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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.

Modelling

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 www.kingshay.com

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