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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.”

Impact

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!

Legacy

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.”

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