Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit

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17.08.16 The role of livestock in meeting emissions targets and keeping carbon in the soil

Below is a blog from our new FCCT director Liz Bowles that was written for the website Agricology.

DECC is no more but our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Agriculture by 80% by 2050 remains. What is even more taxing is that we are expected to have zero emissions thereafter.

With this in mind I have been thinking about what this means for agriculture. At the moment agriculture accounts for 9.5% of total UK GHG emissions, of which 50% is methane, 41% nitrous oxide and 9% carbon dioxide1. Emissions have dropped by 18% since 1990; mainly due to reductions in the population of grazing livestock since then and some reductions in the use of manufactured nitrogen; but there is still a huge hill to climb. 

We need to remember that soil is a major store of carbon, containing three times as much carbon as the atmosphere and five times as much as forests. About 60% of this is in the form of organic matter in the soil. This means that anything we can do to increase the level of soil organic carbon will have a large impact on the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide2.

Whilst it is certainly true  that it takes more land to produce calories and protein from livestock than arable crops, the damage which arable farming is doing in many parts of the world to soil health should not be underestimated in the rush to move to more vegetarian  and white meat diets. Cattle and sheep have been condemned because they produce methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. However methane does break down in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide and water after 7-12 years, and the total amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere is broadly the same as the amount taken out by the growing grasses that grass-fed animals consume. So in the long term beef and sheep production need not contribute to increases in carbon dioxide emissions where livestock are reared on forage which has not received artificial sources of nitrogen3

On the other hand turning over grassland to crop production puts carbon and nitrogen into the atmosphere adding to global warming and reducing soil organic matter levels.  UK estimates in 2009 suggested annual ploughing up of permanent pasture released 1.6 million tonnes of carbon (representing a hidden additional 12% of the UK’s agricultural GHG emissions).

Cereal monocultures replacing more diverse grasslands have been a factor leading to a decline in farmland birds and pollinating insects. In the UK it is acknowledged that soil organic matter levels are becoming dangerously low in regions of the country which are predominantly arable. This is now linked to the lack of available livestock to graze and produce farmyard manure which can be used as a soil amendment. Min and zero till arable systems can help in stemming the loss of soil organic matter, but it could be that we will be looking to grazing livestock to facilitate improvements in soil health in the future. 

It is important to bear in mind that grazing livestock can utilise grass and legumes without a need for artificial sources of nitrogen. Through doing this they can produce quality protein whilst putting enough fertility into the soil at little or no environmental cost to support arable crops in following years.  Grazing livestock can also prosper on land which cannot be used to grow crops and which otherwise would have no productive use. 

If producing livestock is now considered to be less of a threat to our environment we still need to look at whether red meat is a healthy food for us to eat. There have been many health scares over the years associated with red meat consumption. However scientists have recently changed their view on the dangers of red meat and dairy product consumption and now focus on sugars as being possibly more detrimental to health. In addition the recent publication of a review and meta-analysis4 comparing the make-up of fatty acids from animals produced under organic systems with those produced under non- organic production systems  shows that meat and other products produced from animals from organic and grass fed systems have higher levels of beneficial fatty acids and lower  comparative levels  of more saturated fats. This could account for differences found in past studies as no consideration was taken at that time of the diet of grazing livestock. Now, however we appreciate that the diet animals eat will affect the nutrient composition of their products which in turn will have an effect on our health.  

At the moment we are increasing our consumption of poultry meat which by and large is produced intensively (unless organic) consuming large amounts of cereals and proteins. The production of these feeds requires ever more arable production, which it is now clear is having a detrimental impact on our soils and releasing potent greenhouse gases.  All this points to a reduction in our consumption of white meats in favour of red meat fed on extensive diets based on grass clover if we are to reduce the GHG emissions of agriculture and protect our soils and the health of future generations.

References

1 Methane causes 25 times more global warming over 100 years than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide causes 298 times more global warming than carbon dioxide.
2 Each 1% increase in average soil organic carbon levels could in principle reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by up to 2%. Soil carbon losses account for a tenth of all the carbon dioxide emissions produced by human activity since 1850. However the soil carbon store can be recreated.
3 Manufacturing of a tonne of nitrogen puts the equivalent of almost 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
4 Extensive review on all published research (before 2014) on organic compared with non-organic meat (67 studies)

15.08.16 Sustainable Soil Management - new UN guidelines released

Sustainable soil management is the Holy Grail for farmers, policy makers and consumers – if we can develop a sustainable system that allows us to grow enough food for the growing population whilst safeguarding our most precious resource then we are achieving our goals.

The FAO have just released a new document entitled Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management, which is designed to be a reference providing general technical and policy recommendations on sustainable soil management for a wide range of stakeholders.  Its objectives are:

To present generally accepted, practically proven and scientifically based principles to promote sustainable soil management, and to provide guidance to all stakeholders on how to translate these principles into practice, be it for farming, pastoralism, forestry or more general natural resource management.

For the purposes of this document, Sustainable soil management is defined (as according to the world soil charter) as:

“Soil management is sustainable if the supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural services provided by soil are maintained or enhanced without significantly impairing either the soil functions that enable those services or biodiversity. The balance between the supporting and provisioning services for plant production and the regulating services the soil provides for water quality and availability and for atmospheric greenhouse gas composition is a particular concern.”

What are the guidelines for sustainable soil management?

1. Minimise soil erosion

The recent State of the World’s Soil Resources report identified soil erosion by water and wind as the most significant threat to global soils and the ecosystem services they provide. 

What do they suggest?

Land use changes that cause removal of surface cover and loss of soil carbon should be avoided or carefully planned.

A cover of growing plants or organic and non-organic residues that protects the soil surface from erosion should be maintained

Erosion by water on steep land should be minimised by measures that reduce runoff rates

Where appropriate, buffer strips and cover crops should be used to minimise the risk of soil loss and nutrients downstream.

Wind erosion should be minimised by vegetative or artificial wind breaks.

2. Enhance soil organic matter content

Soil OM plays a central role in maintaining soil functions and preventing soil degradation. Soils contain the largest organic carbon pool on the Earth and play a critical role in regulating climate and mitigating climate change. Soil organic matter is strategic for climate change adaptation and mitigation and global stores of organic matter should be stabilised or increased.

What do they suggest?

Increase biomass production by increasing water availability for plants using methods that maximise water use efficiency and minimise soil erosion and nutrient leaching.

Protect organic carbon rich soils in peatlands, forests, grasslands etc.

Increase organic matter content through practices such as managing crop residues, applying animal or other carbon rich wastes, using compost and providing the soil with a permanent cover.

Avoiding fire

Make optimum use of all sources of organic inputs

Management practices that ensure that the soil has a sufficient organic cover.

Decreased decomposition rates of soil organic matter by practicing min or no till

Implementing crop rotations

3. Foster soil nutrient balance and cycles

Plant nutrition should be based on crop needs, local soil characteristics and conditions and weather patterns. 

Suggestions

Natural soil fertility and natural nutrient cycles should be improved and maintained through the preservation or enhancement of soil organic matter.

Nutrient use efficiency should be optimised by adopting measures such as applying balanced and context adapted soil organic and inorganic amendments.

Plan applications to promote balanced crop nutrient uptake and limit losses.

Soil and plant tissue testing and field assessments should be used

Application of lime is a prerequisite for nutrient use efficiency

4. Prevent, minimise and mitigate soil salinization and alkalinisation

Salinization is the accumulation of water-soluble salts of sodium, magnesium and calcium in the soil. It is the consequence of high evapotranspiration rates, inland sea water intrusion and human induced processes. Salinization reduces crop yields and above certain thresholds completely eliminates crop production.

5. Prevent and minimise soil contamination

Soils may filter, fix and neutralise but also release pollutants when conditions change. Therefore prevention of soil contamination remains the best way to maintain healthy soils and food safety in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals.

6. Prevent and minimise soil acidification

Human induced acidification of agricultural and forest soils is primarily associated with removal of base cations and loss of soil buffering capacity or increases in nitrogen and sulphur inputs (e.g. legume pastures, fertiliser inputs, atmospheric deposition). Soils with low pH buffering capacity and/or high aluminium content are most prevalent when they have a low content of weatherable minerals.

Suggestions:

Monitoring soil acidity and minimising surface and sub-surface soil acidity by using proper amendments 

Balanced fertiliser and organic amendment application and

Appropriate use of acidifying fertiliser types

7. Preserve and enhance soil biodiversity

Soils provide one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity on earth and soil organisms play key roles in the delivery of many ecosystems services. Little is known about the degree of biodiversity required to maintain core soil functions, but new tools for biochemical techniques and DNA analysis suggest significant progress in this area is possible.

Monitor programme for soil biodiversity, including biological indicators

Soil organic matter levels which support soil biodiversity should be maintained or enhanced through the provision of sufficient vegetative cover.

The authorisation and use of pesticides in agricultural systems should be based on recommendations.

The use of nitrogen fixing leguminous species, microbial inoculants, mychorrhizas, earthworms and other beneficial soil organisms should be encouraged where appropriate, with attention to limiting the risk of invasive processes.

Restoring plant biodiversity in ecosystems, thereby favouring soil biodiversity

In-field crop rotation, inter-cropping and preservation of field margins, hedges and biodiversity refuges should be encouraged

8. Minimise soil sealing

Land conversion and subsequent soil sealing for settlements and infrastructure affect all soils, but are of particular concern on productive arable soils because of their importance for food production and food security and nutrition, and circular economy targets.   Soil sealing and land conversion causes a largely irreversible loss of some or all soil functions and the ecosystem services they provide.

9. Prevent and mitigate soil compaction

Soil compaction is related to the degradation of soil structure due to imposed stresses by machinery and livestock trampling. Soil compaction (reduced or disrupted pore continuity) reduces soil aeration by destroying soil aggregates and collapsing macropore density, and reduces water drainage and infiltration, generating higher runoff.  Compaction limits root growth and seed germination by high mechanical impedance, affecting soil biodiversity and causing surface soil crusting.

Deterioration of soil structure due to inappropriate or excessive tillage should be prevented.

Vehicle traffic should be minimised to the absolutely essential particularly on bare soils.

Machines and vehicles used in the field should be adjusted to soil strength and should be equipped with tyre pressure control systems

Cropping systems should be selected that include crops, pasture plants and where appropriate agroforestry plants able to penetrate and break up compacted soils.

An adequate amount of soil organic matter should be maintained to improve and stabilise soil structure

Macrofauna and microbial activity should be promoted to improve soil porosity for soil aeration, water infiltration, heat transfer and root growth. 

In grazing systems, a sufficient cover of growing plants should be maintained to protect the soil from trampling and erosion. 

10. Improve soil water management

A sustainably managed soil has rapid water infiltration, optimal soil water storage of plant available water and efficient drainage when saturated. However when these conditions are not met, waterlogging and water scarcity problems arise.

In humid areas where precipitation exceeds evapotranspiration, additional drainage systems are needed to provide aeration for root functions like nutrient uptake.

Surface and sub-surface drainage systems should be installed and maintained to control rising groundwater tables

Increase the efficiency of irrigation water through improved conveyance, distribution and field application methods that reduce evaporation and percolation losses.

In dryland cropping systems measures should be implemented to optimise water use efficiency such as the management of soil cover and water harvesting. 

Regularly monitor irrigation water quality for nutrients and potential harmful substances.

To read the full report click here.


05.08.16 Invest in brown gold: Better soil management to deliver sustainable intensification

Source: Farming Futures, 3rd August 2016

Underpinning production

Healthy soils comprise mineral material, organic matter, biological organisms, air and water, and are a vital asset for farmers and land managers. They take millennia to form, but are often taken for granted and sometimes neglected, resulting in degradation over decades. Soils underpin agricultural production by providing a rooting medium for crops and by storing and cycling nutrients and water. Healthy, fertile soils ensure more sustainable and resilient crop production by maintaining high yields and cycling water and nutrients efficiently. Improving soil quality can shift the fertiliser-response curve to the left, supporting higher outputs with lower inputs, and thus delivering “sustainable intensification”.

Delivering ecosystem services

As well as underpinning agricultural production, soils deliver many valuable ecosystem services for which farmers and land owners are not directly paid – although cross-compliance and agri-environmental scheme criteria linked to farm subsidies represent a crude form of “payment for ecosystem services”.

Soils across the globe store over 1500 Giga-tonnes of carbon, twice as much as is in the atmosphere. By keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere, soils play a vital role in regulating our climate, and some scientists argue that soil management to increase carbon sequestration could offset a large portion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from animals and fossil fuels.

Soil management also strongly influences the release nitrous oxide (N2O), a GHG 298 times more potent than CO2 on a weight basis. Soils purify (or contaminate) water infiltrating through to groundwater and flowing into rivers, thus playing an important role in regulating water quality. Good soil structure can help soil to act as a sponge during storm events, ameliorating the peak flows in rivers that inflict expensive flood damage to land, infrastructure and properties.

Finally, among many other ecosystem services, soils also host and support diverse flora and fauna, supporting biodiversity.

Neglected soils

Despite the strong links between soil health, economic returns and wider human wellbeing, soils can sometimes be neglected by farmers and land managers, for a variety of reasons. In grassland systems, soils remain hidden. Soil structure and problems such as compaction may be inferred from grass growth or infiltration measurements, but can most reliably be assessed by digging local test pits.

In arable systems, soil degradation via organic matter oxidation, erosion and compaction occurs at a steady but almost imperceptible rate. By the time soil degradation becomes obvious, full remediation may require a decade or more of adapted management.

For the large areas of tenanted farmland, long-term soil remediation and maintenance, e.g. building up organic matter through compost and manure additions, is a financially risky strategy – who will reap the long-term benefit?

Trends in livestock farming, such as the increasing use of maize silage as a cattle feed, can also change land use in a way that threatens soil quality and increases erosion risk. The extent of soil erosion and degradation across the UK and Europe is well documented, for example in EU scientific reports.

Soil organic matter content is a key indicator of soil health, and has been declining for decades across UK arable land, with implications for nutrient and water cycling, flood protection, resilience to climate change and delivery of multiple ecosystem services. Reversing these trends is essential to assure the sustainability and resilience of UK farming, and requires a long-term view to make the necessary investments in soil quality.

Management practices

A portfolio of management practices exists to maintain and enhance soils. First off, know your soils! Regular soil testing for nutrient availability and structure is crucial to inform appropriate management. Matching stocking densities and cropping to soil types, soil condition and topography can significantly reduce the risk of compaction and erosion. Aeration and subsoiling can remedy compaction problems.

There are various decision support tools available to facilitate good nutrient management planning, such as the Fertiliser Manual RB209 and simple calculators such as MANNER-NPK available from the PLANET website.

Technology is constantly evolving to facilitate good soil management, including precision fertiliser application guided by yield-mapping and GPS-assisted steering. When it comes to delivery of ecosystem services, invaluable information is available via digitised soil databases such as LandIS and the European Soil Data Centre. Reliable sources of free advice on good practice include the Environment Agency’s Think Soils manual, Defra’s Guide to Cross Compliance in England, Natural England’s Catchment Sensitive Farming project and AHDB. But there are also many less reliable sources of “advice”, and it can be difficult to navigate through the mass of sometimes conflicting information pertaining to soil management.

04.08.16 Scotland ranks second in Western European greenhouse gas reductions

Source: Edie.net 1st August 2016

Over the last 25 years, only Sweden has achieved bigger greenhouse gas emissions reduction levels than Scotland across Western Europe, the Scottish Government revealed on Sunday (31st July).

The latest available figures released by the Scottish Government revealed that the country has reduced emissions by 39.5% in 2014 against a 1990 baseline. Across Western Europe, only Sweden can better the reductions, having slashed emissions by 54.5% in the same time frame.

In regards to the rest of the UK, England reduced emissions by 34.2%, while Wales and Northern Ireland also reduced carbon emission sby 17.9% an 16.5% respectively. Scotland also led the UK in terms of yearly reductions, having reduced emissions by 8.6% in 2014 compared to the year prior. England reduced yearly emissions by 7.4% while Wales and Northern Ireland achieved reductions of 8.2% and 3.1%.

Commenting on the figures, WWF Scotland's director Lang Banks said: "It's great to see more evidence that Scotland is in the vanguard when it comes to tackling climate change in Europe. Thanks to strong Government leadership over the years we've embraced renewables helping to de-carbonise our power sector.

"However looking ahead there is no room for complacency if Scotland is to maintain its position as a leader on climate change and to capture the many social, health and economic benefits of moving to a zero carbon future. Outside of the electricity and waste sectors progress to cut carbon has been far too slow.

"The Scottish Government's new climate action plan, due by the end of the year, is an opportunity to set out transformational plans. Sectors in need of urgent attention include transport, where emissions remain stuck at 1990 levels and housing, with too many families wasting cast and carbon heating the outside of their leaky homes."

Figures released from European countries outside of the European Union also revealed some surprising reduction figures. Both Malta and Cyprus have seen emisisons increase since 1990, with Malta's carbon footprint growing by 150% and Cyprus' growing by 54.8%. 

In total, six countries in the EU-2, including Sweden, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania had higher reductions than Scotland. As a whole, Member States reduced emissions from a 1990 baseline by almost 20%.

New and testing Scotland

The latest Scottish figures are used for UK and international comparisons. When adjusted to account for EU-wide emissions trading measures reductions actually increase to more than 45%. This essentially means that Scotland has exceeded its 2020 target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 42% six years early, and has since confirmed plans to establish a "new and more testing" objective.

Scotland's reductions were largely driven by a thriving renewables sector. The country currently generates 15% of is energy demand from renewables. New figures suggest this could rise to around 25% by the end of the decade.

However the Scottish Affairs Committee has claimed that the country's renewables sector has been threatened by a political cloud of uncertainty with policy amendments to the Renewables Obligation (RO), Feed-in-tariffs (FiT) and Contract for Difference (CfD) auctions all contributing to an uncertain future.

Source: Edie.net 1st August 2016

02.08.16 #Decisions4Dairy initiative

Source: AHDB Dairy,

#Decisions4Dairy is an industry-wide initiative. It brings together organisations that work with, influence or advise dairy farmers, including AHDB Dairy, banks, farm consultants, the unions, feed advisers, vets, trade associations, farming charities and accountants.

Using this collective approach and working together assistance will be provided to guide dairy farms through the challenges ahead. 

AHDB as part of this initiative has provided relevant resources, farming business templates, efficiency calculators and skills development packages.  The practical assistance has been developed to help your business work through difficult times and become more robust, for the longer term. 

Find out more about the resources on offer here.

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