Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit


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.

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