Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit


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.

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