Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit

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03.07.14 Theme of the month – Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock

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

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

The contribution to global emissions of livestock


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

Below this is broken down into the different sources.


Sources of emissions

If this is broken down it equates to:

  • Feed processing and production (45% of total)

  • Enteric fermentation of ruminants (39%).

  • Manure storage and processing (10%)

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

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

The link between efficiency and emissions reduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

01.07.14 Under cover farmers

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

The benefits of cover cropping to the soil ecosystem

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

  • Limit soil disturbance

  • Cover the soil

  • Increase plant diversity

  • Keep a live root

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

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

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

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

The decision to include cover crops

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

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

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

27.6.14 Managing green manures

What is a green manure?

A green manure is a crop growth to improve the soil and benefit the subsequent crop.  Once the green manure crop is grown, it is usually incorporated into the soil shortly before sowing the next crop.  This return to the soil will increase the amount of organic matter in the soil as well as improving soil fertility.  

There are numerous benefits that come from growing green manures in crop rotations.  However how green manures perform and whether they are successful or not depends on how they are managed and what the ultlimate goal is of growing them.

The information in this blog comes from a great publication from Cotswold Grass Seeds entitled Sort out your Soil, A practical guide to Green manures.  It contains specific information on different species of green manures including details on growing them as well as some of the considerations that are needed from incorporating green manures into your cropping plans.

So where do you start?  Below are some practical points to consider in managing green manures on-farm.

Sowing

Spring or autumn are the best times to sow.  This ensures that there is sufficient moisture for germination and that the soil temperature is warm enough.  If you do need to plant after September, the best option to use is grazing rye as it will establish rapidly and is good at preventing nitrogen leaching losses over the winter.  Green manures can be broadcast or drilled, but ensure that they are sown at the correct depth.

Undersowing

Undersowing is an efficient way of ensuring that a green manure will establish quickly after harvesting.  Cereal crops can act as a "nurse crop" protecting a green manure crop in its early stages.

Mowing

Mowing is an essential part of growing most green manures, especially when the crop is young.  Early mowing will make a difference between a well established green manure and one with a high weed burden.

Most species can tolerate being topped close to the ground, but care must be taken with some species, especially fenugreek and vetch.  It is best to remove cuttings as this encourages Nitrogen fixation in legumes.  If cuttings are left, the rotting material will release N which suppresses the N fixation capacity of the plant.

Incorporation

Green manures can be incorporated ready for the following cash crop by rotavating or ploughing.  It is easier to incorporate if the crop has been cut with a flail mower first.

For more information on the benefits a green manure can bring to your soil and information on the different plants available, click here to access the Green Manures booklet.

One of the FCCT case studies Iain Tollhurst, uses green manures in his rotations to great effect, not just on soil structure and building fertility but also in the emissions from his farm.  Read more here.

18.06.14 The use of cover crops in controlling crop pests

With increasing legislation in terms of chemicals permitted to control soilborne pests, any cultural options that can help improve yields and reduce pest and disease levels ins always advantageous. Over the last 18 months research has been going on into the use of cover crops and their biofumigation properties to control nematodes and pathogens found in soil.

How does it work?

The most commonly used biofumigants are members of the Brassica family, and in particular mustard species. These species contain glucosinalates (the compound which also makes mustard hot) that can be deadly to weeds, soilborne pathogens and nematodes.

When these species are cultivated and broken down, plant cells are broken and the glucosinalates are released. This release (combined with another enzyme) releases various other substances one of which is termed ITC's (isothiocynates). These ITC's then produce a fumigant which is similar to metam sodium.

As well as these beneficial biofumigant characteristics, the process of macerating the plants and incorporating them into the soil leads to increased soil organic matter levels and healthier, more productive soil.

Research projects

One area which is the subject of research at the moment is the use of cover crops (and biofumigation) for the control of potato cyst nematode (a highly damaging parasite of potatoes). This project which is being run by SRUC and Baworth Agriculture and funded by the Potato Council is looking at how best to incorporated these biofumigant plants into current rotations and how to grow them in the field conditions. This will allow them to develop sustainable guidance for potato growing on how to optimise their use.

The project look at the factors which may influence the efficacy of biofumigation including soil moisture / irrigation inputs and equipment used to macerate the foliage.

Farmer experience

The project is still underway but FCCT will keep you up to date on the results. In the mean time, Farmers Weekly have highlighted one farmer’s experiences of using cover cropping to help control PCN in his potato crop. The farmer is using a mix of caliente mustard and fodder radish which is broadcast in July after winter barley and rolled. Read more of this case study here.

13.06.14 Cover cropping and blackgrass research

Cereals has been on this week, and as such the spotlight is shining on new Research and Development projects that are running (as well as lots of shiny new kit to look at!). One area within cereal production that is being targeted in terms of research is the grass weed blackgrass.

Blackgrass can seriously reduce crop yields through competition for nutrients especially nitrogen. The tillering capacity and the competitiveness ability of blackgrass depends greatly on the vigour of the crop. Recent research from Rothamsted has advocated that very high levels of control are needed with fields to prevent black grass populations increasing. In winter wheat grown in a non inversion tillage system, control levels of 97% are needed, to prevent blackgrass population increases.

Within conventional farming systems, herbicides are considered the primary method of control, however even in these systems where chemicals are the main control strategy for controlling blackgrass there is a growing incidence of herbicide resistant blackgrass.

Herbicide resistant blackgrass is very widespread in the UK and has been confirmed on over 2,000 farms in 31 counties of England. Grass weed control is critically dependent on only 4 herbicide classes within conventional arable systems. With little prospect of new herbicides in the near future, non chemical control measures are increasingly important in combatting resistance, by reducing the reliance on post emergence herbicides.

HGCA - research into herbicide resistant blackgrass and cultural methods of control

HGCA have been showcasing some of their research proposals at Cereals. One of their projects (which also helpfully fits into our theme this month here at FCCT), is the use of cover crops to help with blackgrass control.

HGCA are investigating whether cover crops could provide growers with a useful cultural control option for blackgrass. The adoption of this approach will need a better understanding of the agronomy and associated economic and environmental benefits of using cover crops. This research will hopefully provide answers to this and see what the effect is in terms of weed control.

Read more about the project here.

Project Lamport

Agrovista and Bayer Crop Science are also joining forces on a new initiative entitled Project Lamport which aims to look at different developmental approaches to help in the constant battle to control blackgrass. This project is looking at seven different rotational systems, incorporating spring and winter cropping as well as the use of autumn cover crops. The project will consider the nutritional and soil conditioning benefits that come with the inclusion of cover crops in the rotation.

Read more about Project Lamport here.

FCCT will keep you up to date on the results of these two studies as they are released.

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