC practices have led to an overall 17% carbon accumulation through avoided soil erosion, compared with the baseline scenario. If these standards were fully implemented on all arable land, the soil organic carbon stock in Italy may increase by up to 11% in the long-term.

As monitoring soil erosion and carbon levels across all farms is not viable, the researchers suggest their modelling approach could help policymakers to assess the effectiveness of soil conservation measures at national, regional and even global levels. Research is also being conducted to assess sediment and carbon budgets, including transport and depositional processes.

16.03.16 Reducing the emissions intensity of livestock production: case studies of success

The information below was produced by the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, and more information on the alliance can be found by clicking here.

This case study looks at the French dairy industry and its efforts to reduce the environmental impact of milk production, with ambitious targets to reduce the carbon footprint of milk by 20% over 10 years.

The French Dairy sector

France is Europe’s second largest milk producer after Germany and contributes 3.5% of the global milk production, and generates 28 billion Euros in revenues and 123,000 jobs. There are a variety of production systems and the average herd size is 70 cows. Looking at the distribution of GHGs across France as a whole, the dairy sector represents 7% of emissions (including the national herd, and land associated with milk production).

What’s been happening?

Between 1990 and 2010 there have been improvements within the French dairy sector around milk yield per cow, as a result of genetic gains and improvement in farm management practices, including feed efficiency and herd management through an advisory programme. There has also been a reduction in fertiliser use through improved practices surrounding management of manures.

Effect of actions on emissions intensity of livestock production

During the last 20 years, the GHG emissions associated with dairy production in France has fallen from 1.4kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per litre of milk to 1.1kg. This has been due to reduced numbers of dairy cows as well as improved productivity and fertiliser use.

The LIFE Carbon Dairy action plan

This plan has been introduced that aims to reduce the carbon footprint of milk production by 20% over 10 years, avoiding emitting 140,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. It is being rolled out across 6 pilot areas which represent 65% of national production of milk.

The plan includes a tool for French dairy farmers to use which helps them to quantify their carbon footprint and environmental impact. As well as a national foot printing exercise the programme will set up 60 innovation farms to test new approaches to reducing emissions at a farm level.

Why bother?

By reducing GHG emissions on-farm, the plan will also help farm efficiency and sustainability. A lot of mitigation practices induce savings and less working time for farmers, for example by reducing energy consumption and the use of inputs.

There are some opportunities where additional investment may be needed in terms of purchase of new equipment. These are always difficult decisions to make especially when previously there has been little concrete evidence of the quantifiable benefits that these practices have. The advisors tools being provided in France allow farmers to link the economic benefits or costs to the environmental ones and determine the cost benefit in £/kg Carbon dioxide equivalent avoided (which may be linked to a carbon credit mechanism in the future).

Implementing the plan

The challenge in order to achieve the plan’s ambitious goals is to train farm advisors in providing appropriate advice and in promoting innovative techniques adapted to different operating environments.

Farms will be monitored throughout the programme and regular analysis and discussion with the farmer will allow alterations to be made (because of weather!) and check that everything is ok. The plan also aims to create farmer networks that will help producers understand the constraints and advantages of the implementation of innovative practices in different production contexts including the part of grass and silage in the system and agronomic and climatic conditions in regions.

For more information on the project please click here

14.03.16 Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock: what are the costs?

The livestock sector is estimated to contribute 14.5% of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This study, taken from a recent Science for Environment Policy briefing highlights some of the work that is going on looking to quantify the benefits of adapting management practices to reduce emissions and which may be suitable for policy targeting and intervention. The information below is a summary of the work, but to read the full article please click here.

Globally there is the potential to reduce GHG emissions from the livestock sector by as much as 2.4 metric gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions every year (a value that is incredibly hard to visualise or get your head round, but its big).  The vast majority of this potential is associated with ruminants and come from management such as improved production efficiency, and the use of feed additives or other products to suppress methane production, or measures designed to improve the carbon sequestration potential of the system through improved grassland management and the inclusion of legumes within forage mixes.

Up until now, there has been little research that has tried to assess the costs and benefits of different practices designed to reduce emissions. Those studies that have tried have suggested that there is a proportion of this potential is available at a price, but that much of the options available are not attainable in a cost effective manner. 

This project tried to dig a bit deeper into the statement above and tried to estimate the costs of reducing GHG emissions from the livestock sector globally. The results in this work looked at the marginal costs (defined as cost of producing one more unit and include all the costs associated with producing that unit), rather than the commonly reported average costs of abatement as such allowed for variability in the effectiveness of practices depending on the region and production system being reported.

What did they do?

This study used a 5 step analytical approach:

  • Focussed on ruminant production systems (which account for over 90% of all direct GHG emissions from livestock globally)
  • Then they looked at management practices according to their reliability and effectiveness at reducing emissions (no good looking at options that weren't going to achieve the desired outcome)
  • They also focussed on practices that targeted methane and carbon sequestration (rather than nitrous oxide) which have been documented as being the largest sources of abatement for ruminant production systems,
  • 5 practices were looked at - three for methane emissions and two for carbon sequestration
  • Data was analysed using a computer model and allowed the scientists to create graphs and curves which allow an understanding of how the costs increase with every additional unit of emissions that is reduced. 

What were the management practices that they looked at?

  • Feeding of dietary oils (reducing methane)
  • Feeding of nitrates ( in the form of calcium, potassium, or sodium nitrate, fed to reduce methane)
  • Urea treatment of crop straws fed to animals
  • Improved grazing management (carbon sequestration)
  • Inclusion of legumes within mix (again carbon sequestration)

What did they find?

Soil carbon sequestration
The two opportunities to improve soil carbon sequestration were both found to be affordable.  The potential of improved grazing management was found to be achievable at no cost to start with, costs did then increase when the opportunities to improve management are exhausted. Therefore ensuring that grassland management is optimal and efficient will help with carbon sequestration, and reduction of emissions associated with livestock production.  The inclusion of legumes was found to be affordable and effective. Despite the high upfront costs of establishment they are offset by the returns associated with increased forage production and animal productivity, 85% of its total abatement potential is achievable at a carbon price of $10 t of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

Reduction of methane emissions
The costs of dietary oils and nitrates are high at all levels of abatement due to the expense of oilseeds and lack of associated improvement in animal productivity.  The urea treatment of straws were also shown to be unprofitable which is in line with its modest uptake. 

What did they conclude?

The study offers guidance for targeting abatement efforts to have the highest impacts at the lowest cost. In western Europe, legume showing was the most efficient practice and, overall abatement practices were found to the most effective for dairy cattle.  The study suggests that around half of the abatement potential for improved grazing management and legume sowing could be achieved with extension and capacity building programmes. For the costlier abatement options though, stronger policy options would be required for example a carbon tax or emission quotas.

To read the full article click here.

01.03.16 Soil Farmer of the Year Shortlist announced

The shortlist for the inaugural Soil Farmer of the Year competition has been announced.  The competition, which opened on World Soils Day (4th December 2015) has attracted a wide range of entries, from small horticultural operations to large arable estates.  All the entries have the common theme of being passionate about their soil management, and recognising the crucial importance that soil health has to the running of their farming and growing operations.  

“Soil is central to everything that we do” explains one of the shortlisted applicants, “the soil must be our first consideration within a sustained and profitable enterprise.” The competition, which has been run by the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit (FCCT) and Innovation for Agriculture, has received a large number of applications that have all been of extremely high quality. 

FCCT Director, and organic vegetable grower Jonathan Smith explains his personal interest in soil management: “I have been working hard to create better soils with higher organic matter levels on my farm for years, it's central to what we do. I find the whole subject fascinating, not least because of the many different techniques that farmers and growers have to achieve the same end. This Competition has shown just how many great soil farmers there are out there. I hope this idea of being a 'soil farmer' grows in popularity.”

In total 17 applications were received, of which a shortlist of 7 has been created.  The judging panel consisted of scientists from Rothamsted Research North Wyke, the James Hutton Institute, farmers from the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit and Cotswold Seeds who are kindly sponsoring the competition and providing the top three entries with prizes of cover crop or green manure seeds to a value of £500.

The shortlisted applicants are (in alphabetical order):

Clive Bailye (Arable)

Jeremy and Heather Dale (Livestock)

Nigel Griffiths – Kent

David Miller – (Arable)

Iain Tolhurst (Horticulture)

David White – (Arable)

David Walston – (Arable and sheep)

The shortlisted applicants will be visited by FCCT, and then the decision of the top three soil farmers will be made.  This decision will be announced at the end of March, with the presentation of the award taking place on a farm walk in late spring, giving other farmers the chance to come and visit the UK Soil Farmer of the Year to see and hear how this farmer manages their most important asset.

24.02.16 If farm animals only graze pastures and eat by-products - livestock problem solved?

The extract below comes from an article written by Elin Roos, a postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and initially published on the FCRN website.  The link to the full paper is here

About 40% of the cereals and legume grains produced every year are used to feed farm animals. Many commentators argue that this is highly resource inefficient as around 70% of the human edible energy produced is lost in the process due to metabolic losses in the animals.  For example typically 4 kg of cereals and legumes is needed to produce one kg of edible poultry meat ( Roos et al., 2014), although the quantity varies by system. By contrast raising livestock on by-products that humans can’t or don’t want to eat or waste is often considered to be a resource efficient way of producing protein for human consumption, as is raising livestock on biomass from grasslands unsuitable for the production of human edible foods e.g. natural or semi-natural pastures or other marginal grasslands. (For a deeper discussion of the concept of efficiency please refer to the FCRN paper on efficiency)

This approach of letting the ecological resource capacity be the constraining factor for livestock production, i.e. to restrict livestock production to feeds not suitable for human consumption has been around for some time and was coined as "producing livestock on ecological leftovers" in a paper by FCRN's Tara Garnett in 2009 and explored further as one of the scenarios presented in ‘Gut Feelings

This concept of restricting livestock production is attractive in several ways. From a food security perspective it has been argued that diverting grains from animal feed to human food would increase available food supply. Further, the concept is compatible with principles of agro-ecology (e.g. adjusting production to context-specific conditions and making use of local resources) and makes use of pastures for food production which a vegan diet would not. It also yields a diet which would contain meat and dairy; products that most people appreciate in their diets. However, despite the popularity of framing sustainable meat production in this way, there are few studies that have looked into how a diet based on this concept would actually look like and what the environmental impacts of such a diet would be. This said, recently Schader et al.(2015) modelled various scenarios of global livestock production in which reliance on food-competing feed crops was progressively reduced. They found that greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts would be reduced (compared with the reference scenario), and enough food would be supplied although only 11% of protein would come from animal sources, as compared with 38% in the reference scenario.

In a study published late last year my colleagues and I made an attempt to apply this concept to Sweden and see what kind of diet that would give (Röös et al., 2015b)

To read more of this article please click here.

22.02.16 More research needed before we know how much tree planting can reduce flooding

From Farming Futures blog, 18th February 2016

Recently there has been much discussion in the media, parliament and wider society of ways in which we can reduce the impacts of flooding. One method that has been suggested and is currently being seriously considered by government is “to plant trees in the uplands to help slow the flow of rain water” The Times 25/01/16.

Many commentators have cited as evidence for tree planting the results of a study we carried out at Pontbren in mid-Wales between 2005 and 2012.

In the study we planted trees on previously grazed pasture and measured the subsequent effects on soil hydraulic properties and runoff processes. We found that soil infiltration rates were 67 x times faster and surface runoff volumes were reduced by 78% under trees compared with grassland.

Given the high level of attention given to our results and the significance to them attached by many I thought I should draw attention to some of the caveats presented in the full research paper. These suggest that a degree of caution is required when extrapolating the significance of our findings, particularly if one is planning major changes to existing countryside management policies.

What we found

Prior to our work several studies had shown that high stocking densities can cause soil surface compaction leading to increased surface runoff. Our study at Pontbren clearly indicated that excluding sheep and planting trees resulted in reduced near surface soil compaction, increased infiltration rates and reduced surface runoff volumes. However, what we didn’t measure was whether there was any change in the ability of the soil to store water and whether the water was able to penetrate deeper into the soil profile as a result of the presence of tree roots. These are important parameters that we need to know if want to try and estimate what size of storm this type of land use intervention may be effective against.

Our study and other work undertaken at Pontbren shows that the age of the trees is important and it has been predicted that further improvement in soil hydraulic properties could be achieved under mature trees. We also know that different tree species have different root architecture which will have an impact on the way that water is able to penetrate into the ground. Further work is needed to understand the full impact of trees as they reach maturity and whether the ability of soil below trees to store water could be further improved through tree species selection.

Soil types are variable

Across the UK, the landscape is highly variable with many soils types, often with very different characteristics. Many studies have shown a high degree of variability in hydrological function even for a given soil type depending on how intensely that soil is managed. What we found at Pontbren was that despite choosing four replicate sites with broadly similar soil characteristics, measured infiltration rates and runoff volumes were highly variable. Therefore we cannot say with any certainty what impacts planting trees would have on different types of soil. This indicates a strong need to measure these soil physical properties across a range of soil types to quantify the relative impact.

Scale issues

The results reported in our paper were from a field study undertaken at relatively small scale (each of the plot being 12m x 12m). The UK’s landscape has a very complex structure and one cannot simply upscale the results measured in plot-scale studies like ours to the catchment scale in order to predict the impacts that planting trees might have on flooding. In order to do this we need to employ hydrological models which take account of land use and land use change in their predictions.

Developing the evidence base

To gain a better understanding of whether tree planting would have a positive impact in reducing flooding we need to develop the evidence base. Our work is one of very few studies which provide any empirical information. In future we need to measure what effects planting trees has on soil hydraulic properties, such as the water storage capacity in the soil, under a range of soil types and conditions, as well as looking at different tree species and ages. An example of work towards this end is the Multi-land project, currently under way and funded by the National Research Network for Low Carbon Energy and Environment. We can then use revised estimates of soil parameters to improve flood model predictions to get a better understanding of where tree planting may be effective, what area they may be effective over and what size of storm they might be effective against.

Caution must be given to the expectation that tree planting is the panacea to all flooding. When soils are already saturated as has often been the case during the current winter, the positive contribution that trees may have in terms of providing additional water storage space in the soil below will be greatly diminished. Nevertheless, the added surface roughness provided by the trees and their understorey could aid in flood mitigation by delaying runoff. It is questionable however whether any land use intervention would be effective against the extreme events that the UK has experienced in recent months, we just need more research to work out the magnitude of these effects.

Finally, we need to think of the catchment as a whole when thinking of ways to reduce flooding. Planting trees is only one option amongst a suite of measures that we should consider.

Dr Miles Marshall works in the CEH “Catchment management and soils systems” research group. He is based at our site in Bangor, North Wales. His research interests focus on biogeochemical and hydrological processes and how they vary spatially and temporally, and the linkage to other ecosystem processes and functioning.

The publication discussed in this blog post is: Marshall, M.R.; Ballard, C.E.; Frogbrook, Z.L.; Solloway, I.; McIntyre, N.; Reynolds, B.; Wheater, H.S., 2014, The impact of rural land management changes on soil hydraulic properties and runoff processes: results from experimental plots. Hydrological Processes, 28, 2617-2629

From the CEH website

15.02.16 Which tests to use to assess the health of your soil?

This information below comes from GREAT soils, a project being funded by AHDB Horticulture.

Farmers and growers are concerned about the current health of their soils (compared to 30 or 40 years ago), and some of these concerns are supported by soil analysis data collected over the same period. Most farmers and growers understand the importance of soil health for the productivity, sustainability and profitability of their businesses, but many face significant challenges when interpreting results from laboratory analysis or when choosing suitable tools or methods for assessing the health of their soils beyond the standard pH, P, K, Mg analysis.

To be of value to growers and farmers, methods for soil assessment should not only measure soil health, but should also provide information that can be used to inform decision making in relation to soil management. This review aims to provide an informative overview of the various tools and methods currently available.

The functioning of soil depends upon a complex interaction between organisms large and small, chemical reactions in solution and on surfaces of clay particles within a structure determined by natural processes and modified by soil management. A broad range of appropriate indicators of soil health is therefore needed to evaluate the effects and sustainbilty of agricultural practices. the most commonly agreed and used indicators can be grouped into three categories of (1) biological, (2) chemical, and (3) physical parameters.

A list of the most commonly used indicators for soil health

Biological indicators

  • soil organic matter
  • number and diversity of macro and microorganisms
  • number and diversity of Mycorhiza (AMF) and root colonisation
  • Number and diversity of earthworm populations
  • Respiration rates
  • Enzymatic acticity
  • Microbial profiling
Chemical indicators
  • Nitrogen (N): mineralised N (N-min), ammonium (NH4+), nitrate (NO3-)
  • Macro nutrients: phosphorus (P), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg)
  • Micronutrients: e.g. iron (Fe), copper (Cu), boron (B), manganese (Mn) etc
  • pH
  • Electrical conductivity (C)
  • Cation exchange capacity
  • Salinity
Physical indicators
  • soil structure (e.g. aggregate stability)
  • Compaction
  • Erosion
  • Waterlogging
During a series of grower consultations in autumn 2015, regional grower groups in the UK discussed different approaches to soil assessment; what methods they find useful and reasons why others are not very commonly used.  They were asked to rate a list of categorised soil assessment methods and the results can be seen here

15.02.16 New guidelines from the Soil Association to Save our Soils

The Soil Association has released a document entitled Seven Ways to Save Our Soils which outlines seven key ways to increase soil organic matter (SOM) in UK arable and horticultural soils by 20 per cent over the next 20 years. 

The seven areas outlined are:

  • Increasing the amount of plant and animal matter going back onto the fields
  • Improving soil health monitoring nationwide
  • Encouraging soil organisms
  • Covering up bare soil with continuous plant cover
  • Bringing more trees onto farmland
  • Reducing soil compaction from livestock and machinery
  • Introducing crop rotations designed to improve soil health
To read the document which explains all these actions in more detail please click here.
For more information on building organic matter and soil carbon why not check out our soil carbon pages here on the FCCT website?

08.02.16 Human influence on climate in the 2014 southern England winter floods

This information comes from a recently published study in the journal Nature Climate Change.  To read the full article click here.

Storms which took place over southern England in 2013 / 14 caused severe floods and serious consequences for infrastructure and livelihoods. 18,700 flood insurance claims were reported leading to £451 million insured losses in southern England. Whether man made climate change contributed to the event was very much discussed at the time, with Prime Minister David Cameron quoted as saying to Parliament that “I very much suspect it is.”

This study used a range of models and observations and used ‘citizen science’ to model a large number of weather simulations under different climatic conditions as might have been with or without human influence on conditions.

In a large ensemble of climate model simulations, the study finds that as well as increasing the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold, anthropogenic warming caused a small but significant increase in the number of January days with westerly flow, both of which increased extreme precipitation.

Flood risk mapping showed a small increase in properties in the Thames catchment potentially at risk of riverine flooding, with a substantial range of uncertainty, demonstrating the importance of explicit modelling of impacts and relatively subtle changes in weather related risks when quantifying present-day effects of human influence on climate.


08.02.16 Increasing sustainability credentials on Irish beef farms, new report released

Figures from the Bord Bia Sustainability Report 2015 show that, on the average suckler beef farm, increasing the calving rate from 80% to 92% would potentially reduce the carbon footprint by 10% and increase the financial performance of the farm by 2,300 Euros per year.

Alternatively the figures state that a number of small adjustments, such as increasing the length of the grazing season by 18 days to 263 days; reducing age at first calving by two months; increasing calving rate to 85%; lifting lifetime average daily weight gain by 50g/day and changing the proportion of slurry spread in the spring from 50% to 70% would also amount to this improved financial gain.

Launched in June 2012, Origin Green is the world's first sustainability programme for a country's entire food and drink sector. Since Origin Green was established, more than 55,000 Irish Farms and 122 food and drink companies have become fully verified members of the programme. These farms account for 90% of Ireland's beef production and half of its milk output, while the companies are responsible for 85% of the country's food and drink exports.

A feature of Origin Green is the practice that all participating farms be audited and carbon foot printed once every 18 months. Since its launch, almost 90,000 carbon assessments have been carried out on Irish farms.

The Bord Bia report indicates total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could be reduced by 6% or by 1m tonnes if the lower-performing beef and dairy farms were brought back in line with the national average. Ireland's dairy herd already enjoys the joint - lowest footprint in the European Union, while its beef herd ranks at number five.

Under Origin Green, food and drink companies are required to create three to five year sustainability development plans in which targets are set in areas such as raw material sourcing, energy usage and emissions, water and waste management and social sustainability such as producing healthier foods and investing in their communities.

Source: Farming Futures

25.02.16 Flood related soil erosion, the impact of farming practices

How can land management can affect surface runoff volumes, and whether, in some circumstances, better soil management can help reduce flooding risk.

Recent extreme rainfall events in parts of the UK had devastating impacts on rural areas in parts of North Wales, Northern England and Scotland. Severe flooding led to damage to transport routes, collapse of infrastructure (including bridges, walls and buildings), accelerated soil erosion and loss of livestock.

The way soil and land are managed can influence water movement and some farming practices may have contributed to increasing surface runoff and the speed with which flow increases in ditches, streams and rivers.

David Harris, an ADAS consultant in this area explains that “soil compaction on arable land has been a concern for some time and changes in soil management practices may help reduce its impact on production and the environment. Recently, it has become apparent that many grassland soils are in moderate or poor condition, and this may be due to increases in the size of machinery in recent decades, the extent of tracking, treading by livestock and the greater area that larger farmers need to manage in often narrow ‘windows’ of good weather.”

Recent work involving ADAS has looked at tyre choice and management, tramline management and removing compaction in grassland.

“We have been able to increase water infiltration in grassland where topsoil structure has been degraded using techniques such as mechanical loosening, and on arable land to reduce surface runoff by over 90% by methods such as tramline disruption” says David.

Although there is much talk of the damage caused by surface runoff it is not always easy to see what the problem is or to relate it to your own farm. When high intensity or persistent rain falls on bare soil and/or compacted ground, the nutrients and sediment in surface runoff and the organic loading from recently applied organic materials can have significant impacts on the ecology of rivers and lakes.

“For the farmer, the losses of soil and nutrients may seem minor” David explains, “however, recent work from the ‘Demonstration Test Catchment’ (DTC) project (Defra) has indicated that soil and nutrient losses can be worth around £100 per hectare for a typical dairy farm. Furthermore, surface runoff can also result in the loss of soil organic matter, making soils more difficult to manage and less resistant and resilient to further damage from compaction and erosion”.

Soil losses from a field are not necessarily apparent when the erosion is in the form of a sheet of water moving across the soil surface (i.e. ‘sheet wash’). This is particularly the case in grassland. Nevertheless, losses from sheet wash over a number of hectares can still be significant. Rill erosion in the form of small channels is more common in arable soils and for a farmer may be no more than a minor embarrassment that is easily rectified through cultivation at the end of the season, but a number of small rills can add up to large volumes of transported soil.

“Recent work in the DTC project has shown that soil losses from grassland can be as high as 1.3t/ha and from arable crops up to 30t/ha. Whilst this may not look too disastrous spread over a whole field, it would look far worse if focused as gully erosion in a confined area” explains David.

In grassland, surface compaction can reduce infiltration of rain water and the proliferation of roots through the topsoil and into the subsoil. In winter such soil compaction can result in prolonged waterlogging, while in a dry summer reduced rooting depth and proliferation can result in the earlier onset of drought. Both situations can impact the yield from more productive grass varieties and can over time can also favour the survival and persistence of less productive grassland plant species.

If you have been affected by the recent flooding, or have concerns about flood risk on your farm, talk to an ADAS adviser to understand more on the practices to build resilience and reduce the likelihood of your land being affected in the future. David Harris can be contacted on 01332 776150 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Source: ADAS News release

22.01.16 Sustainability is complex

This great article has been written by Peter Mundy, following a conference that was held last week in Bristol entitled Steps to Sustainable Livestock. This conference held in Bristol, brought scientists and researchers together to discuss the complexities and controversies that surround livestock, their impact on the climate and food security.

For the link to the original article and website click here.

We face huge challenges in feeding the world sustainably. But one thing is certain: Grazing ruminant livestock—and the high-quality food they produce—can and should play a key role.

With ongoing reports and media headlines about the negative impacts of livestock—particularly beef cattle—on the environment and our health, this might seem like an unscientific statement. After all, livestock are now widely considered to be unsustainable. So it might come as a surprise to know this support for grazing ruminants was one of the key conclusions from the first International Conference on Steps to Sustainable Livestock—a ground-breaking multi-disciplinary event involving leading scientists working to find solutions for global food security, hosted by the Global Farm Platform and University of Bristol Cabot Institute in Bristol, UK, on January 12-15, 2016.

Over the three-day conference, 50+ scientists presented the stark realities of industrial livestock production and the challenges we face in feeding the world: The significant direct and indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; the widespread erosion and degradation of soils; the localized environmental pollution from concentrated output of fecal waste; and the human health threats posed by widespread farm antibiotic abuse. The list goes on. With the ever-increasing demand for meat and livestock products from a rising global population, it’s easy to think that ending all forms of livestock production—and adopting a plant-based diet—is the only answer. But it’s not.

We’ve said it many times before, but the scientific evidence presented at the Steps to Sustainable Livestock conference confirmed that grazing ruminant systems (in other words, managing cattle, sheep, goats and bison on pasture) can not only help feed the world sustainably, but also provide a number of important environmental and societal benefits.

Perhaps the most immediate take away from the Steps to Sustainable Livestock conference was that industrial grain-based livestock production is simply no longer justifiable—and may even be morally suspect. With over 800 million people on this planet going to bed hungry, and more mouths to feed every day, there was a near unanimous agreement at the conference that governments urgently need to pursue a ‘food not feed’ strategy, reserving prime agricultural land for growing human food—not livestock feed. Livestock currently consume around 70 percent of grains used by developed countries, and a staggering one-third (or 795 million tons) of all grain grown in the world, meaning that industrially raised grainfed animals are competing directly with hungry human beings for food. The very same concerns apply to the policy of using prime agricultural land to grow crops for biofuel.

Underpinning the Steps to Sustainable Livestock conference is the knowledge that ruminant animals have evolved the unique ability to convert high-cellulose plant materials (read grass and forage) that humans cannot eat into high quality meat and milk that we can, thereby allowing us to produce food from marginal land we could not otherwise use to grow crops. But the benefits of grazing ruminants do not end at utilizing vast areas of marginal land to produce much-needed food.

Grazing livestock are also a vitally important source of high-quality, protein-rich and nutrient-dense food. While no one can deny the excessive global consumption of industrially produced grainfed meat is simply unsustainable (not to mention bad for our health), researchers at the Steps to Sustainable Livestock conference praised the “extraordinary merits” of animal-sourced foods, arguing that modest quantities of high-quality pastured meat and dairy products (as part of a balanced diet) offer significant health benefits, providing a vital source of lean protein, healthy fats–such as omega-3s and CLAs—plus a smorgasbord of micronutrients essential for health, such as iron, magnesium and selenium. Changes in animal food consumption patterns have already had notable health impacts, with one researcher suggesting that a diet lacking the key micronutrients found in plentiful supply in livestock products (and milk) is resulting in serious emerging health problems—even in high-income countries.

We learned that grazing livestock systems result in many environmental positives—from improved biodiversity (above and below the ground) to the role of well-managed pasture and grassland as carbon sinks. While it is true that grazing ruminants produce significant levels of methane, researchers at the Steps to Sustainable Livestock conference argued that we must stop comparing livestock systems on methane emissions alone. Instead, we need to consider all GHG emissions and environmental impacts associated with all stages of any given production system—including the potential for well-managed grazed pasture to sequester significant levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. New research is already investigating the potential of alternative livestock diets to significantly reduce the amount of methane emitted, including new plant varieties and dietary supplements, while new livestock breeding strategies utilizing geonomics (not genetic engineering) can also aid the selection for positive methane emission traits. Potential solutions are emerging fast but we urgently need more research and support to encourage adoption of such practices at the farm and policy level.

Reflecting the multi-disciplinary and holistic nature of the conference, we were also reminded that animal health and welfare is directly related to our future food security. While welfare concerns might seem secondary to matters like maximizing animal productivity to feed a growing global population, researchers pointed out that healthy animals are productive animals and produce healthy, nutritious food. Conversely, unhealthy animals are not only less productive (and inevitably require routine drugs like antibiotics to maintain productivity), but can present a real disease risk to humans—as we are now learning at great societal cost.

The quest for sustainable food production is highly complex and there will be no one-size-fits-all solution. Indeed, the necessary solutions will inevitably be highly complex, multi-faceted and site-specific: it comes down not simply to what you eat, but fundamentally how it is farmed. There is no single diet solution for everyone, and consuming nutritionally appropriate levels of pasture-raised livestock products as part of a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of sustainably produced vegetables and fruits is not just an acceptable option, it’s a vital one. And while developed nations urgently need to reduce the production and consumption of unsustainable, low-welfare, intensively raised livestock products and highly processed foods (there’s a good chance many of us would feel a lot better for it), it is clear from current science that pasture-based livestock systems will not only continue to supply high-quality, nutritious food to global populations, but can help protect and enhance key ecosystem services and mitigate anthropocentric GHG emissions.

The International Conference on Steps to Sustainable Livestock marks a very important step towards sharing best practice on optimizing the sustainable use of livestock in many regions of the world, and challenging the industrial farming paradigm. As an organization that supports sustainable livestock farmers, it was refreshing and reassuring to hear that leading scientists from across the world believe that sustainably managed livestock have an important role to play in feeding the world, and to know that AWA’s farm standards already represent among the most sustainable methods available.

21.01.16 Bioturbation, worms at work

This time lapse film shows bioturbation (the mixing of plant residues into soils and sediments by biotic activity). This process is one of the fundamental processes in ecology as it stimulates decomposition, creates habitats for other (micro) fauna and increases gas and water flow through the soil.

Bioturbation - Worms at Work from Wim van Egmond on Vimeo.

Meet the film stars

There are three earthworm species involved in this film

Lumbricus terrestrius – an ‘anecic’ earthworm, feeding on leaves and living in deep vertical burrows; 2 of these are in the video.

Lumbricus rubellus – an ‘epigenic’ earthworm, feeding on leaves and living in shallow, non-permanent buows; 2 individuals present

Aporrectodea Caliginosa – an ‘endogenic’ earthworm feeding on decomposed organic matter and living deeper in the soil; three individuals present

Poplar leaves were applied on top of the soil as food for the earthworms. Different soil layers were simulated by mixing a topsoil (rich in organic matter) with quartz sand in various ratios.

The recording lasts for one month, and was recorded using time lapse photography, and was made in collaboration with scientists from the Department of Soil Quality of Wagengingen University in the Netherlands.

Types of Earthworm

There are hundreds of species of earthworms, but they can be grouped into one of three categories.

Litter dwellers (epigenic species)

  • Live in crop or forest litter
  • Not common in agricultural soils, more common in forest systems

Topsoil dwellers (endogeic species)

  • Live in the soil and feed on the organic matter they find there
  • Make horizontal burrows to feed in and move in

Subsoil dwellers (anecic species)

  • Make deep vertical burrows
  • They come to the soil surface in the evening and overnight to gather litter and fresh organic materials and drag them back down to their burrows

Assessment of populations

How many there are in your soil will be affected by a number of factors including

  • Soil type
  • Weather
  • Land management

As such just looking at one particular field at one time of year won’t give you a true representation of what you’ve got. In order to truly start to assess how full of life your soils are, you need to take a series of measurements across different fields over a number of crop rotations or years.

For more information in assessing biological populations in your soils click here.

Sources: AHDB Dairy, Healthy Grassland Soils, Penn State Extension, Crops and soils, Vimeo

18.1.16 Production efficiency is playing a key role in reducing carbon footprint

Souce: QMS

Efficiency of production provides the key not only to greater profitability, but also to reducing carbon footprint and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the expert speakers at a RuminOmics workshop organised by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) in Edinburgh.

The two-day European regional workshop, held in November last year, attracted around 70 delegates from 12 countries representing a wide interest in the subject of solving the challenge of emissions from livestock systems.

RuminOmics is an EU-funded 7th Framework project which was established in 2012 involving 11 partners from across Europe including QMS. The workshop in Edinburgh was aimed at transferring the knowledge collected to date and discussing how it can be applied on farm and used to help the industry progress.

Professor Cledwyn Thomas from the European Federation of Animal Science (EAAP) said the positive effect on the environment of livestock through grazing – including ecosystem and landscape benefits - was too often forgotten about.

However, the challenge going forward, he said, will be meeting the demand for animal products from a growing and more affluent world population without losing these benefits. This, Prof Thomas believes, is where technology and management come in.

"Greenhouse gas per kg of milk or meat produced is down globally but this is offset by increased numbers of livestock, therefore we have to look at greenhouse gas per ha or per farm or even per region,” he said.

One of the major areas of discussion at the workshop was whether GHG emissions could be reduced through livestock breeding programmes. Professor Thomas highlighted a range of mitigation strategies that farmers may adopt, ranging from feed additives to breeding. To useful strategies had to be profitable as well as reducing GHG. Breeding, he said, offered the greatest potential of up to 50% reduction in GHG emissions, according to some studies.

However, selection for low methane emissions may not be a sensible strategy since there was no evidence that low emitters were more efficient or profitable. Was it therefore better to select for efficiency, since this will reduce methane emissions.

Dr Jimmy Hyslop, Beef Specialist with SAC Consulting, part of SRUC, believed the focus should be on output per unit of fixed costs.

"It is quite simple really; profit equals income minus costs, and improving efficiency is the route to both improved profits, which in turn will also lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions," said Dr Hyslop.

His example was beef finishing where he said, although feed costs per tonne or per day were high on an intensive, fast-finishing (slaughter at 12 to 15 months) unit, the lifetime feed costs were low because the number of days required to produce a finished carcass were much less. This meant the fixed costs were similarly low and efficiency in producing beef over a short time was good, meaning that GHG emissions per kg of beef were also low as a result of fewer days to market.

Much of the work done by scientists on the RuminOmics team has been within the dairy industry and delegates were given a fascinating comparison of the Dutch and Irish systems by Dr Brendan Horen of Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority and Dr Erwin Koenen of CRV. CRV is a large co-operative cattle improvement organisation owned by Dutch and Flemish farmers.

In the Netherlands, there are 1.6 million dairy cows in 18,500 herds (average size 90 cows) producing 12.6 billion litres of milk per year. The average annual yield per cow is 7,900 litres from 2,100kg of concentrate. This gives a milk yield per hectare of 15,000 litres.

In contrast, Southern Ireland has 17,000 dairy farmers with 1.2 million cows (average 70 per herd) producing an average yield per cow of 4,750 litres from a grass-based system.

Both systems have government production and environmental impact targets to meet but they do it in very different ways. Dr Koenen explained that in an era without milk quotas, many Dutch farmers want to increase milk production to meet the increasing global demand for dairy products, but to comply with government legislation on reductions on nutrient surpluses (due to fertilisers, concentrates and manure application and GHG) emissions they will have to rely on new management and breeding tools.

He said: "To identify bulls producing more efficient daughters, CRV has developed a new breeding index based on breeding values for the main traits affecting production efficiency, this leads to increased profitability and lower methane emissions."

On the other hand, in Ireland's milk from forage systems, stocking rate is the main driver of productivity but the challenge here comes from environmental impact. Brendan said that a resilient, efficient system insulated from price volatility was the key.

Dr Horen said: "Irish farmers need to select cows suitable for a grass system, requiring traits such as longevity, able to withstand feed fluctuations and large herd situations. Desirable traits have swung away from milk production to fertility, ease of calving and new traits such as ease of management."

Interestingly, one of the RuminOmics studies, according to Professor Kevin Shingfield from IBERS, Aberystwyth University, indicated that producing higher quality grass silages and decreasing the reliance on concentrate supplements can maintain performance but lower whole farm GHG emissions It is possible to formulate diets that lower methane production, but care needs to be taken to avoid compromising productivity. He said the project had brought them much closer to understanding why when fed the same diet some cows emit more Greenhouse gas than others.

15.1.16 Seasonal nitrous oxide emissions under reduced tillage

from Farming Futures

Soil management practices shown to increase carbon sequestration include reduced tillage, amendments of carbon and mixed rotations. As a means to mitigate greenhouse gases, however, the success of these practices will be strongly influenced by nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions that vary with soil wetness.

Few seasonal data are available on N2O under different soil managements so we measured seasonal N2O emission in three field experiments between 2006 and 2009 in eastern Scotland.

The experimental treatments at the three sites were

1. tillage: no-tillage, minimum tillage, ploughing to 20 cm with or without compaction and deep ploughing to 40 cm, 

2. organic residue amendment: application of municipal green-waste compost or cattle slurry and 

3. rotations: stocked and stockless (without manure) organic arable farming rotations. 

Most seasons were wetter than average with 2009 the wettest, receiving 20–40% more rainfall than average.

Nitrous oxide emissions were measured using static closed chambers.

There was no statistical evidence, albeit with low statistical power, that reduced tillage affected N2O emissions compared to normal depth ploughing.

With organic residue amendments, only in the wet season in 2008 were emissions significantly increased by high rates of green-waste compost (4.5 kg N2O-N/ha) and cattle slurry (5.2 kg N2O-N/ha) compared to the control (1.9 kg N2O-N/ha).

In the organic rotations, N2O emissions were greatest after incorporation of the grass/clover treatments, especially during conversion of a stocked rotation to stockless.

Emissions from the organic arable crops (1.9 kg N2O-N/ha in 2006, 3.0 kg N2O-N/ha in 2007) generally exceeded those from the organic grass/clover (0.8 kg N2O-N/ha in 2006, 1.1 kg N2O-N/ha in 2007) except in 2008 when the wet weather delayed manure applications and increased emissions from the grass/clover (2.8 kg N2O-N/ha). Nevertheless, organic grassland was the land use providing the most effective overall mitigation.

Although the magnitude of fluxes did not relate particularly well to rainfall differences between seasons, greater rainfall received during some growing seasons increased the differences between tillage, organic residue and crop rotation phase treatments, negating any possible mitigation by timing management operations in dry periods. This was partly attributed to applying tillage and manures late and/or in wet conditions.  

11.01.16 NFU Survey concludes: weather volatility threatens British food production

The Survey from the NFU revealed that two thirds of farmers have noticed an increase in extreme weather consistent with the climate change impacts predicted by scientists. The majority of NFU members surveyed have seen changes in rainfall patterns and more floding with 25% also observing an increase in storms, gales or high winds.

Some farmers actually reported less severe weather with 10% saying that winters had generally become milder.

Download the infographic that has been produced with the key findings from the survey here.

Source: NFU 

06.01.16 New SIP newsletter out now

SIP Scene, the newsletter of the Sustainable Intensification Research Platform has released a new bulletin.

The Sustainable intensification research platform is focused on farming in England and Wales, but exists in a global setting of concerns over food security, global nutrition, climate change, economic instability, increasing technology, volatile food prices and threats to sustainability.

This issue includes articles by SIP partners and researchers.

To read it in full please click here.

To find out more about the project click here to visit the website.

21.12.15 Seasons greetings from FCCT

As the year draws to a close and, as the song says, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”, it seems fitting to reflect for a brief moment on the year here at FCCT. It’s certainly been a busy one!

The year has seen some real highlights and fine examples of what FCCT strive to do; namely connect farmers and growers together to share ideas, have great conversations and highlight practical examples of how we can all reduce emissions, and improve efficiencies and ultimately profit.

Bringing together farmers

Our big conference in February brought some great farmers, people and speakers to talk about how we can farm profitably in a changing climate. Highlights from the morning included the fantastic Rebecca Audsley from Scotland who brought some really inspirational examples from the Climate Change Focus Farm programme that she has been running in Scotland. This showed bottom line benefits of reducing farm emissions, usually with minimal capital outlay. 

The other thing that the FCCT team felt was of great benefit were the breakout sessions in the afternoon, which were facilitated by FCCT. Farmers who were doing something different were showcased, and provided a great opportunity for questions and conversations around practical issues and how things work at the farm level. This highlighted to FCCT that this role of ‘connecting likeminded individuals together’ and providing a space to explore these issues was something that we wanted to expand.

Focussing on organic matter in the soil

Recently great discussions were held at our organic matter event in Warwickshire, where it was amazing for me to see so many great farmers all together talking about carbon and building soil organic matter. Certainly the whole soil agenda, including organic matter and how it is intrinsically linked to carbon sequestration is gathering momentum. As the International Year of Soils draws to a close, it has helped highlight some of the issues, and the crucial role that we as farmers have to play in the management and care of our most precious resource.

Reading through some of the early entries to our Soil Farmer of the Year competition is inspirational. Seeing how committed many farmers are to managing their soil, and ensuring that its health is enhanced and safeguarded for future generations, makes me genuinely excited for activities that we have planned for next year. Our Soil carbon project has various meetings planned over the coming months, and if you are up for hosting or taking part in one of them, let me know and we’ll get something sorted.

Demonstration farms

Our demo farm project, which we have had funding from Esmee Fairbairn to set up is going to start properly next year. It has taken a while to get our demo farmers through the carbon foot printing process, and we have had numerous conversations about how, if we are going to be subject to more stringent targets in terms of emissions reductions and auditing, then we all have to work together to see how streamlined we can make the process. With all the advances in technology, it can’t be that difficult surely?!

There will be events happening at all three demo farms across England next year, so again keep your eye on the website and the events list for more details as we finalise the plans.

Joining in a global movement

As well as the Soil Farmer of the Year, we are asking all farmers and growers to join us in showing the world that #SoilsAreSexy and deserve our help. For those of you on social media – follow @FarmC02Toolkit on Twitter and upload a picture of your soil with the hashtag #SoilsAreSexy and join in with the fun.  For those of you who aren’t on social media you can always email your images to me and I’ll add them to the gallery on the FCCT website.

The recent climate talks in Paris have focussed the world’s attention on the issues surrounding climate change, temperature rises and emissions.  Surprisingly though, agriculture hasn’t played much of a part in the discussions.  The agreement though signals the global commitment to do something, although as is always the way with these things, the devil is in the detail and the Paris pledge alone won’t meet the two degree target.  Further negotiations (and tough decisions) will need to be made, and is bound to look more closely at farming and food production.

What was encouraging though, was to see some of the other initiatives that were launched, France’s '4 per mille' initiative that aims to adapt agricultural practices across France that store carbon more efficiently in the soil and to raise the organic matter level in French soils and wider across the globe  by 0.4% per year. What this will mean is that we can direct more research into the most effective practices for achieving this, and by letting farmers into the conversation with the researchers (as at our event in Warwickshire a few weeks ago), try and bridge the gap between research and practice to deliver effective solutions.

Making farms part of the solution

What is different with agriculture though, when comparing it with other industries that have carbon reduction targets is the sheer diversity of enterprises, systems and environments that we as farmers have to deal with. Agriculture is unique in that there is no “one-size fits all” answer. Our farms that we manage are a unique mix of the earth beneath our feet, the weather that comes down from above and what we do as farmers working with the natural elements. It’s different and special, also because we need farmers to produce our three meals a day, as well as all the other benefits farming brings in terms of preserving the natural environment, safeguarding resources, providing clean water and air... the list could go on!  However doing nothing is not an option any more.  And it’s because of all these amazing things that we are in control of that we have to be part of the discussions.

So we have some challenging times ahead, with potentially more stringent GHG reduction targets, but it’s something that we should embrace head on, work together, share ideas and use the technology available to us to come up with new ideas!  We’re certainly excited about the possibilities.

So from everyone here at FCCT, have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year, and see you in 2016.

18.12.15 FCCT seeks new company directors

The Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit (FCCT) is the UK’s only farmer-led organisation looking at practical, farm based actions to effectively reduce farm greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is currently expanding its director base in order to scale up its activities.

About the organisation

FCCT was established in 2009 to raise awareness of GHGs within the agricultural industry and also to provide practical responses that any farmer, whatever their farming system, could put into place on their farm.

FCCT currently has three directors – Adam Twine, Jonathan Smith and Andrew Rigg, and part time project officer - Becky Willson.

FCCT developed the Toolkit and the Farm Carbon Calculator. Available on line and free of charge, they are designed to give any farmer, grower or advisor an understanding of the significance of GHGs, how they are generated through farming activities and what are the most effective actions that would make a difference to any farm.

The Farm Carbon Calculator gives a numerical and visual estimate of the GHG emissions across all farming enterprises (using current internationally agreed emission factors) and shows how they might change with any proposed changes to that farming system. Uniquely, it also provides an estimate of the amount of carbon sequestration that that farm is achieving.

FCCT also organises farm workshops and conferences - with a strong emphasis of farmer-led discussions. It also delivers talks to conferences and informal agricultural groups across a range of topics including energy efficiency, soil carbon, renewable energy generation, the market drivers for reducing emissions and the complexities of reducing GHG emissions.

FCCT is structured as a Community Interest Company (CIC). Its directors are not remunerated for the time they put into directing the organisation but are able to claim appropriate travel and other expenses and have at times received remuneration for specific pieces of work that they have carried out on behalf of the Company.

What we expect from Directors

FCCT is hoping to appoint up to two new directors. All potential directors are expected to:

  • be closely involved in day-to-day farming,
  • have a good understanding of the challenge of climate change and the need to reduce GHG emissions
  • contribute their experience to the organisation and help make a difference in this area.

There are monthly Board meetings through the year; they are usually conducted remotely via Skype. In the quieter farming months (autumn and winter) there are also more frequent Directors meetings to discuss work programmes.

We also try to meet in person twice a year to review and plan future direction. In addition to this, when FCCT is organising events or developing new initiatives, the directors(s) responsible for that initiative are expected to give support to the project officer in between Board meetings to ensure the intended goals are met.

FCCT currently has funding from Esmee Fairbairn, has been operating on a stable budget of around £10k for the past three years, and is currently seeking additional funding in order to achieve greater outreach and impact.

Application process

If you are interested in applying please write to Becky Willson at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it giving your:

  • experience
  • reasons for applying
  • what you hope to bring to the organisation
  • how you would like to see FCCT develop

Applications close on Sunday 30th January 2016.

Interviews for shortlisted applicants will be conducted mid-February and successful applicants invited to join the Board by 1st March. 
More information about the aims and visions of FCCT are available here

For more information please contact Becky Wilson by email or phone on 07875 356611.

17.12.15 New WRAP bulletin released

Where improved soil quality is concerned, not all organic matter is equal.

WRAP, Digestate and Compost in Agriculture, Bulletin 8 - December 2015

The UN has designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils, "to raise awareness of the importance of sustainable soil management", which is vital for food, fuel and fibre production as well as ecosystem function and adaptation to climate change. Results from SRAP's DC-Agri field experiments have a key role to play in this.

The experiments, comparing the ability of a range of organic materials to build soil organic matter levels over time, have shown that not all organic matter is equal and that compost builds levels much more quickly than other organic materials. They also show that repeated applications of compost are a valuable means by which farmers can improve soil quality.

Soil organic matter (SOM) is the organic component of soil, consisting of three primary parts: fresh plant residues and small living soil organisms, decomposing (active) organic matter (OM), and stable OM (humus). OM is important to soil fertility and crop productivity, and building and maintaining it is vital for sustainable soil management. The amount of OM in soils depends on soil texture, climate, the inputs and composition of orgnaic materials, the rate at which orgnaic matter is decomposed and the type of farming system employed.

Arable soils contain typically 1-3% OM (generally higher in Scottish soils) whilst grassland soils usually contain more. In general, for any one cropping system, the natural level of SOM in a clay soil will be higher than that in a sandy soil and this level will be higher under permanent grassland when compared with a continuous arable rotation.

WRAP's DC - Agri field experiments have assessed the effects of different types of organic material additions over time to a network of seven experimental sites across the UK. The sites were selected to represent a range of soil types, climatic conditions and crop rotations.  

To read the next bulletin with further details of the experiments and what they found, click here.

16.12.15 The Smart SOIL Initiative

Sustainable farm Management Aimed at Reducing threats to SOILs under climate change

Source: Smart soil end of project report

Enhancing soil carbon through agricultural management provides an important opportunity to address challenges of climate change, soil degradation and for improving the fertility of soil to sustain the growing demand for food.

This project which was funded by the European Union and involved a consortium of people from across Europe was tasked with identifying management practices that can optimise not just soil carbon storage but crop productivity (the ‘holy grail’).

The aims were two fold:

To identify farming systems and agronomic practices that result in an optimised balance between crop productivity, restoration and maintenance of vital soil functions (fertility, biodiversity, water, nutrient cycling and other soil ecosystem services) and soil carbon sequestration and storage.

To develop and deliver a decision support tool and guidelines to support novel approaches, techniques and technologies adapted to different European soils and categories of beneficiaries (farmers, farm advisory and extension services, and policy makers).

What did they find?

Improved scientific understanding

Optimising crop productivity and soil carbon stocks

It has been known for some time that healthy soils provide a sound platform for crop production.

Healthy levels of soil organic matter improve the workability of soils, improve their ability to retain and store water and can increase nutrient supply. For this reason, soil management is critically important for producing high quality crops at yields that deliver good economic returns for farmers.

Principles of soil organic carbon management

Soil organic carbon is sustained through sufficient inputs of organic matter from roots, crop residues, manure and compost to balance losses from decomposition of soil organic matter.

Soil organic matter contributes to sustaining soil productivity by enhancing soil water retention and nutrient supply. Also soil organic carbon enhances soil structure and workability of high clay content soils.

Inputs of organic matter to the soil contribute to sustaining soil biodiversity, which also influences pests and diseases.

Preservation of current soil carbon stocks as well as enhancing these plays an important role for contributing to climate change mitigation. However potential trade offs with increased emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, (methane and nitrous oxide) as well as saturation of the carbon storage potential over time have to be considered.

Effective management of soil organic carbon requires a long term effort, has implications that extend beyond each farm and this commitment is more effective if it is a key element in strategic farm management.

Soil carbon management depends on current soil carbon levels. On soils with acceptable or good soil carbon the aim is to maintain these levels of soil carbon, whereas effective action needs to be taken on soils with low carbon to enhance contents.

Measures in both cases include adapted crop rotations, residue retention, manure applications and cover cropping.

Soil organic carbon management also involves management of nitrogen and phosphorus, and soil carbon management needs to be seen in the context of farm-scale nutrient management. The full benefits of enhanced soil organic matter levels on the crop yield are only fully captured if the actions undertaken to enhance soil organic matter are timed well to provide the water and nutrients that the crop needs.

How do we enhance soil carbon

In general soil organic carbon stocks can be increased in three main ways:

By enhancing plant residues and root inputs to soils

Increasing the quantity of organic matter inputs such as manures and composts to the soil (fron on-farm or off – farm sources).

By reducing decomposition losses through minimising disturbance of soils.

Management practices that enhance soil carbon levels

Crop rotations

Improved crop rotations in which carbon inputs are increased over a rotation involves growing crops with long growing seasons, in particular when combined with legumes to improve the quality of soil organic matter inputs. Tailored crop rotation regimes which build soil organic matter and soil carbon, can improve and maintain soil quality and fertility over the short and long term.

Residue management

Retention of crop residues incorporated into the soil or left on the surface can enhance soil organic matter and soil organic carbon storage, improving soil structure, root system development and plant growth, soil moisture retention, enhanced nutrient cycling and decreased soil loss.

Adding manure or compost

Adding manure and compost is efficient for improving soil carbon since the added organic matter is decomposed more slowly compared to plant residues.

Improvements in soil quality due to manure or compost application have been shown to boost soil productivity and stimulate crop growth rates, resulting in potential yield improvements.

Cover crops / catch crops

These crops during fallow periods provide year – round carbon inputs, not only from above ground inputs but also from root carbon. Adding cover / catch crops to crop rotations can help to improve soil quality, reduce soil erosion, retain nutrients, enhance nutrient cycling and water holding capacity and as a result potentially increase crop yields.

Conservation agriculture

Is characterised by continuous minimum soil disturbance (min till), permanent organic soil cover (crop residues, mulches, and cover crops) and diversification of crops gown (crop rotations). Min till can increase soil organic carbon in the upper layers of soil; the effect is a function of working depth, intensity of cultivation and extent of soil inversion.

What are the benefits to the farm business of building soil carbon?

Case study areas were studied to look at the impacts on farm businesses of adopting these measures.

In general the benefits included improvements in yield or reductions in costs. The reduction in the need for mineral fertiliser was noticed, due to more efficient use of nutrients from manures and crop residues.

Significant reductions in fuel use have also been found due to reduced inputs and less fuel intensive tillage. The improved organic matter content of soils has also improved their workability. Adoption of some measures can incur investment particularly where changes to machinery are required.

What did the farmers say?

Overall the farmers that the project spoke to found positive benefits from adopting the different management methods. They have identified improvements in their soils, including better structure, more earthworms, better drainage and improved water holding capacity. These improvements are appreciated in the context of increasingly uncertain weather patterns where healthier soil offers greater resilience. Higher organic matter contents have allowed access to soil for cultivation which would otherwise have been too fragile or waterlogged.

There is more information about the project and in-depth case studies from farmers who took part on the Smart soil website, which you can access here.

For more information on the FCCT soil carbon project and our resources click here.

14.12.15 Five things you need to know about the Paris climate deal

Source: Simon Lewis, Reader in Global Change Science at University of Leeds and UCL

From: The conversation

The UN climate talks in Paris have ended with an agreement between 195 countries to tackle global warming. The climate deal is at once both historic, important and inadequate. From whether it is enough to avoid dangerous climate change to unexpected wins for vulnerable nations here are five things to help understand what was just agreed at COP21.

1. This is a momentous world changing event

The most striking thing about the agreement is that there is one. For all countries, from superpowers to wealthy city states, fossil fuel dependent kingdoms to vulnerable low-lying island nations, to all agree to globally co-ordinate action on climate change is astonishing.

And its not just warm words. Any robust agreement has to have four elements. First it needs a common goal, which has now been defined. The agreement states that the parties will hold temperatures to "well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels".

Second it requires matching scientifically credible reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement is woolier here but it does state that emissions should peak "as soon as possible" and then be rapidly reduced. The next step is to:

Achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity.......

Third as current pledges to reduce emissions imply a warming of nearly 3 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, there needs to be a mechanism to move from where countries are today, to zero emissions. There are five year reviews, and "the efforts of all parties will represent a progression over time", which means at each step countries should increase their levels of emissions cuts from today's agreements.

Finally this all means developed countries need to rapidly move from fossil fuel energy to renewable sources. But the challenge is larger for the developing world, these countries must leapfrog the fossil fuel age. They need funds to do so and a key part of the agreement provides US$100 billion per year to 2020 and more than that after 2020.

There is a lot to like about this agreement, it gives a common goal to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the overall emissions cuts stated are reasonably credible, there is a mechanism to increase national emissions cuts over time towards "net zero" and there is funding secured to help poorer countries harness the power of the sun, wind and waves instead of coal, oil and gas. It provides a roadmap to get the world off its dangerous addiction to fossil fuel energy.

2. Its not enough to avoid dangerous climate change

What constitutes dangerous climate change is different for different people. For some poor people climate change is already beyond dangerous, its deadly. The threats escalate as the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase. Because this deal has been so long in arriving, the window of opportunity to limit temperature rises at 1.5 degrees C is closing fast, this spells trouble for many low-lying areas. Even the most ambitious pathways to zero emissions in the coming decades for a carbon budget associated with a reasonable (66%) chance of keeping 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels are extremely challenging. Countries have a long way to go to get to these levels of reductions.

Importantly there are no penalties, except public shaming for countries that do not meet their commitments to reduce emissions. To implement this deal, the public, civil society, organisations, opposition parties in politics and businesses will need to keep government policies in check. Essentially, it is the will of the people, most governments and enlightened businesses, pitted against the deep pockets of the fossil fuel industry.

One future fear is that when the "global stocktake" happens in 2023, some countries may see that others aren't doing their bit, and may themselves then stop reducing emissions and the agreement will fall apart.

3. We'll have to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

The warming we see from greenhouse gas emissions is dominated by the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide. Given the emissions so far, limiting warming to "well below" 2 degrees C, and anywhere near 1.5 degrees C means reducing C02 emissions to near zero extremely quickly.

Then society will need to continue further to negative emissions. That is, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it somewhere else. There are various options here, from planting trees and keeping restored forests in perpetuity, enhancing uptake in soils, or using biomass energy in power plants then storing the carbon dioxide underground (so called Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage). Expect to hear a lot more about this.

4. Expect across - the - board policy changes

To get to zero emissions this century requires many policy changes. Fossil fuel companies must have their subsidies stripped. Investments in high carbon emitting infrastructure must end, particularly World Bank loans and other regional multilateral bank support for countries. Zero emissions buildings will become the norm. Tropical forests will have to be protected to reduce and then eliminate deforestation.

Expect a greater push on the technological limitations on renewable energy, with big new investments mostly improving how to store power, for when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

Expect the cost of renewables to sink much further as these technologies are scaled up and implemented worldwide. Expect significant areas of the world to be given over to wind turbines and solar farms.

5. The world's most vulnerable countires got their issue centre stage

Paris was a high-stakes game of geopolitical poker. Surprisingly those countries with the poorest hand came out better than expected. The climate talks were subject to a series of shifting alliances going beyond the usual income-rich northern countries and income -poor global south countries. Central to this has been US- Chinese diplomacy both agreeing to limit emissions and more recently the new Climate Vulnerable Forum grouping of countries. From nowhere the forum has forced keeping global temperatures to 1.5 degrees C high on the political agenda.

We haven't heard the last of this level of ambition - one of the decisions in Paris agreement is to invite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to produce a special report on the impacts at 1.5 degrees C, and emissions pathways consistent with this level of warming.

These countries didn't get everything they wanted - the US would not accept liability in financial terms for states that may lose their territory to rising sea levels in the future. But they played their hand extremely smartly.

10.12.15 Boosting milk production efficiency can reduce cow methane – emissions intensity

In 2014, the United States national dairy herd produced twice as much milk as it did 90 years ago, but with about 60 percent fewer cows.

These whopping productivity gains - achieved through continuous improvements in animal genetics, nutrition and management -- are especially significant in these times of angst over global climate change. As a result of developing "cleaner, greener" cows, animal scientists and dairy producers have reduced by half the enteric methane emissions per unit of milk produced in this country, according to a researcher in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

One way to look at this phenomena: If the 94 million tons of milk we get now were produced by cows with 1924 emission rates, there would be an additional 1.6 million tons of methane emitted to the atmosphere, essentially more than doubling the current enteric methane emissions from U.S. dairy cows.

"The United States is one of the world's largest producers of milk and dairy products, with a dairy industry estimated at $140 billion in annual economic output," said Alexander Hristov, professor of dairy nutrition.

"Inevitable by-products of the industry are greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. In 2003, dairy methane emissions from enteric fermentation and manure management represented about 11 percent of the country's total methane emissions. But U.S. dairy farmers have been steadily improving the efficiency of milk production, which in turn has resulted in a dramatic improvement in enteric methane emission intensity."

Hristov, whose recent research has focused on feed additives Hristov, who has experimented with feed supplements that that can influence microbes and change the methane-producing chemistry of the dairy cow rumen, noted that livestock producers are striving to improve the efficiency of milk or meat production and reduce the carbon footprint of their industries.

Recently published by the Global Research Alliance on Greenhouse Gases, Hristov's article, "Reducing the Emissions Intensity of Livestock Production -- A Case Study of Success," underlines a growing consensus that increased production efficiency equals lower methane emissions per unit of product. Increasing animal productivity will always decrease greenhouse gas emission intensity, he stressed.

Hristov believes that the message -- increased productivity is the most efficient method to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- needs to reach producers in developing countries. The U.S. dairy industry is an excellent example, he pointed out.

Dairy cow productivity in the United States has steadily increased - 14 percent in the last decade alone and over fivefold since 1924, the first year dairy statistics were reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, the size of the United States dairy herd has decreased to just 43 percent of what it was in 1924. Modern dairy cows are larger and consume more feed, which results in higher enteric methane emissions per cow, about 2.5 times more in 2014 versus 1924.

"However, the intensity of enteric methane production has dropped from about 31 g/kg of milk in 1924 to 14 g/kg in 2014. This progress has been driven by continuous improvements in animal genetics, nutrition, health, management and free market mechanisms," Hristov explained.

"As an example, milk production from Holstein cows in the United States from 1960 to 2013 tripled from 3,195 to 9,916 kg per cow, per year. According to Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding data, approximately 55 percent of the increase in milk yield can be attributed to improvement in animal genetics."

Similar improvements have been achieved in crop production and animal nutrition, said Hristov. For instance, the yield of corn grain in 1960 was around 3.5 tons per hectare, compared with 10 tons per hectare in 2013. For the same period of time, the yield of corn for silage increased from around 16 tons per hectare to 43 tons per hectare.

The American dairy industry still has challenges, Hristov conceded. The intensification of animal production is not without what he termed a "penalty." The productive life of dairy cows in the U.S. is slightly less than three lactations, and cow pregnancy rates have been declining since the 1960s.

"The reproductive efficiency of the modern Holstein dairy cow in the United States has been decreasing in recent decades, although upward trends in breeding values for daughter pregnancy and cow-conception rates have been observed in recent years," he said. "These trends are encouraging and indicate that the negative impact of aggressive selection for milk yield can be reversible, while retaining the benefit of decreased greenhouse gas emission intensity."

Source: Penn State News

05.12.15 World Soils Day - Soil Farmer of the Year competition launched

Sharing best practice and innovation through championing farmers safeguarding their soils

As the International Year of the Soil draws to an end, the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit and Innovation for Agriculture are launching a competition to find the UK’s Soil Farmer of the Year. 

This competition, which opens today on World Soils Day, aims to find farmers and growers who are engaged with and passionate about managing their soils in a way which supports productive agriculture, biodiversity, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and builds soils organic matter and carbon.  

Sustainable soil management has great potential to be one of the cornerstones of a transformation towards a low carbon economy and farmers are at the forefront of this; being directly responsible for land management. 

Soil and its management underpins the entire farming system. A healthy well – managed soil rich in organic matter will support productive and healthy crops and pasture, which in turn supports a profitable and resilient farming system that also sequesters carbon. 

FCCT director Jonathan Smith explains more. “Soil is vital to all us farmers and growers and indeed all of society. When soil is managed well it produces healthy crops and/or livestock, whilst increasing biodiversity, holding water in the soil and sequestering carbon. The interest in good soil management is growing massively, but we want to showcase farmers who are really making efforts to implement not just good but excellent soil management. This can, and should be, an inspiration to all of us to do better with our soils.”

David Gardner IfA CEO comments 'Over recent decades our soils have been degraded and as a farming community we need to start rebuilding them. There is a huge amount of interest in soils amongst farmers at present and many are experimenting with new crop rotations, cover crops and alternative cultivation methods. The Soil Farmer of the Year competition will rightly reward one of these farmers for their commitment to leading an improvement in the nation’s soils.'

The competition is kindly being sponsored by Cotswold Seeds, who are offering £250 of green manure seed or fertility building leys to the winner, £150 to the runner up and £100 to the farmer in third place.  CEO of Cotswold Seeds Ian Wilkinson says, ‘Soil health underpins every activity on the farm and many of our seed mixtures, such as herbal leys, are designed to improve soil structure and fertility. The soil is a vital resource so we’re delighted to be supporting an initiative that encourages farmers to give it the respect it deserves.’ 

The competition is open to any UK farmers or growers who are managing their soils in a way which optimises soil health and quality. Applications are being taken online through this link,  where there is also more information on what the judges are looking for and the prizes available. 

The competition opens on World Soils Day on the 5th December, and will close on the 4th February. After the closing date three farmers will be shortlisted to be visited by the judging panel before the overall winner is announced on the 3rd March. 

04.12.15 COP21 Stories from Farmers Day

This article comes from Inter Press Service News Agency reporting from the Climate talks in Paris on Farmers Day.  The photo below is credited to Desmond Brown / IPS.

At 32, Krystal Cox is the holder of a degree in medicine. But she has chosen to get her hands dirty, working on a farm in her native St. Lucia. Cox has seen first-hand the effects of climate change on agriculture, something she describes as “a serious issue” which people don’t talk about enough and which requires more resources.

In the Caribbean, some women find themselves on the frontline with the battle to mitigate climate change. Meet Dr. Krystal Cox. She is one of three girls who all studied medicine and got medical degrees.

Unlike her two siblings who stayed in the medical profession, Cox, 32, is working in a different field. She works on her father’s farm tackling a different kind of threat than sickness and disease.

Having spent almost all of her life on the farm, Cox has seen first-hand the effects of climate change, something she describes as “a serious issue” which people don’t talk about enough and which requires more resources.

“This year it was a very bad drought and there were lots of crops and no irrigation in the area where they were planted,” she explained.

“When we realised that the drought was getting very serious we tried our best to get irrigation around the farm – a very expensive endeavour. It makes me wonder how the small farmers are able to manage. You can’t have the farmers not being able to produce for such a long period of time. How are they going to take care of their families and how are they going to pay their workers?”

“There is a river that runs along the border of our property and I have never seen it so low and even that poses a problem because if it’s too low we are not allowed to pump out of it because of course people need it,” she said.

“I was the one who was open-minded enough to go into farming and to get my hands dirty. I do everything that all my workers do plus manage the farm,” Cox told IPS.

“When I first started, my dad made it very clear that he wanted me to have an understanding of what the workers go through, not just to be compassionate towards them but also to have an understanding of what the work entails,” she explained.

“If a lady comes to me and said I can’t lift this box but I have to carry it to pack it, if I don’t have experience lifting that box then I will not understand why she can’t lift it. So it was important for me to have an understanding of every role,” she added.

Cox, who grew up on the farm, said she will ultimately be the one running it when her father retires. For now though, she continues to gain experience for when that time comes.

“I have planted, I’ve harvested potatoes and tomatoes, I’ve worked in the greenhouses, I drive my own tractor, I plough my own land, I drive my trucks, I do deliveries to the supermarkets that we serve,” she explained.

Cox is encouraging more women and youths to get into farming, assuring that there is nothing wrong with it.

“We can’t eat unless we farm and to not glorify it and to not put it in a position where it’s respected and the people who do it are respected then you are going to have a lot of short comings especially with finance,” she said.

Pamela Thomas, who heads the Caribbean Farmers Network (CaFAN), said there are finances available to assist farmers but accessing these finances can prove challenging.

“When a farmer who wants to get a loan goes to the bank or another financial institution, one, you can’t use your farm as security because you don’t have farming insurance. So that farmer may be asked to put up his or her property to guarantee a loan. Now that is high risk because it doesn’t only belong to the farmer but it belongs to the entire family,” she said.

CaFAN represents farmers in all 15 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Countries. Initiated by farmer organisations across the Caribbean in 2002, it is mandated to speak on behalf of its membership and to develop programmes and projects aimed at improving livelihoods and to collaborate with all stakeholders in the agriculture sector to the strategic advantage of its farmers.

Thomas also said that the impacts of climate change increase a farmer’s expenditure but farmers have serious difficulties accessing financing.

Thomas said many farmers do not keep proper records and this also poses a challenge to accessing finance.

“Yes there are funding opportunities but these funding opportunities come with their complexities. You have to be able to write the project document, you have to be able to write the reports to be able to access this funding. So when it comes to filtering down to the average farmer on the field it’s not happening,” Thomas added.

Agriculture and land use will be of paramount interest in the negotiations at the twenty-first session of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP21), 30 November to 11 December in Paris, France.

Jamaican entrepreneur and gender justice advocate Una May Gordon said the adverse impacts of climate change will particularly affect women but she noted that their unique knowledge and skill set concerning development and environmental management could greatly benefit adaptive efforts.

“It’s not where it is supposed to be but I think the recognition of the role that women can play in adaptation both at the level of the community and implementing adaptation options is much more recognised,” she told IPS.

“In the communities the women are probably head of households and therefore are more likely the most vulnerable of the lot when we have issues of climate change. They are the providers, they are the nurturers and therefore need to be treated as such,” she said.

“In the fisheries sector in the region one of the little known fact is that the women fishers are more vulnerable. They are the boat owners so they are the investors, they own the equipment and the fishermen who go to sea people always believe that they are the vulnerable ones but if you have no boat, infrastructure or equipment then there would be no fisheries,” Gordon added.

But she notes that the issue of women and climate change has come a far way along the spectrum, adding that “rural women are being given a voice in the climate change discourse.”

For many years, several international agencies have argued that the discourse on climate change does not pay adequate attention to women, either at the local project level or in international negotiations. They have argued that women are unable to voice their specific requirements even though the impact of climate change affects women and men differently.

Source: Inter Press Service News Agency 

02.12.15 Climate Smart Agriculture, preparing for a corporate soil and climate-grab in Paris?

 This article was published in the Ecologist on the 26th November and was written by Helena Paul. Click here to access the full article.

‘Climate Smart Agriculture' can be applied to anything from industrial monocultures to agroecology, writes Helena Paul - and fertiliser, biotech and agribusiness corporations are seizing the chance to cash in. Now COP21 host France is proposing to use soils as a giant carbon sink - a fine idea in itself, but not if it's used to 'offset' continued fossil fuel emissions, and to greenwash industrial agriculture.

We know that agriculture is responsible for high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, promoting climate change while destroying forests, water, soils, and biodiversity.

Yet we are told that food production must double to respond to the projected growth of human population to 9 billion by 2050, so yields must increase but use smaller areas of land for crop production, leaving more land available for biodiversity conservation or forestry.

So-called 'Climate-Smart Agriculture', we are told, can do all this. But what is it, when, how and why did it emerge, and who is behind it?

The Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome (FAO)"agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, resilience (adaptation), reduces /removes GHGs (mitigation), and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals." FAO wants to include forestry and the sustainable intensification of production using a landscape approach. But all this can be used to promote completely different types of agriculture.

'Climate-Smart Agriculture' (CSA) was first mentioned around 2010, for example at the African Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change, held in September 2010 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the firstnGlobal Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change. Then it was taken up by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban in 2011, where it was heavily promoted with a high level event featuring prominent African speakers such as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Smallholder farmers in Africa were constantly cited as key beneficiaries. But there were other targets too.

Reviving carbon markets ...

The concept of CSA perfectly suits the promotion of carbon markets, which are not flourishing at present. According to a World Bank report, the total value of the world's emission trading schemes, which began with the European Union scheme in 2005, was still only around US$30 billion in 2014.

However, the Bank still backs a major expansion of carbon markets in the future and aims to attract new investor and speculative interest with a vastly increased volume of units to trade. It has several initiatives to promote carbon finance.

Yet there are fundamental problems with carbon markets in agriculture: it is difficult to measure, report and verify emissions in this sector reliably. Emission reductions are not predictable in quantity or permanence, and the carbon supposedly stored in soils may be unstable for many reasons, ranging from changes of use or practice to increasing extremes of climate variability.

This is just one reason why many civil society organisations have steadfastly opposed the inclusion of agriculture in the climate negotiations.

Thus, unless CSA is carefully defined, it could be exploited to revive carbon markets by treating agriculture as a carbon sink for industrial emissions. Many governments would rather offset their mitigation obligations than tackle the real issues of reducing emissions at source and investing in clean technologies.

Climate bonds emerged more recently, reaching almost $US37 billion in 2014 according to World Climate Ltd. The Climate Bond Initiative's Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) Technical Working Group have just released for comment their proposed eligibility criteria for AFOLU projects that qualify under the 'Climate Bonds Standard, with the aim of inviting 'climate friendly' investment in agriculture.

With 'Climate-Smart Agriculture', anything goes

Currently,nothing is excluded from the range of practices that could count as 'Climate-Smart'. Thus both large-scale industrial monocultures with high inputs of fertiliser and pesticides, and agroecological approaches including agroforestry and organic agriculture may qualify.

Even though the first discussions of 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' highlighted the importance of small farmers and their vulnerability to climate change, particularly in Africa, no social or environmental criteria have been developed.

Although adaptation and food security are mentioned, CSA could instead stimulate land-grabbing for carbon sinks to offset continued emissions. Undaunted, the promoters of CSA launched the Global Alliance for 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' (GACSA in September 2014.

It includes 22 states, and 81 other members (such as the world's largest fertiliser company Yara and the global food company Danone). At the same time McDonalds, Kellogg Company and Walmart signed theJoint Statement for Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition, which has many of the same supporters as the Global Alliance, while Walmart announced its own 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' Platform.

One active member state is France, which hosts the climate conference in Paris in December 2015 and intends to address agriculture and soils there - see below. Meanwhile, the World Business Council on Sustainable Developmentlaunched a Low Carbon Technology PartnershipsMonsanto co-leads the 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' programme.

Recent Monsanto purchases include theClimate Corporation in 2013 and then (by the Climate Corporation)of Solum, which gives Monsanto new business in climate data, services and insurance, plus soil testing, in addition to its seeds and chemicals. All this could be exploited to securely capture and profit from 'Climate-Smart Agriculture'.

Among the sectors seeking to cash in is the, which comprises 60% of the private sector membership of the alliance. AsGRAIN points out: "They are essentially the oil companies of the food world ... They, too, have their fortunes wrapped in agribusiness-as-usual and the expanded development of cheap sources of energy, like shale gas."

Fertiliser production is estimated to account for some 1-2% of global energy consumption.According to FAO, synthetic fertiliser application is currently the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in agriculture.

GACSA member Yara also supports the agricultural growth corridors that will strive to bring its synthetic fertilisers to new markets in Africa. So is 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' just a cover for promoting an emission-intensive product to new markets?

The response from society

In a statement from September 2015 criticising GACSA, more than 350 civil society organisations say: "'Climate-Smart Agriculture' may sound promising, but it is a politically-motivated term. The approach does not involve any criteria to define what can or cannot be called 'Climate Smart'.

"Agribusiness corporations that promote synthetic fertilisers, industrial meat production and large-scale industrial agriculture - all of which are widely recognised as contributing to climate change and undermining the resilience of farming systems - can and do call themselves 'Climate Smart'.

"CSA claims to include all models of agriculture. However it lacks any social or environmental safeguards and fails to prioritize farmers' voices, knowledge and rights as key to facing and mitigating our climate challenges."

Small and family farmers still provide most of our food and must be central to the systemic change we need. 2015 is theUN year of the soiland healthy soils are fundamental to food production. It is also the year when governments are supposed to produce a meaningful climate agreement in Paris. La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, firmly

Small farmers around the world, however, still have the knowledge and the diversity of crops and animals to farm productively without the use of chemicals by diversifying cropping systems, integrating crop and animal production, and incorporating trees and wild vegetation. These practices enhance the productive potential of the land because they improve soil fertility and prevent soil erosion."

As la Via Campesina says, small farmers can 'cool the planet' by using careful, smallscale, often labour-intensive practices to care for soils, to keep them cool, fertile and moist with cover crops and help to preserve precious water supplies, while maintaining livelihoods and the agricultural biodiversity crucial for the future in their fields.

But this approach requires major changes in most agriculture, rural development, land-use and infrastructure policy worldwide. If the advocates of CSA do not define which agricultural practices are to be defined as 'Climate-Smart' and which are not, we have to assume the concept is a strategy to divide and confuse, and ultimately promote the very model of industrial agriculture that is already contributing so massively to climate change.

France's key role in GACSA and the Paris climate conference

France is a keen GACSA member and host of the climate conference in December 2015. Here it will launch the '' to increase levels of organic matter in soils and encourage agricultural practices that do so,

However, the conference may also see a major promotion of 'climate bonds'at the World Climate Summit for investment by corporations and governments. As Coordination Sud say in a Note, 'The 4 per 1000 Initiative: Caution':

"More carbon storage in the soil should not be understood as a license to emit as much or more in other sectors of human activity. By presenting the '4 per 1000' as a vast mechanism of compensation for emissions, certain economic players could take advantage of the system simply to maintain their emission levels in their industry while funding soil restoration programmes in developing countries, to obtain a result of virtually zero emissions (the zero net emissions concept)."

Thus we risk agriculture and soils being exploited in Paris as a carbon sink to enable corporations to 'offset' emissions, and thus 'mitigate' the impacts of continuing with business as usual. This would not advance food sovereignty, help adaptation or tackle the root causes of climate change.

01.12.15 Time for governments to talk about cutting emisisons from farming - article from the Soil Association

The article below comes from Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association and appeared on the Good Energy Blog.

Agriculture and land-based emissions are currently responsible for around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the EU.

The European Commission say that by 2050 ‘the agricultural sector will represent a third of the EU’s emissions, tripling the current share’.

At the Soil Association we believe that a priority for the COP21 talks in Paris must be the start of governments talking about how we can cut the huge ghgs from farming and food.

Climate Change and Farming in the UK

After a flurry of interest a decade ago, almost no attention is being given to reducing GHG emissions from English farming – and although the Scottish government has tended to be more interested, this has not led to real action.

The current UK Government’s consultation on their 25 year plan for English farming has omitted any reference to climate change.  However, Parliament’s Climate Change Committee, responsible for ensuring that the UK meets the legally binding target of 80% cuts in emissions by 2050, has been looking at farming’s record.

Farming’s two big sources of ghgs are Nitrous Oxide from manufactured fertiliser and Methane – mainly from cattle and sheep. Drops in livestock numbers, and some greater efficiency in the use of manufactured Nitrogen fertiliser, have helped reduce emissions slightly.

A revolution in farming is what’s required

Many scientists have agreed that a ‘revolution’ in farming will be required to hit 80% cuts. However, whether this should be a revolution in intensification and further industrialisation of farming, or a move to agro-ecological, low input systems, is not agreed.

This is despite the support for the agro-ecological route from over 400 international scientists in the IAASTD report, and results of scientific modelling which suggest the intensive route would lead to significant increases in emissions if many more people have to be fed (as they will be).

Work by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation suggests that if diets change (as they must to meet any climate targets) and food waste is reduced, organic farming could feed the world’s increased population by 2050 – with far lower ghg emissions.

(Part of) the answer lies in the soil

There is more carbon locked up in the world’s soils than anywhere else. Soils can either be a source of carbon emissions, or a very effective means of sequestering carbon over the long term.

Targets on soil could help prevent emissions. A recent global review of research found that organically managed soils have significantly higher levels of organic matter – in north-west Europe an average increase compared to non-organic farming of 21% over 20 years.

The International Panel on Climate Change says that 89% of all global agricultural emissions can be mitigated by improving soil carbon levels.

The Soil Association is calling on the UK Government to set a target to increase organic matter in UK arable and horticultural soils by 20% over the next 20 years.

This would significantly reducing the risks of flooding and increase resilience to droughts. It could also store 10 tonnes more carbon per hectare by 2035 – almost 0.5 tonnes per hectare every year. Even at low estimates of potential carbon storage, around 1.3 million tonnes more carbon could be stored in UK arable and horticultural soils every year – equivalent to the emissions saved by taking nearly 1 million cars off the road.

These are the issues that the organic movement will be working to get onto the agenda in Paris.

Given the scale of the challenge facing the planet, we cannot afford to allow agricultural emissions to continue to grow, nor ignore the huge potential that agro-ecological and organic farming has to sequester carbon and reduce emissions.

Source: Good Energy blog, 25.11.15 Peter Melchett, Soil Association

If you are interested in finding out more about how to build organic matter and carbon in your soils, why not check out the soil carbon pages on FCCT's website here?

23.11.15 Farmers day at Paris climate talks

Source: United Nations Framework on Climate Change

Coordinated by the World Farmers' Organisation in collaboration with the UNFCCC Secretariat, Farmers Day brings together farming groups, researchers, civil society, and other advocates to share perspectives on agriculture in light of the United Nation climate change negotiation this December in Paris.

Events will take place on 2 December in the official conference venue - a "blue zone" delegate pass is required but no further registration is needed. Further event details will be added here shortly. Join the conversation online using #FarmersDay and #COP21

For more information contact Ceris Jones, World Farmers' Organisation.


11:30—13:00, Observer room 03

Partnerships to improve agricultural resilience and productivity in a changing climate

Farmers from around the world and experts from science, finance and the market will discuss the possibilities and practicalities of improving agricultural resilience and productivity as the climate changes, and examine the value of partnerships

Speakers: Victor Biwot, tea producer Kenya. Luis Martinez, coffee producer Mexico, Romualdo Noble, Sugarcane producer Philippines. Fabian Waldmeier, Max Haavelar Switzerland. Mariana C. Rufino (TBC), CIFOR. Zaheer Fakir GCF Board. Andy Jarvis CIAT(TBC), Farmer representative WFO (TBN).

Organisers: Asociación Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores de Comercio Justo (CLAC); The Fairtrade Foundation; World Farmers' Organisation (WFO) 

15:00-16:30, Observer room 03

Partnering to scale-up climate-smart agriculture in Africa: from policy to tangible impact

This session will explore innovative partnership approaches to achieve climate-smart agriculture (CSA).

Organisers: International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), Norwegian Forum for Environment and Development (ForUM), Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU), University of Copenhagen (KU), World Vision International (WVI)

16:45—18:15, Observer room 03

Agroecology as a viable solution to create climate resilience and a sustainable food system

Agroecological practices, in particular agroforestry, can deliver many important services that will be vital in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. In particular we will speak about nutrition and food security, integrated landscape management and energy.

Speakers: ICRAF, IFOAM, UN Standing Commission on Nutrition, WeForest, country negotiators, donors

Organisers: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF); International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)

16.11.15 Soil Organic Matter, sharing Mediterranean experiences

Four Tips to improve organic matter content in Mediterranean soils

Compared to other European areas, Mediterranean regions suffer from distinctly lower organic matter content in their soils. However there are practical solutions to increase soil organic matter content and secure soil functionality and fertility. Philippe Hinsinger is the coordinating expert for the Focus Group on soil organic matter content in Mediterranean regions set up by the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability (EIP - AGRI). He elaborates "This is a concern that farmers have had since the very start of agriculture. Few of the solutions that are available are actually new, as many of them were rather common before the intensification of agriculture in the 1950s. The Focus Group analysed pros and cons of the current solutions, resulting in concrete tips for farmers.

Use local manure

Animal manure and organic waste - for instance transformed to compost can influence soil organic matter. Philippe Hinsinger: "Animal manure is most likely the largest resource of organic carbon suitable for application in agriculture. In Mediterranean areas where there is little large-scale animal production it would become very expensive for farmers to pay for manure transportation as large amounts are needed. Promoting the use of sources available on or near the farm, or using dehydrated or composted materials is important to decrease the cost of transportation, thus improving the cost-efficiency of the application of carbon rich inputs."

Avoid ploughing

Tillage techniques have been widely practiced for centuries, so completely stopping this practice would require a considerable shift. Reduced tillage or no-till practices can be used to maintain or increase soil organic matter content. Soil surface cover by mulching can efficiently reduce the runoff and subsequent soil erosion. Mulching can also help to combat weeds and improve the ability of the soil to bear the impact of vehicles such as tractors without damaging the soil structure.

Choose your cover crops wisely

Crop residues are a major source of organic inputs in agriculture and should be part of a farmer's strategy to increase or maintain soil organic matter content. The way crops are managed in space and time also plays an important role in securing soil functionality: more diverse rotations and longer soil coverage by living plants can help to protect the soil and increase organic matter content. These practices are less common in Mediterranean regions, in spite of their positive impact on soil fertility and water conservation.

Seek other novel solutions

The Focus Group also looked at opportunities to further investigate how to improve soil orgnaic matter content in Mediterranean regions and identified 16 research priorities. On top of that the focus group experts proposed subjects for innovative projects, so-called Operational Groups, funded by the European Commission and by the EU Member States and regions via Rural Development Programmes. The Focus Group suggestions included the development of diagnostic procesdures and recommendations on the management of soil organic matter and organic resources from tree based cropping systems, such as olive or fruit orchards. 

Source: EIP Focus Group Soil Organic Matter

For more information or to read the factsheet on Soil Organic Matter in Meditteranean Regions click here

09.11.15 Minimising nitrous oxide intensities of arable crop products; the MIN-NO project

The information in this blog comes from the end of project report from the MIN-NO project, which is a Defra funded project looking at minimising nitrous oxide intensities of arable crop products. To read the full report and find out more click here.


The MIN-NO project (2009 - 2014) used multi-site industry data, field experiments and modelling to improve estimates of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions associated with major UK arable crops and their products. Of 24 field experiments conducted in widely contrasting rainfall, soil and crop conditions, 21 showed direct N2O emissions due to fertiliser Nitrogen (N) to be less than the 1% default emission factor (EF) assumed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A simple model summarising these emissions predicted a 30 year average EF for arable land across the UK of only 0.46% of N applied.

A set of 'smart' EFs was devised for consideration by UK stakeholders, based on the MIN-NO model, other MIN-NO results and associated evidence. The smart EF for fertiliser N predicted a decrease in emissions of almost 10% of the previously estimated total N2O-N emissions from UK agriculture (which excludes fertiliser manufacture). The greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity estimated with the MIN-NO smart EFs (which include reduced GHGs from fertiliser manufacture) expressed as emissions per tonne of UK feed wheat was 20% less than the 'benchmark' GHG intensity using a current default methodology.  Smart EFs also gave reduced GHG intensities for harvested rapeseed, similar intensities for sugar beet and increased intensities for vining peas. Thus most arable food products are likely to have smaller GHG intensities than are being estimated at present. Also, bio-fuels made from N-fertilised crops could be considered more effective in reducing GHG emissions than is currently assumed.

However prospects for mitigation of N2O emissions associated with UK arable cropping are less than was thought previously. Farmers already using abated N fertilisers and following good practice lack any easy means of further mitigation. Feasible approaches tend to have economic costs, so further mitigation depends on the arable industry finding ways of capturing financially some of the value. Four feasible options were identified and, if all of these were aggregated, a combined GHG emissions mitigation potential of around -30% was estimated for the harvested produce of most crops, and from -5% to -25% for their food or fuel products. The best mitigation options appeared to lie in employing more sophisticated crop nutrient supply systems, and/ or growing more N - efficient crops through better informed selection of species and varieties. Other options such as cultivation strategies to improve soil conditions, cannot be advocated without further research.

Key messages for industry and policy

Most arable food products have significantly smaller GHG footprints than are being estimated by or on behalf of industry at present.

Biofuels made from N-fertiliser crops grown in the UK are more effective in reducing GHG than was previously thought. The impact of this finding will be enhanced further if the UK defines NUTS2 regional emissions estimates for biofuels in a similar way to that suggested by the MIN-NO model, e.g. depending on regional rainfall.

Mitigation of arable GHG emissions by reduced use of fertiliser N was estimated to be largely ineffective if indirect effects on land uses elsewhere were acknowledged.

As proposed in recent UK reviews, many potential GHG mitigation methods may be applicable to arable crops; these can be classed into four distinct themes.

i. Fertiliser systems (method of manufacture, formulation, application and timing) with low GHG emissions per kg nutrient 

ii. Selection of species, varieties, and/or fertiliser systems that convert soil and fertiliser N more efficiently into harvestable biomass

iii. Sourcing of crop produce from regions with low rainfall and light soils hence low N2O emissions.

iv. Removal of crop residues if green, this applies to a minority of crops

Individually these approaches were estimated to have maximum mitigation potentials (on GHG intensities of crop produce) of -25%, -23%, -23% and approximately -16%/

The maximum GHG mitigation potential derived by aggregating all four mitigation approaches was around -30% for the harvested produce of most crops (grain, seed or root) hence from -5% to -35% for their food or fuel products, depending on the contribution of crop produce to total GHG footprint of the product.

This there are opportunities for industry to help further mitigate the GHG footprints of arable products through improved fertiliser systems (better regarded as crop nutrient supply systems), for example incorporating chemical inhibitors within fertiliser products, but their exploitation will depend on finding means of capturing some of the value e.g. through economic incentives offered by the supply chain.

Any improvements that the plant breeding industry can make int he N Use Efficiency of crop varieties will prove beneficial to GHG mitigation, but the scope will be modest, especially if further progress is made in fertiliser technology, because mitigation is multiplicative not additive.

The main opportunities for farmers to mitigate N2O emissions lie in selecting crop species and fertiliser systems. Unfortunately farmers using abated N fertilisers and following best practices have few other means of effective N2O mitigation at present (at least that could affect calculated GHG emissions). Even under- fertilising with N is counter - balanced by GHG effects through indirect land use change.

Thus the scope for the UK arable industry to further mitigate GHG intensities of its products is less than previously estimated, and GHG mitigation maxima could only be achieved if adequate and sustained incentives became available to support development and use of all the appropriate technologies.

Source: Minimising nitrous oxide intensities of arable crop products (MIN-NO), Defra Sustainable Arable LINK programme

05.11.15 The Science of Soil Health Video

The Science of Soil Health: Using cover crops to soak up nutrients for the next crop.

No farmer wants to lose precious nutrients in the cool season, but this is exactly what happens when the field is left fallow.

This video produced by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, visits Penn State University and talks to Dr Sjoerd Duiker about how they use cover crops to ensure that those nutrients stay where they belong.

Source: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

02.11.15 The Goals of the Paris talks

Following on from my introductory blog last week about the upcoming Paris talks, this blog looks in a little bit more detail about what will be being discussed at the event.  This information comes from a report written by the Green Alliance entitled Paris 2015, Getting a global agreement on climate change.

This agreement that will happen in Paris is set to be different from what has happened previously.  In the early climate change talks and negotiations the focus surrounded 'top-down' targets which drove national action. However in the lead up to Paris, individual countries have been required to present their own ambitions and plans for carbon reduction. Each countries pledged contributions will need to be agreed at the global level to ensure that the pledges add up to sufficient global action.

A good agreement will help provide a framework for change, which will allow individual countries to do more than they could alone.

Agreement is needed on the following elements of a global deal:

Ambitious action before and after 2020

The agreements in Paris will focus on a deal that comes into force from 2020. However at Durban talks in 2011, countries also agreed to accelerate action before 2020. Limiting climate change in the long term depends on cumulative emissions reductions so if less is done now, more is needed later. 

All the agreements are concerned with limiting temperature rises to less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrialised levels.

A strong legal framework and clear rules

To ensure action on the ground and to make sure countries deliver on promises made.  This includes having processes in place that deal with accounting and reporting methodologies, are transparent and measure change.

Central role for equity

The deal needs to be fair for all.  The agreement must therefore recognise the different contributions of countries to climate change and the changing nature of the global economy. It needs to acknowledge where nations have more responsibility and where they have more capacity to tackle climate change.

Long term approach

The aim is to use Paris to establish a framework on which to build with rolling commitments to reduce emissions on a 5yr cycle.

This will allow for the flexibility to include revised carbon targets as new science and technology emerges and increasing evidence of social and economic benefits of low carbon action once countries start implementing low carbon strategies.

Public finance for adaptation and low carbon transition

An agreement is more likely to be effective if it provides finance to support action on adaptation and mitigation. Funds can be delivered through the Green Climate Fund.

A Framework for action on deforestation and land use

Forest protection and support for sustainable land management should be a crucial part of a new agreement.

Any new agreement covering forest protection, land use and agriculture should be properly financed, have clear rules for emissions accounting and involve local communities.

The report also includes some quotes from politicians and officials about what these talks should achieve.

Ban Ki-moon (UN Secretary General)

" I challenge you to bring to the Summit bold pledges. Innovate, scale up, co-operate, and deliver concrete action that will close the emissions gap and put us on track for an ambitious legal agreement."

Christiana Figueres, (Executive secretary, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change)

"We are the first generation to understand the consequences of a high carbon economy on the planet, on future prosperity and , in particular on the most vulnerable around the world. Let us be the generation that stands up and takes responsibility conveyed by that knowledge."

Source: Paris 2015, Getting a global agreement on climate change. Green Alliance.

27.10.15 Countdown to Paris

So for the next couple of months here at FCCT we are going to do something slightly different in terms of blogs and look at the very exciting (if you like that sort of thing) talks that are coming up in Paris in December.

What are these talks I hear you ask? Well a quick Google search along the lines of COP21 or Paris Climate Talks will bring you up a range of media articles, opinion pieces and some really fascinating EU and United Nations web pages with strategies and rationale and ratification documents, which if you are having any trouble sleeping are my recommended reading.

Here at FCCT, we think these talks are potentially a big deal. As we will discover over the next couple of months, what is (or isn’t) agreed at these talks could have ramifications for our government in terms of targets for carbon reduction, and alongside that, a potential stronger approach to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. If they all talk nicely and reach an agreement, then it will shape the future of what our carbon reduction strategy looks like; if they can’t agree, it will continue being fought out until an agreed reduction target for the period 2020 – 2030 can be finalised.

So one of our missions over the next couple of months is to bring you all the facts and information on what is happening in this exciting time leading up to the climate talks and what it will mean on the ground for managing and sustaining our farming businesses.

To kick off then I thought that we would look at where we are currently and how we have got to the 21st conference of the United Nations framework Convention of Climate change (apologies if you’ve missed the last 20).

I promise to try and not get too bogged down in policy, jargon or European / United Nations history

Here goes

The basic policy

The United Nations framework Convention on Climate Change sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the challenge posed to us by climate change.

The process was started at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 where countries joined an international treaty to jointly consider what could be done to limit average global temperature increases and cope with the inevitable impacts.

The framework entered into force (by the time they had all agreed) on 21st March 1994, and 195 countries are now signed up to it.

The ultimate aim of the convention is:

“......stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthrogenic (induced by man) interference with the climate system.”

What does it do?

In summary the convention:

1.Recognised that there was a problem (which was a pretty big deal in 1994, when the science wasn’t as sure as it is now)

2.Set a big but specific goal – ultimate objective of convention is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations

3.Gets developed countries to lead the way. The theory goes that developed countries are the source of most past and current GHG emissions, industrialised countries are expected to do the most to cut emissions on home ground.

4.Directs new funds to climate change activities in developing countries, and this includes industrialised countries sharing knowledge, skills and technologies with less developed nations

5.Keeps tabs on the problem and what is being done about it – including mandatory reporting on emissions levels, what nations climate change policies are and what measures they are implementing

6.Charts the beginning of a path to strike a delicate balance – this deals with accepting the fact that the shape of GHG emissions produced by developing countries as they develop economically will grow, however the convention aims to help such countries limit emissions in a way that won’t hinder economic progress

7.Kick off a formal consideration of adaptation to climate change

Source: The European Commission

Where are we at the moment?

So there are a couple of famous meetings and regulations that have led up to where we are now including:

The Kyoto Protocol

This was developed in 1997, and finally entered into force in 2005. This protocol commits industrialised countries to stabilise GHG emissions by setting binding emissions reduction targets or 37 industrialised countries. The targets add up to an average 5% emissions reduction compared to 1990 levels over the period 2008 – 2012 (1st commitment period).

Doha (8th December 2012)

The Doha Amedment launched a second commitment period of emissions reduction targets, which started on the 1st January 2013 and ran until 2020.

Paris talks in a nutshell

The COP (Conference of parties) which includes all party states, meets every year. At the Paris Summit, the aim is to develop a new international climate change agreement that will cover all 195 countries.

The new agreement is set to be agreed at Paris in December and implemented from 2020.

Climate conferences in Warsaw (2013) and Lima (2014) agreed that all countries had to put forward their proposed emissions reductions targets well ahead of the Paris conference (so its not a case of I left it at home).

The UN would then publish these contributions and report (by the 1st November) to assess whether the proposals are sufficient to keep global warming below 2 degrees.

(Source European Commission)

So its going to be an interesting time. Watch this space for more blogs over the next few weeks which will hopefully keep you informed as to what’s happening.

19.10.15 Loss of soil carbon linked to climate change

Soil and plants store around 5% of the world's carbon, but carbon storage in some soils is in decline. Recent research has found that climate change accounted for 9-22% of carbon declines in organic soils in semi-natural habitats throughout England and Wales from 1978 -2003. The researchers say monitoring soils rich in carbon should be a priority to ensure that more carbon is not released to reinforce climate change. 

Soils accumulate carbon through the decomposition of plant materials and from carbon inputs like manure. Soils also release carbon as carbon dioxide and methane through root respiration and the breakdown of organic matter by microbes. The balance between carbon inputs and outputs determines whether the soil acts as a carbon sink or source.

Rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns caused by climate change are expected to significantly affect soil processes. If warmer temperatures result in more carbon being lost from soils through respiration than is returned by decaying plant litter, a positive feedback cycle would further amplify the effects of climate change.

Two studies in England and Wales reached different conclusions about the impact of climate change on soil carbon concentrations. A 2005 study based on the National Soil Inventory of England and Wales (NSI) found a decline in soil carbon stocks between two survey periods (1978 - 1983 and 1995 - 2003). The study found that these losses were unrelated to land use - which led the authors to suggest there was a link to climate change. However a separate study in 2007 found no significant change in soil carbon concentrations in the UK between 1978 - 2007.

The present study used soil carbon levels from the first NSI survey to model changes in soil carbon concentrations during the second survey period.

The researchers used the same land-use categories from the original NSI studies, and distinguished between survey sites with organo-mineral / mineral soils and organic soils (which contain >150g of carbon per kg of soil).  They then related estimated changes in average rainfall and temperature, using the UK Meteorological Office's climate data, at each site between survey periods with modelled soil carbon concentrations.

The researchers found that climate change affected the two soils differently. Carbon changes in organo - mineral / mineral soils could be weakly linked to rainfall but not temperature changes, whereas carbon declines in organic soils were strongly related to rising temperatures but insensitive to changes in rainfall.

Only up to 5% of declining carbon concentrations predicted in organo-mineral / mineral soils in agricultural land could be linked to climate change. The researchers concluded that declining carbon concentrations in these soils are more likely the result of reduced carbon inputs due to a reduction in grazing cattle.

In contrast 9-22% of carbon declines in organic soils in semi-natural habitats, such as bogs could be attributed to climate change. The researchers found that when temperatures increased, carbon changes in organic soils followed a similar pattern to bog vegetation changes.

Above an average annual temperature of 7 degrees C moss cover on temperate bogs with peat soils sharply declines and other plants such as trees grow more readily. The researchers suggest that warmer temperatures under climate change may induce plant cover changes which alter the quality of plant litter, returning less carbon to the soil.

These changes in plant cover could be responsible for the falls in carbon concentrations predicted in this study. for example, soil carbon concentrations in organic soils were stable at approximately 425g/kg until temperature reached 7 degrees C after which carbon levels fell as carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere.

The researchers say it is important to identify soils with carbon contents between 250 and 425 g/kg. These soils should be prioritised for surveillance to ensure that the carbon within them is not released, thereby contributing to climate change.

Source: Science for Environment Policy, 15th October 2015, Issue 431

19.10.15 Effects of extreme weather, climate and pesticides on farmland invertebrates

Cereal fields provide a staple food, but are also home to a wide array of invertebrates. This study analysed over 40 years of data to investigate the effects of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields in southern England. As pesticide use had a greater effect on abundance than temperature or rainfall, the authors also recommended reducing pesticide use.

Invertebrates  in arable farmland provide vital ecosystem services, including pollination, pest control and nutrient recycling. They are also an important link in the food chain that supports farmland animals and an important source of biodiversity in their own right.

However these invertebrates are under threat from climate change which is increasing the frequency and devertiy of extreme weather events. They are also facing the challenges of agricultural intensification especially increasing pesticide use.

Very few studies have investigated the effects of changes in weather and agricultural intensification together. It is important to understand how arable invertebrates respond to these combined challenges in order to devise mitigation measures.

In this study, researchers determined the impact of extreme weather events, as well as long-term trends in weather and agricultural practices on arable invertebrates. The study was based on a section of farmland on the Sussex Downs, in southern England. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has collected data on the invertebrates, plants and birds of this cereal ecosystem as well as its crop management practices, since 1970. Information on the abundance of invertebrates was obtained by sampling 100 cereals fields every year from 1970 - 2011. The 26 most commonly identified taxa were selected for analysis.

Weather conditions were also assessed. A droughts and temperature anomalies are most commonly associated with changes in invertebrate abundance, the researchers focused on monthly mean temperatures and totla monthly precipitation in their analysis. Extreme weather events were identified using data obtained from the UK Met Office and grouped into two categories: cold / wet and hot / dry.

Of the 26 invertebrate groups studied, 11 were found to be sensitive to extreme weather events. However the invertebrates were also remarkably resilient - only two took longer than a year to recover.

Some long-term trends in invertebrate abundance correlated with temperature and rainfall data suggesting that invertebrates are affected by climate change. However by far the most important factor in explaining the trends in abundance was pesticide use.

The researchers went onto investigate whether different habitats could encourage resilience to extreme events. Only habitat position influenced sensitivity to extreme weather events. During cold / wet events, abundance generalls increased from the previous year on west - facing slopes, while it decreased on other slopes, suggesting that west - facing slopes may act as refuges. There were no other clear links between habitat and resilience, suggesting that habitat manipulation is unlikely to offset the effects of extreme weather on invertebrates.

In the long -term, climate change will cause increases in certain groups of organisms, some of which will contain cereal pests. In turn, this will increase the use of insecticides, having an adverse effect on invertebrate populations. The authors say this is the most likely long-term negative impact of climate change on arable invertebrate numbers.

The researchers say using conservation headlands alongside beetle banks, which also protect farmland birds, may help to conserve invertebrates in cereal fields.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, 8th October, Issue 430

Author: Ewald, J et al, (2015), Influences of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields over 42 years. Global Change Biology, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13026 

16.10 15 France and soil management

France has a great plan for its soil and its not just about wine

This article is written by Professor John Quinton from Lancaster University and the full link is found here.

French wine lovers have always taken their soil very seriously. But not the country's government has introduced fresh reasons for the rest of the world to pay attention to their terroir.

As industrial emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase and concerns about climate change grow, scientists and policy makers are searching for potential solutions. Could part of the answer lie in the soil beneath our feet? French agricultural minister Stephane Le Foll thinks so.

Soil stores vast amounts of carbon, far more than all the carbon in the world's forests and atmosphere combined. Plants take carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and when they die the carbon they stored is returned to the soil.

This forms part of the soil's organic matter, a mix of undecayed plant and animal tissues, transient organic molecules and more stable material often referred to as humus. It is food for organisms in the soil that play a vital role in cycling nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. These organisms decompose the organic material and return much of the carbon to the atmosphere leaving only a small proportion in the soil.

In the UK alone, soils store around 10 billion tonnes of carbon - that's about 65 times the country's annual carbon emissions. Increasing the amount of carbon in our soils has the potential to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.

At a March 2015 conference on Climate Smart Agriculture, Le Foll proposed the ambitious target of increasing French soil carbon contents by 0.04% year on year ("4 pour mille). How France will meet the target is currently unclear but by throwing down the gauntlet Le Foll clearly wants to stimulate French farmers and researchers into action.

A 0.04% increase might not sound like a lot, but, given the scale of carbon storage in soil and the fact that small increases add up over the years, meeting the target would have a significant impact on atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Le Foll hopes that  protecting carbon rich soils like those in natural bogs, permanent grassland or wetlands, better use of organic manures and farming that returns more plant biomass to the soil (such as by using cover crops and ploughing their residues back into the earth) together with the use of bioenergy crops such as short rotation coppice, can contribute towards a 40% reduction in France's CO2 emissions by 2030. He plans to bring forward an international programme to promote increases in soil carbon and to propose it to the UN climate talks in Paris. Such a programme would include research, innovation and engagement with farmers.

Stuck in the mud?

There is no doubt that this is a bold move. Research has shown that raising soil carbon contents is not that easy due to much of the organic matter added to soils being lost to the atmosphere as it is decomposed by soil microbes. However protecting the carbon we already have in our soils and just storing a little more could make a big difference.

In the UK most soil carbon (by far) is found in peaty soils under bogs, followed by soils under grass, woodland and arable agriculture. Protecting this carbon should be the first priority. That means maintaining and restoring bogs, avoiding conversion of grassland and forestry to arable land or even reconverting arable land to grassland. These measures would all have a positive effect on soil carbon stocks.

Whether all this can deliver the 0.04% increase year on year that the French want is open to debate. What is lcear though is that not only does soil offer a way to store carbon and help mitigate climate change, carbon rich soil has numerous other benefits. It is more fertile and helps to promote food production, it improves the soil's physical properties - it protects against soil erosion and increases water-holding capacity, and it enhances biodiversity.

Promoting practices that increase soil carbon contents really is a win for both the soil and the climate.

14.10.15 The Bug benefits

Soil bugs play a vital role in supporting soil structure and plant growth on grassland farms, but farmers must look after their soil to reap these benefits, warns a leading soil expert. Dr Debbie McConnell, AHDB Dairy R&D manager, finds out why on behalf of Forage for Knowledge.

Soil is full of life. One small handful of soil contains more organisms than the total number of humans who ever lived on Earth, but what are these creatures and how do they influence our soil?

Speaking at a recent AHDB - BGS meeting, soils expert Dr Elizabeth Stockdale outlined the range of organisms in a typical handful of grassland soil. "It is packed with billions of organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes, mites, springtails, earthworms, insects, and millipedes, most of which are too small to see with the naked eye.

Dr Stockdale, the main author of the AHDB website explained that these organisms played many essential roles in the soil including:

Powering nitrogen fixation

Recycling nutrients into plant available form

Developing a sponge like structure to regulate water retention and drainage

"These organisms influence most of the processes which take place in the soil and, as a result, are essential for plant growth - no plant will grow in a sterile soil," she comments.

So how can farmers help encourage these organisms in the soil?

"Just by having plants in the soil all year round you are helping these bugs survive." explained Dr Stockdale. "Plants release carbohydrates and sugars into the soil through their roots, which provide a food source for other organisms." 

Other organisms then consume these bacteria and fungi, breaking then down into vital nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate, which are readily available for the plant roots to absorb.  As a result the organisms benefit from the plant roots and vice versa.

Adding organic matter such as farmyard manure (FYM), composts and slurry is also important to encourage soil biology, providing a key source of energy for many organisms. This is backed by recent research at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, showing that earthworm populations were five times higher on plots that received slurry each year than those that only received inorganic fertilisers.

However to get this benefit, Dr Stockdale advises managing organic manure inputs carefully. When earthworms come into contact with slurry, the high concentration of ions can extract body fluids from shallow skinned earthworms by osmosis, killing the worm. The risk is much lower with farmyard manure as the nutrients are less concentrated.

"Organic matter input is important so try and make sure most fields across the farm receive some . With slurry, try a little and often approach to minimise any detrimental impact on soil organisms, " she said.

Another key factor to help soil organisms survive is good soil structure. "When soils are compacted the air spaces are squeezed out, removing oxygen which is vital for organisms to survive" said Dr Stockdale.

"Regularly assessing soil structure and soil testing is something every farmer can do themselves to make sure their soil can support a range of soil organisms which in turn will aid grass growth, nutrient use efficiency and water retention."

Who's who in the soil environment

Earthworms. There are three main types commonly found in UK soils: epigeic, endogeic and anecic. Anecic earthworms are particularly good at improving soil structure, making large vertical channels throughout the soil.

Mites are the smallest (usually less than 1mm) and also the most diverse group of arthropods in soil and therefore show a very wide range of feeding habits and lifestyles.  The presence of these microarthropods markedly increases decomposition rates across a range of environments.

Nematodes are microscopic roundworms with a diameter of <50 micrometres. Different species of nematodes play different roles in the soil. Some feed of plant residues while others break down bacteria and fungi in the soil into vital nutrients.

Fungi - Fungal hyphae are usually 2-micrometers in diameter, but can extend to up to a kilometre in length. Fungi are involved in a large number of interactions and processes in soil. They are often found in close proximity to plant roots.

Bacteria are single -celled prokaryotes. The large majority of bacteria existing in soil (>95%) are not culturable and so for a long time could not be studied. Bacterial in the soil often have the ability to 'slow-down' metabolic activity and maintain activity in a dormant state, event under conditions of very low energy and nutrient availability.

For more information visit the Healthy Grassland Soils pages on the AHDB website pages.

12.10.15 New consultation released concerning diffuse water pollution

Defra has released a consultation on new basic rules to tackle diffuse water pollution from agriculture in England.  The rules have a particular focus on phosphorus.

The consultation is open for responses and comments on the proposals by the 24th November.  This includes which basic rules should apply and how they should be implemented.

The consultation sets out basic rules and actions covering fertiliser, livestock and soil management.

List of proposed rules
Inorganic and fertiliser management

1. Location of field manure storage at least 10m from a watercourse

2. Use a fertiliser recommendation system, taking into account soil reserves and organic manure supply

3. Spread fertilisers and manure accurately (e.g. by using calibrated and maintained machinery).

Livestock management

4. Use a feed planning system to match nutrient content of diets to livestock feeding requirements.

5. Livestock feeders must not be positioned within 10 metres of any surface water of a wetland.

6. Avoid severe poaching where likely to pollute a watercourse (compliance achieved if already meeting GAECs 4 and 5)

Soil management

7. Take action to prevent soil erosion and run-off from tramlines, lows, irrigation and high risk sloping lands or those lands highly connected to surface water (compliance already achieved if meeting GAECS 4 and 5)

8. Do not spread more than 30m3/ha of slurry or digestate or more than 8t/ha of poultry manure in a single app between between 15th October and end February. No repeat spreading for 21 days.

9. Do not spread manufactured fertiliser or manures at high risk times or in high risk areas.

Proposed Good practice

10. Incorporated manure into soil as soon as possible and within 24hrs after application at the latest.

11. Exclude livestock from watercourses (excluding uplands and common land)

Defra are proposing to introduce a minimum of 7 of the rules and that they will be clear and simple and will be supported by advice.

To read the consultation documents please click here.

To learn more about how you can tackle diffuse water pollution please click here

05.10.15 Investigating the effect of pH and fertiliser on Nitrous oxide production from farm soils

So for the last blog of the month looking at Nitrous oxide here is a piece of research conducted by Theo Platts-Dunn at Lancaster University as part of a Masters programme. Some of the data that informed the study is based on Adam's farm, so this is a great opportunity to see some research in action (which also fits nicely into our theme).

Our thanks to Theo for allowing us to publish it here.

What's is all about?

This project aimed to assess the effectiveness of how nitrification inhibitors work, in conjunction with common inorganic fertiliser (Ammonium Nitrate and Urea), to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from soil after fertiliser application. As the well as the effect of inhibitors on N2O production I was also interested in the effect of the pH on N2O as I had found some lack of clarity regarding its influence in prior research. I designed a laboratory experiment to investigate these themes.

What did it find?

The results of the experiment showed that the nitrification inhibitors drastically reduced the N2O production when applied together with fertiliser compared to fertiliser applied which contained no inhibitor (Up to a 90% reduction). With regard to pH, a slightly more acidic soil generally results in lower N2O production. This was true with the ammonium nitrate treated cores and the control cores. This is likely due to the enzyme inhibitory effects of a lowered soil pH. Soil cores treated with urea did not show a statistically significant difference between ambient and lowered pH suggesting that urea increases the pH of soil when applied.

What does it mean?

The findings of this report highlight some of the complexities of practically managing N2O production from soil. In addition to pH other soil parameters such as; soil water content, temperature, aeration, organic content, mineral N availability and soil texture have an effect on N2O production. These parameters not only have an effect individually but also combine and interact in ways which are challenging to model. The best approach for effective mitigation of N2O is arguably to carry out case-by-case mitigation strategies as opposed to broad scale guidelines offered by bodies such as the IPCC. However, the challenge really lies in incentivising land owners to carry out such assessments which may seem to them to involve additional cost and little economic return.

How can I read the full report?

The full thesis is available to download here.

29.09.15 Focusing on soil structure to retain healthy grasslands

A recent Defra-funded study of 300 grassland fields found that just 40 per cent had good soil structure. That alarming figure serves to reinforce the importance of an ongoing initiative from AHDB’s beef, lamb and dairy sectors – Healthy Grassland Soils – which aims to help grassland farmers study soil properties and choose the best management practices.

At this time of year, farmers should be investigating the health status of grassland soils, as where action needs to be taken this can be done straight away. At the end of the summer, soils are less dry and it’s a good time to assess their structure. Using aerators or sward lifters in the autumn also means that the soil and the roots have the winter to recover before the high demands of spring when grass growth really gets going.

In cases of mild compaction, soils do have a capacity to recover on their own, especially if the cause, such as grazing livestock, is be removed. In these situations it may be worth monitoring the field over a few weeks to see whether it improves. Taking photos on a phone is a simple but useful way to track soil condition.

There is good evidence that using aerators or sward lifters in soils without poor structure has limited benefit and can cause damage, especially if the soil conditions are not appropriate.

If an aerator or sward lifter needs to be used, it is important to make sure soil moisture conditions are correct to avoid further damage. If a handful of soil obtained from the depth that needs to be worked gives a moist smooth surface when rolled then it is too wet to work. If the soil starts to crack then the soil conditions are appropriate.

Aerators and sward lifters need to be working 2.5cm below the problem area so dig holes to make sure the equipment is doing the correct job.

As part of the Healthy Grassland Soils project, soil structure assessment tools and a website — — have been developed with more technical information, especially in relation to soil biology. An assessment sheet and pocketbook is available from the AHDB Beef & Lamb Better Returns Programme.

Source:Farming Futures blog 

29.09.15 Mitigation of nitrous oxide emissions from livestock part 2

Following on from the blog at the end of last week looking at mitigation of nitrous oxide emissions from livestock systems, this second part of the report looks at some of the science behind management that has been advocated to reduce GHG emissions (in particular nitrous oxide), and how these can integrate into management changes on the farm.

The diagram below comes from the paper (link here) that these blogs are based on, and highlights some of the areas to consider when looking to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from your system. If you click on the picture it will enlarge.

Animal management and housing

Structures used to house livestock do not directly affect the processes resulting in nitrous oxide and methane emissions, however the type of structure used determines the manure management methods used to handle, store, process and use the manure.

Housing systems with solid floors that use straw accumulate manure with a lighter DM which when stored in piles created conditions for nitrification and denitrification and thus greater nitrous oxide emissions. Farmyard manure and deep litter manure handling systems tend to produce greater nitrous oxide emission than slurry based systems.

Dietary effects on manure emissions

Manipulating rations to reduce nutrient excretion of N and P are well studied, but relating it to mitigation of methane and nitrous oxide is fairly new. Data in the effect of dietary protein on manure Nitrous oxide emissions is not consistent. Tannins as a dietary supplement has been studied, but more studies are needed in terms of relating tannin application through the diet to manure and GHG emissions.

Grazing practices

Improving pasture quality in terms of forage digestibility is an efficient way of decreasing GHG emissions from the animal and the amount of manure produced. In pasture based systems, improving forage quality often means increasing Nitrogen fertiliser application rates which can have a negative impact on urinary N excretion and thus ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions.

Reduction of nitrous oxide emissions from intensive grazing systems can be achieved by several strategies:

Improving N use efficiency through reducing the amount of N excreted by grazing animal

Optimising soil management and Nitrogen inputs

Optimising pasture renovation

Manipulating soil N cycling processes through soil additives

Selecting for plants and animals that maximise N utilisation

Altering grazing and feeding management

Manure storage and treatment

Greenhouse gas emissions from stored manure  are primarily in the form of methane (due to anaerobic conditions) although nitrous oxide emissions can occur and ammonia volatilisation losses are often large.

A direct way to avoid cumulative GHG emissions is to reduce the amount of time manure is stored.

Storage covers

Semipermeable covers tend to increase Nitrous oxide emissions because they provide optimal aerobic conditions for nitrification at the cover surface and at the same time create a low oxygen environment just below the cover favourable for denitrification and the production of nitrous oxide.


Due to the nature of the composting process N losses can be high and are influenced by a number of factors including temperature C to N ratio, pH, moisture and material consistency. Compost can be a source of nitrous oxide emissions with both nitrification and denitrification processes occurring during composting.

Land application

Application method and emissions

An important difference between mineral fertiliser and manure is that manure contains organic Carbon which, depending on soil condition may affect Nitrous oxide emissions.

Manure carbon may increase microbial respiration rates in soil, thus depleting oxygen providing the anaerobic conditions required for denitrification. Compared with mineral Nitrogen sources, manure applications increases soil Nitrous oxide flux in soils with low Carbon content. Soil nitrous oxide emissions can vary greatly and emissions factors of up to 12% of N input (for nitrate based fertiliser) and 5% for manure have been reported.

Incorporating manures can greatly reduce ammonia emissions, leaving more N susceptible to emissions as nitrous oxide. However reduction in ammonia losses with incorporation means that smaller quantities of manure are required and potential for nitrous oxide production is reduced.

Urease and nitrification inhibitors

Microbial processes that result in nitrous oxide production can be manipulated through the use of chemical additives (see earlier blogs).

Cover crops

Cover cropping can reduce soil erosion, improve soil quality and fertility, improved water, weed, disease and pest management and enhance plant and wildlife diversity on the farm,

Reduction of Nitrogen fertiliser use by growing leguminous cover crops has a direct mitigation effect on soil nitrous oxide emissions by reducing soil nitrate availability and potential leaching. Cover crops can increase plant N update and decrease nitrate accumulation and thus reduce nitrous oxide production through denitrification but the results on overall GHG emissions have not been consistent.

What does this show?

There are a number of animal and manure management practices that are feasible and can effectively reduce methane and nitrous oxide from manure storage and for land application. Therefore due to numerous interactions at the animal, storage and land applications phases of the manure management process, GHG mitigation practices should not be evaluated individually in isolation but as a component of the livestock production system as a whole.

Source: Montes et al (2014) Mitigation of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from animal operations: II. A review of manure management mitigation options, J. Anim.Sci. 2013.91:5070-5094

25.09.15 Nitrous oxide emissions and manure management

So for the last couple of blogs looking at nitrous oxide before we move onto something else, a big subject which hasn’t really been tackled yet is manure management and the impact of manure storage and application on nitrous oxide.

Animal manure is a nutrient resource containing most of the essential elements required for plant growth and can be a significant source of N in both intensive and subsistence production systems.

Applying this manure to fields (as we all know) has numerous benefits including building soil organic matter levels, microbial biomass and mineralisation rates, and improves soil tilth, water holding capacity, oxygen content and fertility, as well as reducing soil erosion, reduces nutrient leaching and increases yields. There is also the added benefits that come from using these manures as a source of fertiliser and when this is synchronised with crop requirements and uptake is a very cost effective resource of nutrients.

If these materials are not managed correctly however they can present environmental risks, including emitting Nitrous oxide (alongside methane and ammonia), which we want to avoid, not only because of its deleterious effects in terms of our GHG credentials, but also (more importantly from the farmer’s perspective) because it’s a source of nitrogen that we could potentially use to improve yield but is being lost to the environment.

Nitrous oxide emissions from manure

Nitrous oxide emissions from soil application of manure are a major contributor to total GHG emissions from agriculture.

Direct emissions of nitrous oxide from manure storage are small when compared with methane emissions. For nitrous oxide emissions to occur, manure must first be handled aerobically (with oxygen present) when ammonium or organic Nitrogen is converted to nitrate and nitrite during nitrification and then handled anaerobically (without oxygen) when the nitrate and nitrite are reduced to nitrogen and nitric oxide through denitrification.

Most of the nitrous oxide resulting from manure is produced in the soils where manures have been applied. The bits of the nitrogen cycle that produce nitrous oxide (bad) are the microbes present in the soil working on the manure under aerobic conditions (part of the natural process that can’t really get away from) and partial denitrification under anaerobic conditions (what we want to try and minimise), as it is the anaerobic conditions which produces more nitrous oxide.

Manure contains most of what it needs to kick-start the processes in the soil of nitrification and denitrification. However these processes are pretty fickle beasts and the rate of them occurring will depend on the amount and type of nitrogen present, the available carbon sources, water content, temperature of the soil and what bugs are there to work on the manure.

As you may be appreciating it’s a fairly complex system which depends on lots of variables as to where the emissions occur and whether its nitrous oxide, ammonia or methane that is the main issue. As nitrous oxide is emitted as a result of different microbial processes the rate of emissions is highly variable. This causes a bit of a problem when looking for those nice ‘one size fits all’ answers which we all want which will tell us how to minimise the emissions of nitrous oxide when we are applying manures (with all the great agronomic and economic benefits that occur).

What does the research say?

Scientists have been puzzling with this for a while, and clever computer models alongside very sophisticated measuring and monitoring equipments, means that it is now possible to look at how effective different mitigation practices are at controlling nitrous oxide and look at the effect this may have on the livestock production system.

However there is a further complication (nothing is ever simple).

Due to the nature of the processes that result in methane and nitrous oxide being produced, some practices that result in the reduction of methane emissions (yay!), increase nitrous oxide emissions. For example, one practice advocated by some is the aeration of slurry and manure during storage which reduces methane emissions. However if the aeration rate is sufficient to create an aerobic environment, the rate of nitrous oxide emission will often be increased.

It’s an area where we are not completely there yet. There is still much to learn about the benefits (and potential drawbacks) of particular mitigation practices, the effect of combining mitigation practices, the response of environmental indicators and the effect on the environmental and financial performance of the farm as a whole.

What this report does highlight is some indications of where efforts should be addressed.

To save the blog being massive, I’ll delve into some of these next week.

Source: Montes et al (2014) Mitigation of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from animal operations: II. A review of manure management mitigation options, J. Anim.Sci. 2013.91:5070-5094

14.09.15 Personal experience with global warming drives mitigation behaviour

A number of studies have shown that the public misunderstand global warming. Taking a fresh approach, this study investigated the willingness of the public to take part in activities that mitigate climate change. An international survey of 24 countries revealed that this is strongly related to personal experiences with global warming. The authors say linking actions to benefits could encourage climate change mitigation behaviour.

While we know public perception of climate science is often inaccurate, understanding of what causes beneficial behaviour change is less complete. The factors that influence the decision to take part in actions to mitigate global warming include not only knowledge but also beliefs in personal experience of unusual weather, general beliefs and worldviews.

In this study, researchers conducted an international survey to determine the factors that are most influential. The US-based researchers administered an online survey to 25 samples of participants in 24 different countries, gaining a total of 11 614 responses. The survey was designed to measure six key factors: belief in global warming, environmental worldview, self-efficacy (an individual’s judgement of their ability to have a significant effect on outcome), personal experience with global warming, belief in the free market system, and knowledge about the causes of global warming.

The survey also asked the participants about their general intentions to mitigate climate change, and willingness to take part in specific activities. General intentions were measured by statements such as “I plan to take some actions to stop global warming”, while specific behaviours included “Concerns about global warming guide my voting behaviour” and “I intend to carpool and drive less”.

Most samples endorsed general action more than specific actions, although several Asian countries did not follow this trend. In all samples, the most endorsed specific action involved adjusting home temperature (e.g. using less heating in the winter), followed by changes to commuting and then voting.

The researchers next analysed which factors best predicted intention to act, both for general and specific actions. Most significantly, they found that personal experience (e.g. “Changes in global warming have impacted my life already”) is most important in predicting specific action, while self-efficacy is more important for general intention to act.

The authors say this is because intention to perform concrete actions is strongly linked to personal experiences that highlight the value of these actions, while thinking about general mitigation action is more associated with abstract or ‘big-picture’ thinking and therefore feelings of self-efficacy.

The three factors most important in predicting action were pro-environmental worldview, personal experience with global warming, and feelings of self-efficacy.The least important predictors were gender, age, belief in the free market system, political affiliation and knowledge of global warming.

The researchers also found that differences between individuals within samples were greater than differences between samples, suggesting that willingness to take part in mitigation actions (and its drivers) does not much differ between nations and cultures. Importantly, this indicates that climate change communication schemes could be used across the world with little variation.

The authors provide recommendations on how to use their findings to encourage climate change mitigation behaviour among citizens.

For example, the study found that while most respondents were generally willing to mitigate climate change, they were much less willing to perform specific actions. The authors say this common problem could be tackled by highlighting the personal effects of future climate changes, such as more frequent flooding or the later blossoming of plants in a local area.

While personal experiences foster one’s perceived value of mitigation action, the random variability of experiences does not generate consistent (sustained) action that is needed. The researchers suggest that communication and education strategies focus on additional (or alternative) sources to foster perceived value in mitigation action.

For instance, as different locations will experience varying effects of climate change, which may increase variability in public opinion. An alternative way to motivate mitigation behaviour could be to link actions to their effects on the wider environment. The authors say this would improve ‘causal mental models’ and help the public to visualise the effects of their actions.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy Briefing, 10th September 

14.09.15 The effect of fertiliser formulation on poorly drained soils

Spreading N-based fertilisers on grassland can increase greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) such as nitrous oxide (NO2) and ammonia (NH3-N) resulting in lower amounts of N available for uptake by the plant. Researchers from Teagasc have been investigating how N fertiliser formulations can affect GHG emissions and grass yield. Across three sites of differing soil types, researchers examined GHG emissions and grass yield response to calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN), urea and urea treated with urease or nitrification inhibitors.

In wet conditions, switching from CAN to urea resulted in a dramatic reduction in NO2 emissions but this increased NH3-N loss, with 25% of nitrogen applied being lost as NH3-N. This rise in NH3-N, however, was mitigated by the use of a urease inhibitor. Across the three sites and multiple years there was limited effects of fertiliser formulation on grass yield, however, on poorly-draining soil in wet conditions, the use of urea with an inhibitor resulted in a greater proportion of N being recovered by the sward.

The effect of fertiliser formulation on fertiliser recovery

Source: AHDB Dairy website, Harty et al. (2015) British Grassland Society 12th Research Conference Proceedings p. 53 - 54 

28.08.15 The debate over nitrous oxide emissions from cover crops

A few weeks ago (back when the sun was shining and there was hope that we would have a nice hot summer!) I was getting ready for presenting at the National Organic Combinable Crops event and sorting out information to accompany the carbon footprint that we did of the host farm. One of the issues that I was trying to get my head around to explain was the GHG emissions associated with cover crops.

Indeed on the host farm leguminous green manures (mainly red clover) contributed 17% of emissions through nitrous oxide released. In organic systems (as the host farm was) legumes are often seen as the highest risk of nitrous oxide emissions. When the legume is incorporated and the soil bugs mineralise the Nitrogen, it is then available. It is this flush of Nitrogen that needs to be properly managed to be fully utilised by the following crop to avoid losing the Nitrogen that has been biologically fixed.

During researching my talk I found that the area of nitrous oxide emissions from using cover crops was something which needed further research and conflicting results had been found. As this month is nitrous oxide month, it was something that I was keen to come back to and explore further.

The rest of this blog is based on information from a research paper that was published at the end of 2014 (and can be accessed here). This paper has performed a meta-analysis on existing research to try and draw some conclusions as to the dynamics of nitrous oxide emissions from cover crops and how we can maximise the positive benefits that arise from using these crops and minimise the potential losses.

The well-known benefits of cover crops

There are many environmental benefits to incorporating cover crops into rotations including their potential to reduce soil erosion, reduce nitrate leaching losses, build soil organic matter levels (which leads to an increase in soil carbon stocks), reduce pest and weed pressures and provide a biologically fixed source of Nitrogen to the following crop.

How do they impact on Nitrous oxide emissions?

The net impact of cover crops on nitrous oxide emissions is not well understood. Nitrous oxide is emitted as a natural part of soil ecosystem function; however the extent to which it is emitted depends on various factors. These include the available mineral Nitrogen content, the soil water content, the availability of carbon and the physical structure of the soil. Cover crops can affect these factors and as such impact on the amount of nitrous oxide that is emitted.

For example when a cover crop is growing, it can suck up soil mineral Nitrogen (thus minimising the risk of ‘excess’ nitrogen in the soil to turn into N2O), as well as decreasing soil water through transpiration. Once the cover crop is cut, the mulching effect of residues on the soil surface can increase soil water (and thus the potential for the anaerobic conditions needed for denitrification and N2O emissions), depending on weather conditions. Also these residues decomposing on the soil surface can temporarily immobilise soil Nitrogen, and then increase carbon (from the residues) and Nitrogen which will affect emissions as well (it’s all very complicated!).

This research looked at three different suggestions as to the dynamics of cover crops and nitrous oxide emissions. These were:

That the type of cover crop would affect the nitrous oxide emissions (whether it was a nitrogen fixing legume or not). Legumes logically should have a greater potential to increase nitrous oxide emissions due to the fact that they are biologically fixing Nitrogen from the atmosphere.

Rainfall and the residues themselves would have an impact – because the denitrification process (which emits N2O) requires anaerobic conditions, if the soil is waterlogged then oxygen will be lacking, and a carbon source (provided by the residues).

Timing of measurements of N2O would be influential on what the different research papers had concluded. As mentioned earlier, minimising N2O emissions from cover crops has a lot to do with achieving synchrony of Nitrogen and managing the ‘flush’ of nitrogen that comes when the cover crop is incorporated – if measurements are taken during this flush then the emissions will be higher than if they are taken earlier in the growing season.

What did the research find?

After analysing lots of results, there were some conclusions that we can use to help us in understanding the dynamics of nitrous oxide emissions.

Denitrification – this process (which produces N2O) requires a Carbon and a Nitrogen source

Types of cover crop – was found to have an impact on nitrous oxide emissions. Because cover crops take up Nitrogen that might otherwise be lost to leaching, or because legumes fix nitrogen, cover crops may increase soil Nitrogen availability during decomposition and may increase the amount of nitrate available for the denitrification process (and thus nitrous oxide emissions from the field).More research is needed in this area.

When you measure it – as suggested earlier, depending on when you measure emissions the amount will change. Interestingly when looking at longer term experiments this study suggested that there is a net neutral effect of a cover crop on Nitrous oxide emissions, even if particular periods of the year see larger impacts. Again more research needed.The analysis revealed that the highest emissions occurred during the cover crop decomposition period, as the additional carbon added from the residues, with the available mineral Nitrogen led to high emissions of N2O. Emissions from the cover crop growth period were found to be the lowest of all the measurement periods. This suggests that the nitrogen uptake by cover crops holding that nitrogen over the risk period creates a larger sink than a source of nitrous oxide emissions or nitrate leaching.

To incorporate or not? The N2O emissions from studies that ploughed in cover crops rather than leaving them on the surface were significantly higher.Incorporation of cover crop residues contributes to an increase in Nitrous oxide emissions.

The effect of rainfall – Cover crops may alter the soil water status and thus the potential for anaerobic conditions (and denitrification) which normally follow intense rainfall events. Studies looked at had different responses to rainfall, however this report concluded that regardless of the cover crop type, above a certain threshold of rainfall a field with a cover crop is more susceptible to nitrous oxide emissions than one without.

Soil Organic carbon – The study found inconclusive evidence that cover crop biomass was an important factor controlling N2O emissions.

The effect of cover crops on global warming potential – Nitrate lost through leaching from fields is subject to denitrification and Nitrous oxide emissions off-site. Therefore given the ability of cover crops to reduce nitrate leaching losses, cover crops may contribute to an overall decrease in net global warming potential.

What did they conclude?

This is one of the most comprehensive analyses of research to date, but in some ways it throws up more questions than it answers. This highlights the fact that this subject needs more research done into the impact of different cover crops within rotations and the effect on emissions from management of these crops. It also shows that there isn't ‘one size fits all’ answer to these questions, due to the diversity of agricultural systems, crop rotations, soil types, weather (and all the other factors) each system is unique.

This study did conclude that from the literature analysed cover crops increased N2O emissions from the soil surface in 60% of published observations while cover crops decreased nitrous oxide emissions from the soil surface in 40% of studies.

Legume cover crops had higher relative N2O emissions at low N rates and lower emissions at high N rates whereas nitrous oxide emissions from non-legume cover crops increased as N rate increased.

Cover crops on average only lead to a small or negligible increase in N2O emissions when measured for time periods of one year or greater.

More research is needed!

Source: Basche et al (2014), Do cover crops increase or decrease nitrous oxide emissions? A meta - analysis, Journal of Soil and Water Conservation

07.08.15 Sustainable crop and animal production to help mitigate nitrous oxide emissions

The information in the blog below comes from a paper published last year which examines the different management options that are available to farmers to improve nitrogen use efficiency within farm production systems. To read the full paper please click here.

A common fact that we are presented with, which frames this debate is the need to feed more people with more food using less resources. Nitrogen plays a big part in this, as nitrogen is a key component of crop growth and increased yield, which will be needed to feed more people. In the past, increased food production has been made possible by the production and use of commercial Nitrogen fertiliser (with associated increases in emissions).

In order to address the current need for sustainable intensification, nitrogen use efficiency is a key component. How we increase crop productivity at the same time as protecting natural resources and the environment must be intrinsically linked with managing nutrients more efficiently and minimising losses.

Mitigation challenges

Improving Nitrogen use by crops

When crops are grown under laboratory conditions, the amount of nitrogen which is taken up by the plant ranges from 45-65%, while on-farm the plant nitrogen uptake (as a percentage of applied nitrogen) is often below 40%. This demonstrates that there are opportunities to alter management practices to more efficiently use Nitrogen inputs to reduce N losses that affect direct and indirect nitrous oxide emissions.

The issue is not as simple as just reducing the amount of N fertiliser that is applied, as this would jeopardise sustainable food production.

The grand challenge is how to improve Nitrogen use efficiency that leads to reduced nitrous oxide emissions while also achieving greater N effectiveness in crop and livestock production (i.e. more food output per unit of N input).

Other challenges exist with improving efficiency in that there is no single management change that can bring about both increased crop productivity and reduced nitrous oxide emissions equally well across different soil and climatic conditions.

Another compounding issue is that direct nitrous oxide losses are equivalent on average to about 1% of the nitrogen applied (so not a massive economic loss). To gain greater interest and be more likely to achieve significant reduction in both direct and indirect nitrous oxide emissions, it will be necessary to focus more broadly on practices which lead simultaneously to greater nitrogen use efficiency and effectiveness.

Nitrogen losses that occur through volatilisation of ammonia (from spreading slurry and manure on warm days, or application of urea), and nitrate run off (when Nitrogen is applied and the crop is not actively taking it up), leaching and drainage pathways may receive more attention as these losses represent a greater economic loss to the farmer than direct nitrous oxide emissions.

Nutrient management

Research shows that ‘mismatched timing of Nitrogen availability with crop need is probably the single greatest contributor to excess N loss in annual cropping systems.’ There is a global initiative that details the ‘4R Nutrient Stewardship initiative, which is based on the principle of using the right nutrient source, at the right rate, right time and in the right place to achieve the basic economic, social and environmental elements of sustainability.

It is also important to remember that adapting management to mitigate losses of nitrous oxide must be balanced with other considerations.One of my commonly used adages is that we work within complex biological systems, and as such it is important to not simply ‘swap pollutants’ between leaching and gaseous losses.

Use of precision farming technology

An increasing number of farmers and crop advisors around the world have access to GPS resources and GIS. This along with advances in technologies may make it increasingly possible to better match N rates and times of application with are sensitive to in season crop N demands.

The use of Nitrogen sensing technology aims to better match crop nitrogen needs with in-season sensitivity that leads to improved Nitrogen use efficiency, and greater farm profitability.

American studies have shown that using Nitrogen sensors across 16 trial sites could potentially save farmers 10-50kg of nitrogen per hectare on maize.

The uptake of these technologies by farmers is now well underway, indeed this paper states that the Yara N-Sensor was being used on more than 1.2 million hectares of the total 104 million cropland hectares in the EU-27.

Not synchronising nitrogen applications with crop needs has been cited as potentially the single greatest contributor to excess nitrogen loss in annual cropping systems. However achieving synchrony in nitrogen supply may not always reduce cumulative nitrous oxide emissions, instead, management practices that influence the rate of nitrification and soil nitrite accumulation, may be most likely to reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

Cover crops

Winter cover crops help provide soil cover and thus minimise erosion, help to build organic matter levels (and soil carbon), and help in the capture and retention of excess inorganic nitrogen. However there are some studies which suggest that in some soils cover crops stimulate and increase nitrous oxide emissions because of the release of carbon and nitrogen from crop residues (I will be writing another blog on this subject in a couple of weeks). Site variables including soil type, irrigation, variety and mix of cover crop, soil structural stability and organic matter Nitrogen mineralisation will all impact on the level of nitrous oxide that is emitted.

Management of livestock

One of the most promising ways for many livestock growers to enhance nitrogen use efficiency is to more optimally manage the protein content of the diet. In ruminants, the bulk of excreted Nitrogen is in the urine, while in pigs it is present in urine and faeces. Nutritionists can aim to make adjustments in crude protein levels in the diet to match animal nutritional requirements and significantly reduce ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions. Taking full account of manure nitrogen content, and maintaining optimum stocking rates, as well as the inclusion of clover within pastures can potentially raise the whole farm N use efficiency from 30% to nearer 65% which reduces Nitrogen losses and improves farm profits.

Management of manure

Incorporating manures greatly reduces ammonia emissions, with leaves a more ‘potent’ product, which is then more susceptible to losses of nitrous oxide. However when the manure is incorporated, and ammonia losses reduced, effectively a smaller amount of that manure is needed to provide the crop’s nutrient requirements and therefore the potential for nitrous oxide production is reduced.

This trade-off is often seen, and reducing losses of ammonia is important (since these losses indirectly emit nitrous oxide).

Improving nutrient use efficiency in livestock production systems will require site specific and targeted combinations of genetic improvements, feed planning and rationing for utilisation, and improved storage, handling and application of manure.

An emphasis on increased crop or animal outputs per unit of Nitrogen input (more efficient use of inputs) will help nitrous oxide emissions and also safeguard natural resources and improve profits. As with all agricultural issues though, we can’t look at nitrogen in isolation, research, policies and advice need to consider how to improve other essential nutrients, water and production as they all impact on nitrogen use efficiency.

Source: Agriculture: sustainable crop and animal production to help mitigate nitrous oxide emisisons

06.08.15 Field Effectiveness of nitrification inhibitors

Enhanced efficiency fertilisers (including nitrification inhibitors and urease inhibitors and slow release fertilisers have been developed to increase the efficiency of fertiliser use by crops. Currently Nitrogen use efficiency is fairly low from what is applied to what the crop takes up, as such research has been targeted to try and increase the efficiency percentage and minimise the risk of losses of nitrogen (either through nitrate leaching or nitrous oxide emissions).

Different compounds

Nitrification inhibitors are compounds which delay the bacterial oxidation of NH4+ (ammonium) by depressing the activities of nitrifiers in the soil.

Urease inhibitors are compounds that delay the hydrolysis of urea.

Slow release fertilisers show the rate of nutrient release through coating or chemical modification of the fertiliser itself.

What do they do?

Science has studied these compounds intensively and findings indicate that they can be effective in increasing nitrogen use efficiency and have other benefits such as reducing labour and fuel costs and reducing the incidence of nitrate leaching. The information below comes from a review paper which looks at different experiments on these compounds and tries to draw some conclusions as to their effectiveness in the field.

The IPCC 3rd Assessment report confirmed that management of Nitrogen Fertiliser by the use of Nitrification inhibitors, slow release fertiliser and organic manure could tentatively cut nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen fertiliser use by 30% on a global scale.  The next (4th ) Assessment report looking at nutrient management including the technologies described above in more detail and concluded that the mean mitigation potential of nitrous oxide through nutrient management was 0.07tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare per year.

What has the research looked at

Nitrification inhibitors have been the most widely studied as a mitigation option for nitrous oxide emission from agricultural soils. There have been some studies that have looked at the use of polymer coated, and sulphur coated fertilisers and a few using urease inhibitors.

Despite all these published field experiments, it is difficult to draw general conclusions because the performance varies depending on soil and climatic conditions and field management strategies. The authors of the paper looked at different studies and categorised results using different land use and type of fertiliser applied. This study also only included data from field experiments (rather than ones in a lab that were grown in pots).

What did they find out?

On average nitrification inhibitors significantly reduced nitrous oxide emissions compared with conventional fertilisers. The effect of nitrification inhibitors on nitrous oxide emissions also varied with land use type, with grassland having the best average reduction in N2O emissions of 60%. The coated fertiliser also significantly reduced N2O emissions compared with conventional fertilisers. When the study looked at urease inhibitors, the effect on emissions was not significantly different from the control treatments.

How do nitrification inhibitors work?

Both nitrification and denitrification are important pathways for nitrous oxide production in soil. They work by inhibiting ammonium monooxygenase, thereby blocking the first reaction or ammonium to nitrite. By minimising the rate of nitrification until the primary crop is in its log phase of growth. Nitrification inhibitors can give the crop a better opportunity to absorb nitrate and increase nitrogen use efficiency. By suppressing nitrification, inhibitors potentially reduce subsequent denitrification and nitrate leaching, thus reducing N2O emissions. The effectiveness of nitrification inhibitors was found to be more consistent compared with coated fertilisers.

What affected the field experiments?

Environmental factors such as temperature, alter the effectiveness of nitrification inhibitors in the field. They also differ in terms of how water soluble they are and their volatility. One product used in America found that using it:

·         Increased crop yield by 7%

·         Improved soil nitrogen retention by 28%

·         Reduced nitrate leaching by 16%

·         Reduced nitrous oxide and methane emissions by 51% (compared with conventional N fertiliser) 

Practical considerations with Nitrification Inhibitors

In general higher nitrous oxide emissions were observed from grassland than the other land uses in the studies. Nitrification inhibitors were more effective in reducing nitrous oxide emissions from grassland compared with their effect on other crop types.

Another advantage of nitrification inhibitors is that they can be used with both chemical and organic fertilisers, whereas coatings can only be used with bagged Nitrogen. Nitrification Inhibitors are effective in reducing nitrous oxide emissions from chemical and organic fertilisers and the consistent effect indicates that they are a potent mitigation option for future emissions.

Coated fertilisers (PCF)

These work by releasing nutrients by diffusion through a semi-permeable polymer membrane and the release rate can be controlled by varying the composition and thickness of the coating. PCFs can be effective in increasing nitrogen use efficiency and can substitute for split applications thus reducing the requirement for multiple field operations and in turn reducing labour and fuel costs.

When nitrogen release from PCFs is well synchronised with plant demand, PCFs have the potential to reduce nitrogen losses to the environment, such as nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.  In contrast, nitrogen use efficiency can be reduced significantly and environmental losses increased when nitrogen released from PCF doesn’t match plant demand. The effect of PCFs on nitrous oxide mitigation showed varying results depending on land use, crop and soil type.

Urease inhibitors

These slow the conversion of urea to ammonium and hence reduce the concentration of ammonium present in the soil solution (and the potential for that ammonium to be volatilised as ammonia). Together with uptake by plants, a lower concentration of ammonium in the soil can result in less nitrogen potentially undergoing subsequent nitrification and denitrification. One of the drawbacks of urease inhibitors is that they only delay the hydrolysis of the urea and the urea will eventually be hydrolysed and become ammonia. These compounds have not been as widely tested as the other two groups of inhibitors, and as such more studies are needed.

Take up by the industry

Although these products have been well researched, there is limited uptake of them in the field. At the moment, the uptake of the nitrification inhibitor technology is relatively slow, but that will change in the next 10 or 20 years as policies are developed that try to manage the nitrogen losses that are occurring and improve nitrogen use in the field. As farmers taking account of application timing, source of nitrogen being applied, application method, soil texture, and tillage are all factors that should be evaluated to determine how efficiently Nitrogen is being used in the system.

Source: Akiyama, H et al, (2009) Evaluation of effectiveness of enhanced efficient fertilisers as mitigation options for N2O and NO emissions from agricultural soils; meta - analysis

31.07.15 4 for 1000: A new program for carbon sequestration in agriculture

Source: French Food in the US

Agriculture can and must be part of the solution to climate change. The French Minister of Agriculture, Stéphane Le Foll, and Ambassador for Paris Climate 2015, Laurence Tubiana, emphasized this imperative at a conference that took place in Paris on April 27, 2015, during which they introduced the carbon sequestration program for agriculture, named “4 per 1000.”

What is the programme about?

This program aims to adapt agricultural practices with the goal of storing carbon more efficiently in the soil. According to Jean-François Soussana, Scientific Director for Environment of the French National Institute for Agronomical Research (INRA), an annual increase of “4 per thousand” (0.4%) each year of organic matter in soil would be enough to compensate for the global emissions of greenhouse gases. Indeed, soil is a veritable reservoir for carbon; it contains 2.6 times more carbon than the atmosphere thanks to plants that siphon carbon from the air and deposit it into the soil once dead. But through most agricultural practices, the soil lets its stock of carbon escape into the air. On average, cultivated soils around the world have lost 50 to 70% of their initial carbon stock, according to Jean-François Soussana. But certain agricultural practices can reverse this trend, fostering carbon-rich soils that will in turn be better suited for production. According to Stephan Le Foll, this program will “reconcile food security and climate change.”

Stephan Le Foll and Laurence Tubiana presented a work schedule for the researchers participating in this international program, which details the actions to be taken leading up to the climate conference in December 2015 in Paris.

Practical ways to build carbon

The following agricultural practices are recommended by the French National Institute for Agronomical Research (INRA) for fighting global warming:

Reducing the prevalence of chemical fertilizers by best management practices as well as by more accurately predicting crop yields and planning nutrient applications. This would reduce the emissions of nitrogen oxide in particular.

Using legumes during crop rotations. Legumes are able to harness nitrogen from the air and use it in the soil for plant growth. They act like a natural fertilizer for the subsequent crop in the rotation, which will then require fewer chemical fertilizers.

Developing no-till cultural practices. If not tilled, the soil retains its structure and stores carbon more efficiently. Furthermore, this practice saves fuel.

Planting more cover crops. It is preferable to plant crops instead of leaving the soil bare. This can help limit the emissions of nitrogen oxide.

Developing Agro-forestry: planting trees is a good way to utilize carbon from the air, and offers many beneficial effects to the crops.

Improving the management of grasslands by prolonging the pasture season, reducing fertilization, among other strategies.

Reducing the emissions of methane and nitrogen by changing the diet of cattle.

Retaining the methane by utilising anaerobic digestion.

Reducing the use of fossil fuels on the farm by improving insulation and ventilation in livestock buildings and greenhouses, for instance.

For more information on soil carbon why not check out the dedicated section on the FCCT pages? 

29.07.15 Inventories and scenarios of nitrous oxide emissions

As the third most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas, as well as the largest remaining anthropogenic stratospheric ozone depleting substance currently emitted, nitrous oxide (N2O) is one of the most important forms of nitrogen pollution.

How we mitigate and manage N2O emissions requires an understanding of where the sources of N2O are and how they may increase this century. One of the issues with N2O is that it is a by-product of several fundamental (and critical) reactions of the N cycle. As agricultural land has expanded and land management has advanced (including the use of legumes as N fixers), the N cycle has been altered. Another big impact has been the development of the Haber Bosch process, which plays a central role in feeding the world’s rapidly increasing population.

This growth in man-made fixed N has led to an unintended increase in global N pollution, including N2O emissions driven largely by the fact that mismatch between crop N demand and soil N supply frequently leads to N losses. It is impossible to completely eliminate global N pollution particularly from agriculture, its largest source.

This blog comes from a paper which tries to quantify the amount of N2O emitted from various sources, looks at how those emissions are calculated, what the common ways of measuring N2O are, and tries to project what will happen to the levels of N2O emissions under different management scenarios in the future. To read the full paper please click here.

Natural emissions sources

There are a range of measuring options used to assess the levels of emissions from different areas. ‘Bottom up estimation uses field based measurements and ‘top down’ estimations are based on measurements from the atmosphere and models.

There are lots of caveats and supposition to the figures as well as uncertainties, however both accounting approaches (whether you are basing measurements from the field or the atmosphere) suggest that natural emissions were and probably still are between 10-12 Tg of N2O per year.

Anthropogenic emissions (since 1850)

Difficulties in accounting strategies

Again top down and bottom up approaches can be applied to N2O emissions derived from human activities. Protocol has been developed by the IPCC for counties to estimate their N2O emissions by emissions factors (bottom up approach which calculates the amount of N2O emitted per unit of activity). Within agriculture, emissions factors are used to calculate the direct emissions from soils, amounts of fertiliser N that is leached into watercourses and volatilised as ammonia or N2O, as well as the indirect N2O emissions from downstream (which can be substantial). For example emissions from coastal, estuarine or riverine waters are estimated to be ~9% of total anthropogenic sources, although the original source of most of this N is from agricultural applications in the field.

This method (Tier 1, IPCC) has a lot of inaccuracies though and is difficult to apply across diverse systems. As with biological processes, relationships between variables are not always simple and studies have discovered that it is more likely to be non-linear than linear relationships. The non-linear relationship is likely the result of large increases in N2O emissions once N application rates are in excess of plant demands.

Advances are underway in terms of developing a more robust accounting method. Countries that have sufficient data are permitted (under IPCC Tier 2) to calculate more specific emissions and developments of validated biogeochemical models look towards Tier 3. There are new bits of kit (including laser technology) which can measure fluxes of N2O and these will all help with emission factors but it will always be a challenge due to the large spatial and temporal variation.

Providing an average for the UK doesn’t take into account the diversity of farming systems that exist, let alone the unique relationships between soil type, climate management and enterprise which makes every farm an individual entity (and probably incomparable).

Improvements in the quality of activity data for each county, including fertiliser application rates, livestock production and manure handling procedures will aid in the accuracy of estimates.

Emissions from agriculture (some headline figures)

Picture source: California Department of Food and Agriculture, Crop N uptake and partitioning 

Agriculture is the largest source of anthropogenic N2O emissions, responsible for 66% of total.

Emissions estimates include direct soil emissions from N fert and manure applications and indirect emissions from downstream or downwind waterbodies and soils after nitrate leaches away from fields and after N emitted from fields as ammonia or Nitrogen gas is deposited back.

Also included are N2O emissions resulting from crop residues, manure management, cultivation of organic soils and crop biological N fixation.

The central factor responsible for agricultural N2O emissions is a lack of synchronisation between crop N demand and soil N supply with an average 50% of N applied to soils not being taken up by the crop.  This is something that needs addressing.

Other sector contributions

Industry and fossil fuel combustion (responsible for about 15% of total anthropogenic N2O emissions.

Biomass burning (~11% of total gross N2O emissions)

Waste water, aquaculture and other sources

Projections for future emissions

So as you can imagine, as we can’t reliably assess what’s going on now, it becomes incredibly difficult to predict future scenarios. Especially when there are lots of things that could change including population growth, rates of food waste, nutrient use efficiency, land use change, climate change and other variables.

Four sets of published N2O emission scenarios have been looked at to characterise the range of future anthropogenic emissions.

Scenarios looked at from research

Business as usual – if we don’t mitigate any emissions and continue ‘business as usual’ then emissions are set to increase by ~83% based on 2005 levels.

Moderate mitigation scenarios – if moderate mitigation methods were achieved an increase of 26% compared to 2005 would be possible.

Concerted mitigation – would lead to emissions reductions on average per year of 1.8Tg N2O to 2020, with a reduction of 57% by 2050.

It is important to remember however that these projections are based on 2005 figures and since then significant differences have been seen. So far (up to 2013 when the study used the data from) actual global N2O emissions have been closer to Business as usual trajectories rather than the mitigation scenario which research was expecting.

What does this all mean for agriculture?

Agriculture currently accounts for 56-81% of gross anthropogenic N2O emissions. Some N2O emissions associated with food production are inevitable, but future N2O emissions from agriculture will be determined by several factors including population, dietary habits, and agricultural management to improve N use efficiency.

Another rising issue is the growing demand for biofuels on future N2O emissions which is uncertain depending on types of plants grown, their nutrient management and the land resource needed. More research will help to full these current knowledge gaps. Accounting methodologies are not fully developed and further research is needed, however what we can do as farmers is try and look at N balances and flows in crop rotations and try and ensure synchrony between N supply and crop demand as much as possible.

Source: Davidson, E. and Kanter, D. Inventories and scenarios of nitrous oxide emissions,  Environ. Res. Lett. 9 (2014) 105012

27.07.15 Global best practice guidelines for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock

The Livestock Research Group (LRG) of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GRA) and Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform have joined forces to compile information about greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation options currently available, and a roadmap of emerging options based on current research, to help make progress on meeting global food demand while reducing the food industry’s contribution to global climate change.

The document summarises current best practices ready for implementation at the farm level, as well as emerging options at various stages of research to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of livestock production across a range of farm systems.

The document covers intervention options for animal feed and nutrition, genetics and breeding, rumen modification, animal health, manure, and grassland management. It provides a readily accessible guide to current best practices that can help reduce emissions intensity of livestock production, but also outlines current areas of active research that offer opportunities for industry to engage with the science sector to help expand the range of options and their effectiveness in different farm systems.

The document was commissioned by the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) on behalf of the LRG co-chairs and the SAI Platform.

Download the guidance here.

Source: Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse gasses

24.07.15 Compost and climate change: a novel mitigation strategy?

Native soils are thought to take up more of the greenhouse gas methane than land used for farming. This study shows that, while agriculture can exert an adverse impact on soil methane uptake, the application of soil conditioners like compost may compensate for loss of the methane sink function. The researchers propose new land management strategies based on this finding.

Agriculture has become the most dominant land use in Europe. Traditional landscapes have been transformed into modern, intensive agricultural land, notably owing to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. This entails the increased use of soil conditioners, biobased residues added to soil to improve its quality and fertility.

While the addition of these residues may make the land better for growing, it can also decrease the methane consumed by agroecosystems. This is of concern from a climate change perspective as methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential more than 30 times that of carbon dioxide. However, agricultural land does have the potential to take up methane, as well as emit it. Methanotrophic bacteria, which use methane as a source of carbon and energy, are found in wetland agricultural soils like rice paddies as well as dry (aerated) soils. While methanotrophs within rice paddies have been studied extensively, those in well-aerated soils have received little attention, as they are assumed to have a low capacity for methane.

This study is the first to properly test this assumption. The researchers measured methane uptake in two aerated soil types — sandy loam and clay — taken from two typical agricultural fields in the Netherlands. The researchers applied organic conditioners to the soil, then measured the effect on methane uptake. The conditioners tested were sewage sludge, aquatic plant material, compost, wood material and compressed beet leaves, added at amounts typical of intensive agricultural practice.

After being added to soil samples, the mixtures were incubated in a chamber for approximately two months. The researchers measured methane and carbon dioxide flows, as well as the rate at which methane was oxidised.

Their analysis revealed a surprising finding: the addition of the soil conditioners contributed to increased methane uptake. The researchers suggest the conditioners had this effect by increasing the nutrients available in the soil by introducing new methanotrophs, both of which can stimulate methane oxidation (although the latter by a lesser extent).

The researchers determined methane uptake rates at a range of methane concentrations using the untreated agricultural soils. The agricultural soils showed the ability to oxidise methane over a wide range of concentrations, from atmospheric levels to very high concentrations, but after treatment, methane consumption increased up to threefold higher than in the untreated soil.

Consistent in both soils, amendment with compost had the greatest effect, and was able to offset approximately 16% of net emitted carbon dioxide. Applying compost to agricultural soils could thus reduce the impact of carbon dioxide and methane emission — both of which are greenhouse gases.

The transformation of land for intensive agriculture is known to reduce methane uptake relative to natural landscapes. This study makes recommendations for management strategies to compensate for this. The authors suggest simple changes, such as the repeated application of compost, could reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. It is important to note that this research was conducted in the laboratory. The researchers therefore recommend field-based studies, as well as investigations of the impact of the intervention on nitrous oxide emission, another major greenhouse gas.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, 23rd July 2015

16.07.15 Theme of the month: Nitrous Oxide

So we are having a bit of a change this month and focussing for the next few weeks on nitrous oxide and the issues that arise from agriculture and land use that concern emissions.

The deal with Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous Oxide is over 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, so reducing the emissions of this gas is particularly important.

About 66% of man made nitrous oxide emissions come from agriculture. Within agriculture, nitrous oxide is emitted from the nitrogen in fertiliser, manure and slurries, and crop residues. The next most important sources are burning fossil fuels for energy and transport, making up 15% of emissions and forest fires and biomass cooking at 11%.

Warming impact

Although there is a far lower concentration of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it’s a important greenhouse gas for two reasons, its very efficient at absorbing energy and it stays in the atmosphere for a long time.

Agricultural sources of nitrous oxide

Nitrous Oxide (N2O) is produced naturally in soils through the microbial processes of denitrification. These natural emissions of N2O can be increased by a variety of agricultural practices and activities, including the use of synthetic and organic fertilisers, production of nitrogen-fixing crops, cultivation of high organic content soils, and the application of livestock manures and slurries to growing crops. All of these practices directly add additional nitrogen to soils, which can then be converted to N2O. Indirect additions of nitrogen to soils can also result in N2O emissions. Surface run-off and leaching of applied nitrogen into ground water and surface waters can also result in indirect additions of nitrogen to the soil. Nitrous oxide is also produced through the denitrification of the organic nitrogen in livestock manure and urine. The production of N2O from livestock manure is likely to depend on the composition of the manure and urine, the type of bacteria involved in the process, and the amount of oxygen and liquid in the manure system.

What can we do about it?

We can’t get away from the fact that nitrous oxide naturally occurs as part of the nitrogen cycle. However we can influence the amount of indirect emission by adapting the way that we manage our soils, manures, fertilisers and rotations. These are the things that we will be focussing on this month (and hopefully provide you with lots of useful insights for you to consider                                                                                        whilst sitting on your tractor for harvest!).

Sources: FCCT Toolkit, IPCC report, Davidson and Kanter, (2014) Inventories and scenarios of nitrous oxide; Environmental Research Letters

16.07.15 IYS2015 The Soil Atlas

The Soil Atlas 2015 presents facts and figures about earth, land and fields; its broad ranging significance and its current state in Germany, Europe and the world.

Price explosions and land speculation, increasing soil loss as a result of erosion and sealing, the effects of globalised agro-industry on production and food availability across the globe, the problems associated with the land distribution all impact on the management and risks for soils that we need to grow productive crops and feed the growing population.  These are all looked at in this new soil atlas.

The Soil Atlas provides insights into the current state of the soils on which we depend and highlights the threats posed to them in numerous illustrations and texts.

The Soil Atlas 2015 aims to inform and improve the ability of consumers to make informed decisions and sketches out pathways to a responsible agriculture and soil policy.

Download the atlas here. For more information on other soil resources for the International Year of Soils click here.

For more information on practical ways to build and maintain soils please visit the soils pages of the FCCT Toolkit.

10.07.15 Sustainable Intensification Platform, first newsletter out now

The Sustainable Intensification Research Platform (SIP) is a multi –partner research platform funded by Defra to explore the opportunities and risks for sustainable intensification, from a range of perspectives and at a range of scales across England and Wales.

There are three linked interdisciplinary research                                                                                          projects:

SIP 1: Integrated Farm Management for improved economic, environmental and social performance

SIP 2: Opportunities and risks for farming and the environment at a landscape scale

SIP 3: A scoping study on the influence of external drivers and actors on the sustainability and productivity of England and Welsh farming

The projects are being delivered by a consortium of academic research institutions as well as farming and environmental organisations.

What’s happening now

The first newsletter from the SIP network is now available to read. This edition of SIP Scene essentially forms an introduction to SIP and outlines the planned research as well as containing some wider thought pieces and views from in and around the Platform.

Download the current version here.

To make sure that you don’t miss out on subsequent versions, why not sign up to receive it straight to your inbox, by emailing Jennifer Preston at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

10.07.15 The living kingdom beneath our feet - video

Did you know that soils support more life beneath their surface than exists above? Soil is a living, dynamic resource at the surface of the earth. It is a complex habitat of mineral and organic particles; living organisms including plant roots, microbes, and larger animals; and pores filled with air or water. In a thimble full of soil—about a gram in weight—you can expect to find 100 million to 1 billion bacteria! This video explores the living kingdoms beneath our feet and helps illustrate the fact that soils support more life beneath their surface than what exists above the surface What is a living soil? It’s where the plant and the soil are one. This is symbiosis at its best.

09.07.15 Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change: 2015 Progress report to Parliament

This report compiled by the Committee on Climate Change was released at the end of June. This is the Committee’s first report to the new Parliament on the progress we are making towards meeting the UK’s emissions reductions targets.

Reducing emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change provide the opportunity to drive innovation, support growth, contribute to improved health, develop effective and resilient infrastructure and minimise the disruptions caused by flooding, water scarcity and other climate change risks.

The full report is available to view here, along with broken down technical reports into each of the main areas that have been studied. These areas are electricity, buildings transport, infrastructure and land and water management. Unsurprisingly I will be concentrating for the rest of this report on the information regarding agriculture, but if you are interested there is much more information on the others here.

What’s in the report?

The report deals with three things:

As assessment of progress to date to reduce GHG emissions and prepare for the impact of climate change including recommended actions

A more detailed report on the progress to date towards meeting C budgets and the UK’s statutory targets to reduce emissions in 2050 by at least 80% from 1990 levels.

Details on progress being made to prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

What are the main recommendations for agriculture?

The overarching recommendation is to preserve and enhance the country’s natural capital in order to sustain agricultural productivity in a changing climate, maximise Carbon sequestration and safeguard the natural environment.

Within the report there are firm measures to preserve fertility and organic content or agricultural soils to achieve the goal of all soils to be sustainably managed by 2030. As well as this, it is recommended to accelerate efforts to restore natural assets and counter long term declines in ecological conditions of the farm countryside, and review effectiveness of agri-environment schemes in controlling protected peat land sites that are of international importance in terms of their natural capital.

Climate change and the UK

The report concludes that the global climate is changing. Sea levels have risen about 20cm and the average surface temperature has risen by 0.8%. Greenhouse gas emissions affect lives in the UK. Action is needed in this Parliament to ensure the pace of emissions reductions accelerates whilst still supporting economic growth.

What action do we need?

Targeted and coordinated actions to adapt to climate change and reduce emissions are needed. Decisions in the new parliament will largely determine how much progress is made to 2030 and beyond. The Committee for Climate Change have recommended five main actions for parliament during this time.

Electricity – ensure the power sector can invest with a 10 year lead time

Buildings – Develop plans and policies that deliver low carbon heat and energy efficiency, whilst also addressing the increasing risk of heat stress and flooding

Transport – maintain support for the up-front costs of electric vehicles

Infrastructure – make decisions that help reduce emissions and improve the resilience of infrastructure networks and services during periods of extreme weather

Agriculture, land and water management- preserve and enhance the country’s natural capital

Latest progress

Emissions reductions progress – provisional emissions for 2014 indicate that UK domestic GHG emissions were 520 MtCo2e. This is an 8% decrease compared with 2013. Emissions are now 36% below 1990 levels. This large reduction across the economy was driven by falls in emissions from buildings, industry and power generation, many of which reflect one-off changes and uncertain factors rather than replicable trends. Also it is important to point out at this stage that emissions estimates for agriculture, waste and other non CO2 sources are not yet available.

Three priority areas (these aren’t agriculture specific)

Low carbon investment – many low carbon policies and funding streams have no certainty beyond the new few years, which prevents efficient investment in low carbon technologies and their supply chains which often have long lead times and payback periods.

Developing future options and innovations – many of the technologies that could contribute to meeting the 2050 target are still developing in terms of cost and performance. Governments need to maintain a clear future market for low carbon products.

Low carbon choices – how lifestyles continue to change and people make decisions will continue to determine whether we continue to reduce emissions.

What are the adaptation priorities for agriculture?

Improving the fertility of agricultural soils

Improving / maintaining the ecological condition of the farmed countryside

Water demand by agriculture

Flooding of agricultural land

Innovation / knowledge transfer; sharing of ideas and best practice

Maintaining / improving the ecological condition of terrestrial habitats (as well as freshwater, riparian and marine environment as well).

The deal with soils

This report makes a big deal on soils, and concludes that soil erosion and the loss of organic carbon is an important issue. It continues, “Agricultural soils are being degraded by intensive farming practices in some areas with deep ploughing, short rotations and exposed ground leading to soil erosion from wind and heavy rain. Although the soil erosion risk may be decreasing, the rate of loss is not sustainable as soil takes a long time to form. Water shortages and drier soil conditions put the profitability of farming in some areas at risk, reducing the productivity of UK farming.”

There is a governmental ambition for all soils to be used sustainably by 2030. At the moment this initiative is in its ‘evidence gathering’ phase until 2016 at which point it will be followed by a plan of action.

What happens now?

This report outlines how the committee on climate change considers the best way to be to reduce emissions and prepare for climate change cost effectively. The progress against these goals will be reviewed in 2016 and the government needs to respond to this report by October of this year (as well as work at how it is going to make up the shortfall for the 4th Carbon budget (2023 – 27).

What are the recommendations for agriculture?

Deliver the Smart Inventory

Defra is working to better understand and measure how biological systems and different farming practices impact on emissions. This will allow for a more sophisticated methodology for measuring, reporting and verifying emissions.

Strengthen the current voluntary approach to reduce agricultural emissions

Assess the effectiveness of the current Greenhouse gas action plan (GHGAP) scheme which is an industry led initiative which sets out how the agricultural industry is responding to the challenges of feeding a growing population with less impact.

Co-ordinate efforts across four nations

Ensuring that measures being implemented across the four nations are feasible, cost effective and consistent with low carbon budgets. No mean feat!

So watch this space to see what happens next. In the meantime to find out what you can do to reduce GHGs on your farm and improve efficiency and profit; why not check out the Toolkit?

09.07.15 Study: Crop Rotation Has Positive Impact On Soil Microbial Communities

A study authored by Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences assistant professor Lisa Tiemann is the first of its kind to show that crop rotations, in isolation from other management factors, can increase the functions performed by soil microbial communities that benefit plant growth. The findings were published online May 25 in Ecology Letters, a highly selective peer-reviewed journal.

Research for the project took place at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, an MSU research center in Hickory Corners, Michigan, northeast of Kalamazoo. In the paper, Tiemann and her co-authors address the relationships among crop rotational diversity, soil structure, microbial community structure and activity, and soil organic matter chemistry.

“Although the aboveground benefits of crop diversity have been well-documented, the belowground effects remain uncertain,” Tiemann said. “Understanding how crop diversity alters microbial community dynamics and the specific mechanisms controlling positive impacts of biodiversity belowground is critical for sustainable soil management."

A byproduct of increased pressure on soils from agricultural intensification is a negative impact on microbial diversity. Over-farming is problematic worldwide and can lessen soil’s ability to perform important ecosystem functions. Results may include threats to long-term food security, increases in greenhouse gas emission, flooding and a reduction in water quality.

Researchers sought to combat these challenges through crop rotation, restoring positive interactions above- and belowground by increasing biodiversity. The group concluded that a diverse set of crops can sustain soil biological communities, with positive effects on soil organic matter and soil fertility.

“The data we present are the first to support the hypothesis that increasing rotational diversity fundamentally changes microbial community structure and activity, with positive effects on aggregate formation and soil organic matter accrual,” Tiemann said. “These findings provide further support for the use of rotational diversity as a viable management practice for promoting agroecosystem sustainability.”

Tiemann, whose work is funded in part by MSU AgBioResearch, indicated that this knowledge can ultimately be used to help land managers determine how to maximize soil sustainability, particularly in low-input cropping systems.

Co-authors for the study are Stuart Grandy and Marshall McDaniel, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of New Hampshire; and Emily Atkinson and Erika Marin-Spiotta, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The study was supported by the USDA Soil Processes Program, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the U.S. National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research Program.

Source: Crop life 

02.07.15 The management of land to encourage and support the development of mycorrhizal fungi

As the earlier blog this week looked at the benefits that come from AMF developing associations within agricultural soils, this second blog is looking at how field and soil management impacts on these organisms. 

A quick recap, numerous studies have shown that arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi can provide direct benefits to host crops that lead to increased crop productivity. The benefits include increased nutrient uptake (especially phosphorus and zinc), and increased pathogen resistance. The positive benefits that are focussed on the soil include improved soil structure, increased water infiltration and retention and a reduced risk of soil erosion.

How do we manage them?

Mycorrhizal fungi can be found in abundance in most farm soils, but certain practices can reduce their ability to form associations with host crops. Abundance of AMF has been found to be negatively associated with intensive agricultural production. Tillage, high levels of nutrients (particularly phosphorus) and frequent fallow periods are all predicted to decrease the abundance of viable AMF propagules such as spores and mycelium.

There is strong evidence that AMF colonisation and spore numbers can be stimulated by altering management practices, for example mediating fertilisation regime, reducing fallow and / or growth of non-mycorrhizal crops and introduction of organic management schemes, including the planting of temporary grass – clover pastures.

Crop choice and association potential

Some crops have the potential to form very good association with AMF, including oats, barley and legumes. The brassicas however don’t form associations with AMF. Crops incapable of forming mycorrhizal associations inhibit mycorrhizal fungi. Following such crops, growers should avoid planting species that are highly dependent on mycorrhizal fungi.

AMF Carrying Capacity

In order to influence how many AMF are there and the carrying capacity of the field, crop choice and fertilisation may be particularly important. There is a strong correlation between soil phosphorus (P) levels, and root colonisation decreases strongly with increasing P.


Tillage greatly influences spatial aggregation and thereby competitive interactions. Spores produced by mycorrhizal fungi are generally resistant to physical soil disturbances. However, tillage can damage their hyphae, which also serve as an important source of inoculum. Following tillage there are reduced levels of mycorrhizal colonisation. Therefore reducing or eliminating tillage will help promote the formation of arbuscular mycorrhizas.

Cover cropping

Fallow periods are detrimental as AMF depends on host plants for their nutrition. Cover crops help to maintain their populations.

The conundrum in conventional agriculture

The scientific literature widely concurs that high levels of AMF are beneficial to plant nutrition only where the soil supply of nitrates and / or phosphate is limited. In conventional systems therefore where the supply of nutrients are less limited (as they can be applied when needed), the need for assistance from AMF may be less important.

The use of AMF in organic farming systems

Organic farming systems may be less detrimental to AMF because they don’t use bagged fertiliser and as such are not providing more optimal conditions for the AMF to form associations.

The available evidence suggests that this leads to increased AMF inoculum in soils, greater crop colonisation, and enhanced nutrient uptake. AMF might therefore be able to substitute for reduced fertiliser inputs on organic systems.


Arbuscular Mychorrizal Fungi and Organic farming, Gosling et al, 2006, Agricultural Ecosystems and Environment,

Verbruggan et al, 2012, Mycorrhizal Fungi establishment in agricultural soils; factors determining inoculation successes, New Phytologist

Koide and Haider, Mycorrhizal Fungi and Field Crops,

29.06.15 Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi – forging links

Healthier soil is a fundamental necessity for increased food production, and soil fungal populations are a significant contributor to soil health.

Until quite recently, the biological world has included plants and animals; now however there is research and attention being devoted to other components, including fungi, that are largely invisible but are where the greatest amount of biological activity occurs.

Over the last couple of years there has been more and more attention devoted to one group of fungi that resides in soil, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, due to the relationship that it forms with plant roots and the beneficial effects that it can have on crop growth, nutrient availability and soil aggregation (leading to better soil stability). Over 80% (and maybe as many as 95%) of plants form a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship with soil fungi.

This relationship however between fungi and plants, although highly significant, is not essential.

How do they work?

Mycorrhizal fungi produce structures called hyphae that allow them to forage for nutrients more effectively than roots alone.  Once established 10-40% of carbohydrates (mostly sugars) which the plant produces by photosynthesis can be absorbed by mycorrhizal fungi. In turn the long thread-like structures of the fungi act as an extension of the plant’s root system and increases the plants access to essential nutrients. The fungi provide these nutrients as they are required by the plant, and as long as there is an adequate supply of carbohydrates, they will continue to promote plant health.

In some cases the relationship is essential for the plant. The relationship is always essential for the fungi because plants are their only source of energy.

Why is it beneficial to improve (or maintain) mycorrhiza in farm soils?

In agricultural soils mycorrhizal fungi has been shown to increase crop yields in nutrient poor soils, increase yields for agricultural plants that have large requirements for nutrients and water and restore structure and fertility to degraded soils. The resulting soil structure allows air and water movement into the soil, encouraging root growth and distribution allowing intra-aggregate organic matter to be slowly decomposed by microbes and converted into plant available nutrients and makes soil less susceptible to wind and water erosion.

Nutrient availability

The fungal hyphae are much smaller than plant roots so they can easily penetrate into small spaces between soil particles. The thread-like hyphae are structured in such a way that they can extend for a metre or more, far out into the soil to scavenge even highly immobile nutrients, efficiently absorb the maximum amount of available nutrients and deliver these back to the plant inside the root cell wall.

The case for phosphorus

Phosphorus is critical for plant growth and makes up about 0.2% of dry weight, but it is one of the most difficult nutrients for plants to acquire. In soil it may be present in relatively large amounts, but much of it is poorly available because of the very low solubility of phosphates of iron, aluminium and calcium, which leads to low soil concentrations and very low mobility.

Plants have evolved a range of strategies that increase the capacity of the plant to take up the phosphate ions or the availability of the phosphate in the soil. The most common of these is mycorrhizal fungi and its symbiotic relationship with the plant root. Recent research has revealed that the fungal pathway plays a major role in the uptake of phosphorus regardless of the extent to which the fungi benefits in terms of increased growth or P uptake.

Disease and pathogen management

Modification of plant pathogen relationship: Mycorrhizae influence the colonisation of roots by other microorganisms, reduce the susceptibility (or increase the tolerance) of roots to soil borne pathogens such as nematodes or phytogenic fungi. Secretion of antibiotics and support of a community that competes or antagonises pathogenic microorganisms thus aiding in disease suppression.

Mycorrhizal fungi can protect the roots from disease organisms through simple spatial interferences by improving nutrient uptake and by producing glomulin and other metabolites that inhibit disease. Stress in plants can be reduced because the mycorrhizal fungi can solubilise mineral nutrients from plant unavailable forms to plant available forms and translocate those nutrients to the root system in exchange for sugars provided by the plants.

Soil Structure and formation of aggregates

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) play an important role in the structure and development of new soil and in the sequestration of carbon in the soil. The hyphae of AMF produce a glycoprotein called glomalin which acts as a protective coating in fungal hyphae to keep water and nutrients from being lost prior to reaching the plant host and to protect hyphae from decomposition and microbial attach.

Glomalin contributes to the formation and stabilisation of soil aggregates. It provides a protective coating to aggregates to stop them from breaking apart. These bigger aggregates increase the soils stability against wind and water erosion, maintain soil pores (which provide air and water infiltration rates favourable for plant growth), improve soil fertility by holding nutrients in protective microsites near the plant roots, store carbon by protecting organic matter from decomposition and assist in nutrient cycling. This glue that holds soil particles together and builds soil structure makes the ground less vulnerable to erosion.

The link with soil carbon

AMF while promoting plant growth, which fixes more carbon into vegetation, can also directly and indirectly contribute to the stabilisation of carbon in soil.

First the fungi filaments have a carbon rich component that can remain in the soil for decades. Second it provides the first step for other soil fungi to convert plant waste into stable soil carbon. Both of these attributes have the potential to reduce atmospheric, carbon based greenhouse gases.

Other benefits

There are other benefits to the plant from forming associations with AMF including:

The MF threads or filaments promote drought resistance in the partner plant by enhancing the water holding capacity of the soil

The fungi selectively exclude the passive uptake of toxic elements limiting the partner plants exposure to heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium

At high latitudes, high altitudes and other rocky environments, AMF dissolve and take up nutrients from primary rock surfaces.

In boggy regions, the filaments buffer plant partners from the high acid content of peaty soils

In saline ground the fungi can protect partner plants from the high salt concentrations

So we have had a look at all the beneficial attributes of AMF and the benefits that it can bring in terms of improved crop yields and quality and soil structure. However there exists a conundrum, as practices that encourage its persistence and provide conditions that are concurrent with AMF growth and persistence sometimes conflict with farming practice. Later in the week we will be looking at the two sides of the debate.


Smith, S.E. et al (2011) Roles of Arbuscular Mycorrhizas in Plant Phosphorus Nutrition: Interactions between pathways of phosphorus uptake in Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Roots have important implications for understanding and manipulating plant phosphorus acquisition. Plant Physiology

Koide, R and Haider, K, Mycorrhizal Fungi and Field Crops

Johns, C Agricultural Applications of Mycorrhizal Fungi to increase crop yields, promote soil health and combat climate change, Soil Regeneration Research Program

26.06.15 New study highlights methods to safeguard UK food security

The new study, “The Role of Agroecology in Sustainable Intensification”, undertaken by the Organic Research Centre with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, was commissioned by the inter-agency Land Use Policy Group (LUPG) and funded by Scottish Natural Heritage and Natural Resources Wales.

The study found that Agroecology – food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging precious resources – can help maintain agricultural productivity. The researchers reviewed evidence for agro-ecological practices including processes that maintain closed cycles, using on-farm resources to limit inputs and reduce waste. They also studied the use of legumes (peas, beans, etc) for enhancing soil fertility, cover crops, minimum tillage, the use of beneficial insects to control pests and agroforestry.

Download the report here.

26.06.15 Ten principles of soil biological fertility

Carrying on our theme of soil biology that we are following this month, while doing some research, I came across the Soil Health website. This website houses loads of resources about the physical, chemical and biological properties and processes that go on in soil and how to manage soils to protect them for the future.

Housed on this website is a publication entitled ‘Soils are Alive!’ which houses stacks of information on the different biological populations that live in soil, how to look after them, and ultimately how to keep them happy and get them to work with you (and improve yields, structure, nutrient retention and utilisation and overall resilience!) rather than against you.

One article that I was looking at was explaining the 10 principles of soil biological fertility, and the linkages that exist between microbial populations and the ability of the growing crops to access pools of nutrients that are found in the soil ecosystem.

Corresponding to these principles is also what we as farmers can do to maximise the benefits, and how we can manage our land to ensure that we create good habitats for the bugs to live in and perform these key functions.

Soil organisms are most abundant in the surface layers of soil

What can we do?

Minimise soil erosion (as if we are losing soil, we will also be losing the soil organisms that live in that soil). Although it is recognised that this is more of a problem for some soil types than others, soil erosion does not just remove the precious fertile top soil, but also can pollute watercourses, clog drains and lose nutrients.

Some things to consider:

Use crops to create ground cover – by creating green cover the plant roots hold the soil particles in place where we need them in the field.

Avoid capping and compaction – keep soils in good physical structure to prevent layers of compacted soil which will allow water to travel sideways rather than through the soil profile to where the plant roots need it to grow.

Be aware of field contours -  look at the use of grass buffer strips or hedges to break up any long unbroken slopes which can create channels for water and soil to run through.

Cultivation techniques – do you really need to plough? What are the other options?

Build soil organic matter – organic matter doesn’t just provide a food source for the bugs, it helps create a stable soil structure.

Soil organic matter is necessary for nutrient cycling and soil aggregation

Its all about retain retain retain! Feed the soil to feed the crops. If the soil bugs don’t have anything to eat then they can’t provide those vital functions that we need them to do.

Building soil organic matter is one of the most important things you can do to enhance long term soil performance.

Maximising soil biological diversity depends on a diversity of organic matter and habitats.

So as we now know, there are millions (and billions) of different species that live in our soils, and the different groups do different things. Within these different functional groups, there are also different diet requirements, therefore whilst building organic matter remains crucial, ensuring that there is a diversity of ‘food’ available to soil bugs via growing different crops and ensuring species diversity on top of the ground (which will bring similar results underground) will maintain soil health.

Nitrogen fixing bacteria form specific associations with legumes under specific conditions

Nitrogen fixing is probably one of the most well-known functions of soil biological populations. Through a symbiotic relationship which rhizobacteria (that are found in soil), legumes are able to fix atmospheric Nitrogen and provide it in a form that is readily available to plants. Growing legumes in rotation allows for plant N to be built up in above and below-ground residues. It is broken down by microbial activity following incorporation and released for uptake by the following crop. Legume-based leys provide additional benefits through soil cover and reduced soil disturbance. Greater N fixation has been demonstrated in minimum tillage systems. Ensuring that pH, soil characteristics and environmental conditions are right will increase the efficiency of the nitrogen fixing (and help reduce the need for bagged nitrogen).

Nitrogen is released during organic matter breakdown either into soil or into the soil microbial biomass

Lets recap slightly on a section of the Nitrogen Cycle. In agricultural systems, nitrogen is primarily stored in living and dead organic matter. Through the Nitrogen cycle, this organic nitrogen is converted into inorganic forms when it re-enters the cycle via decomposition. Decomposers in the upper soil layers (bacteria, actinomycetes and fungi) modify this Nitrogen through mineralisation into a form which plant roots can access.

Nutrient management planning therefore plays a role in ensuring that we take account of the natural processes of nutrient cycling that is occurring in soils. If legumes are included, it makes good business sense (as mentioned above) to take account of this nitrogen, but similarly, looking at previous cropping, whether residues have been incorporated or removed and soil characteristics through taking account of the Soil Nitrogen supply (SNS) index in planning is a good idea. Inputs of nitrogen fertiliser should be calculated to complement nitrogen cycling from organic matter.

Arbuscular mychrrhizal fungi can increase phosphate uptake in P deficient soils

Inputs of phosphorus fertiliser should be calculated to complement and enhance activities of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Watch our for a further blog on AMF next week!

Soil amendments can alter the physical and chemical environment of soil organisms

Often through past research and management advice, soil biology has been much overlooked; we have focussed on the important aspects of maintaining soil physical structure and condition (pH, nutrient indices) to grow crops in, but by starting to consider the effect of what we are adding to the soil on the biological populations a more complete picture is possible. The three sides of the soil health triangle, the physical, chemical and biological health, are all of equal importance when making management decisions on-farm. When adding anything (including fertiliser, sprays, composts, manures, and crop residues) looking at how that affects the soil biological populations will help to continue to allow them to perform their functions (in terms of nutrient cycling, maintaining structure etc) which will help produce good quality crops. More research is also needed into this topic.

Some crop rotations and tillage practices decrease the suitability of soil for plant pathogens

Crop rotations and tillage practices should be selected to avoid development of soil conditions that enhance the growth and survival of plant pathogens.

Production systems based on soil biological fertility can be profitable

Great news! It makes sense, but how do we get there (whilst missing out all the potential ‘snake oil’ products that will apparently sort it all out for us?

Soil biological processes develop slowly and the time required will differ with the type of soil, environment and land management practices applied

This is a fairly crucial point. As (with most of farming) we are dealing with complex biological systems, these are not quick fixes that yield instant results. The biology found within the soil performs multiple functions including nutrient cycling, disease suppression, aggregation of soil particles to form micro and macro pores to allow infiltration of water and carbon sequestration. Harnessing some of this potential through increased understanding of the populations within soil and how to maintain them will allow the development of profitable and resilient systems that are less reliant on inputs, but it needs a leap of faith to start the process.

Source: Soil Health, Ten Principles of soil biological fertility and their corresponding land management guidelines

Why not read the FCCT section on soil carbon and building soil organic carbon?

19.06.15 Whispers in the dark – do earthworms talk to plants?

A bit of a sideways step to end the week, with an article from Professor Mark Hodson, from the University of York, who is involved in a NERC funded project looking at whether earthworms talk to plants.

The information below can be viewed in full at the link here, and comes from the University of York website.

Earthworms are widely recognised as being beneficial to ecosystems. They are responsible for many of the soil processes that give rise to so called “ecosystem services”, that is the things that ecosystems do and provide for humans such as food production and recreational opportunities. One commonly observed benefits that earthworms have on ecosystems is to increase plant growth. Plants tend to grow larger and more rapidly when earthworms are in the soil. With increasing concerns about food security and sustainability anything that can increase plant productivity in a “natural” way warrants investigation.

There are a number of mechanisms by which earthworms could increase plant growth. They might alter the micro-organisms population in the soil, either increasing numbers of beneficial micro-organisms or reducing numbers of detrimental ones; ingestion of seeds by earthworms may increase germination success rates; earthworm consumption and digestion of organic matter may increase nutrient availability; burrowing activity may increase the aeration of the soil or the amount of water the soil can hold. All the above mechanisms undoubtedly play a part in the way that earthworms boost plant growth. Another, less well understood mechanisms by which earthworms might affect plant growth is through the production of plant growth promoting hormones.

Plants just like animals, respond to hormones. Soil micro-organisms exploit this fact to get food. Plant roots release organic compounds into the soil; soil bacteria feed on these compounds. Other soil micro-organisms feed on the bacteria and this releases nutrients that help the plants to grow. The soil micro-organisms release plant growth promoting hormones which leads to more plant growth. This increase in plant growth leads to the release of more organic compounds by the plants into the soil and thus an increase in the amount of food available for micro-organisms.

Recently it has been suggested that earthworms might also increase the concentration of plant growth promoting compounds in soils. They might do this for similar reasons to the bacteria, to increase the amount of food that is available to them.

Earthworms feed on root debris and soil micro-organisms. By increasing levels of plant growth promoting compounds in the soil, earthworms could stimulate the production of more plant roots and also more soil micro-organisms feeding on the increased levels of plant secreted organic compounds that come from them. How earthworms increase the concentration of plant growth promoting compounds is not known and that is what we will seek to discover in this project.

Earthworms could release plant growth promoting hormones themselves, the hormones could be produced by bacterial populations that are boosted by earthworm activity, or the hormones could be produced by the digestion of organic matter by earthworms. Plants may also have a role, stimulating earthworms to produce the hormones. Our study will consist of a series of experiments in which we test a variety of earthworm – bacteria – plant – soil present / absent combinations to allow us to state which of the above mechanisms are important.

Our results could help lead to a change in land management practices to maximise the natural boost that earthworms give to plant growth.

18.06.15 Diverse soil communities can help offset impacts of global warming

Maintaining a healthy and diverse soil community can buffer natural ecosystems against the damaging impacts of global warming according to a new study led by American University Yale.

Decomposition of dead plant and animal material by soil microorganisms generates an annual global release of a shed load of carbon (50-70 petagrams) in the form of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.  Scientists have known for a long time that global warming has the potential to accelerate this process, which would lead to increased carbon emissions that use a feedback cycle to then feed into more warming and accelerate climate change.

The information, which was published in Science Daily in May this year describes the results from a study which was a collaboration between Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F and ES), the University of Helsinki, the Institute of Microbiology of the ASCR in the Czech republic and the University of New Hampshire was designed to shed light on this issue.

This study found (when liking at this feedback cycle) that where soil animals were not present, the feedback was strong. However where the soil community is healthy and diverse (with lots of biology), the animals feed on the microorganisms, which limits the feedback effect.

The researchers found that small animals that reside in soil (insects and worms) can play a regulatory role in soil ecosystems by feeding on the microbes that can trigger increased carbon emissions.

This isn’t the complete picture; as we all know that within soil and plant populations there are complex biological cycles which take part in numerous processes.  The rate and interaction of soil insects with the microorganisms also has implications for wider research going on which is focussed on how atmospheric warming and nitrogen deposition are likely to alter natural ecosystems under future climate change scenarios.

This highlights the importance of further understanding of soil biological communities, and how they interact with each other under different conditions. This knowledge will help the scientists that are developing complex climate models that aim to predict the effect on the climate and nature of temperature rise.  It also highlights the range of functions that the soil biota are involved in and how crucial they are to natural cycling processes and ecosystem function and regulation.

To read the article in full click here

15.06.15 Soil Microorganisms contribute to plant nutrition and root health.

Soil micro-organisms provide an essential function in nourishing and protecting plants. They also play a crucial role in providing soil, air and water services that are absolutely critical to human survival. Understanding this linkage allows better nutrient management decisions.

This information here comes from an article published in Better Crops, developed by the  International Plant Nutrition Institute at the beginning of this year by Mark S Coyne and Robert Mikkelson. To read the full article please click here.

Sustainable crop production is essential to a healthy and adequate food supply. At first glance a healthy crop reveals only the above ground plant; the roots that support the visible plant are seldom seen. However these plant roots grow in an incredibly complex environment which is teeming with billions of soil organisms, particularly bacteria and fungi, which play a crucial role in promoting health and maintaining an adequate supply of plant nutrients for crop growth.

As previous blogs have shown, we are nowhere near knowing all about what goes on within the soil and the details of all the interactions that take place. It is understood that plants modify their soil environment by exuding large amounts of carbon from their roots. This zone in the soil where the roots are becomes a hotspot for the biological populations that live in the soil. Adding carbon to the soil surrounding the roots leads to a huge increase in the number of micro-organisms living within and outside the roots.

As soluble carbon is released by roots, micro-organisms are stimulated and colonise the soil surrounding the roots. This can result in competition for nutrients because plants and microbes rely on the same essential nutrients for growth.

Below are some of the key interactions between soil microbes and plant nutrition in a diagram and explained in more detail underneath.

Nutrients are converted to plant-available forms

Living organisms have a crucial role in controlling the transformation of plant nutrients in soil. In most soils nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur are present as various organic compounds that the plant can’t use. Micro-organisms play a crucial role in regulating the conversion of these organic pools into plant available forms. This conversion takes place through numerous mechanisms. Various management practices including tillage, irrigation, residue management, using manures and the addition of specific biological inhibitors or stimulants and innoculants can be used to influence these important microbial processes.

If these biological processes aren’t accounted for in soil / nutrient management, then excessive nutrient loss or plant nutrient deficiency with a significant reduction in crop yield / quality can result.

Nutrient recovery is enhanced

Nutrient recovery has an intrinsic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. The small diameter of the fungal hyphae allows greater access to soil pores than roots alone which gives the plant better utilisation of water and nutrients and maintaining root sorption activity in older parts of the root.

Mycorrhizal fungi can increase the supply of various nutrients to plants (including Copper, Iron, Nitrogen, Phosporus, and Zinc) in exchange for plant carbon. The boost in Phosphorus uptake provided by Mycorrhizal fungi is especially important for crops with high P requirements. Mycorrhizal fungi can also release various enzymes to solubilise organic phosphorus and they can extract soluble P from the soil at lower concentrations than plant roots are able to do alone.

Nitrogen fixation is facilitated

Certain specialised symbiotic bacteria can fix atmospheric N2 into ammonium based compounds for plant nutrition. The most important of these organisms for agricultural plants are from the species Rhizobuim and Bradyrhizobium.

It is estimated that N2 fixation provides between 10 -20% of the N requirement for cultivated crops and between 25-40% of the entire annual reactive N in the world.

Improved soil structure promotes root growth

An often overlooked contribution of soil microorganisms to plant nutrition is their enhancement of soil physical properties. Good soil structure enhances plant root growth and results in greater extraction of water and nutrients.

Individual soil particles are bound into aggregates by various organic compounds (especially polysaccharides) released from soil microbes. Glomalin, which is a protein released by mychorrizal fungi and is in the green picture at the top of the page, sticks soil particles together and improves overall soil structure. The more aggregation in soil, the greater the porosity which often leads to greater soil aeration and water storage capacity.

Pathogens are controlled

There is a growing appreciation of the link between soil microbes and plant pathogen control. Soil bacteria that produce siderophones can deprive pathogenic fungi of iron. Various antibiotics have been identified on soil that can suppress pathogenic organisms. Rhizosphere organisms can compete with pathogens for attachment to the plant root and essential nutrients for growth.

There is still much more to learn about how soil micro-organisms improve the health of plant root systems and overall nutrient efficiency.

Effect of fertiliser on soil microbial communities

Any management practice has the potential to influence soil microbial communities in positive or negative ways.

Short term, the effect of addition of mineral fertilisers on biology will be negative and will cause temporary osmotic stress. Long term experiments with wheat from Rothamstead show that adding mineral fertiliser over a longer term did not significantly influence the diversity of the bacterial population or two genes specific to important N transformation.

Other literature has shown that mineral N fertiliser application was associated with an average 15% increase in microbial biomass and 13% increase in soil organic carbon, compared with unfertilised control soils. They found that increases in microbial populations were largest in studies with at least 20 years of fertiliser. But it also showed the importance of pH, with soils with an acid pH (less than 5) having a negative affect on biological populations.

Soil micro organisms interact intimately with plants to stimulate productivity by supplying essential nutrients in a soluble form. Healthy plants stimulate the microbial community of the soil through the root exudates they secrete and the organic residue they leave behind.

Source: Soil Microorganisms contribute to plant nutrition and root health, Mark Coyne and Robert Mikkelsen.

12.06.15 Beneficial soil fungi boosted by organic farming with reduced tillage

The biodiversity and abundance of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi - important soil organisms that can help plants to capture nutrients - is greater in organically managed soils with reduced tilling compared to conventional methods, a new Swiss study suggests. This illustrates the impacts that land management practices such as ploughing can have on soil biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides.

Soil organisms are important for nutrient cycling, and there has been some suggestion that their decline may increase the need for artificial fertilisers. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) are found in the roots of most land plants, including agriucltural crops, and can help supply nutrients to the plants. However they can be vulnerable to some agricultural practices such as ploughing or tilling, which disturbs the top layers of soil.

For this study researchers compared the AMF communities in the clay soils of seven sites, all in close proximity to each other in a Swiss Valley. Four of the sites were long-term, organic field experiments, each site divided into sub-plots to compare the combination of different management options of the land: Two tillage systems - reduced and normal tillage, and two fertilisation regimes - applying farmyard compost and slurry or slurry only. One of the other three sites was organically managed grassland, while the other two were cultivated using conventional farming practices - normal or semi-reduced tillage, and the application of mineral fertilisers on both sites.

For all seven plots, the researchers took soil samples from four layers - top soils (0-10 cm and 10-20 cm deep) and undisturbed sub-soils (20-30 and 30-40 cm deep). The researchers also cultivated AMF communities in pots from soil taken from six szites. The pots were planted with seeds from four different plant species and kept in a greenhouse for 20 months.

The results show that although the researchers found that fertilisation regimes affected the AMF communities in the seven sites, tillage practices had a stronger impact. The number of AMF species collectively identified through field samples and the soil cultivation experiments was greatest in the grassland site, at 38. This dropped to 33 species in the two reduced tillage organic sites, 28 in the one of the conventionally ploughed organic sites and to 28 in the conventionally managed site with normal tillage. Overall, 32 species were found in the conventionally farmed site with semi-reduced tillage.

Furthermore, the number of spores and diversity of AMF species was highest in the top soils of the grassland, next highest in the top soils of the two experimental plots where reduced tillage was used and lowest in the two experimental plots that had undergone normal tillage. Normal tillage disrupts the extensive spread of hyphae, fine strands of the fungi that form in the top soil layers, affecting spore production. Across all sites, the number of spores and different AMF species were lower in the bottom layer (30-40cm) than in the top layer.

AMF diversity was also higher in reduced tillage plots compared to normally tilled plots. Some AMF species are better adapted to the effects of ploughing than others and may dominate AMF communities in normally tilled soils, reducing their overall diversity.

Together these results show that organically managed soils can produce diverse AMF communities that will benefit plant nutrition, productivity and health and enhance sustainable practices.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, 11th June 2015

10.06.15 Natural England, State of current knowledge on soils

At the end of last month, Natural England released a document looking at where science and research is with regards to knowledge on soil and soil management.  The document sets out Natural England's assessment of the evidence relating to their soils and how we conserve and manage them.  It assesses what we know already, areas that are currently being researched and what we don't know yet.

When looking at soil biodiversity, the common consensus is that there is still much to discover in terms not only of the millions of organisms that live there, but also how they interact with each other and aid key processes in soil that help us grow profitable crops.  The information in the report is broken down into different sections and the messages below deal specifically with what we know about the life beneath our feet.

What we currently know

Soils are habitats for millions of species ranging from bacteria, fungi, protozoa and microscopic invertebrates to mites, springtails, ants, worms and plants. 

A single gram of soil can contain a billion bacterial cells from up to 10,000 species (Torsvik et al, 1990, 2002).

Soil organisms are involved in delivering all the main supporting and regulating ecosystem services (Turbe et al, 2010) including:

  • food and fibre production
  • soil formation
  • flood risk management
  • water quality
  • climate control
  • waste and pollution processing
  • nutrient cycling

Soil biota are strongly influenced by land management (Stockdale et al, 2006), what we do as farmers impacts on soil biological populations

Agricultural land management practices which reduce disturbance and increase / diversify organic matter inputs will most likely benefit soil biota and their function (NE, 2012)

Soil biodiversity reflects above ground plant diversity (Wardle), but can be highly variable over short distances and times.

Soil organisms are arranged in food webs or varying complexity with internal feedbacks (Bardgett et al 2005). If organisms don't like the conditions they can effectively go to sleep for a long time (but stay there). We don't really understand the true requirements of most soil organisms.

The vast unexplored biodiversity of soils will be economically important in such areas as medicine, industry, agriculture and environmental bioremediation - the possibilities are endless!

Soil biodiversity has been largely ignored by conservationists (Usher, 205) the topic has often seen to be too complex to address.

Areas that are currently being researched

The extent to which soil diversity is important to soil function and resilience - resilience as a concept and how well the soil can function in different conditions has been the subject of many discussions (including among the FCCT team!). There are such a vast range of functions that occur in soil and some can be done by different organisms and some (for example nitrogen fixation) are more specific to certain groups of organisms.

The impact of climate change on soil communities and their function

How to best integrate soil biolgoy into farm advice (can we produce tools which accurately assess biological activity and health, or are we still counting worms?)

The extent of variation in many soil organisms across soil types and their interdependence with vegetation and management - soil pH is a major determinant of soil community composition

Whether it is possible to deliver measurable improvements in agricultural or environmental functions as a result of management to enhance soil biota in UK farms.

Whether DNA barcoding can be linked to genome data to identify and characterise soil communities.

What we don't know

A basic knowledge of most soil organisms - out of over 11 million species of soil organisms, an estimated 1.5% have been named and classified (Turbe et al 2010).

The range of soil species occurring in the UK - increased genetic barcoding will help

The distribution abundance and population trends for almost all of our soil dwelling organisms.

The habitat management requirements for conservation of most soil organisms (including their requirements for undisturbed sites).  How do we know the extent to which soil organisms benefit from conservation?

Specific circumstances where soil innoculation is worthwhile to encourage the beneficial function of mycorrhizae, rhizobia or other beneficial organisms in agriculture.

How to interpret soil biological measures to link them to desired soil function, conditions and services - Defra have shown that soil life and its functions are sensitive indicators of change, but we don't know whether they can be benchmarked to provide subtle information on soil functions to inform soil management or set targets.

This information is only from the section of the report looking at soil biodiversity.  There are also sections on:

  • the soil itself
  • soils and society
  • soils and landscape
  • soil carbon and greenhouse gas flux
  • soils and land management
  • sustainable land use in relation to development
  • soils in climate change adaptation
To read the full report click here.

So what this highlights, is that although we have made progress in certain areas, there is still a load of stuff that we don't know.  A lot of previous research has looked at the physical and chemical characteristics of soil and managed to miss out the biological perspective. However what we now realise is that in order to manage soils in a sustainable manner which allows us to grow profitable crops that yield quality produce, we need to manage all three aspects of soil.  Neglecting the biology is like trying to dry washing in the rain, you'll get there eventually but its so much easier when the sun shines. To read about managing soil and FCCT's soil carbon project please click here.

08.06.15 Insecticides - new best practice advice from the Voluntary Initiative

The new insecticide advice highlights four foundations of best practice: identification of environmentally sensitive areas on the farm, following an integrated approach, using pest thresholds as a decision making tool for treatment, and ensuring treatment is made safely and accurately.  Following this advice alongside the Voluntary Initiative's Integrated Pest Management Plan (IPMP), or similar tools will help farmers and sprayer operators minimise  the environmental impacts of insecticides and safeguard the future use of plant protection products.

VI Chairman Richard Butler said 'I try to use insecticides only when absolutely necessary and will use the new VI insecticide guidance to minimise risk.  I also take account of advice from my agronomist and use these revised business thresholds for specific insect pests, which I find very helpful when deciding when it is necessary to spray.

David Ellerton from Hutchinsons praised the VI's insecticide advice: 'Following these simple guidelines will help the farmers and operators I work with to minimise the risks of their crops being affected by pests and helps give them the confidence to make the right decision about when to resort to the use of insecticides by checking thresholds.'

To find out more, download the Voluntary Initiative's guidance document 'Insecticides: Best Practice advice for farmers and operators.' Hard copies will be available at Cereals and the Highland Show.

Source: NFU

05.06.15 Greenhouse gas mitigation practices - England Farm Practices Survey

The information below comes from the recently released Greenhouse Gas mitigation practices - England Farm Practices Survey 2015.   Compiled by Defra and the Office for National Statistics the document contains the results from the February 2015 Farm Practices Survey which focused on practices relating to greenhouse gas mitigation.  

Where does the data come from?

The survey is usually run every year and collects information on a range of topics usually related to the impact of farming practices on the environment.  This release includes the results from the survey run in February 2015, which largely focussed on practices relating to greenhouse gas mitigation.  There was a range of topics covered including nutrient and manure management planning, the uptake of farm anaerobic digestion, fertiliser, manure and slurry spreading and storage, farm health planning and livestock breeding and feeding practices.

The results and data come from a questionnaire that was sent to approximately 6,000 holdings in England.  The sample was targeted by farm type and size, and the response rate was 44%.

Below I have highlighted some of the key points that (when I read it this morning) stood out to me.  If you want to read the full report please click here.

Nutrient management

If you have been a regular follower of some of the FCCT blogs you will be well aware of the fact that nutrient management planning is one of the keys to farm profitability.  Knowing crop requirements, and taking account all input sources to arrive with a balanced supply will not only help to target nutrient applications to crop growth and minimise over application (saving money), but also reduce the amount of nutrient that is sitting in the soil and not utilised (with the associated GHG emissions and pollution risk).

Manure and slurry storage and application

Calibrating fertiliser, manure and slurry spreaders can help to improve input efficiency and reduce GHG emissions.  How manures and slurries are stored and applied has an effect in the amount of nutrients that are available to the growing crop (thus saving you money on bagged fertiliser), and also affects the potential for GHG emissions and the release of ammonia  to the air. 

Grassland management

Grass is often described as 'the cheapest feed,' however the way that it is managed has a massive effect on its productivity and feed value.  Efficient grassland management hinges on how efficiently we convert the grass we grow into milk or meat (what we get paid for), and some of the methods that are often used are the inclusion of clover in temporary grass leys or the use of high sugar grasses.  When looking at the effect on GHG emissions, high sugar grasses improve the efficiency of animal production (this lowering the amount of GHG per unit of product, meat or milk), and clover will fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil and be available for the growing crop.

Farmer attitudes to emissions and their importance

The data from this section looks at the importance that farmers place on greenhouse gas emissions when making decisions about their farms.  The data also shows which, if any, actions farmers are taking to reduce emissions and their motivations.  

For more information on this and to read the report please click here.

03.06.15 Theme of the month: Soil biology

This month, the theme that we will be looking at is soil biology. Over one fourth of all living species on earth live in the soil, (and we haven’t finished identifying them and counting them yet). Soil organisms are hugely diverse and can play a range of critical roles in most soil processes. Soil biota is a collective terms for all these living organisms (excluding plant roots), and is also referred to as soil life.

Farm management practices can both help and hinder the biological processes that happen in soil. The ultimate aim in farm management is to produce healthy crops that sustain livestock and people, soil biology is a crucial component to us achieving this aim. Healthy soils produce healthy crops, and it is the intimate relationship between the soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties that drive the key processes needed and allow us to manage our soils better.

However this is not a simple process, as I alluded to earlier within the soil health triangle, the soil biology is the least well known and understood. We work with complex biological systems in farming and growing, so to start the month off, below is a quick introduction to some of the issues.

The importance of soil biology

Biology present in soil helps to add to and stabilise soil structure. Processes that are undertaken by soil biology impact on plant and animal production systems by modifying the soil’s physical, chemical and biological environment within which plants grow and persist.

Soil biology can have a direct effect on soil structure. The stability of aggregates is related to the level of soil organic matter and to the activity of soil organisms. Soil biology is crucial to the functioning of the phosphorus cycle. Different organisms are responsible for the mineralisation of organic phosphorus from organic to usable inorganic forms, suitable for plant uptake. 70-80% of identifiable free living soil microbes produce enzymes involved in phosphorus mineralisation.

What do these organisms do?

As the organisms found in soil grow, they eat and move their way through the soil and perform a vast array of functions. Beneficial microbes decompose available organic matter including manure and plant residues; fix atmospheric nitrogen and solubilise soil minerals into plant available forms; store and recycle soil nutrients; enhance soil aggregation; build soil organic matter and increase nutrient and moisture retention.

The link between soil biology and carbon

Plants sequester (remove) carbon from the atmosphere through growth. Carbon dioxide is converted into plant tissue through photosynthesis. After a plant dies, the plant material is decomposed primarily by soil microorganisms and carbon is released back into the atmosphere through respiration or left behind as humus.

Plants and the micro-organisms in the soil provide the link between the carbon in the atmosphere and how it can be stored or fixed to biological matter in the soil.

What can we do?

Soil biology is not completely understood, but is widely researched. Through most of the literature, three golden principles remain that confirm what is needed to make soils healthy and support healthy and active biological populations that drive the system.

Increase organic matter inputs – the more food provided, the more activity

Reduce tillage intensity – consider the necessity of tillage in the rotation

Increase plant diversity – Plant diversity is important as it stimulates organisms that have particular associations with particular plants to support different types of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (the beneficial fungal hyphae that facilitate nutrient transfer to plant roots). A diverse population of plants above ground will support a diverse population under the ground which will allow beneficial functions and produce healthy crops.

Source: DairyCo Healthy Grassland Soils project, SWARM Hub

02.06.15 Keyline Design - Whole Farm Planning for improved water management and utilisation, soil health and creation, and increased productivity

17th - 19th June Huntstile Farm, Goathurst, Nr Bridgewater

With damaged soils and the likelihood of more extreme weather events and unreliable weather patterns, tools and techniques which regenerate and build soil and sustain production through challenging weather patterns as well as extending growing seasons are becoming ever more critical to the success of UK agriculture.

Some UK farmers have been exploring how practices developed in other parts of the world might benefit the UK in this way and RegenAg UK has been delivering courses to support that.  In June Regen Ag UK host Owen Hablutzel a leading Keyline Design trainer will deliver three days training in Somerset.

In the words of Ben Mead, one of the first UK farmers to start to implement Keyline subsoiling, it "shows enormous potential" to contribute to developing a healthy and highly productive agro-ecology within the UK.  With Keyline nature assists the farmer rather than the farmer being in conflict with nature, and the farmer assists nature too - redressing the damage to soils and mitigating the more extreme climatic dynamics.

Keyline Design is a whole farm planning system which addresses soil fertility and productivity via water management within the landscape - restoring healthy water cycles, replenishing aquifers, massively reducing run-off and flooding as well as drought (and the effects of burn-off), building the soil as well as deepening the root profile and remediating compaction.  Inherent in this process is the sequestration of carbon 'back where it belongs' (underground) in the form of humus - the black gold of farming.

The Keyline pattern is used in conjunction with a specific subsoiler (originally and technically a Keyline Plough (or rather 'Plow' after the original American Homes Chisel plow designs on which Yeomans based his design) - but if you have an existing subsoiler the insights from this course will enable you to use that instead much more effectively and efficiently than otherwise).  Where appropriate a network of high level reservoirs, drainage, and irrigation ditches is also installed.  The effect is that run-off is significantly slowed and even eliminated and erosion is minimised, water infiltration as well as soil aeration is increased and (if reservoirs and an irrigation network are incorporated) water available for irrigation is stored at a high enough point in the landscape that it can be distributed by a passive flow Keyline irrigation system.

Keyline Design is applicable and appropriate to free-draining soils whether they are pastured or cropped and using Keyline Design when integrating trees adds yet more potential to the system (Landews Meadow Farm are pioneering this at the moment). Soils with a tendency to become waterlogged can also benefit when Keyline Design is used to slow the flow of water from higher areas to wetter lower ones.

In the past unsympathetic farming methods in the UK haven't had the impact that they have elsewhere due to the forgiving climate, but this is changing and the damage done only to become more obvious and have a greater impact on wildlife as well as productivity.  Our past / current farming practices have already created soils which are far less resilient to the effects of weather, as well as less fertile, and reliant on ever more expensive and oil - dependent agro-chemicals to sustain production; we need to start applying the principles of Keyline Design and other regenerative principles to our landscapes to build permanent resilience as soon as possible, restoring and enhancing ecosystems and natural cycles to provide the fertility, resilience and resources to sustain both wildlife and productivity for the foreseeable future.

More information

For more information on this Keyline Design course click here.

As well as this course, Regen Ag UK have a number of workshops coming up in June all with Owen Hablutzel see here.

For RegenAGUK events in general including the workshops see here.

For more details about RegenAg UK please see here.

01.06.15 Agricultural ammonia emissions could be reduced without affecting crop yield

Ammonia released by nitrogen fertilisers in Spanish agriculture could be reduced by up to 82% with only a very minimal impact on crop yield, finds new research.  This could be achieved by combining optimised management of manure with the use of non-urea synthetic fertilisers.

Agriculture accounted for almost 94% of total European atmospheric emissions of ammonia in 2011.  The main source of these emissions are nitrogen fertilisers such as synthetic urea and livestock manure applied to the surfaces of fields.

As the ammonia escapes into the atmosphere (through volatilisation), it reduces the nutrient value of fertilisers.  It can also cause soil acidification and eutrophication.  For this reason a number of legislative steps have been taken to reduce ammonia emissions, including those under the EU's National Emission Ceilings Directive and the international Gothenburg Protocol.

Various strategies have been proposed to reduce ammonia emissions from fertilisers.  However these mitigation measures have been shown by most studies to suffer various limitations.  For example they can bring trade-offs, such as reduced crop yields or poor efficiency in their use of nitrogen which could have effects on farms, consumers and food security.

This study aimed to identify the most effective measures which could optimise the use of nitrogen based fertilisers at regional and country-wide levels to minimise ammonia emissions without reducing crop yields.  

Spain was selected for the study as it had the highest increase in ammonia emissions in Europe between 1990 and 2011, and is Europe's third largest producer of agricultural goods.

The researchers developed a series of 11 nitrogen mitigation scenarios which included different fertiliser options and combinations to reduce ammonia volatilisation.  These included: incorporating manure in soil to a depth of 10cm (rather than leaving it on the surface), mechanically incorporating urea to a 5cm depth and reducing application of synthetic fertilisers.  Tghe impact of these scenarios was modelled and compared with a baseline scenario based on practices in 2008.

The results suggest that all mitigation scenarios would cause a decrease in ammonia emissions compared with the baseline.  Incorporating manure into soils had the biggest impact of the individual options, reducing national ammonia emissions by more than 57%.

Of the 11 scenarios, four led to a significant reduction in emissions while maintaining or even increasing crop yields compared with the baseline.  Five of the scenarios led to reduced crop yields.

The best overall solution balancing yield and ammonia reduction, relied on a combination of manure incorporation and use of non-urea synthetic fertiliser.  In this instance, crop yields were at 98% of the baseline, a near - match, while ammonia emissions were reduced by 84%.  However, there were also other combinations which, depending on how yields are valued, could also lead to reductions in ammonia release but also achieve increased yields.  For example, using urease inhibitors (which prevent the conversion of urea to ammonia) alongside manure incorporation, which achieved a potential 73% reduction in ammonia release and 9% increase in crop yield.

Since soil types and environmental conditions vary across provinces, which may affect ammonia release, the researchers also considered the effects of the strategies for each province.  By applying the most effective individual (non-combined) fertiliser options in each province, total ammonia emissions for the whole country could be reduced by 67%.

This study demonstrates that significant reductions to ammonia emissions could be achieved without sacrificing crop yields thus helping to achieve dual goals of food security and environmental protection.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, 21st May 2015 

21.05.15 Pioneering techniques for increasing soil fertility event

A one day workshop with Friedrich Wenz

The ideal of any farm is to generate and increase its soil's fertility from within the farm rather than having to bring in inputs from off the farm.  Friedrich has experience of doing this for many years on his stockless arable farm in Germany.  Fridrich has gained his experience all over the world developing minimum tillage, working with green manures and catch crops, mulching and other techniques.

This workshop and a follow up in September, will share these techniques and the theory behind them.  Friedrich gave a short presentation in the UK in 2014 to wide acclaim.  These workshops offer a rare opportunity to explore in depth his cutting edge research and practice into building long term soil fertility.  They will be of interest to farmers, growers and gardeners alike.

Event details:

When: 9th June 2015, 9.00am - 4.00pm followed by tea and discussion

Where: Emerson College, Forest Row, East Sussex, RH18 5JX

Cost: £65 to include lunch and refreshments

How to book and more information - To book contact the Biodynamic Association on 01453 759501, by email or online.

20.05.15 Essentials of Resilience Thinking and Implementation

We're aware that the rate of change in the world around us is speeding up and that a single change usually has multiple and far ranging impacts. We're also becoming even more aware of how vital and urgent wise management of interconnecting systems is on a wider level, as we are regularly reminded about the increasingly critical social as well as environmental impacts of for instance climate disruption, pollution, soil depletion and ecosystem collapse - and varying governance regimes.

So how do we take care of both humanity and the natural world into the future, via a 'systems thinking' approach? In seeking to manage our own lives and our impact on those / that around us we could all benefit from greater insight into how interconnecting systems with which we are interacting function - and this is true if we are addressing farm management or other landscape planning, development, environmental, social or even government policy - as well as day-to-day living.  This workshop introduces us to tools for doing just that.

Increasingly we are also hearing the word Resilience bandied around, but many may wonder what it really means / how it really functions. Resilience Science emerged from the ecological sciences in the 1970s, and a modern definition of resilience (from the book 'Resilience Thinking') is 'the capacity of a system to absorb change while still maintaining it's basic structure on which we rely for support and fulfilment, from social ones such as family / community structure, to farms and factories, to the natural world, to be able to maintain their 'productivity' whilst impacted by change around them -whether that productivity is emotional nourishment, food, shelter, and warmth, or ecosystem services from clean water and biodiversity?

Resilience is what enables systems to continue providing those 'goods and services' regardless of inevitable surprises and resilience thinking informs us so that we can build more resilience into our personal lives and the world around us; it is highly adaptable right up to global treaty level.

Since emerging from ecological science, resilience thinking has evolved considerably, with many researchers developing a framework for that thought, including concepts such as the 'Cycle of Adaptive Change' and 'the Nine Planetary Boundaries). There are specific principles for building resilience in social - ecological systems' and there are now well developed analytical tools and practical strategies for increasing resilience in the wholes we manage.

This workshop will introduce you to the resilience framework, these concepts and more.  Although based in an agro-ecological context, being an introduction, it is relevant for everyone, right up to policy makers at international level, and will act as an invaluable starting block for launching yourself into a resilience thinking approach to your life and work.  If you are managing land - or would like to integrate resilience thinking into your research or teaching this is an excellent place to start.

Instructor Owen Hablutzel has been integrating resilience thinking into farm agro-ecosystem design and regional planning applications since 2007.  While serving as an invited member of the Resilience Task Force of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN - Committee for Ecosystem Management) he continues to weave resilience thinking into a transformative practice and process of 'Dynamic Design' with wide applicability to the contexts of our rapidly changing world in the 21st century.

What makes this workshop special?

The material covered is thoroughly embedded in the global conversation and practice of Resilience Science; it is grounded in the framework and principles developed over the past decades by Resilience Researchers and presents ways to embed that theory in practice.

For more information on this workshop see here.

Regen Ag UK (RAUK) have a number of events coming up for June; for RAUK events in general including these see here.

A more extensive exploration of Resiliencey ('Resilience Landscapes, Resilient Futures) is also planned for later in the year, click here for more details.

For more details about RegenAg UK please see here.

Source: RegenAG UK.

19.5.15 SOS: Save our Soils

This interview was featured in the ACRES magazine in the US and documents an interview between Dr Christine Jones a soil scientist and ACRES.  

To the pressing worldwide challenge of restoring soil carbon and rebuilding topsoil, the Australian soil ecologist Dr. Christine Jones offers an accessible, revolutionary perspective for improving landscape health and farm productivity.  For several decades Jones has helped innovative farmers and ranchers implement regenerative agricultural systems taht provide remarkable benefits for biodiversity, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, water management and productivity.  After a highly respected career in public sector research and extension, in 2001 Jones received a Community Fellowship Award from Land and Water Australia for "mobilizing the community to better manage their land, water and vegetation."

Three years later she launched Amazing Carbon as a means to widely share her visions and inspire change.  Jones has organized and presented workshops, field days, seminars and conferences throughout Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Europe, the United States and Canada. Last year she gave presentations to American organisations and institutions as diverse as Arizona State University, NRCS, Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, the Massachusetts chapter of Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), San Luis Valley Soil Health Group and the Quivira Coalition.  IN 2015 Jones personal commitment to make the biggest possible impact globally will take her to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Kansas, New Mexico, California, Florida, Costa Rica and South Africa, as well as many regions within Australia, 2,500 miles from her home, to hold the first in a series of Soil Restoration Farming Forums, in which 11 farmers will receive monetary awards for reversing soil deterioration in dryland cropping systems through intercropping with perennial warm season grasses.

To read the full interview please click here.

Source: ACRES magazine, March 2015, Vol 45, No. 3

18.05.15 Some farmer experiences from Scotland

Following on from the blog last week about the fab Farming for a Better Climate project, below there is a bit more information about some of their focus farms that they have worked with for the last few years, and more importantly, the results that these farms have found.

Glenkilrie Farm, Perthshire

Is an upland beef and sheep farm, which houses 140 suckler cows and 1000 ewes which are split into two flocks. David grows some forage rape plus grass which is them ensiled or made into big bales. In addition to the farm business, Glenkilrie is the location of a well-established bed and breakfast business.

Under the five key action areas, David considered a range of measures that fitted in with his farming system. Examples of measures undertaken at Glenkilrie include:

Silage analysis– David knew that the feed quality of his silage was reasonably good, but testing silage quality was needed to accurately put together a ration. The high quality of silage reduced the need for purchased feed, meaning financial savings of around £3,000 and nearly 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) per year.

Reduced age of calving - David identified a small batch of heifers suited to calve at 24 months rather than 36 months. Pleased with the result, David intends to expand this across the majority of the herd. From the initial batch calved at 24 months, it is estimated that David has saved £7,000 and 19.9 tonnes of CO2e.

Reduced use of straw - Bedding cattle on straw is expensive; due to the geography of the farm, straw was purchased anywhere from 15 to 25 miles away from the main steading. David has trialled bedding a group of cattle on recycled wood fines, reducing straw use. The livestock have taken to it and it has proved to be more cost effective than straw. This measure has already saved David nearly £700 and 2.74 tonnes of CO2e.

Find out more about what has been happening at Glenkilrie here.

Upper Nisbet Farm

The farm has an award winning beef enterprise and grow 242ha of winter wheat, winter barley, spring barley and beans, 202 ha under grass and rent an additional 80 gha of grass on a neighbouring farm.

The 300 cattle on the farm are Limousin crosses with all progeny finished on-site.

Measures explored included renewable energy generation, nutrient applications, soil management and scrutiny of production costs.

Find out more about what has been happening at Upper Nisbet here.

Torr Farm

Torr Farm has 170 dairy cows, mainly Holstein Frisian and Montbelliarde along with a few Ayrshire and Norwegian Red. The business retains all of the offspring from the dairy herd, either for breeding or for finishing.

Approximately 100ha of the 398 ha farm is woodland or rough grazing, 80 ha are used for growing cereals especially arable silage, spring barley and winter wheat, and the rest is sown to grass for grazing and silage.

Measures explored included improved energy use in the dairy, reducing the age of calving and improved farm drainage and alleviation of compaction.

Find out more about what has been happening at Torr Farm here.

Stewart Tower Farm

A mixed 160 ha dairy and arable farm near Stanley in Perthshire. Wheat and barley are grown for feed with some malting barley plus grass silage. The farm also has an ice cream business, including an ice cream parlour within the farm shop.

Measures explored included improving fertiliser and dung policy, improving grassland management, tailoring fungicide sprays to arable crops, better use of electricity and installation of a 100kW wind turbine.

Find out more here.

13.05.15 Farming for a better climate – the Scottish project showing increased profits and lower emissions

So the last initiative that we will be looking at during this (slightly elongated!) monthly theme of global emissions, is the Farming For a Better Climate project from Scotland.  

The project is run by the Scottish Rural University College (now called SRUC, formally SAC) on behalf of the Scottish government and provides practical help and advice to Scottish farmers to help them choose the most relevant measures to improve both their farm performance, and resilience to future climate change effects.

The project runs climate change focus farms which aim to look at the effects to the farm business of implementing some of the practices that are recommended to reduce emissions.  Working from a body of academic research and on-farm results, the project has come up with five key areas to consider where most farms can benefit from, without any loss of productivity.

Use Electricity and Fuels efficiently


The aim is to ensure that farm equipment, vehicles and buildings are using energy and fuel as efficiently as possible.  Using less fossil fuel means lower energy bills and fewer emissions.

How to do it

Monitor and record fuel use, conduct a farm electricity and fuel audit.  This will highlight which activities are costing you money.  

What are the real farm results?

Dairy farm Ross Paton saved nearly £2,000 on the farm electricity bill and £6,600 on farm diesel through simple tweaks to current practices.  Beef and sheep farmer David Houston saved around £450 just from reducing the daily running time of the feed mixer.

Locking carbon into the farm


Through slight adaptations to current practices, farms are in a good position to lower their carbon footprint and lock carbon into the soil and vegetation, a process called carbon sequestration.

How to do it

Take action to control soil erosion

Consider reduced tillage on suitable land and ploughing in stubble and crop residues

Manage existing woodlands and consider new planting schemes

Retain and conserve semi-natural grasslands.

Develop renewable energy on-farm


Renewable energy can boost farm incomes and secure a source of power for the future.


Consider if your farm is suitable for any renewable energy technology including solar, wind, hydro, anaerobic digestion or heat pumps.

Real farm results

Electricity use in the dairy, ice cream parlour and farm shop at Stewart Tower accounted for ~130,000kWh per year.  Conservative estimates by farmer Neil Butler suggested that the 100kW wind turbine would produce over 200,000 kWh per year.  If half of that was used in the farm shop and dairy, savings on the electricity bill would be in the region of £12,000 per year.

Making the best of nutrients


To make the best use of nutrients and manures on the farm and reduce emissions.

Better targeting of fertilisers can cut waste and improve profits.  For the majority it will not be practical or economic to replace all fertilisers with manures and slurries but the aim should be to make maximum use of the manures and slurries that are available on-farm.

How to do it

Soil testing will help you know pH and nutrient status of soils and adjust fertiliser and lime accordingly

Know nutrient value of manures and slurries

Apply fertiliser at the optimum rate and time for the crop

Real farm data

Each 10m3 tanker of dairy slurry could equate to the equivalent of £30 – 50 worth of fertiliser.

Optimising Livestock Management


To ensure efficient management of livestock and poultry and their manure.  This can significantly reduce GHG emissions and improve farm profitability.


Draw up and regularly review animal health plans

Increase longevity of breeding stock – which will result in a higher output per breeding unit

Improve efficiency of feed conversion; achieve optimum daily liveweight gain

Increase efficiency in fertility

Consider slurry and manure management

Real farm data

By making good quality silage and knowing its feed value, Ross Paton at Torr Farm was able to reduce 1kg concentrate per dairy cow per day over the housed period.  Over the typical winter, this saved 32 tonnes of concentrate which would have cost the business £10,355 and reduced the farm carbon footprint.

This project is doing great stuff in Scotland and putting some much needed farm data onto the recommended management.  Later this week I’ll post the links to a couple of the farm case studies that have reduced emissions and improved profits, the ideal win-win that we all aspire to!

To read more about the project please click here

07.05.15 Healthy Soil, healthy farms, healthy communities part 2

Following on from part 1 of this article, the link below will take you to part two.  This report details the practices of three farmers that were visited on the Soil Health Tour in 2014.  The Soil health tour brings together farmers, scientists, students and conservationists from across the Midwest to south central North Dakota's Burleigh County at the end of each supper.  

This tour showcases farming systems that put soil health at the centre. Such a system works with the soil's natural ability to maintain a healthy balance, rather than just treating the symptoms of degraded soil quality. 

Read the article here.

06.05.15 New research released on phosphorus availability from manures and sewage

Manure and sewage can provide crops with more phosphorus than chemical fertilisers.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, 30th April 2015.

Phosphorus in sewage and manure could be more available to crops than previously thought, suggests new research.  The study found that some forms of sewage and manure treatment provided plants with more phosphorus than conventional inorganic fertilisers.

Over the past 50 years chemical fertilisers containing inorganic phosphorus have boosted crop yields and food production across the globe. However their use has come at a cost.  Phosphorus applied as fertiliser can be lost to waterways leading to the eutrophication of freshwater bodies and oceans.

This loss of phosphorus is not just a pollution concern. Phosphorus is a finite resource with no substitute in food production, and known sources are becoming increasingly depleted. Finding ways to recycle or re-capture phosphorus to fertiliser crops is therefore of increasing importance.

The research examined how phosphorus could be usefully recovered from manure and sewage sludge to feed back into the cycle as a fertiliser.  A range of different types of treated sewage sludge and manures was compared with chemically produced fertiliser.  How sewage and manure are processed or treated can affect the availability of their phosphorus for plants.

The researchers added samples of sewage sludge, manure or chemical fertiliser to plant pots in which Italian ryegrass was grown, under laboratory conditions.  Different types of sewage and manure were applied, which represented a range of European treatment practices.

They measured levels of phosphorus in the soil and in the plants at four and eight weeks after sowing. They also compared the proportion of potentially available phosphorus actually in the plants among the fertiliser treatments.

The results suggested that phosphorus was more plant-available from manure and sewage than from the chemical fertiliser, depending on the treatment.  The phosphorus was most available to plants grown in manure and in sludge that had been treated biologically (using microbes which capture phosphate) or with a medium amount of iron coagulant added.

Iron coagulants are sometimes added to sewage to prevent phosphorus from entering waterways and causing eutrophication. However, adding iron brings a risk: iron-bound phosphorus may not be as useable by plants as non-iron bound forms of phosphorus.

However, increasing the amount of sludge used reduced the proportion of phosphorus taken up by plants, even though there was a greater amount of potentially available phosphorus. High levels of iron binding were found to prevent take-up of phosphorus.

There was more plant-available phosphorus in manure that had been anaerobically digested and composted, and in anaerobically digested sludge when combined with acid treatment and an oxidiser.

These findings are contrary to the assumed knowledge that phosphorus recycling from residues such as manure and sewage is limited. When treated appropriately, manure and sludge can provide even more plant-available phosphorus than traditional inorganic fertilisers, the research suggests.

While these results are likely to be generally applicable, further research may be needed to investigate whether different crops and soil types lead to changes in the availability or uptake of phosphorus by plants.

The researchers conclude that effective recycling of phosphorus, using appropriate residue treatments such as most of those ones used in this study, should be encouraged, with possible incentives in the form of taxes or subsidies. This would realise the full benefits of phosphorus recycling, and counter the current ‘legacy’ of phosphorus loss and eutrophication.

05.05.15 Healthy soil, healthy farms and healthy communities

The Land Stewardship project (LSP) is a private, non profit organisation founded in 1982 to foster an ethic of stewardship for farmland, to promote sustainable agriculture and to develop sustainable communities in the USA.

As part of this project, they followed some farmers who were implementing different management techniques to help safeguard soils and improve microbial activity.  

Gabe Brown, a farmer from North Dakota, explains that healthy soil represents more than higher yields from crops, it is an investment in his farm's long term viability and the future of his entire community, human and natural.  Practices that Gabe and some other American farmers are using include conservation tillage, multi-species cover cropping, mob grazing and frequent rotations.  Their approach is being monitored and so far the results are good.  One of the project team working with these farmers comments: "they're pushing scientists, conservationalists, and sustainable agriculture in general to a new level."

This article uses real farm examples and explains some of the thinking behind implementing min-till cultivations, diverse mixes of cover crops and mob grazing to try and focus on reducing costs, improving profit and building soil health and organic matter.  

One scientist comments, "Gabe did something I thought was impossible, and instead of telling him 'good job' I said, what more can you do?  I don't know how far we can take it but I like the idea of not putting limitations or constraints on a system.  Can we take it a little further?

Read the full article here.

28.04.15 Economic Assessment of GHG mitigation options

A European Joint Research Centre report was published in February of this year entitled an economic assessment of GHG mitigation policy options for EU agriculture. The general conclusion of this report doesn't make for optimistic thinking.  The results from the modelling highlight the potential for future GHG reduction targets to decrease EU food production, lower EU competitiveness with the resulting leakage in emissions possibly outdoing any mitigation effort in Europe.

This report comes after a lot of clever modellers and statisticians have developed a model which assesses the impact on economics and reduction in GHG emissions from a range of scenarios as we move forward.  Its important to remember however, that this is just using modelling data, and although its useful to look at ‘what if’ scenarios, the diversity and uniqueness of our industry make it inherently difficult to predict and model.

Agriculture's GHG emissions currently account for 10% of total EU GHG emissions.

And this (due to European’s reporting format) doesn’t include emissions from carbon dioxide (that arise from land use change, energy consumption and fertiliser production).

The main sources of EU agricultural emissions are:

Nitrous oxide emissions from soil management (52% of total emissions in the EU), mainly due to application of manure and mineral N fertiliser.

Methane emissions – from enteric fermentation (32%) from grazing livestock

Manure management – (16%), emissions of methane and nitrous oxide during storage and treatment of manure.

Since 1990 agricultural GHG emissions have decreased at an EU level by 23%, and this can be attributed to several factors including an increase in farm productivity, a decrease in cattle numbers and improvements in farm management practices, and development and implementation of agriucultural and environmental policies.


Let me first confess that I am not a modeller, and having read this report twice, I will try and highlight the important bits (and not confuse things further).

The model used for this analysis takes into account the effect of implementing policies designed to reduce emission on economics, agricultural production and trade potential (globally).

As part of this 5 different farm based mitigation techniques were looked at as possible methods that could be used on-farm to achieve reduction targets mandated by policy.

These were:

Farm scale and community based AD with the AD system digesting manure and slurries and the biogas collected.

Use of nitrification inhibitors to increase the efficiency of N applied and at the same time reduce nitrous oxide emissions from mineral fertilisers.

A better timing of fertilisation in crop need / uptake and the applying of mineral fertilisers and manure are more geared to each other which can lead to higher yields and /or lower fertiliser requirements.

Precision farming as a crop management concept to respond to inter and intra field variability in crops

Changes in composition of animals’ diet – altering feed mix of ruminants to maintain production but reduce methane emissions.

It is assumed for this model that we are in 2030 and all these technologies are available to farmers commercially (not currently the case for all of these, especially the additives for ruminant diets).

The model then tested changing policy towards reducing GHG emissions from agriculture to assess the impact on the industry economically. These included setting mandatory targets for reducing emissions by 19 or 28% by 2030 (compared to 2005). There was then a division to look at the effect of allowing trade in emission permits, and instead of enforcing mandatory reduction levels, using subsidies to encourage farmers to reduce emissions voluntarily (and receive payments for doing so). This was all compared to a control situation where business as usual continued.

What did the model find out?

The model showed that implementing mandatory emissions reduction targets impacted on agricultural production in the EU especially for livestock in terms of decreased food production and economic returns. The model also showed that the more flexible the mitigation policy is, the less the effects are on EU production levels and ‘leakage’ of emissions (where emissions are passed to another industry or country to fulfill the need for the product).

What does it all mean?

This is just a study to start to look at what the effect would be of implementing different policy options and isn't therefore going to be implemented. It does however highlight the complexity of the issues and the need for improved research to allow for commercially available (and rigorously tested) products that will help to reduce methane emissions from livestock and nitrous oxide emission from cropping. As well as that we need a sensible way to reach sensible targets, recognising that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

There are things that we all as farmers can do to improve resource use efficiency on-farm which will lead to a reduction in GHG emissions. This starts with scrutinising current business operations and asking the question as to where it may be possible to improve efficiencies, reduce costs and improve climate credentials.

To read the full report click here.

27.04.15 High nitrates in silage grass possible

Below average grass growth earlier this spring could put next winter's cow performance and fertility at risk, where grass is cut with high nitrate levels.

"With grass growth picking up, it's easy to forget the dry and cloudy weather experienced this spring will have delayed nitrogen utilisation in grass plants, something we've seen in recent fresh grass analysis results," says Kingshay assistant technical specialist Emma Wright. "This could mean high nitrate levels in grass when it  is due to be cut for silage."

"High nitrates can result in poor silage fermentation and reduce cow forage intakes. Cows eating larger amounts of nitrates can also lead to an increase in early embryonic death, seen as lower conception rates.

"Nitrate levels in grass increase following nitrogen applications because they are taken up by grass plants rapidly and stored within the plants until they are ready to make it into plant protein. Therefore the time and growth rate between nitrogen application and butting will affect levels in grass.

"So, a fresh grass analysis, costing less than £17 per sample, could be particularly valuable following this dry spring to help prevent silage quality and cow performance issues," Ms Wright advises.

Kingshay recommends that grass should not be cut before nitrates have decreased to safe levels, ideally below 0.10%. Between 0.15 and 0.25% nitrate N, there is some risk to silage quality, but this may be limited when sugar and dry matter levels are at optimal levels.

Above 0.25% Nitrate N cutting should be delayed and another fresh grass sample shoud be taken after 3-5 days," says Ms Wright.

"When grass has to be cut at above optimum nitrate levels, seek advice on ensiling practices which may mitigate the effects on silage quality, such as increasing the cutting height."

For more information see

24.04.15 US announce partnerships with Farmers and Ranchers to address climate change

Agriculture Secretary for the USA today laid out a comprehensive approach to partner with farmers and producers to address the threat of climate change. The new initiatives will build on the creation of the USDA’s Climate Hubs last year and will use voluntary, incentive based conservation, forestry and energy projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration and expand renewable energy production in the agricultural and forestry sectors.

The 10 building block for Climate Action in the US

Soil health: Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction. USDA aims to increase no-till implementation from the current 67 million acres to over 100 million acres by 2025.

Nitrogen Stewardship: Focus on the right timing, type, placement and quantity of nutrients to reduce nitrous oxide emission and provide cost savings through efficient application.

Livestock Partnerships: Encourage broader deployment of anaerobic digesters, lagoon covers, composting and solids separators to reduce methane emissions from cattle, dairy and swine operations. USDA plans to support 500 new digesters over the next 10 years as well as expand the use of covers on 10 percent of anaerobic lagoons used in dairy cattle and pig operations.

Conservation of Sensitive Lands: Use the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to reduce GHG emissions through riparian buffers, tree planting, and the conservation of wetlands and organic soils. By 2025, USDA aims to enrol 400,000 acres of CRP lands with high greenhouse gas benefits, protect 40,000 acres through easements, and gain additional benefits by transferring expiring CRP acres to permanent easements.

Grazing and Pasture lands: Support rotational grazing management, avoiding soil carbon loss through improvement management of forage, soils and grazing livestock. By 2025, USDA plans to support improved grazing management on an additional 4 million acres, for a total of 20 million acres.

Private Forest Growth and Retention Through the Forest Legacy Program and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, protect almost 1 million additional acres of working landscapes. Employ the Forest Stewardship Program to cover an average of 2.1 million acres annually (new or revised plans), in addition to the 26 million acres covered by active plans./p>

Stewardship of Federal Forests: Reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. USDA plans to reforest 5,000 additional post disturbance acres by 2025.

Promotion of Wood Products: Increase the use of wood as a building material, to store additional carbon in buildings while offsetting the use of energy from fossil fuels. USDA plans to expand the number of wood building projects supported through cooperative agreements with partners and technical assistance, in addition to research and market promotion for new, innovative wood building projects.

Urban Forests – Encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, storm water runoff, and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal, and property values. Working with partners, USDA plans to plant an average of 9,000 additional trees in urban areas per year through 2025.

Energy Generation and Efficiency: Promote renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency. Through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, work with utilities to improve the efficiency of equipment and appliances. Using the Rural Energy for America Program and other programs, develop additional renewable energy, bioenergy and biofuel opportunities. Support the National On-Farm Energy Initiative to improve farm energy efficiency through cost- sharing and energy audits.

To read the full news release please click here.

24.04.15 Reducing New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions

The emissions intensity of New Zealand agriculture (the measure of the GHG’s generated per unit of meat or milk produced on-farms) has declined on average by about 1% per year since at least 1990. This has happened because farms have become more efficient through employing techniques such as improved animal genetics, management and better grassland management and feeding practices over the past 20 years.

On the flip side of this however, the reduced emissions intensity has been more than offset by the increased overall product generated by the sector. As such the emissions from New Zealand agriculture have risen by 15%, (although without the efficiency gains this would be much higher, about 30%). So while farmer’s efficiency gains are addressing a large proportion of the problem, they are not enough to counter the extra greenhouse gases being produced overall.

What’s the solution?

Although the drive for efficiency on-farm provides part of the solution, and by continuing to improve efficiencies, New Zealand farmers will continue to reduce the intensity of emissions (per unit of prouduct), in order to stop the total emissions from rising there is a need for practical and cost-effective tools to reduce emissions and achieve economic growth targets.

What are the research priorities?

The priorities that are being investigated in New Zealand are described below.

Low methane animals – methane emissions vary between animals. The level of emission is a genetically heritable trait, so it can be included in a selection index. Lower emissions appear not to affect other production traits so selecting for lower methane emissions would not impact negatively on a farm’s production

Low methane feeds – some feeds help reduce methane emissions and increase nitrogen utilisation. Identifying and confirming these feeds will mean recommended feeding regimes can be developed based on current and new feed options for use in different farm systems.

Methane vaccine – scientists are working on a vaccine programme which could reduce emission by up to 20% without reducing productivity. The vaccine stimulates antibodies to counter key methane-generating microbes within the rumen in livestock.

Methane inhibitors – Inhibitors can knock out methane – generating microbes. Researchers are looking for substances that work in the rumen without side-effects across a range of microbes. Successful inhibitors could be delivered in feed, a bolus or drench, mineral lick or within the water supply.

Reduce nitrous oxide and nitrate leaching – research is looking at novel interventions and on-farm management guidelines that reduce nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.

Increasing soil carbon – increasing carbon in the soil could offset greenhouse gas emissions. Research is looking at soil carbon levels across New Zealand and techniques to verify changes in carbon content. Work is also exploring management practices that increase carbon sinks.

What are farmers doing now?

At this point the biggest impact on greenhouse gas emissions intensity comes from New Zealand farmers continuing to increase the efficiency of their operations as much as possible. The research highlighted above is the crucial next step as these additional tools are needed soon.

Source: Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, New Zealand.

17.04.2015 Australian Climate champions

Following on from yesterday's blog looking at the Farm 300 programme that is running in Australia, below are a couple of videos of farmers who are 'climate champions' and have already adapted their businesses to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and boost profit.

The Farm 300 project has three aspects:

  • allowing farmers, growers and advisors access to the latest research and development on GHG emissions
  • upskilling advisors with the technical knowledge to help farmers
  • from this pool of advisors 25 are working with 300 producers across the country through a process that will develop a plan specific to their business that will subsequently improve their productivity and also mitigate GHG emissions

Climate champion Farmers

The two videos below highlight how 2 farmers have adapted their business management to improve profitability and reduce emissions.

Improving farm resilience using native grasses

Cattle and sheep producer James Houston from the Upper Murray region has increased productivity on his property by rotational grazing which has increased native grasses, allowed calves to be weaned and sent to market earlier. These changes have not only allowed carrying capacity to be improved but have also reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Heifer management to improve efficiency

Peter Whip and his wife Raeleen, are developing a highly efficient enterprise at Royston, south of Longreach.  As well as managing seasonal variability they are proof that reducing emissions from cattle production does not have to come at the expense of profit.

Source: Meat and Livestock Australia

16.04.15 The Farm 300 project, Australia

The weather down here in Cornwall seems to have turned for the better recently. I for one am enjoying the extended evenings, the sunshine and a general feeling of optimism that seems to be around when the temperature rises. However during international month here at FCCT, I am turning my attention to the other side of the world, (where, let's face it, this would probably be considered cold weather) where climate variability is proving more problematic for farmers trying to maintain profitable businesses.

Agriculture and land management activities produce almost 17% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions with 60% of those emissions coming from livestock. The information below is a few key facts and figures about Australia’s livestock industry to put it in perspective.


  • Australian National Sheep flock is 75.5 million head
  • Australia is one of the world’s leading producers of lamb and mutton
  • Off-farm meat value of Australian sheep meat industry is $4.2 billion
  • 42,012 properties with sheep and lambs
  • Sheepmeat industry accounts for 33% of all farms with agricultural activities


  • National cattle herd stands at 29.3 million
  • 76,807 properties with cattle
  • 13.4 million beef cows and heifers
  • The beef industry accounts for 55% of all farms with agricultural activity
  • Red meat industry employs approximately 200,000 workers across farm, processing and retail

Source: Meat and Livestock Australia

Farm 300 project

The Farm 300 project has been developed by the Meat and Livestock Australia and offers cattle and sheep advisor training and support to build practical knowledge and skills that can boost on-farm production and profitability by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.

The project is tasked with raising awareness and understanding of the practical options available to farmers in different production systems to improve profitability and efficiency while at the same time reducing emissions by creating groups looking at different areas. Farmers within these groups attend meetings and seminars and try out the methods at home. The project monitors the effect and then reports back.

The website is following 6 producers through creating videos at the start and throughout the year. If you want to watch them then click here. At the moment the website has the introductory videos on it, and as new ones are uploaded I will try and post the link again.

Focus groups

Groups that have been formed include:

  • A sheep farmer who is focussing on increasing stocking rate and matching it to the carrying capacity
  • A cattle producer looking at using a by-product of the wine making industry as a supplementary feed source to improve kg/head and reduce emissions.
  • A sheep producer matching stocking rate with feed availability in a changing climate
  • A cattle and sheep farmer looking at alternative pasture species and feed to fill feed gaps, increase efficiency and reduce methane emissions
  • A mixed farmer who is measuring the efficiency, emissions and profitability of the family’s feedlot.

The last farmer comments in his video:

Talking with a lot of the other group members in our Farm 300 group, it’s quite interesting with the GHG emissions and farm 300 and also where we’re wanting to go in terms of being more profitable and turning stock off earlier, being more efficient. I think that we are all heading in the same direction anyway and it is, if anything, reiterating what we’re doing and enforcing our practices that we’re trying to do because the margin is getting smaller and smaller and we need to figure out ways to increase it.

This group of farmers round here, we’re all pretty conscious of the environment anyway, to be sustainable we have to be; in order for us to be profitable we need to go down this path anyway."

As well as setting up these groups, the project has made videos looking at climate champion farmers who have already started doing things to help improve profitability and reduce emissions. I’ll post those videos up tomorrow.

27.03.15 FCCT Loves Soil

Just a quick blog to round the week off, before a week of peace and quiet next week while I’m away!  While doing some research for the global stuff we are focussing on at the moment, I came across this little project that is focussing on spreading the love of soils around the world.  So here is FCCT’s effort, the gauntlet is thrown down – I’m sure that you can all do better!  At the moment there are no pins on the map from the UK, so lets change that.

It also got me thinking about all the great functions that soil performs; soil underpins life.  Below are some of the things that I came up with.

Have a great Easter.

26.03.15 European Soil carbon research

The information below comes from a project called SmartSOIL. This project is a European wide project aimed at looking at sustainable farm management that will reduce the threats from climate change. It looks to reverse the current degradation trend of European Agricultural Soils by improving soil carbon management in European arable and mixed farming systems. To read more about the project please click here

What soil organic carbon measures are the most cost –effective?

Research conducted through the Smart-SOIL project looked at the cost effectiveness of implementing management to improve soil carbon stocks across 6 case study regions. The regions involved in the study are:

  • Zealand, Denmark
  • Central Region, Hungary
  • Tuscany, Italy
  • Mazovia, Poland
  • East Coast, Scotland
  • Andalucia, Spain

Cost effectiveness of the measures was assessed in terms of the impact on the typical gross margin per crop. The results indicated that in each of the case study regions, there was potential for the uptake of measures that produced benefits to the farmer’s bottom line and the soil organic carbon levels.

Measures were grouped into three broad categories.

Reduced input costs: Measures such as minimum tillage and the use of manures are estimated to be highly cost-effective event where modest reductions in yield occur because of the potential to reduce input costs. These input costs include:

The fuel and time required for cultivation relative to conventional tillage and reduced mineral fertiliser costs (manures)

Zero tillage performs less well as there is a cost incurred for increased cost protection spraying.  The inclusion of legumes in the rotation also appears to be cost effective due to the reduced need for mineral fertiliser input; however, our analysis does not consider impacts over the course of a rotation.

Loss of revenue from by-products – Residue management has a high potential for soil organic carbon increase in most case study regions, but this could only be achieved at a loss of revenue from selling straw as a by-product.

Increased input costs. Under assumptions of unchanged or reduced yield impacts, cover crops were estimated to result in a large reduction in gross margin due to the additional costs or seeds and cultivation. But where yield was assumed to increase the cost-effectiveness improved for some crops in some regions. This highlights the potential role for good agronomic advice to ensure that the benefits of SOC measures can be fully realised.

A significant barrier to implementing soil carbon management is that most farm production related decisions are taken in the short-term, whereas managing soil carbon effectively needs a long term approach. Key barriers to uptake of practices include: perceived difficulty in demonstrating the positive effects of soil carbon management practices and economic benefits over a long time scale; and advisers being unable to provide suitable advice due to inadequate information or training. Most farmers were unconvinced of the economic benefits of practices for managing soil carbon. Incentives are therefore needed either as subsidies or as evidence of the cost effectiveness of practices.

Real life case study

Rafael Alonso Aguilera runs the family owned Oro del Desierto farm in Andalucia in Spain. It is a 650ha organic mixed farm with 110ha olive groves, cereals, vineyards and pasture for livestock (irrigated systems). He has loam, sandy-loam and sandy soils but manages to avoid soil erosion problems and water shortages common in the area due to managing the organic matter in the soil using minimum tillage, gutters or infiltration canals; terraces, control furrows, cover crops, inert cover (mulch) and adding organic matter (their own compost).

Rafael comments “We have analysed our soils and we have recorded that the soil organic matter is increasing compared to the beginning. We realise that leaving the pruning debris and grass and the applications of composts have largely contributed to an increase in the soil organic matter and in turn soil fertility. Thanks to these practices, the soil water retention is much better, erosion is reduced and the soil biology populations are larger. You can obtain many advantages from sustainable management.”

Why not check out our soil carbon pages for more inspiration?

25.03.15 Global Strategies to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture

This is the interesting theme that we are going to tackle for the next month here at FCCT. Although we have enough in the day on our own farms to deal with, especially with spring being a busy time of year for most, it is interesting (for us anyway!) to look at what other nations are doing to reduce emissions, and see if there is any overlap.

There are projects all across the world which are dealing with the same sort of issues that we are here. Reducing GHG emissions, improving productivity and efficiency whilst maintaining profitable businesses is not unique to British agriculture. We all have targets of one type or another concerning emissions and some nations are experiencing a more dramatic shift in climate patterns which is affecting production capabilities as well.

To start the month off, I thought that we would have some food for thought. The material below comes from a report written in the US by California Environmental Associates in 2014 which looks at Strategies for Mitigating Climate Change in Agriculture and the issues globally which we need to consider. The link here is to the abridged report (still 84 pages long), but if you are interested and are up to date with all your jobs outside, the link to the full document is here (146 pages).

Agriculture contributes substantially to global climate change. The sector accounts for roughly a fifth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when one considers the full life cycle of production including agriculture’s role in deforestation. This is a massive number, comparable in scale to the transportation sector. Further, this ratio can be even higher in developing countries where the agriculture and forestry sectors together often account for a majority of total emissions. Yet, historically, climate negotiators and policy makers have paid relatively little attention to the agricultural sector in the global effort to slow climate change.

Key global agricultural producers that can achieve major productivity goals

Reducing enteric fermentation emissions from Brazil’s cattle population and India’s dairy

The mitigation opportunities are large, would yield productivity gains, and ought to be in the best interest of the farmers and governments. In each case, the opportunity involves improving the quality of livestock diets so that farmed animals can reach market weight more quickly, and produce more meat and milk. These changes not only result in lower emissions on per unit of product, but also improve the economics and productivity of the herds, and can allow smaller animal populations to support a sustained production level.

Increasing the efficiency of nutrient use on China’s croplands

China is believed to have the greatest overuse of fertilizer globally. Simple measures can greatly reduce GHG emissions from fertilizer application in China without harming yields. In many cases, reduced fertilizer application would benefit yields and long-term soil fertility. In addition, securing major industrial inefficiencies in China’s fertilizer production would yield very significant GHG

Reducing rice emissions in Southeast Asia.

Although this opportunity is spread across a region instead of a single country, rice farming has both high emissions and mitigation potential due to the amount of rice grown in flooded fields. Many of the interventions used to reduce rice emissions are complementary with productivity gains, such as adding irrigation to better control water, which allows for double cropping.

Improving stored manure practices in industrialized livestock systems.

While mitigation interventions that target stored manure management do not benefit productivity, they also present no serious food security risks and have other co-benefits (e.g., water quality).

Unlike many mitigation options, manure management has been addressed through progressive policies in many countries.

These are some of the issues that are being discussed on a global research scale. However the report also throws up some other questions that we will be looking at, including creating a robust methodology to measure emissions that can compare results between countries and conflicting national and regional policies and pressures to reduce emissions.

Sitting comfortably?!

23.03.2014 Water capital grant scheme opens for applications

£10 million available to farmers and land managers for water quality improvement works.

How much is available?

Farmers and land managers in England can now apply to Natural England for a water capital grant of up to £10,000 to help them carry out works that will improve water management and quality on their land.

Providing a total of £10 million worth of funding to the farm industry these government grants will fund new projects that reduce the impact agriculture can have on our water quality.  Applications to the water capital grants fund can be submitted from 2nd March 2015 and must be received by Natural England on or before 30 April 2015.

The water capital grants make up the first phase of the governments new Countryside Stewardship scheme. Set to be rolled out in full later in the summer, Countryside Stewardship will commit around £900 million to benefitting the environment over the next 6 years. This will help farmers and land managers develop environmentally friendly techniques and adopt initiatives such as restoring hedges, planting woodland, enhancing wildlife habitats and improving water quality.

What can be funded?

Water capital grants are one-off payments towards the cost of specific items or activities, and land managers can select from a wide range of practical projects that will attract different amounts of funding. There are more than 40 items eligible for grant funding including:

  • installing biobeds
  • preventing livestock access to watercourses by erecting watercourse fencing
  • providing drinking troughs as an alternative to watercourse drinking for livestock
  • relocation of sheep dips and pens
  • roofing of sprayer washdown areas, manure storage areas, livestock gathering areas, slurry stores and silage stores.

Funding will be competitive with grants awarded to applications that best meet the scheme's priorities and have the greatest environmental benefits.

How to apply

Anyone interested in making an application to the grant fund is strongly advised to contact their local Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer or Catchment partner for advice before making an application. Support is available to help identify the main opportunities for water quality improvements, provide advice on what capital work could be eligible and help with completion of  the application.

Applications will only be accepted from land holdings in a priority catchment.

For more information please click here.

23.03.15 Climate metrics and footprints

This information below comes from a research letter published in a journal recently entitled Climate metrics and the carbon footprint of livestock products: where's the beef?, and deals with the subject of metrics and greenhouse gas emissions. I must confess that I glanced at this paper last Friday afternoon, and quickly moved it to my Monday pile, and have now re-read it refreshed after the weekend, when it now makes more sense.

Metrics are inherently fairly complicated things, and measuring the Carbon footprint of products has never been an easy task.  Add to this the intricacies which come with measuring the footprint of agricultural products and it tends to make the brain hurt.

As an industry however we need to reduce the carbon footprint of our products in order to minimise the warming potential, the effects of climate change, and improve business efficiency.

Because of this, there are a group of clever scientists that have devoted their careers (and still are) to developing robust methodologies to measure climate impacts. The “Global Warming Potential (GWP)” is a commonly used method which assigns different values to different greenhouse gases and provides a common figure that can be comparable.

However when looking at agriculture, unlike many other industries, carbon dioxide isn’t really the big problem. Emissions of nitrous oxide (from soils and fertilisers) and methane (from ruminant livestock and manure storage and handling) pose much more of a problem than the carbon dioxide that is used on-farm. Add to this that the “intensity” of these gases in terms of their effect on climate change is higher and we start to see the difficulties that arise.

Due to this large share of non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions that arise from agriculture, the way that the calculation is done and the method used is crucial when policy makers and scientists are looking at the contribution of agriculture to global greenhouse gas emissions.

This paper (which if you are in the mood for, you can read in full here), examines this issue in lots of detail and looks at whether in agriculture, instead of using the 100 year global warming potential (GWP100) there is a better way of describing it. The method that it looks at is the global temperature change potential.

A couple of definitions

Global Warming potential (100 years)The Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a useful metric for comparing the potential climate impact of the emissions of different Long Lived Greenhouse Gases. Global Warming Potentials compare the integrated radiative forcing (the change in energy in the atmosphere due to a greenhouse gas) over a specified period (e.g., 100 years) from a unit mass pulse emission and are a way of comparing the potential climate change associated with emissions of different greenhouse gases.

Global Temperature change potential (GTP) – the global temperature change potential can be defined as the temperature impact at a future point in time due to an emission pulse of the gas, divided by the temperature change of an emission pulse of carbon dioxide.

The study recommends that metrics used to assess greenhouse gas emissions should be re-examined. We all recognise that agriculture is a dynamic changing system and assigning values to products will always be challenging. The study argues that basing current GHG metrics solely on temperature impact in 100 years is inconsistent with the current global climate goal of limiting warming to 2degrees C, a limit that is likely to be reached well within 100 years.

A reasonable GTP (global temperature change potential) value for methane, (accounting for current projections for when 2 degrees centigrade warming will be reached) is about 18, which calculates the carbon footprint as being 20% lower than if it was measured using GWP.

However by using this GTP method and using a 2 degrees C limit, this results in the methane valuation increasing rapidly over time as the temperature ceiling is reached. This means that the carbon footprint would rise by around 2.5% per year, and as such would then overtake the original result using GWP in 10 years.

This shows that using the GTP method would show positive results in the short term, however over a longer term the impact on the livestock sector would be much larger.

So what does this mean?

For me, having read it through twice, it means that although this other method seems to show the emissions in a more positive light in the short term, it catches up in the long term. It just goes to show that statistics can be made to show different things depending on how they are reported. However it’s good that the statisticians and other clever people are at least recognising that agriculture is complicated in terms of measuring and that it needs more thought.

In the meantime, what does this mean on the farm?  Well to me, it shows that while they argue over the best method, we all have a chance at home to make our systems as productive as possible (which will be a good thing for the carbon footprint of the farm, and our pocket).

To read it in full please click here.

20.03.2015 Building Carbon in farm soils

Carbon conscious farmers in the UK work with nature not against it, concerned about the health of their soils for future generation.  They use principles of 'feeding the soil not the plant', understanding and encouraging soil biology, and harvesting sunlight to maximum effect.  These farmers understand that we must repair damaged soils, and reduce our dependency on chemical fertilisers made from nonrenewable fossil fuels and that also reduce soil health.  These farmers are serious about building carbon in their soils, and their approaches are backed up by hard science.

This info comes from an article written by our very own Jonathan Smith from FCCT, that has just been published in Farming Matters.  To read the full article click here.

For more information on managing soil carbon please visit our pages here.

17.03.2015 The Shropshire Agroforestry Project

Getting in to Agroforestry

by Peter Aspin, Shropshire Agroforestry Project

My personal interest in silvopastoral agriculture (i.e. the integration of trees into permanent pasture) developed from two angles. Firstly, the observations over several decades of the interaction of cattle with trees in terms of using them for browsing - cattle are most definitely not simply grazing animals, and shelter, be it sun, rain, wind or cold. Secondly, becoming fascinated by the concept of forest gardening, the main practitioner of which in Western Europe was a man from the south of this county, Robert Hart.

As I developed a small forest garden, I became more fascinated by the concept of agroforestry throughout the world and began to develop a system here almost fifteen years ago, initially simply using ash and walnut trees but as my interest and knowledge and curiosity developed, planting many other species which I felt had a relevance and requirement of further research.

The integration of tree crops into pasture or arable crops goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Most people know of the age-old practice of growing cork oaks in pasture in the Iberian peninsula, known as “dehesa” in Spain and “montado” in Portugal. In the seventeenth century, the diarist and arboreal advisor to Charles II, John Evelyn, commented on the management of walnut trees in wheat fields in northern France and how little they affected the yield of corn.

Agroforestry systems are well-developed in much of Asia, especially China, but these are largely silvoarable in nature. The Holy Grail in agriculture has for many years, and continues to be, perennial corn and I often wonder why no independent farmers in the UK are prepared to research the likely candidates. But the ultimate perennial crop is the tree, with so many myriad uses of all its component parts.

How it started here

Climate was the spur to the research here. I sold the dairy herd here in 1996 and since then reared beef cattle bought in as calves. About half were black, either Limousin or Angus crosses. On hot summer days they were very uncomfortable in open fields and many spent large parts of the day in the buildings, which is obviously not good for liveweight gain.

We’ve probably all observed cattle in the shade of trees or hedges. The hot summer of 2013 was a perfect example of how not to keep cattle in large open fields without shade, resulting in many losses and production problems. We are told that the average temperature will increase by 2-3 degrees centigrade by the end of the century. But the mean figure inevitably hides the extremes.

Much work has been done in both the UK and the USA about the use of trees to moderate urban temperatures, none as far as I am aware in terms of crops or livestock, and this continues to be part of the research here. As well as providing actual shade, agroforestry also produces convection currents as the warmer air away from the trees rises, drawing in the cooler air from beneath the canopy. And trees in leaf produce copious amounts of oxygen as they separate the components of carbon dioxide.

How it works on my farm

Planting here is in rows aligned north-south at five metre intervals between individual trees, with slightly larger distances to the headlands for machinery operation. There is a single permanent electric fence either side of the row to prevent damage by livestock. Spacing between rows is twenty metres, which I felt was the absolute minimum where cattle are grazing, without resulting in a “corridor” effect where the cattle spend too much time and effort going up and down the alley, and not enough foraging. Therefore on this farm the cattle are allocated a length of, say, 100 metres or 150 metres, depending on forage growth, multiplied by the width of the alley, 20 metres.

The most efficient shape to graze is the square, maximum area, minimum length of boundary. If this had been a larger farm, then inter-row spacing would have been 30 to 50 metres, but as I needed to get as many trees as possible (500 plus) into the area (20 acres), options were limited.

Browsing animals

As mentioned earlier, bovines are to a considerable degree browsing animals. The main browsing tree in the past has been the English Elm, but since its demise its place has been taken by the ash. However, virtually any deciduous tree or hedging plant (especially at leaf emergence) will be readily consumed. A recently retired veterinarian I know jokes that he has the healthiest and quietest flock of sheep because of the salicilin (aspirin) they intake from the abundant willow in the hedgerows.

Indeed, livestock often prefer tree foliage to ground forage. And so many species of trees are grown here to provide forage for the cattle, and though the medicinal effects are vague and unproven, the very fact that there is developing such a varied diet as the trees grow, will manifest itself in healthier animals. The diet of so many farmed animals today is so frighteningly narrow.

We have all been made aware recently of the degradation of our soils, fertility and structure, that has taken since the last ice age to build up, being lost at an alarming rate. Virtually every time I am in the countryside, I see appalling land management which takes no account whatsoever of the long term damage to the land.

The finest soil conditioner of all is leaf litter and there are two methods of leaf fall in autumn. Wind induced defoliation disperses the leaves over a wide area. Frost induced defoliation concentrates the leaves below the tree, which can result in damage to and destruction of perennial crops. Some years in early winter harrowing is essential beneath mature oak, and especially sycamore, trees along the farm boundaries to prevent this. On the whole, the small leaves or leaflets of trees such as elm, robinias (black locust) or gleditsias (honey locust) are quickly absorbed . The larger leaves of trees such as walnut, sweet chestnut or sycamore take much longer to degrade or be taken below the surface by invertebrates. But generalisations are not possible.

The all-important tree of Chinese agroforestry, the foxglove tree (Paulownia spp.) has very large leaves but these degrade rapidly and are not problematic. The high calcium content of deciduous leaf-litter also tends to neutralise the soil (increase the pH), whilst, conversely, the leaf-litter of coniferous trees acidifies the soil over time.

Trees grown at Shropshire Agroforestry Project include:



Sweet chestnut





Monkey puzzle

Hackberry (Celtis),

Black and Honey Locust

Pasture management

As far as I am concerned, the plough is an instrument of last resort, a means to repair the result of poor management. Three alleys (6 acres) where the grass/clover components had become unproductive, owing to such poor management and excessive leaf fall damage, were reseeded in the autumn of 2014. It is ten years since any of the land was last ploughed and I foresee no need for it in the future. If any sward becomes short of an ingredient, perhaps clover, then I broadcast that just before grazing so that the cattle tread the seed in, so long as the ground is not too dry. This alley is then taken out of the grazing rotation and cut for silage seven to eight weeks later to enable the new seedlings to emerge and consolidate. I also use the traditional method of reseeding hay meadows whereby the sward is allowed to go to seed before cutting. The resultant tedding of the drying grass distributes the seed-heads across the pasture which the machinery wheels then incorporate into the surface layer.

The effect of this system of farming on drainage is very interesting. A few years ago a water mains burst in the main road running alongside the farm exemplified this. The alleys which had just been grazed were flooded owing to the recent soil compaction, but the rows where the trees were planted absorbed the water very quickly and the flooding came to a very sudden end by the third row. This outcome has also been observed after heavy thunderstorms. In the dry summer of 2014, narrow fissures running several inches deep along the rows of trees were conspicuous. Conventional thinking concerning field drainage is probably not appropriate in agroforestry.

The forage is conventional long- term organic seed mixtures with a fairly high proportion of white clover. Some herbs have been included in the past but the only persistent one has been yarrow.

Tree pruning

In the first few years after establishment, tree pruning to shape is essential. The ideal is to have a clear stem of about two metres with branches radiating out from this height. Much below this figure and ground shading would become a major problem affecting yields of the crop beneath. The usually accepted critical figure is one third canopy cover, below this level crop production is barely impacted, but above it production loss begins to become significant.

For similar reasons late leafing trees are necessary in agroforestry systems. In Asia the aforesaid foxglove trees (very fast growing producing timber for construction) are often grown with wheat, which invariably reaches its full height before the trees come into leaf, so all the corn then has to do is ripen as shading intensifies. Here, about forty varieties of walnut have been established, and some do not come into full leaf until the second half of June, so grass production is barely affected.

All crops grown under shade tend to become “leggy”, that is tall and thin. Here, this is especially apparent on the southern boundary where an existing mature row of trees shades the ground all year round. But this accidental shelter belt has benefited the rate of growth of trees planted within its influence. Conventional high-yielding ryegrasses prefer to grow in full sun whereas fescue grasses grow well in some shade. The reseeding last autumn included a percentage of Fest(ul)olium which is a ryegrass/ fescue hybrid in order to try to maintain high growth rates under conditions of some shade.

As well as walnuts, other nut trees established include sweet chestnuts, hazels, almonds, hickories, gingkoes and monkey puzzles (araucaria); browsing trees include a number of species of ash and elm, several varieties of hackberry (Celtis), black and honey locust trees (both also leguminous),timber trees include hornbeam and sweet gum (liquidambar) and Liriodendron (tulip trees) but there are also trees for rubber and cork production, even root beer. However, all trees by their very nature are multi-purpose: walnuts not only provide nuts and timber and edible sap but the smell of their foliage deters biting flies and when the cattle begin to browse the astringent leaves you know they are hungry and need moving on to the next rotation block.

Further developments

However, there is so much more research that needs to be done concerning the integration of trees and ground cover crops. I had hoped to establish a curvilinear system on another twenty acre field, to discover at what angle to due north yields were highest. Also which would depend on latitude, prevailing wind direction, strength of morning to afternoon sun etc., but that is for others now. On sloping land, contour and spiral contour strategies need to be assessed. If temperatures are to rise then wind velocities will become more problematic making shelter belts essential. And, of course, these landscapes/treescapes must be established decades before they are required. Finally, and in purely economic terms, it is usually accepted that production from an established agroforestry system has a fifty per cent higher total output than the same area of land devoted separately to conventional cropping and woodland.

Peter Askin

Shropshire Agroforestry Project

13.03.15 Planting trees on-farm: funding options

The Woodland Trust offers financial and practical assistance to help farmers benefit from trees, supporting business objectives and the environment.

Benefits from farm trees

Cost effective livestock shelter - extending the period animals can stay outside

Control stock movement - keep stock away from unsuitable areas

Shelter for crops - improve plant water efficiency by slowing wind speeds

Soil management - protect soils from wind and water erosion

Reduced flood risk - improve water infiltration by up to 60 times, helping water travel deep into the ground

Cleaner water - trapping agricultural pollutants

Reduce costs - by growing on-farm firewood supply or woodchip bedding

Boost pollinators - trees sustain pollinators when other food sources may be scarce

Sporting interest - provide valuable cover for game and other wildlife

Landscape value

Funding to plant farm trees

Through the PUR project farmers are able to access:

  • a whole farm tree assessment
  • thoughtfully designed planting schemes tailored to your farm business
  • advice on tree planting, maintenance and management
  • free trees and guards
The scheme is quite flexible and can be adapted to your needs - for example planting shelterbelts, riparian strips, pasture trees, woodland or developing agro-forestry systems
For more information please contact 01476 452356 or click here.

Watch the video of Stephen Briggs our great blogger from earlier this week.

Following on from the fab article that Stephen Briggs wrote earlier this week on implementing agro-forestry systems on his farm, here is a video produced by the Woodland Trust that shows him explaining his reasons behind the project and some great footage of the farm.

09.03.15 Climate smart cropping with new horizons

Stephen & Lynn Briggs rent a 105ha farm in Cambridgeshire, UK. Stephen is also a farm business consultant with ‘Abacus Agri’ where he specialises in organic arable production, and is the author of the book ‘Organic Cereal and Pulse Production’. Lynn is also an environmental consultant as well as helping run the farm.

The farm set up

Given their passion for organic farming and conservation, it is unsurprising that the farm was converted to organic as soon as they started renting the farm in 2007 on a 15 year agreement. Our overwhelming challenge is to develop an organic farming system with a balance of productivity and environmental management that is suited to high quality peat soils, which produces a good financial return and which is sustainable in the long term, on a farm where soil fertility is good but where the challenges for weed control are high. Another major concern is that the light peat soils on the farm have very high levels of organic matter (c.23%) and are subject to oxidation and wind erosion – and a loss of the farms most important resource. We wanted to do something that would protect the soil whist retaining productivity and enhancing biodiversity.

System design

With previous experience from time spent working in Africa and recognising the environmental and economic benefits of agroforestry, they were keen to develop a system at the farm to create a mixed tree & arable crop landscape on 52ha. With changes to the EU CAP Pillar 1 Scheme in 2009, apple trees were chosen as the tree species. We chose apple trees as we wanted to get a commercial return within the period of our farm rental of 15 years. If we had a longer rental period, nut, coppice or timber trees could be considered. Diversification into apples, along side or indeed, mixed in with arable crops creates a greater enterprise mix or perennial and annual crops, spreading cropping risk, whilst also capitalising on a resurgence in demand for English apples. After setting out the planting rows, MM106 semi-dwarf root stock were planted. Thirteen different varieties were planted for eating and juicing markets, with varieties selected for taste, good storage, pollination, disease resistance and late ripening. Late ripening was important so that apples can be picked after the cereal harvest in the autumn. After harvesting arable crops in the autumn, the farm will move straight from cereal to fruit harvesting, and the risk of a difficult harvest will be spread over a wider harvest window.

Compared to a normal orchard with over 1000 trees per ha, a planting density of 100 trees per ha allows normal farm equipment to be used, eliminating the need for specialist orchard machinery. This keeps fixed and operational costs down and means any equipment is multi purpose.

Between the rows of trees there is a 24m wide cultivated area for the cereal, root or vegetable crop. We held our breath when drilling the first cereal crop between the rows of trees, but the layout worked, the cereals performed well and there were no problems with harvest. But we did remind the combine driver to drive straight!

Unlike a new orchard where all the land is occupied by trees and narrow alleys, approximately eight percent of the land area is now occupied by trees. This means that we can continue to crop ninety two percent of the area whist we waited the five years for the apple trees to reach commercial productivity. This is a major plus point for the system with regard to cash flow. The arable crops provide short term income and the trees and fruit provide longer term income and a capital asset.

They have also introduced a wide range of conservation measures, including over winter cereal stubbles, green manures, feed plants for wild birds and Nectar flower mixtures, multi species legumes and wild flowers sown beneath the tree strips to attract insects and pollinators – important for fruit production and beneficial to surrounding crops.

On reflection Stephen and Lynn sum up “we think what we are doing at Whitehall Farm is creating a sustainable business integrating conservation and profitable farming using some very novel approaches, which we believe have a bright future and which create new horizons - literally !

A couple more pictures of Steve and Lynn's farm


Some background on agroforestry

Agroforestry is a concept of integrated land use that combines elements of agriculture and forestry in a sustainable production system. Agroforestry systems are classified as silvoarable (trees & crops) or silvopastoral (trees & animals). With an emphasis on managing rather than reducing complexity it promotes a functional bio-diverse system that balances productivity with environmental protection. Systems can combine production of a wide range of products including food, fuel, fodder and forage, fiber, timber gums and resins, thatching and hedging materials, gardening materials, medicinal products, recreation and ecological services. Tree species can be timber, fruit, nut, coppice or a combination etc, and the rows in between trees can produce cereals, vegetables, fruit, forage etc. Careful selection of crop components is required in relation to market outlets, local climate, soil, alley spacing, tree height, planting and harvesting timing, tree leaf production and shading etc.

Agroforestry systems modify local microclimatic conditions (temperature, air water vapor content, evaporation and wind speed) and provide benefits to crops which are grown with the trees by reducing soil degradation and enhancing biodiversity, pest and disease control. Agroforestry also reduces nutrient loss by maximizing internal nutrient cycling through leaf litter return.

Cropping the extra dimension

Most crop production systems exist by exploiting sun, air, water and soil nutrients in a relatively thin layer above and below ground, typically no more than a meter or so. Combining trees in the system can make much better use of these resources in space and time. Tree roots access nutrients and water at greater soil depth than most farmed crops and branches make better use of sunlight above an understorey crop. Agroforestry systems use resources over a longer period of the year. The secret is to combine complementary components. For example, cereals require most resources from April – June, whereas a later leafing tree species may require most of its water, sunlight and nutrients later in the summer and autumn after the cereal has ripened. This allows the farm to better utilize natural resources and also crop an extra and widely underutilized dimension, upwards!.

There is a growing understanding that agroforestry can provide multi-functional land use and environmental benefits. These are not yet clearly acknowledged or understood by UK farmers or policy makers. By integrating trees into the agricultural landscape there is also a real potential to impact on the local economy by increasing economic stability, diversification of local products and economies, diversification of rural skills, improving food and fuel security, improving the cultural and natural environment and the landscape diversity. Combined with the positive impact of agroforestry on resource use, resource protection and climate change mitigation, the benefits of agro forestry are slowly becoming better understood and documented. However, the role of agroforestry in protecting the environment and providing a number of ecosystem services has not yet been fully appreciated in the UK.

Article written by Stephen Briggs, Whitehall Farm.

06.03.2015 Agroforestry Ammonia Abatement, practicalities, implications and policy

This work was done by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Scotland, in collaboration with work in Spain and France. It looked at the potential for abating ammonia emissions from livestock production systems.  80% of the UK’s ammonia emissions come from animal manures, either from livestock housing, storage or spreading – a further 10% comes from inorganic fertiliser.

Planting tree shelterbelts upwind and downwind of livestock housing or slurry storage facilities will reduce ammonia emissions in two ways. Firstly the shelterbelt will result in a lower wind speed directly above and around the building or slurry store and thereby will increase the time taken for emitted ammonia to be transported away in the air. Secondly the trees will recapture a proportion of the emitted ammonia both directly through cuticular uptake and indirectly through increased deposition.

In addition to the recapture of this emitted ammonia, there are additional benefits of agroforestry systems including animal welfare, carbon sequestration, options for wood fuel and the protection of semi-natural areas. However in order to be able to quantify the effects and benefits of agroforestry systems, so that a national planting policy could be developed, there needs to be scientific research and modelling studies to provide the evidence and research into practical implantation (for example the choice of tree species, structure and planting area), for maximum ammonia recapture.

This research looked at quantifying the effectiveness of ammonia recapture and it’s knock on benefits using a range of modelling, lab and field experiments, as well as case studies, to look at what the potential is for UK wide agro-forestry ammonia abatement.

What did they find?

A wind tunnel experiment looking at ammonia recapture, found that a belt of small conifer trees were capable of recapturing up to 18% of ammonia emitted.

When this was scaled up (release under a forest canopy) the results were less clear.

Three case studies carried out for 6 months found woodland to be significantly abating ammonia levels at local level, both via dispersal and uptake.

Theoretical configurations using models were also tested. Results showed that leaf area index (LAI) and leaf area density (LAD) play an important role in recapture efficiencies.

Up to 20% recapture potential was modelled for a housing / lagoon with a 25m main canopy and 25m backstop stand of trees down wind and a 45% recapture for understorey livestock with 100m main canopy and 25m backstop.

Tree belts can be seen to significantly increase carbon stocks

Timber production from tree belts are not financially feasible because of small scale and high arable opportunity cost.

Applying a UK model shows that silvopastoral practice has the potential to reduce national scale emissions of ammonia by up to 2.9% resulting in a 2.2% reduction in deposition.

What does this mean?

Agroforestry systems have an important role to play in reducing ammonia emissions and effects. Ammonia impacts occur in the rural environment, so the landscape structure has the capability to buffer these effects.

Under best case scenarios, agroforestry ammonia abatement systems can decrease ammonia emissions by up to 45%.

A note of caution.

It is important to remember that this best case will not necessarily be practically possible or always economically feasible. For new tree planting it will take several years before ammonia recapture would be optimised.

To read the whole study please click here.

05.03.15 Soil, our greatest asset

Along with air to breath and water to drink, soil is one of our most important natural resources. Without it we would starve. However, due to poor farming practices, we are using soil at a completely unsustainable rate. The United Nation’s General Assembly has designated 2015, the International Year of Soils, to raise awareness of the urgent need to switch to sustainable soil management. If we do not make major changes to farming methods, food production will decline in future, instead of rising to meet the needs of a growing population.

To download the image as a PDF please click here.

The information in this blog comes from an article written by Elizabeth Winkler and published by the Sustainable Food Trust. For more information on the SFT and to read the full article, please click here.

04.03.15 Introducing trees to enhance farm sustainability

This case study from the SWARM Hub website follows Michael Rogers, a farmer from South Devon and looks at his strategies for introducing trees to the farm.

Michael has focussed on planting productive trees with a 2-3m gap between the hedge and the fence.  A variety of different species have been incorporated such as dog rose, spindle, applies, hazels, blackthorn, ash, rowan and some transplanted alders.

Read the full article here.

23.02.15 Agroforestry - essential for a sustainable future

Agroforestry is the growing of trees or shrubs with other agricultural crops. It can range from lines of trees intercropped with a cereal like wheat, to fully integrated forest garden systems incorporating trees, shrubs and perennial crops in a self-sustaining system.

Over the last few hundred years almost all the research and agricultural effort has been focussed on annual plants, to the extent that most of the world population depends on them. This wasn’t always the case, though, and many people have forgotten that the mass growing of annuals on a field scale is never going to be sustainable because they take a huge amount of energy to grow. As long as energy is cheap and available they can continue their dominance – but it is clear now that energy is not going to remain cheap for much longer.

We need to move much more towards perennial crops – whether it be tree-based crops (for example, nuts to take the place of some of the cereals) or smaller plants – for example perennial vegetables like perennial onions. In other words a move towards agroforestry.

Perennial plants, once established, take much less work to maintain than annuals – you only have to plant once (in a long while anyway), and most plants look after themselves with far less susceptibility to pests, diseases or the vagaries of the weather than annuals. Perennial plant products are often more nutritious than their annual counterparts too, because their roots systems are larger and can get more nutrients out of the soil.

Sustainable growing requires a change in attitudes too. Agriculture has been misled into thinking that every bit of ground needs to be productive – in other words needs to have a crop coming from it.  This is never going to be sustainable. Truly sustainable growing systems must devote a proportion of the land to plants with ‘system’ functions – in other words, plants which increase the health and resilience of the whole growing system (whether or not they produce a crop). Such plants would usually include nitrogen-fixing species (to make the use of nitrogen fertilisers unnecessary), and also plants to deter pests and diseases by, for example, attracting predators of likely pests or by confusing pests with aromatic emissions.

The most sustainable systems will be closed-loop systems, where no extra nutrients are brought in and the growing system sustains itself. Forest gardens are an example of this.

Agroforestry systems are less suited to very large scale production than monocultures, so by their nature they will smaller scale – which also means that they are much more likely to be integrated far better with their local economy: crops are likely to be sold and used locally, so the mass transport of food should decrease significantly as these systems become more popular.

Agroforestry systems have many other benefits – for example wildlife value is very high, they can provide shelter and thus reduce energy usage for heating or cooling, and so on. Once understood we’ll wonder how we ever did without them!

Martin Crawford, 2015

Martin is Director of the Agroforestry Research Trust (and his books include Creating a Forest Garden (Green Books, 2010) and How to Grow Perennial Vegetables (Green Books, 2012). 

17.02.15 The potential of legume based grassland livestock systems in Europe

So for the final blog of this month, I will be looking at the potential of legumes to aid with livestock production from pasture based systems. There is a well-known debate that rears its head in the media from time to time about meat consumption and methane emissions and how we should all be reducing our meat consumption to reduce the effects of climate change and reduce emissions.

Running alongside this debate is a growing interest in the emissions from pasture based systems. At the moment, science has not advanced sufficiently to allow us humans to eat grass, and digest the fibrous lignocellulose which ruminants are able to convert into meat or milk and as such grazing livestock will continue to be part of our environment. However where we can have an impact is on how we manage that grassland to get optimal production from that pasture. Making sure that there is a balance of inputs and outputs to that grassland, ensuring adequate soil structure, as well as optimising nutrient and animal management will allow us to use that pasture to ensure efficient production.

One of the ways that grassland production can be “improved” is to include legume species within the sward. Grassland production will need to keep pace with requirements for higher meat and milk production from ruminant systems and with a changing climate. Legumes offer important opportunities for sustainable grassland based animal production because they can contribute to important key challenges by:

  • Increasing forage yield
  • Substituting bagged N fertiliser inputs with plants which are able to biologically fix nitrogen
  • Mitigating and supporting adaptation to climate change
  • Increasing the nutritive value of herbage and raising the efficiency of conversion of herbage to animal production

This blog content comes from a paper entitled “Potential of legume based grassland – livestock systems in Europe” which was compiled by Luscher et al and brings together information from a wide range of European research on different properties of legumes to assess the contribution that legumes can make to sustainable livestock production from grass. To read the paper in full please click here.

For this blog in this monthly theme of livestock diets, the bit that I will be concentrating on is the properties that are found in some legumes that suppress methane production from ruminants. Without diving into a complicated biochemistry and nutrition lecture, a key feature of legumes are the plant secondary metabolites.

There are a few legumes which possess additional features which offer promise for ruminant nutrition and health as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These features include tannins, polyphenol oxidase and protease enzymes.  Sainfoin holds particular promise for alkaline and drought prone soils.

Condensed tannins are a group of fabulous compounds that are found in some forage legumes including birdsfoot trefoil. Sainfoin, sulla and the flowers of trifolium species. Total concentrations of these compounds depend on the variety, plant organ and processing methods.

The role of these condensed tannins in reducing protein degradation in the rumen is well documented. By forming bonds with dietary proteins, condensed tannins generally slow the rate of protein degradation during fermentation in the rumen, and as such will reduce losses associated with rumination. What is not yet fully understood is which types of condensed tannins create optimal degradation rates. For example, high concentrations of condensed tannins in trefoils may be too potent, as cattle cannot utilise its dietary protein fully, as such, it is excreted and results in high faecal N contents.

What does all this mean?

Grass clover mixes with 30-50% of legumes in the mix seems to be an optimal system. These yield high amounts of N from biological fixation (symbiosis), generate high forage yields of high nutritive value, which generates high voluntary intakes and livestock performance and at the same time they minimise the risk of N losses to the environment. The big challenge for legume based grassland husbandry systems however will be to maintain the proportion of legumes within this optimum range.

As a component of mixed grass legume sward, forage legumes offer important opportunities for tackling future agricultural challenges.  The great potential of legumes for sustainable intensification is related not just to one specific feature, their strength stems from the fact that several of their features can act together on different “sites” in the soil plant animal atmosphere system. The multiple advantages benefit the whole grassland husbandry system through reduced dependency on fossil energy and industrial N fertiliser, lower nitrate and GHG emissions, into the environment, lower production costs, higher productivity and protein self-sufficiency.

Legumes generate these benefits at the land management unit level, and although these benefits are brilliant, there are some limitations and further research is needed to make sure that we as farmers have all the facts and can make best use of them within our swards and rotations.

To read the full paper please click here. Are you managing to hit 30% legumes in your sward? Let us know how you manage their persistence and graze them to optimise productivity. FCCT would love to know how you manage them.

12.02.15 Soil biodiversity reduces nitrogen pollution and improves crops' nutrient uptake

Increased soil biodiversity can reduce nitrogen pollution, improve nutrient uptake by plants and even increase crop yields, according to new research.  The two-year study found that levels of nitrogen leaching from soil with an abundant soil life were nearly 25% lower than for soil with a reduced level of soil life.  Practices which enhance soil biology such as reduced tillage, crop rotations and organic farming may therefore help to reduce the environmental impact of fertilisers and improve agricultural sustainability.

Fertilisers boost crop growth by providing important nutrients. However the amount applied in modern agriculture is often far in excess of that taken up by the crops. For instance it is estimated that only half of all nitrogen applications are used by plants; the rest can be leached from fields or lost to the atmosphere as gas, causing environmental problems.

Intensive agriculture also threatens soil organisms, such as fungi, earthworms and others; in fact studies have shown that soil biodiversity is under threat in 56% of EU territory. These organisms are known to be important for nutrient cycling and there has been some suggestion that their decline may increase the need for artificial fertilisers.

In this study, part-funded by the EU project BRIO, the researchers investigated whether the abundance and biodiversity of soil organisms could affect plant growth and nutrient use as well as nutrient leaching. They filled 16 containers, each with a volume of 230 litres, with sterilised soil that was then treated with either a reduced or a high level of soil life and placed them outdoors. The containers were monitored for two years, and rotated with maize, grass and wheat crops.  Fertiliser was applied twice during the study.

What did the research find?

In the first year, nitrogen leaching was 51.5% lower in containers with higher soil life compared with reduced soil life containers; the equivalent of 150.6kg per hectare of nitrogen (kg/ha) leached from the low soil-life containers, but just 74.4 kg/ha from the plants in the biodiverse containers contained 28.9% more nitrogen, and 110% more phosphorus than those in the reduced soil-life containers.

Crop yields and plant biomass were also significantly higher in the biodiverse containers. For example, maize in the reduced soil-life containers showed yields of 33.2 tonnes per hectare (t/ha) but this increased by 22.3% to 40.3t/ha in the biodiverse containers.

In the second year the differences were not as pronounced and the only statistically significant differences were a greater biomass of wheat and higher plant phosphorus levels in the biodiverse containers. However this does not imply that biodiversity is not important in the long term, the researchers say. They point out that, in the second year, the reduced soil-life containers were invaded by a variety of soil organisms including arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (which are particularly important for plants and nutrient cycling).

The researchers note that the phosphorus leaching was higher in the more biodiverse containers. However, this reflects increased mobilisation of this element by soil organisms, they say, which also makes the phosphorus easier for the plants to take up. As a result, relative phosphorus losses, defined as the number of grams of phosphorus leached per kilogram of phosphorus taken up by the plants, was actually 25% lower for biodiverse containers compared with the reduced soil-life containers.

The importance of soil biodiversity

Increased soil biodiversity could be an important step on the road to sustainable agriculture. Management practices known to enhance soil biodiversity, such as reduced tilling, and crop rotations could provide real improvements in nitrogen and phosphorus use efficiency.


"Science for Environment Policy": European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by SCU, The University of the West of England, Bristol.

09.02.2015 The effect of grazing behaviour of suckler cows on predicted methane emissions

A research paper published last year in the Journal of Animal Science has looked at the effect of grazing behaviour on predicted methane emissions. This study used a computer model and a large dataset from a large scale grazing study to identify the potential impact of grazing behaviour and performance of different breeds of cattle on predicted methane emissions.

The study used GPS collars and activity sensors to monitor dairy cows that were grazing extensive semi natural grassland. The diet selected by cows of three different genotypes (Aberdeen Angus cross Limousin, Charolais and Luing) was simulated by matching their locations during active periods with hill vegetation maps.

Measured performance and activity were used to predict energy requirements, dry matter intake and methane output.

The cumulative effect of actual performance, diet selection and actual physical activity on potential methane output and yield was estimated. Sensitivity analyses were performed for the digestibility of intake, energy cost of activity, proportion of milk consumed by calves, and reproductive efficiency.


This study suggests for the first time that measured activity has a major impact on estimated methane outputs. Predicted methane emissions was highly sensitive to small changes in diet quality, suggesting the relative importance of diet selection on diverse rangelands.

Extending these results to a farm systems scale, methane outputs were also highly sensitive to reductions in weaning rates, illustrating the impact on methane at the farm scale of using poorly adapted breeds on habitats where their performance may be compromised.

The paper demonstrates that variations in grazing behaviour and grazing choice have a potentially large impact on methane emissions, illustrating the importance of including these factors in calculating realistic national and global estimates.

Source: J Animal Science, 2014 Mar; 92(3): 1239 – 49

06.02.2015 Leading soil regeneration expert coming to Devon

On 21st February, RegenAG UK are pleased to bring a leading soils expert to the south-west, and at the moment there are still a few places left with funding for farmers (£48 plus VAT, thanks to RDPE/DEFRA).

Joel Williams integrates understanding of the physical aspects of soil chemistry and nutrient balancing (Albrecht style) with the biology (Soil Food Web) and will present a full-day workshop at Bicton EaRTH Centre.

If you would like to explore the potential to cheaply and easily improve soil health and nutrient availability and thereby also productivity, then registering for the seminar could be an excellent starting point. Improving soil health will of course also help with water and disease management.

For further details see the website,  - specific event page is here.

RegenAG UK acts within the UK to promote Regenerative Agriculture, which addresses the need to respond to ongoing changing conditions in order to regenerate soil fertility and natural cycles for sustained productivity and wellbeing. Collaborating internationally with like-minded organisations and individuals enables the organisation to make best practice from around the world available more locally.

05.02.2015 Spring Nitrogen Advice Update

ADAS have brought together data on excess winter rainfall and topical information to help farmers make correct nitrogen decisions this season.

In summary:

  • Rainfall data indicates that the majority of the UK has experienced average rainfall so far this winter.
  • Nitrogen leaching losses are likely to be close to average over most of the country.
  • The relatively mild autumn and early winter provided good growing conditions in most areas.
  • Early drilled, well established crops are likely to have taken up useful amounts of soil Nitrogen.
  • Updated rainfall maps will be issued in March.

This information has been provided by ADAS, and the in-depth advice sheet can be accessed here.

20.1.15 A new year challenge!

In going about the day to day business that is farming, including making business decisions, adapting to the weather and changing prices, making sure that you are not annoying the RPA, looking after stock and crops and finding a bit of time to get on top of all those maintenance jobs that need doing, worrying about reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is not usually high up the priority list.

This has been confirmed in a recent opinion poll by Defra, which found that “many farmers, but not the majority, recognise the importance of GHG emissions, but most remain unconvinced about the business benefits of reducing them, and struggle to find time to do anything about it.”

So for 2015, the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit is trying to do something about this, by bringing together pioneering farmers and experts to show where the business benefits are from reducing emissions and show that everyone can achieve savings and increase profitability.

The conference entitled “Farming Profitably in a Changing Climate” is on the 3rd February at the Rural Innovation Centre in Cirencester, and will explore practical measures to improve profitability on-farm and reduce emissions.

“Far from being another opportunity to berate farmers about the challenges that come from managing resources, this conference really aims to highlight the positive economic benefits that come from reducing emissions” explains farmer and FCCT directors Adam Twine. “There is a real opportunity for farmers to make a difference to their bottom line by making small changes to management of soil, nutrients, livestock and crops in spite of difficult economic conditions.”

“This conference will champion real farmers who are achieving real savings and give them a stage to show others how to do it.”

The morning sessions will include a talk by Rebecca Audsley, Climate change project manager from Scotland who has been running a demo farm project with Scottish farmers for the last three years. These demo farms which span a wide range of farming systems have yielded real results in terms of cutting carbon and costs. “This will be a great opportunity to share what has worked well on other farms and get practical ideas to boost farm profits and cut carbon,” explains Rebecca. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is really about maximising resource efficiency, which can in turn benefit both the farm business and the environment.”

The chief climate change advisor from the NFU Dr Ceris Jones will explain the policy drivers behind the science and show that getting involved isn’t complicated. She confirms “if your aims for your business are to improve productivity and profitability, then it’s likely that you’re already on the road to becoming a lower carbon farmer or grower.”

The morning session will also include the retailer’s perspective, with speakers from Marks & Spencer and PepsiCo on what’s driving them to focus on carbon and sustainability. There will also be an inspirational key note address from Farmers Weekly 2014 Sustainable Farmer of the Year Richard Clothier on implementing sustainability and low carbon technology at Wyke Farms.

In the afternoon the fun continues with delegates able to attend either a livestock or arable focussed session. These will be led by farmers who are achieving a real difference on-farm and will be supported by scientists. For arable farmers Nick August, a champion of cover cropping and controlled traffic farming will share his experiences, ably supported by Dr Jenni Dungait, a leading research scientist on soil carbon, and fertiliser advice from Yara and Edaphos. For livestock farmers, Nuffield Scholar Robert Thornhill will share his experience of implementing sustainable grazing systems and dairy farmer Tim Lock who supplies Marks & Spencer will explain how he integrates carbon into his business. This session will be supported by FCCT’s Becky Willson who will lead a discussion on manure management.

It promises to be an interesting day, with lots of discussion and sharing of ideas as well as opportunities to be inspired and make a change to your bottom line at home.

When looking at greenhouse gas emissions and carbon on-farm, the real danger is that because there is confusion, we do nothing and ignore it. So my challenge to you is to get involved now. Come along to the event and find out how to reduce emissions in a practical way and increase returns to your business.

For more information and to book your place please contact Becky Willson at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or phone 0845 4587485.

This conference is supported by the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) for which Defra is the Managing Authority, part funded (or financed) by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development: Europe investing in rural areas.

16.1.15 Strategies for reducing enteric methane emissions in forage based beef production systems

Management strategies to reduce enteric methane emissions can be categorised into three sections, forage utilisation, feed additives and improved production efficiencies. The material from this blog comes from a review of scientific research into strategies for beef cattle and was done in Canada, as such some of the strategies that they recommend are not available in the UK.

Science has demonstrated that forage quality has a significant impact on enteric methane emissions. This can be seen both in conserved forage (when stock are fed hay or silage) and in grazing systems. The research suggests that animals fed higher quality feed, so hay and silage with a higher D value or animals allowed to graze pasture early in the season, emitted less methane than those fed on lower quality forage (either fresh and conserved). Emissions seem to be influenced by pasture dry matter availability and quality. High levels of enteric emissions would be seen when the animal is presented with poor quality forage and limited ability to select higher quality forage as a consequence of reduced dry matter availability.

Species included

There is research that suggests that inclusion of legume based forages in the diet is associated with higher digestibility and a faster rate of passage, which results in a shift towards high proprionates in the rumen and reduced methane production. The study that looked at this also found that because of this improved feed utilisation within the cow, as a consequence of reduced enteric emissions, growth rates were 11% higher in the legume mix pasture.

Feed additives

There have been difference additives produced that claim to reduce enteric methane production. Ionophores (the technical name of a class of additives commonly fed to cattle to improve feed efficiency and rate of weight gain. They are antibiotics that alter the chemistry of the rumen by changing the bugs in the gut to produce increased amounts of proprionic acid releases more energy per unit weight to the host cow upon oxidation than acetic and butyric acids do, as such is important to global beef production (not in the UK production). There have been studies done that show that these ionophores reduce methane emissions, but not over a long time period, effects “wear off” after around 2 weeks.

Another method that has been looked at is the addition of fat supplementation into high energy finishing diets. Results have shown a reduction in methane emissions of 33% when oil was added to a high concentrate diet (85%). Fat supplementation may well effectively reduce enteric emissions for finishing cattle, although there are not consistent results for emissions in low quality forage diets.

Improved production efficiencies

Consensus amount the research community is that a good strategy that all farmers can implement for mitigation is to decrease methane loss per unit of product (in this case per kg of beef produced). Using this approach, strategies should include effective management of feed resources other than forage, for example water quality, mineral supplementation, and ration balancing.

Other than effective management of feeding programmes, there are several other ways that will improve animal productivity, which include selecting animals for improved production, breeding and fertility management.

Adoption of strategies that serve to improve production efficiency, including feed analysis, ration balancing, pregnancy testing, and provision of minerals and quality water sources will not only serve to reduce enteric methane emissions but will also prove to be economically beneficial.

For more information on strategies to reduce emissions from beef production, please click here to visit the Toolkit.

05.01.15 Reducing GHG emissions from livestock - best practice and emerging options

This report has been released from the livestock research group of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse gases and the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) platform.

As we have been focussing on livestock and especially the role of diets in GHG emissions. Livestock pays an important role in climate change. Livestock systems including energy use and land use change along the supply chain, accounted for an estimated 14.5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in 2010. More than half of these (about 65%) are related to cattle. Direct emissions from livestock and feed production constitute 80% of total agricultural emissions and as such need to be part of any effort to reduce the contribution of food production to global climate change.

This report describes 6 broad areas where on-farm emissions from animal production can be reduced, broken down into different intervention options. Management strategies have been broken into:

Improving feed quality and digestibility

Improving animal health and husbandry

Manure management: collection, storage and utilisation

Precision livestock farming

Feed and nutrition

Feed and nutrition directly affects