Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit


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. 


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.


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: 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: 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.

01.08.16 Healthy silage event - the importance of understanding mycotoxins and their impact on animal health

Source: Bovmycotox project

Not all of the moulds that grow on animal feeds are toxic, but those that produce mycotoxins are, and they can cause chronic health problems and reduced productivity in livestock.  However the occurrence of mycotoxicosis in cattle can remain undetected due to a lack of specific symptoms and overlapping symptoms associated with other metabolic diseases such as acidosis.

Unlike pigs and poultry, cattle and sheep have a protective mechanism for handling mycotoxins in that microorganisms in the rumen are able to detoxify an array of mycotoxins associated with forage-based diets. However young calves before the rumen has fully developed and high yielding cows receiving high concentrate, starch containing diets, both lack this capability. Research will be undertaken on the efect of diet and binders on ruminal metabolism of mycotoxins so as to inform farmers, nutritionists and vets on dietary risks and the efficacy of preventative measures.

The project aims to research and understand:

The impact of the mycotoxins and their metabolites on the gastro-intestinal cell.

Impact of diet and binders on mycotoxin detoxification, metabolite formation and microbial ecology.

Metabonomic and biomarker identification

The project which is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is led by the University of Bristol.  Duchy College is providing the link with the farming community by providing a programme of knowledge exchange that will keep farmers, vets, and advisors fully informed of the results of the research as it progresses.  

Healthy Silage event
13th September 2016

Click here to download the flier below

15.07.16 The science of soil health - going deeper

The video below comes from the USDA natural resources department and is all about soil.

The interview with Dr Ray Weil looks at the importance of managing soil and why, by digging a little deeper we can start to understand more about how our soil functions and how we can maximise its potential. 

Source: USDA NRCS - click here to read more

14.07.16 UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report

Every five years the government must carry out an assessment of the current and future risks to the country from climate change.  The latest risk assessment has just been released detailing how climate change is impacting on different sectors.  The information below is dealing with how climate change is impacting on the natural environment.

Climate change is already having an impact on natural systems in the UK. Evidence of long-term shifts in the distribution and abundance of some terrestrial, freshwater and marine species due to higher temperatures is now discernible, despite complex interactions. These shifts can be expected to continue and become more widespread, with some species potentially benefiting, but others losing suitable climate space.

Climate change presents a substantial risk to the vital goods and services provided to people by the natural environment. The continued provision of key goods and services provided by the natural environment, including clean water, food, timber, pollination, carbon storage and natural flood alleviation are at risk from climate change.

Climate change risks and opportunities for the natural environment

Cross cutting Issues

Pests and Diseases

Ne9: Risks to agriculture, forestry, landscapes and wildlife from pests, pathogens and invasive species.

Natural carbon stores

Ne5: Risks to natural carbon stores and carbon sequestration

Landscape and Sense of place

Ne14: Risks and opportunities from changes in landscape character

Key risks for natural capital from climate change include:

The majority of agricultural land in the eastern side of the UK is projected to become less suitable for farming due to reduced water availability, increased soil aridity and the continued loss of soil organic matter. 

Reduced water availability in the summer, combined with increased water demand from a growing population, is likely to challenge the ecological health of rivers and lakes.

The loss of habitat and sediment in the coastal zone from sea level rise will have implications for the long-term viability of coastal defences, which often rely on natural buffering to absorb wave energy.

A combination of ocean acidification and higher temperatures is already having an impact and could result in fundamental changes to marine food chains and the fisheries that they support.

Priorities for further action and research include:

More effort to end damaging management practices and deliver the widespread restoration of degraded habitats.

Take more flexible and integrated approaches to managing natural capital. 

Assess the nature and scale of changing land suitability, including research into more resilient crop varieties and farming systems.

Better understand the magnitude and scale of risks to marine ecosystems and fisheries from climate change.

To read the briefing further please click here.

Source: UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report, Natural environment and natural assets, Chapter 3. 

11.07.16 Agroforestry in practice - results from the SOLMACC project

Climate friendly practices applied: Agroforestry

Source: SOLMACC bulletin, Details on implementation

During the past three decades, agroforestry has become recognized as an integrated approach to sustainable land use because of its production and environmental benefits. It is recognised as a greenhouse gas mitigation strategy and has great potential as a strategy for biological carbon sequestration. The perceived potential is based on the premise that the greater efficiency of integrated systems in resource (nutrients, light and water) capture and utilisation than single species systems will result in greater net C sequestration.

At the various SOLMACC farms, agroforestry elements exist as shelter belts of one or more rows of trees planted, as riparian buffers to filter surface runoff, protect stream banks and shorelines from erosion, as alley plantings in single or grouped rows, and with agricultural crops grown in alleys between tree rows.

Click on the link below to read about how SOLMACC farmers in Germany, Italy and Sweden implement this practice and which challenges some of them are facing.

Click here to read the case studies

What is SOLMACC?

SOLMACC is a LIFE co-funded project that aims to demonstrate that by applying optimised farming practices organic farming can be climate - friendly. 12 demonstration farms are therefore adjusting their famring techniques under the close supervision and monitoring of agricultural scientists.  Find out more about the wider project here.

04.07.16 DC Agri bulletin 9 - Compost and digestate resources in your hands

The project DC Agri (Digestate and Compost Use in Agriculture) has come to an end and released it's final bulletin this week. 

What did it find?

DC - Agri has shown that while digestate and compost are valuable renewable fertilisers some straightforward steps should be followed to maximise their benefits.  All these best practice guidelines as well as resources such as videos, training materials and a renewable fertiliser matrix are available through the project website. 

The value of robust evidence

This project's results provided clarity that both compost and digestate have no negative effects on crop quality or safety and that compost can increase soil organic matter more quickly than other organic materials. 

Just as importantly, the results support clear guidance on how and when to apply renewable fertilisers in order to avoid unnecessary cost and potential harm to the wider environment. 

Download the final bulletin here.

To go to the project website please click here.  

01.07.16 New research on carbon sequestration and grassland

Huge amounts of soil carbon have been discovered up to 1 metre below grassland in a recent UK study.  Yet most carbon inventories do not assess soil deeper than 30cm.  Furthermore this research suggests that intensive management of grassland, involving high rates of fertiliser use and livestock grazing may deplete carbon at these depths.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy briefing, 24th June 2016

Globally soil contains more carbon than all the Earth's plants and atmosphere combined.  Much of this carbon can be found in soils beneath grasslands, which are estimated to cover 20-40% of the Earth's surface.  Amongst biomes, grasslands are the third largest global store of carbon (after wetlands and boreal forests). 

Grasslands and the carbon they store, can be influenced by human activities, including intensive farming. However there is uncertainty over the effects of land management and land use change on soil carbon stocks, partly because most studies only consider the top 30cm of soil, which is easier to access. The IPCC's 2006 Guidelines for Greenhouse Gas Inventories recommend soil carbon accounting for the top 30cm, but also advocate sampling beyond 30cm. However this deeper sampling rarely happens.

To help address this gap in knowledge, the researchers measured carbon in grassland soils at different depths of up to 1 metre across the UK. They assessed soil taken from 180 sites which represented a range of grassland types: acid, calcareous, mesotrophic and wet. At each site they took samples from three different fields which were of the same soil type, but managed in different ways: intensively, extensively or intermediately.

Intensively managed fields typically received over 100kg of nitrogen fertiliser per hectare per year (N/ha/yr). They were heavily grazed by animals (stocking rate of 2-3.5+ livestock units per ha), cut two or three times a year for silage and had low average plant diversity of just 10 species per m2. They had been managed intensively since the 1950s.

In contrast, extensively managed field received less than 25kg N/ha/yr, were lightly grazed (less than 1 LU/ha), were cut just once a year and had high plant diversity (average of 21 species per m2). They had been managed in a traditional way for many decades.

Intermediate land received 25-50kg N/ha/yr, had stocking rates of up to 1.5LU/ha, were also cut just once per year but had middling plant diversity (average of 15 species per m2).

Total percentage carbon in soil (organic and inorganic) was significantly lower in soils from intensively managed fields - 19% lower than in intermediately managed fields and 25% lower than in extensively managed fields. The researchers estimated that intensively managed grassland soil contained around 40.3kg of soil carbon per m2 going 1m below the surface, compared with around 41.4kg of soil carbon per m2 in extensively managed land and around 44.6kgCm2 in intermediately managed land.

Based on their figures, the researchers estimate that 2097 teragrams (teragrams - 1million metric tonnes) of carbon is stored in all UK grassland soils to a depth of 1 metre. This is over double the amount of carbon estimated if only the top 30cm of soil is considered.

Soil carbon stocks were higher in intermediately managed land than extensively managed land; the researchers suggest that this can be partly explained by differences in soil bulk density, likely due to compaction and to fertiliser application rates. High levels of fertiliser reduce soil carbon through over stimulation of plant decomposition rates, whereas modest levels of fertiliser allow plants to accumulate carbon by not over-stimulating decomposition.

There are many complex factors which influence soil carbon, and the study did not directly explore these; they include the impact of soil cultivation during reseeding of perennial ryegrass on intensively managed grassland, which releases large amounts of carbon (usually every 10-20 years) and also the findings of recent studies into the importance of considering sampling depth when investigating soil organic carbon sequestration.

Other factors which affect how much carbon is in the ground include: the release of carbon dioxide by plants to the atmosphere, soil erosion, leaching into waterways and removal of grass by harvesting or grazing animals.

The study supports the IPCC's recommendation for deeper soil testing in carbon accounting. It also suggests that reducing the intensity of farming in the most highlight managed and fertilised grassland would bring future benefits for carbon sequestration.

Source: Ward, S.E., Smart, S.M., Quirk, H., Tallowin, J.R.B., Mortimer, S.R., Shiel, R.S., Wilby, A. and Bardgett, R.D. (2016). Legacy effects of grassland management on soil carbon to depth. Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13246

28.06.16 First experience of the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture

A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual forum of the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, in Rome. 

What is Climate Smart Agriculture?

This information is from the CSA website

Climate smart agriculture (CSA) is a systematic approach to agricultural development intended to address the dual challenges of food security and climate change from multiple entry points, from field management to national policy.  CSA aims to:

1.       Improve food security and agricultural productivity, and

2.       Increase the resilience of farming systems to climate change by adaptation, while

3.       Capturing potential mitigation co-benefits."

What is GACSA?

GACSA, is the Global Alliance for climate smart agriculture, and at the Food and Agricultural Organisation headquarters of the UN in Rome. The alliance, which is voluntary, is made up of partners that are dedicated to addressing the challenges facing food security and agriculture under a changing climate. In particular, the alliance has the objective of up-scaling the climate smart agriculture approach. It was launched in 2014, and has members from across the globe.

In June this alliance held its annual forum, and was an opportunity to reflect on progress achieved in the first year of action and to see what was going to be prioritised for the upcoming year. The meeting, which was attended by over 150 delegates from around the world, represented different countries, farming systems and challenges from climate change.  For me, this meeting was a really interesting opportunity to understand some of the issues that are occurring around the world, from dealing with prolonged droughts in sub Saharan Africa and the devastating impact that that can cause to smallholder farmers, to empowering women and investing in people development through advancing knowledge and skills it was a jam packed couple of days. 

I attended not as a member of GACSA (it’s mainly governments, research organisations and a few NGOs) but to see what was being talked about and whether this diverse group of people had any common ground.  To see whether we were all facing the same issues, and whether collectively we could work together to solve them and what projects and initiatives were going on around the world, that I could gain fresh ideas from or collaborate with. It was a long way away from a normal farmer meeting that I attend, but a good experience none the less to understand and share experiences.

As I alluded to earlier, the conference was very busy with sessions on partnerships, case studies (at a country level rather than at farm level), metrics, finance (which I can’t really begin to explain, as it was all a bit over my head and another language of acronyms), knowledge (which I was very interested in), regional alliances and opportunities ahead.

I am not going to write up all that happened over the two days, otherwise this would be an incredibly long blog, however the key points from both days are below.

Day1  - things that stuck with me.

Great quote – The most dangerous phrase that we use is “we’ve always done it this way”

The importance of metrics – metrics help us to document impact and the journey on which we have been.  However there is a need for co-ordinated use of metrics, and to find metrics that are practical and usable and tell us meaningful results.  Also the need for everyone to use the same metrics – so comparisons are possible.

Related to metrics was the idea of business – if we are wanting farmers to change their management and adopt these climate smart practices – then we have to look at where the economic benefits are, and show where there are opportunities to be more productive (and profitable) and more climate smart.

Finance – all I can say from this session is that there is a need for finance to enable action on the ground.

Knowledge transfer – this is the key to accelerating action on the ground, especially farmer to farmer and from the research community to the farmer (it was good to know that we were on the right track!).  The other thing which was discussed here, is the importance of scale.  In the day to day work that we do, we understand the individuality of our farms, and as such there is a massive need to have local communication that is based on local knowledge and conditions, however we also need to engage the network and our policy makers to ensure that there is also a global strategy that allows for consistent national and global communication to ensure that our messages are heard.

The importance of farmer participation and ownership of projects – considering that this was a meeting about climate smart agriculture – there were very few people who were actually involved in day to day agriculture there.  This was a shame and would be something to think about for the next forum, how to get more farmers engaged in the discussions as this will inevitably help with the action on the group that was mentioned time and time again.  Through involving farmers in the creation of projects, not only will they have practical merit and be actionable, the farmers will have a vested interest and as such will want to deliver it.

Another quote of the day came from a farmer who was taking part in the case study session and was from the Irish farmers association.  He told the room full of policy makers:

Stop talking about climate change and start talking about the enablers that I can use to solve the problem – let me be part of the solution and achieve the desired outcomes.”

Another big thing was that although this is a great alliance, and the meeting of different cultures, systems and nations should be celebrated, what was needed was action on the ground.  Care was needed to make sure that action was the priority and there was an appetite to get things started!

Day 2

The second day included a whole section on knowledge for climate smart agriculture.  In the inception year of the alliance, a knowledge  action group was formed to look at where the current gaps in knowledge were and see what could be done about them.

The goal of the knowledge action group is to (again quoted from their documents) “provide actionable information of those looking to operationalise CSA, enabling evidence based decision making and calling out unknowns and uncertainties when they obstruct transformation to a climate – smart system."

The major knowledge priorities that were identified from an online consultation were:

  • Technical interventions and practices in climate smart agriculture
  • Evidence base and support, services and extension for CSA
  • Inclusive knowledge systems for CSA
  • Integrated planning and monitoring for CSA

This group while spending a proportion of its first year doing all the ground work which accompanies global collaborations have found some key points which they want to address (and seem like pretty good sense to me!).

Peer to peer learning is key – if we want to achieve change on the ground then we need to work with our farmers to get there.

The importance of metrics – we need to generate evidence (that is comparable between systems) to show impact of the management on the ground (and that can be scaled up to demonstrate regions, nations and global action.

We need to demonstrate clear economic benefits – make the business case to change practices at the farm level

Research – where are the climate opportunities for agriculture? Also to enable the conversation between research and farmers to allow the farmers research questions to be answered

Extension – the importance of investing in people through enhanced skills development and increased knowledge

Indigenous and local knowledge – we can’t ignore the importance of local knowledge

So what did I come away with?

A sense of optimism that although the mechanism is a bit clunky and these things take time to gain momentum (especially when you are dealing with this number of countries) there is a desire to address climate change and agriculture at a global level and work together.

A big question though that I am still grappling with is the one of scale.  There are multiple levels in this puzzle, and when we are looking at practices that we will be recommending farmers to adopt, we can’t be doing this on a global level.  Each farm is unique and there is a need for focussed technical information for the farmer which shows the economic benefit, and then there is a requirement for reporting on how sectors of our industry are doing, as well as regions, and nations.  At each of these scales there is a different knowledge need and for some of them a different audience.

This led me onto thinking about how this alliance could be best used – and where are the areas where global co-ordination is needed.  A few things sprang to mind:

Metrics – if we are to demonstrate progress we need to be talking in the same language which means using the same metrics that are regarded as being scientifically rigorous to enable policy change and show the effect of changing management.  This is something that will need global action to achieve as its not an easy task!

Knowledge – Although specific practices that we are advising may vary, this alliance could be a great vehicle to share ideas and information about what works and what doesn’t in engaging farmers in climate smart agriculture. 

Communication to the public – co-ordination of messages to the public about the issues around agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions.  Lets provide a united front which shows all the positive steps that farmers are taking in terms of environmental management, and show how we are working on the issues that need sorting. 

Collaboration and strength in numbers – continuing this alliance means that we can all share research and innovation and ideas which might mean that we can make progress faster.

As was said in the meeting, I’d better go and get on with it!

24.06.16 From broken to teaming with life

The old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," only works if the "it" isn't broken. In the case of agricultural practices in Brazil, Cristiano Magalhaes Pariz realised something was broken. 

"About 15 years ago, our research group began to see that crop and livestock activities, when wrongly conducted were compromising the sustainability of a tropical agricultural system," Paris explained.

Over time, crop and livestock activities had degraded the soil. The soil had fewer nutrients and was eroding away. It couldn't produce as large number of crops or sustain as many animals. This meant farmers weren't making as much food, or as much money. So Pariz began researching a way to fix the problems caused by these broken crop and livestock practices.

Pariz, a researcher in the Department of Animal Nutrition and Breeding at Sao Paulo State University, Brazil, knew that solbing these problems would take a team effort. So he and researchers from different fields of study developed a solution. Their solution also required teamwork, from plants.

The teamwork they explored between plants is called intercropping. Intercropping is the practice of growing two crops together in the same field. Pariz's plant team consisted of sorghum and perennial grasses. 

In places like the Brazilian Cerrado, winters are very dry. Pariz needed to pick plants for the team that could handle the conditions but also be useful to the farmers. Sorghum which tolerates dry conditions and is sold for grain, fit the description. Pariz then selected two types of perennial grasses to team up with sorghum. Farmers can use the grasses as forage for livestock and cover the soil surface to prevent erosion. However the researchers weren't sure which grass would work best with the sorghum. Researchers set up an experiment to  determine which crop team worked together best, Team A (sorghum and palisade grass) or Team B (sorghum and guinea grass).

The researchers planted crops of Team A and Team B in Botucatu, Sao Paulo, Brazil. They analysed the leaf nutrient concentration and the land uses efficiency. They calculated each team's sorghum grain yield and forage dry matter production. They determined the crude protein and revenue produced. Finally they looked at how the teammates competed for nutrients which is very important in intercropping systems.

Pariz explains, "Competition for nitrogen may occur, which may compromise the sorghum and / or forage yield." Nitrogen is often added to soil to help plants grow, but no one knows exactly how much nitrogen is needed to make sure both crops can develop and produce. So another aspect of the experiment was to apply different amounts of nitrogen to rows of the crops to see what amount worked best for both the sorghum and its grass teammate.

It turns out sorghum is an excellent choice for an intercropping team. It adds diversity to the farm and grows better than other crops in areas with unhealthy soil or dry conditions. The researchers also discovered Team A (sorghum with palisade grass) with added nitrogen is the best combination for increasing sorghum grain yield, revenue, and forage dry matter production.

With this team of sorghum and palisadegrass and just the right amount of nitrogen, Pariz hopes to reverse the damage that had been done by broken crop and livestock activities. in time, the teamwork of these plants could help Brazil's degraded pastures team with life.

For more information please click here to access the journal paper.

Source: American Society of Agronomy, Danielle St Louis, May 2016  

24.06.16 Farm Composting Made Easy

This article comes from the Practical Farm Ideas blog, written by Jason Allan and Mike Donovan, back in 2013.  To read the article in its original form click here.

Composting is not a regular farm activity. Conventional farmers get nutrients from chemicals and through crop rotations, as well as spreading dung from their livestock enterprises, should they have them. Organic farmers, who are forbidden the use of chemical fertilisers, have to rely entirely on crop rotations and mixed farming systems which produce quantities of dung and farm yard manure. Composting, the accelerated rotting of organic material, is mostly associated with smallholders and allotment keepers. 

Full scale farmers are finding compost a good source of soil nutrient and a wonderful soil  Composting dung and farmyard manure produces something far more beneficial than fresh or rotted dung. Material such as straw, green waste from council collection, waste from vegetable and fruit growing and processing, this and more can be converted into compost. Apart from its value to farmers, there's an increasing commercial market, created by the future ban imposed on the digging and use of pear. In the next two years, the horticultural industry will be searching for a substitute to go in the pots of bedding and other plants. 

Composting is set to become far more main stream that at present.

  • Farmers and advisors are recognising that the condition of soils is deteriorating, both on arable and grassland. Soil is losing organic matter. The contribution of farm yard manure, or cattle slurry is a fraction of what happens when the manure is turned into compost. The elements of phosphate and potash are both made more accessible to plants, and the compost makes a big improvement in soil structure, leading to increased worms and other biological activity. 
  • The rising cost of chemical fertilisers is making compost and other natural sources of plant nutrients increasingly valuable, and therefore popular.
The current issue of Practical Farm Ideas magazine features a home built compost turner - one which would suit a farm with up to 600 acres. The project requires:
  • general workshop skills
  • parts which can be sourced locally for scrap metal prices, the main component is a heavy duty lorry axle
  • a week or less of work
So instead of starting the farm composting with a substantial investment in a machine to turn and aerate the material - its a tedious and poorly done job using a loader and bucket - a turner can be made with a few components and a few days in the workshop. The machine we feature has turned 25,000 cn metres over the last few years and has the ability to turn more. 

As chemical fertilisers become increasingly expensive, farmers who are wanting to reduce costs and save money will be turning to ideas such as compost and other methods to improve the fertility of their land through biology rather than chemistry. 

Building a compost turner in the workshop is the kind of project which will pay huge dividends over the next few years. The home made machine can be replaced by something bigger and more costly when composting experience is gained. 

For more information on the home built machine described in this article, click here

To subscribe to Practical Farm Ideas click here

22.06.16 A new service offered measuring soil organic matter content

Source: Tillage Magazine, 18th June, Marion King

The decline in soil organic matter levels in UK arable rotations has been well documented over the past few years, to the point where scientists from Sheffield University predicted in 2014 that if current cropping practice continued, the UK had just 100 harvests left.

Although the loss of organic matter is only part of the story, and there are moves afoot on some farms to turn things around, the message cannot be ignored. With all this in mind, for the past three years, Agrovista has been examining the use of cover crops and alternative rotations to help farmers improve their own particular situations, says head of precision technology Lewis McKerrow.

"One key point to note is that basing decisions on average field levels of organic matter isn't good enough," says Mr McKerrow. "Over recent decades, fields with quite different soil types that would have been managed quite differently have been amalgamated. "It is unusual to find a completely homogenous field in the UK; often organic matter levels can vary significantly across a field. The problem is that we have been unable to quantify this variation without resorting to impractical levels of laboratory analysis." However a new service from the Plantsystems technology arm of Agrovista is about to change all that. The service uses a novel machine from US firm Veris Technologies called the MSP3 that can measure pH, electro-conductivity (an indicator of soil type) and organic matter. These three components are key indicators of the yield drivers within a field and indeed across a farm. The machine can also be used to produce detailed zones of nitrogen leaching and water holding capacity.

"The beauty of this MSP3 is that it collects all this data as it is towed along behind a tractor," says Mr McKerrow. "The job is very quick - the machine is pulled at up to 16km/hr, typically in 12 m bouts, so a massive amount of data can be captured in a day:"

Electro-conductivity and organic matter readings are measured constantly, while the pH is read about 15 times per hectare via a shoe that is raised and lowered into the soil. At the end of each field a number of locations are selected within it where pH / electro conductivity / organic matter readings were among the lowest and highest. These areas are sampled by hand and sent to the laboratory. "This ground truthing enables accurate calibration of the remote- sensing data, enabling it to be interpreted and analysed as precisely as possible," he explains. "The  data  can then be assessed and used for either variable rate applications or management decisions about where to target inputs such as organic manures and cover crops."

There is a strong case for organic matter being correlated to yield, although other soil parameters can be as significant, or greater, drivers of yield, says Mr McKerrow. Soil Variations highlighted by electro-conductivity maps are often very close to where yield variations occur. That said, one soil with a high electro-conductivity and high organic matter can perform very differently to the same high electro-conductivity soil which has low organic matter, he adds.

"There is no doubting that knowledge is power," he concludes. "But to gain that knowledge, information has to be analysed correctly and managed well. The risk of data overload is very real for many, but the evolution of better software solutions such as Agrovista's MapIT Pro software helps make sense of it all."

20.06.16 New climate smart agriculture portal by CCAFS

What is it?

This new website is aimed at farmers, decision makers and researchers who work with or are interested in Climate Smart Agriculture (the collective term globally for farming that aims to maximise productivity, maintain or enhance environmental benefits and be socially inclusive).  The website has different sections on practices (things that we can do), systems approaches (looking at the landscape or regional scale) and policies.

Who did it?

The website was developed by the CGIAR Research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and food security (CCAFS) with contributions from experts at the World Bank, CGIAR and many other institutions working on these issues.

How do I access it?

Click here to see the website.

Source: Food Climate Research Network 

20.06.16 Monitor farm helps cut milk production costs

Source: The Scottish Farmer, 9th June 2016, Gordon Davidson 

Monitor farm projects aimed at reducing Scottish dairy farmers cost of production have been of 'significant benefit' according to participants at the final project meetings at Glennap in the south west and Auchenheath in Lanarkshire.

Glenapp Estate manager, Charlie Russell, cited how the group has helped him achieve significantly lower cost of milk production: "When we first set out as hosts for the monitor farm project here in Glenapp, we were still on a steep learning curve, having only recently established the dairy enterprise. When the project first started our break even costs of production were 26 / 27ppl."

"Thankfully, having implemented many recommendations from the group meetings, I now see how we can get this to 16ppl. We won't get there this year, but I think its achievable," said Mr Russell.

"Making the best use of grazed grass has been key. Profitability is related indisputably to tons of DM utilised per ha, and our job is to maximise that intake. We have focussed on this at the meetings and we are now much more accurate at measuring grass cover and getting the most from our rotational grazing regime. 

"This past winter we also started experimenting with on - off grazing," added Mr Russell. "This meant putting cows out for only three hours per day, sometimes even less in the worst winter weather, but it certainly seems to have cut feed and forage bills.

"The group has helped to ensure that we have not cut costs to the detriment of output, in fact we are now consistently achieving our target of 2.0kg of milk solids. Tightening up calving patterns and importing the best genetics available have helped with this yield achievement."

Gavin Ballantyne, who hosted the central dairy monitor farm on his family's  140 cow unit at Auchenheath, commented: "Being selected to host the monitor farm project came about at just the right time for us. Prior to the project, and our expansion, Auchenheath was performing well, but standing still. The farm probably wasn't sustainable in the long term and therefore we had a get-in or get-out decision to make.

"Throughout the project the group has helped us face up to the challenges of growing herd by retaining home bred heifers," he said. "We have now reached our initial target of 145 cows in mill, erected the new slurry tower, built a new cow shed and bought 40 acres of rough ground into full production. 

"The reality is that if milk prices had stayed at 25ppl, which is what we were getting when this all started, we would now have grown our milk sales by 47%, which is £77k. These are great figures to focus on and hopefully achieve when the price does pick up. Our current milk price of 15-16ppl makes further investment plans very difficult, but no business can afford to stand still."

Looking to the future of the dairy monitor farm project, Glenapp group chairman Neil Wilson stated: "The funding from ScotGov and AHDB, and the support of Sharon Lauder from AHDB Dairy, have been instrumental in making this happen. Hopefully there will be similar support available to carry new dairy monitor farm projects on into the future."

Lesmahagow dairy famer Iain Armstrong summed up the feelings of monitor group members: "The monitor farm project has stimulated a lot of good discussion. I have only missed three meetings out of 17. I have learned a lot and it has made me rethink how we deal with challenges at home."

Source: The Scottish Farmer, 9th June, Gordon Davidson

09.06.16 Calling all solar farmers in the South West!

We are looking for farmers in the south west who have installed ground mounted solar panels on-farm and might be interested in taking part in a research project.

What's it all about?

We are looking at soil characteristics under solar panels, and what impact the panels have on carbon sequestration, soil structure and organic matter.  If you have solar panels on your farm and are based in the southwest and would be up for having some samples taken to provide baseline monitoring, get in touch! 

How do I take part?

At this point we are still in the planning stages, so if you are interested in finding out what could be involved, please contact Becky Willson on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or by phone on 07875356611 or 01579 372376.

09.06.16 Event details for Farm Walk Tolhurst Organic

Farm Walk with Soil Farmer of the Year Runner Up - Iain Tolhurst

Come along to this event to find out more about this organic horticulture business and why they received runner up in our Soil Farmer of the Year competition.

The farm was awarded second place due to their impressive knowledge and understanding of how to maximise  soil biodiversity, and their innovative use of composts and green manures within his rotation as well as an agro-forestry system.  While this business has been established over 40 years, it continues to innovate, push boundaries and educate others. 

Event details

When? Friday 8th July

What time? 12.30 - 4pm


12.15 - 12.30 Arrival

12.30 Award ceremony

1.00 - 2.00 Lunch and discussion

2.00 - 4.00 Farm Walk

How do I book? 

Attendance at the event is free, but booking is required.  Please contact Becky Willson by email or phone / text on 07875356611

Click here to download the flier.

31.05.16 Predicting nitrous oxide emissions from fertiliser applications, new research released

This information comes from a paper entitled “Spatially explicit estimates of N2O emissions from croplands suggest climate mitigation opportunities from improved fertiliser management” which has just been published in Global Change Biology journal and was written by Gerber et al.  To access the paper please click here.

The largest source of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from agriculture are synthetic Nitrogen fertiliser and manure applications to crops, which is projected to increase by around 50% from 2000 – 2050 (FAO, 2012). Between 2000 and 2011, annual N2O emissions from synthetic and manure fertiliser increased by 37% and 12% respectively.  Consequently reducing N2O emissions from croplands is critical for addressing climate change and ozone depletion concerns.

Whats the deal with N2O?

N2O is produced naturally from the processes of denitrification and microbally mediated nitrification in soils leading to emissions rates that depend on soil, weather and cropping conditions and are also highly variable over time. These emissions are classified as direct N2O emissions and are different from ‘indirect’ N2O emissions where N2O is formed from Nitrogen that is leached or volatilised from managed soils, and N2O emissions associated with land use change.

How does this link with reporting data and emissions factors?

Emissions factors are often used to relate applied nitrogen to N2O emissions across broad spatial scales.  Despite the relative ease of applying linear emissions models to estimate N2O emissions from crops, recent synthesis of field observations suggest a highly non-linear response.

What happens in the field is that nitrous oxide emissions accelerate with increased N applications. This superlinear response is due to the relatively greater excess nitrogen which is unused by the crop at higher fertilisation levels, and this extra nitrogen is therefore available to be emitted as nitrous oxide.  What has been missing from the models until now is any sub-national data or crop specific data that would allow a further understanding of what the effect is in different regions and with different crops.  This research therefore aims to try and fill some of these gaps by generating relatively accurate and crop specific nitrous oxide emissions data from global croplands as well as crop specific estimates of manure applications.  

This then provides an updated model and nitrogen fertiliser application rate to allow the researchers to calculate spatially explicit, crop specific global N2O emissions and contrast the results with what we currently have (IPCC Tier 1 accounting data). The aim (for practical reasons) should then allow for the identification of crops and regions where small changes in nitrogen application would generate large changes in nitrous oxide emissions.

What did they find?

By pinpointing crops and regions that were associated with disproportionally high or low N2O emissions it provides an opportunity to ask questions as to what the difference in management is between the two areas or whether it is  a cropping or climate issue.  

A geographical example that this model highlighted is below.

Shandong province in China emits around 4% of global cropland N2O yet comprises just 1% of crop harvested area.  Reducing nitrogen application rates by 5% in this province would cut provincial crop N2O emissions by 9% and global crop emissions by 0.35%.  Comparing this to increasing N fertilise application by 50% over sub Saharan Africa would increase N2O emissions by 2.7%.

Although there are always limitations with modelling studies, this research does provide some interesting policy recommendations.  It does show that increased fertiliser application is not strongly coupled to increased nitrous oxide emissions at low Nitrogen application rates, a major opportunity, given increased crop production is necessary to meet growing food demand. It also indicates that in areas with low N application rates, small fertiliser additions generate the most substantial yield improvements.  Conversely small reduction in fertiliser applications in high nitrogen input regions may result in substantially reduced nitrous oxide emissions from that cropland system.

Full reference

Gerber, J. S., Carlson, K. M., Makowski, D., Mueller, N. D., Garcia de Cortazar-Atauri, I., Havlík, P., Herrero, M., Launay, M., O'Connell, C. S., Smith, P. and West, P. C. (2016), Spatially explicit estimates of N2O emissions from croplands suggest climate mitigation opportunities from improved fertilizer management. Glob Change Biol. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1111/gcb.13341

To access it online, please click here

19.05.16 Knowledge needs, available actions and future challenges in agricultural soils

"Enhancing soil health is key to providing ecosystem services and food security. There are often trade-offs to using a particular practice, or it is not fully understood. This work aimed to identify practices beneficial to soil health, and gaps in our knowledge. We reviewed existing research on agricultural practices and an expert panel assessed their effectiveness.  The three most beneficial practices used a mix of organic or inorganic material, cover crops or crop rotations. 

This paper which has recently been published in the journal Soil and written by Key et al, aimed to clarify research needs and identify effective actions for enhancing soil health at the farm level.

To read the paper in full please click here.

The benefits of soil management and its relationship with not just farm profitability, but sustainability and environmental resilience are well known.  Enhancing soil health is central to delivering food security and ecosystem services.  In addition to food production, healthy soils also underpin a wide range of ecosystem services, including the carbon sequestration, flood control and biological control of pests and disease which are crucial to underpinning sustainable development goals.

While many farmers are well versed in how to maintain soil health, they are often not aware of the trade-offs that exist between enhancing certain soil properties and maintaining the functions that underpin them.   An example of this uncertainty is the relationship between farming practices and the diversity and functioning of soil microbial communities that help transform nutrients into plant available form. 

As well as these trade-offs there are also discussions around the knowledge needs for policy, especially around the need for evidence based environmental policies for sustainable soil management as well as the identification of knowledge needs for researchers and farmers. 

The research that this paper describes aimed to identify effective actions that farmers could do that would enhance soil health and see where the gaps were in current research.  This was done by looking at a multitude of previous research (718 studies!) around soil management practices that were designed to maintain or enhance elements of soil health.  Once the literature had provided a list of practices, an expert panel was then selected (that included soil scientists and practitioners) that assessed the evidence to highlight actions that were beneficial and detrimental to soil health and actions that needed further investigation.  The expert assessment was based on four factors:

·         How effective was the action at enhancing soil health

·         How certain was the expert that the evidence was correct?

·         The strength of the potential negative side effects associated with implementing the action

·         What soil types or locations did the action cover?

What did it find?

Of the 27 actions that were evaluated, only 3 were considered to be unequivocally beneficial to soil health.  These were

  •   The use of a mix of organic and inorganic soil amendments
  •   Growing cover crops
  •    Crop rotation

There were then 4 actions that were considered likely to be beneficial:

·         Grow cover crops between the main crop (living mulches) or between crop rows

·         Amend the soil with formulated chemical compounds

·         Controlled traffic and traffic timing

·         Reducing grazing intensity

The only action that fell into the ‘likely to be ineffective or harmful’ category was reducing fertiliser and pesticide use, largely due to the consequent reductions in crop yields.

The majority of the rest of the actions, fell into the trade-offs category, where evidence suggested that the actions were either beneficial in specific circumstance or considered likely to be beneficial but with strong negative side effects.  This also suggests that there are a large number of current soil management practices that are based on non-scientific knowledge.

What did it recommend?

The use of both scientists and practitioners helped to identify existing knowledge that should be made more accessible to those who put research into practice and highlighted a wide spectrum of certainty regarding the actions covered in this review.

A key finding of the assessment was that it is not yet clear how effective the majority of the reviewed actions are for enhancing soil health. For actions that are considered to include trade-offs, and where there are clear benefits to implementing, more refinement may be needed to minimise any negative effects. 

What was also clear was that there were actions that weren’t included in the review that needed further research, one example being mob grazing. 

The other important point to remember is that farming is based on biological systems, that are site specific and as such this specificity shouldn’t be lost.  The condition of a site needs to be taken into account when recommending practices, given that the impact of various actions will vary depending on many factors, including soil type, the extent to which the soil is degraded, and local climate. This review could lead to targeted best-fit approaches that would be more beneficial to local soil health. 

The review identified that there were some major areas of uncertainty in relation to the effectiveness of certain actions and interventions that, if developed may help to remove the barrier to implementing action at the farm level.

Agricultural intensification is required to improve food security however this needs to be done in a sustainable way if we are to have more resilient agricultural systems in the face of climate change.

To read the paper in full and to look in more detail at the actions that were studied please click here.

17.05.16 Improving emissions performance - the Australian Experience

Source: Meat and Livestock Australia, News bulletin, 13th May 2016

Doing good for the environment can also be good for your hip pocket, according to recent research into strategies to reduce methane emissions in northern Australian beef herds.

Led by Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Sustainable Grazing Scientist Dr Steven Bray, the research team found management decisions that improve beef productivity, in most cases, also improve on-farm greenhouse gas emissions performance. The research was carried out under the Climate Clever Beef project, which was supported by MLA in its first phase.

“This is a win-win for most northern producers, with the potential to improve their business’ productivity and profitability, their environmental sustainability and to position themselves to take advantage of any carbon trading opportunities,” he said.

The research points to three key areas producers can focus on to improve environmental outcomes while lifting profitability. They are:

Assess your business

Steven and the team found that although broad farm management principles apply for improving productivity and improving emissions performance, each property is different.

Each farm business should be individually assessed for what works best and to ensure that any management changes are cost-effective.

“This is particularly so when talking about how animal genetics best suits certain types of country and also what turn-off strategies work best,” Steven said.

“It pays for grazing businesses to work with the strengths and limitations of their environment.”

Steven said for most grazing businesses the benefits of reducing their emissions intensities will be in improved productivity and profitability and being able to demonstrate to the community they are improving their environment.

“Emissions Reduction Fund methodologies are available to generate carbon income from changing that emissions performance, however, participation needs to be carefully considered to ensure the additional income – taking into account carbon price fluctuations – will cover the costs of being involved, which presently is unlikely without very large herds.”

Improve reproductive efficiency

Research outcomes revealed it is crucial to make every cow count.

By increasing weaning rates, breeders are more productive over their lifetime, producing more calves or kilograms of beef for their total methane emissions.

One of the most powerful tools for identifying low-performing breeders is pregnancy testing. By identifying and culling empty cows and/or out-of-season calvers, the producer will grow more kilograms of beef per hectare as well as conserve valuable pasture and water for those more productive animals.

Culling unreliable breeders also improves the herd’s maternal genetics, leading to better reproductive performance in the future.

Go for growth

Steven said improving growth rates through targeted supplementation or by providing better quality feed leads to a higher proportion of feed intake contributing to growth.

“In practical terms this can mean running a lower stocking rate, enabling livestock to select a better quality diet and/or being able to better match stocking rates to feed on offer and a property’s long-term carrying capacity,” he said.

“Both of these strategies will help reduce turn-off times for heifers and steers and reduce overall emissions.”

Steven said the use of improved forages (such as legumes or oats) and supplements can also improve livestock growth rates and reduce their turn-off time, thereby reducing the number of days cattle are emitting methane.

Another useful strategy is dividing the herd into stock classes such as weaners/lactating cows/dry cows, and prioritising their feed management.

This will not only improve growth but also help breeder cows to get back in calf within a 12-month cycle.

Where pasture improvement is an option, the establishment of legumes, such as leucaena or stylos, can deliver significant productivity gains while lowering a herd’s emissions intensity. Steven said previous MLA-funded research has shown leucaena improves liveweight gain, reduces turn-off times and increases a property’s average annual livestock turn-off.

“Leucaena has also been shown to have anti-methanogenic properties potentially reducing methane emissions per head per day,” he said.

The research was funded by Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries and the Australian Government.

More information: Steven Bray T: 07 4923 6209 E: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

16.05.16 Greenhouse Gas Action Plan's progress report published

SOURCE: NFU Climate Change

At the end of April the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan published a report which demonstrates the contribution that can be made by agriculture in England towards meeting the UK’s and the world’s challenging goals.

The report which can be accessed here highlights the actions taken by the agricultural industry which have had a positive effect on production efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions.

Increased professionalism across the industry, the launch of the Feed Advisers Register, the addition of new GHG mitigation training into the Fertilisers Advisers Certification and Training Scheme (FACTS), famers signing up to Dairy Pro and the pig industry Professional register, are all paying dividends and have been delivered despite the challenging economic climate and the impacts of significant weather events in recent years.

Richard Laverick, Chief Technical Officer from the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) said: “The work of AHDB focusses on supporting farmers and the supply chains across all sectors, to improve productivity and deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. We aim to make our industry more competitive and sustainable through factual, evidence based information and activity.”

More soil sampling from grasslands and the adoption of renewables also show the large range of activities undertaken by famers to help deliver climate change mitigation whilst being good for the farm business.

Guy Smith, Vice President of the NFU said: “Farmers are committed to improving their businesses whether it’s fine tuning nutrient management on arable farms so reducing nitrous oxide emissions or tackling infections on livestock units, so decreasing methane emissions.

“But if farming is to fulfil its future potential, the food chain must support profitable farming, backed by the government providing the right regulatory framework and fiscal incentives. The irony is that with exciting current developments in technology such as robotics, GPS guidance, remote sensing and camera recognition, farmers increasingly have the ability to farm more precisely and thus reduce their GHG footprint, however without a profit margin, the necessary investment cannot be made.”

The GHGAP is also looking towards the future. It has identified some significant next steps to keep it on track to meeting its 2020 targets and beyond.  This will require the application of new science and incentives to drive the uptake of key practices and technologies and a continuation of the collaborative approach already established. 

Head of Environment Policy at the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), Jane Salter said: “The  support and openness of the GHG Research Platform has been exemplary and we look forward to incorporating its research into the next phase of our work. We have also benefitted from the expertise within Defra statistics and the wealthy of survey data has been the bedrock on which we’ve built our report. It is critically important that this collaborative approach continues.

To read this article in its original format, please click here.

13.05.16 Soil Farmer of the Year announced

Clive Bailye, an arable farmer from Staffordshire has won the UK Soil Farmer of the Year, organised by Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit (FCCT) and Innovation for Agriculture (IfA).

The inaugural competition aimed to find farmers and growers who were engaged with, and passionate about managing their soils in a way which supported productive agriculture, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and built soil organic matter and carbon.

Clive fought off stiff competition from a talented field of farmers and growers to take the top prize.  The panel of judges which included scientists, industry experts, farmers and the project team were incredibly impressed not only by the standard of entries and the diversity of practices being trialled, but the resounding commitment of all entrants to soil management and continuous learning.

Clive Bailye runs a large scale arable combinable crops operation in Staffordshire, and has spent the last six years transforming the way that he farms to focus entirely on soil improvement.  He has changed his cultivation strategy and his rotation which has resulted in the development of productive soils that are far less dependent on artificial inputs.  This has also achieved financial savings for the business, making it more resilient against future risk and volatility.

David Gardener, IfA CEO explains, “Clive is a very worthy winner in a competition that included some of the country’s leading farmers.  His comprehensive approach to managing soils susceptible to drought was most impressive and included a mix of cover crops, direct drilling, spring cropping and the re-introduction of livestock.” 

Second prize was awarded to Iain Tolhurst, a horticulture business from Berkshire.  Iain impressed the judges with his impressive knowledge and understanding of how to maximise soil biodiversity and his innovative use of composts and green manures within his rotation as well as his agro-forestry system. Whilst the business has been established over 40 years, it continues to innovate, push boundaries and educate others.

The accolade of third prize was taken by Jeremy and Heather Dale, dairy farmers from Shropshire.  This herd which is run on a spring calving system, and is certified as 100% pasture fed is achieving fantastic grassland management through attention to detail and making the use of data.  All data on grass growth and cow performance is logged and costs of production are scrutinised regularly.  This is all possible, by ensuring that the soil conditions are right to grow quality grass that supports this production system.

Jonathan Smith, FCCT Director said “As this was the first time we've run the competition, we didn't expect so many good entries. We appreciate the effort all entrants put in to this and hope to run the competition again later this year. These farmers and growers are demonstrating the benefits of building soil organic matter – healthier, more productive soils, increased carbon sequestration and better yields. It's a win-win approach, and a message we would like to spread far and wide.”

The top three farmers will all receive prizes of fertility building or green manure seed from the sponsor Cotswold Seeds.

The top three farmers will also all be hosting farm walks, where their prizes will be presented and there will be a chance to see, understand and dig a bit deeper into what they are doing.  The walk at Clive Bailye’s farm will be taking place on the 13th June, from 6 – 8.30pm, and at Iain Tolhurst’s on the 8th July. Further details will be available on the FCCT website.

Another four farmers were shortlisted, Nigel Griffiths, David Miller, David Walston and David White who were felt to have shown exemplary soil management and were running innovative production systems.

09.05.16 Methane-reducing drug for cows

Source: Dan Nosowitz, Modern Farmer

Methane emisisons, a major component of greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change, come from a variety of sources and cows (and other domestic livestock) are near the top of that list. A dairy cow produces around 200 litres per day of methane, thanks to enteric fermentation (or the digestive system), which enables plant materials like grass to be fermented in a cows gut.  This fermentation produces some good stuff (like fatty acids which the cow needs), and some waste, (mostly methane which is expelled by burping).

Short of simply reducing our total consumption of cow-based products, scientists have been trying to come up with a way to reduce methane emissions for decades. Since 2014, one particular molecule has shown incredible promise, 3 - nitrooxyproponal, sometimes called 3NOP or 3NP. Studies have indicated that when this molecule is added to a cow's feed, it can reduce methane emissions by up to 30 percent, repeatedly without seeming to cause any problems at all for the cow. For more reading on the science that has been published on this subject click on the papers below.

The new study which has been published in 2016 and is accessible here looks in more detail about how this molecule works (which was a mystery before this study) and provides a better understanding, which could offer help in getting some sort of 3NOP supplement to market.  Few regulatory agencies would approve the use of a drug about which little is known besides "it works" especially when the economic downside of some unforeseen problem would be as huge as it would be with the cattle industry.

The new study, tracks the way 3NOP binds to enzymes in the cow's gut and how it affects them. Its a huge step  forward in getting this drug to market in whatever form it'll eventually take.

To read the original article please click here.

04.05.16 Estimating soil carbon content of salt marshes with new app

Source: Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Sustainability, CBESS Project Officer, Meriem Kayoueche-Reeve.

We are an island nation, and yet we know surprisingly little about parts of our coastline. An appeal to ‘citizen scientists’ hopes to put this right by encouraging us to collect information about our salt marshes to fill in the gaps.

With the aid of The Saltmarsh App, CBESS is asking interested individuals and groups to investigate the salt marshes which surround our coast.

Once they have downloaded the free, mobile app, individuals can either use the guide to identify the unique plants and wildlife found on salt marshes or they can carry out an interactive plant and soil survey.

The survey will estimate the stored carbon in the saltmarsh soil and show how by preventing carbon from becoming the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide their marsh is helping limit climate change.

We know a great deal about land environments and have a detailed knowledge of the distribution of most soil types within the UK, with the exception of salt marshes. Every marsh survey uploaded will help the scientists at Bangor University learn more about UK saltmarsh soils and how they are helping fight climate change.

Salt marshes are grassland fields that fringe our coastline. They are washed by the tides and are criss-crossed by creeks. They are rich in wildlife and help protect our coastlines against storms and floods. Salt marshes are a great place for a walk, a run and a range of other outdoor activities.

The Saltmarsh App was developed by the University of St Andrews, Bangor University and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. The App will encourage people to visit salt marshes and gain more enjoyment from their visit, by providing a portable visual reference for the plants and animals found there. For the ‘citizen scientists’, the app also guides the user through some simple plant community and soil identification steps, which will be fed back to the scientists.

The Saltmarsh App and its accompanying website will be launched at the start of June, watch this space!

04.05.16 Livestock carbon footprint part 2

Following on from the first part of the blog, this second part explains some of the finer details and differences between GWP (global warming potential) and GTP (Global Temperature change Potential).  Again to read part one of the blog click here or for the link to the original on the Food Climate Research Network, written by Martin Persson click here.

To recap, the argument for favouring GTPs for livestock products, was that for a distant temperature target, it only matters how much warming is left lingering from an emission today at the point when the temperature target is reached (and not how much warming we get leading up to this point).

If this is the argument for choosing GTPs over GWPs, one must also be aware of the other implications of this choice.  First it is not reasonable to adopt a 100 year time horizon in GTP calculations. Instead the time horizon should reflect the time remaining until the temperature target is reached. For the 2 degree C target this is likely to happen sometime between 2050 – 2100. We have shown in a recent paper that if 40-90 years is a reasonable time horizon to use in GTP calculations, the resulting GTP value for methane today is 18, not 4. This is because the temperature impact of releasing a tonne of methane today increases rapidly the closer the point in time it is evaluated.

Second it does not make sense to adopt a constant time horizon for GTPs. (Why should we always be interested in the warming happening at some distant point in the future?).  Instead as we approach the temperature target, the time horizon  over which we evaluate GTPs should decrease, resulting in a valuation of methane that rise rapidly (since the short – term warming effects become increasingly important) reaching a value of 120 when the target is met.

Consequently, the impact of switching from GWPs to GTPs would have a modest impact on the carbon footprint of beef today: a reduction from 23.5 to 18.9kg CO2 – equivalents per kg carcasss weight, for average EU beef production. By mid-century however the carbon footprint calculated using GTPs could potentially rise to 63 kgCO2eq / kg beef, if it turns out that by then 2 degree C warming is imminent. The choice of metric this will have a large impact on the future role of the livestock sector in climate mitigation (more so than in the present).

Finally the discussion on metrics may partly obscure a key difference between emissions of fossil carbon dioxide and other, shorter lived greenhouse gases, while emissions of the latter will eventually be completely broken down and removed from the atmosphere, part of our carbon dioxide emissions (20-30%) will stay in the atmosphere for more than thousands of years. The practical implication of the latter is straightforward: the only way to stabilise carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is to bring down emissions close to zero. This is why we talk about a finite carbon budget; a target for cumulative carbon emissions we cannot exceed if we are to limit warming to 2 degrees C.

For other greenhouse gases, however, it is enough to stabilise emissions in order to stabilise atmospheric concentrations (though the higher the emissions, and the longer the lifetime of the gas, the higher the resulting concentration).  As a result cone can compare the long – term climate impacts of an emission pulse of carbon dioxide with a constant emission rate for more short-lived greenhouse gases. 

Put differently, reducing annual emissions of methane and nitrous oxide will relax the carbon budget compatible with a 2 degree target. Or, conversely for every tonne of carbon dioxide emission mitigated, we can increase annual emissions of shorter lived greenhouse gases forever without affecting long-term warming.

For methane, emitting one kg per year has the same long-term temperature impact as would a one-time emission of around 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide. For nitrous oxide which is both a more potent greenhouse gas and has a much longer atmospheric lifetime, an annual emission of one kg compares to a one-time emission of about 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Using these numbers, the annual emissions from the global livestock sector (some 112 million tonnes of methane and 8 million tonnes of nitrous oxide), if held constant, have the same long-term climate impact as carbon dioxide emissions of roughly 1000 billion tonnes. This is in the same order of magnitude as the total remaining carbon budget under a 2 degree target! 

Seen this way, achieving significant cuts in the global greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector – through productivity increases, technological development and dietary changes – can substantially raise the carbon budget compatible with the climate target currently agreed by the global community, hence increasing the likelihood that this target will actually be met. 

Source: Food Climate Research Network

03.05.16 Livestock’s carbon footprint and the importance of comparing greenhouse gases

This blog was published on the Food Climate Research Network and comes from Martin Persson at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.  This blog looks at the difficult issue of how to measure the climate impacts of the different greenhouse gases.  He begins by explaining what the two most common measurements (Global Warming Potential and Global Temperature Change Potential actually measure.

He also focuses specifically on beef and associated methane emissions. To read the article in its original form on the FCRN site, please click here.

The emissions conundrum

How do you compare the climate impact of, say, eating a hamburger and driving your car to the local supermarket? Making this comparison requires a conversion factor (a greenhouse gas metric) which adds up the emissions of the different gases that doing these different activities produces. In this example, the gases would include carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels, methane from the cow (through enteric fermentation and manure) and nitrous oxide from feed production (fertiliser).  The way that these are most commonly represented is using Global Warming Potential, where clever equations work out the gases different warming potentials over time and apportions them a value.  For anyone who has sat through a presentation on climate change and have heard the statistics about methane being 30 times more potent than carbon and nitrous oxide 300 times, that is what feeds into the carbon dioxide equivalents that are represented by global warming potential.

However, this is not the only way to convert methane and nitrous oxide into carbon dioxide equivalents.  Another option is to use the so called Global Temperature change Potentials (GTPs), according to which methane is just 4 times stronger than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas (when using the same 100 year time horizon that is used in Global Warming Potential).  Not surprisingly given the bad press associated with beef and dairy production when looking at emissions, using a different measure (Global Temperature Change potential, rather than global warming potential) makes the story seem much less dramatic. 

So how do you understand which metric to choose? As is always the case with reporting data, in order to answer that question, there is need for an understanding of what these different metrics actually are trying to measure (and balance).

Global Warming Potential and Global Temperature Change Potential

Global warming potential (GWP) focusses on radiative forcing, simply put a measure of the radiative energy imbalance due to increased levels of the greenhouse gas that cause the atmosphere, land and oceans to warm. To calculate the GWP of a gas, you add up the total cumulative radiative forcing resulting from the emission of one tonne of the gas today over a given time horizon, and then compare that to the total radiative forcing over the same time horizon resulting from emitting one tonne of carbon dioxide (comparing other gases to carbon dioxide in their ability to warm the radiative forcing). Global Temperature change potential (GTPs) compare the temperature change at a given point in the future, resulting from an emission of one tonne of a gas today and compare that to the temperature rise at the same point in time from emitting a tonne of carbon dioxide today.

This has been shown very nicely in a graph, which you can access through the original article here.

Reporting framework 

These graphs show that due to differences in atmospheric lifetimes of carbon dioxide and methane, there are marked differences in the time that the warming from the different gases will persist. Methane’s short atmospheric lifetime, about 12 years, implies that much of the change in temperatures that emissions today cause, will have dissipated in 100 years time (but not all of them). Consequently, when using global temperature potential calculations, the value for methane will be much less than when looking at global warming potential as GWPs reflects the cumulative warming effect of an emissions and as such, accounts for the near time climate impacts caused by the methane emissions.

As such, although emitting 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide or 1 tonne of methane today (remember these have equal emission if you are measuring using GWP), will have the same impact on total radiative forcing over the coming century, it will give very different absolute temperature changes at the end of this period (about seven times higher for carbon dioxide than for methane) as methane’s GWP value is about seven time higher than its GTP value.

This example (if you are still reading!) illustrates a general insight when it comes to greenhouse gas metrics, because of the differences in the atmospheric lifetime across greenhouse gases, there can never be a perfect metric that assures equivalence across all relevant impacts of climate change. Consequently which metric you use, will always reflect value judgement, such as:

  • Which impact to compare (e.g. radiative forcing, temperature change or sea-level rise)
  • Whether to compare these impacts at some future date or cumulative impacts over the whole period up until this date
  • Time-horizon over which impacts are assessed

How to choose which one to use?

This doesn’t imply however that the choice of metric is arbitrary. A common argument is that the choice of metric must reflect the climate policy goal the metric is to serve.  For example, cumulative radiative forcing, as measured by GWPs, relates directly to cumulative warming, which is a crude proxy for climate damages. Hence if our policy goal is to limit the total amount of climate damages over some specified time period, GWPs would be a good metric to use. However it we are simply interested in staying below some climate threshold, e.g. keeping warming well below 2 degrees C and do not care about the path leading up to this target we might favour GTPs.  This is because for a distant temperature target, it only matters how much warming is left lingering from an emission today at the point when the temperature target is reached (and not how much warming we get leading up to this point).

I will post part two of this article tomorrow, which deals with how this impacts on livestock.

Source: Martin Persson, published on the Food Climate Research Network

21.04.16 Reducing food waste could help mitigate climate change

Source: Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

About a tenth of overall global greenhouse gas emissions form agriculture could be traced back to food waste by mid – century, a new study shows. A team from the Postdam Instititue for Climate Impact Research for the first time provides comprehensive food loss projections for countries around the world while also calculating the associated emissions. 

Currently one third of global food production never finds its way onto our plates. 

This share will increase drastically, if emerging countries like China and India adopt Western nutrition lifestyles, the analyses shows. Reducing food waste would offer the chance to ensure food security, (which is well known), but at the same time it could help mitigate dangerous climate change.

“Reducing food waste can contribute to fighting hunger but to some extent can also prevent climate impacts like more intense weather extremes and sea – level rise,” explains lead author Ceren Hic. Avoiding food loss and waste would therefore avoid unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions and help mitigate climate change.

What they did

The research analysed body types and food requirements for the past and different future scenarios accounting for demographic changes as well as food demand and availability, and associated emissions. They found that while global average food demand per person remains almost constant, in the last five decades already food availability has rapidly increased. 

More importantly, food availability and requirement ratio show a linear relationship with human development, indicating that richer countries consume more food than is healthy or simply waste it. Using the model that this research created in terms of future planning, greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste could increase tremendously from today (0.5 Gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year) to 1.9 – 2.5 GtCO2eq.

Their model also indicated the growth of emissions from agriculture, due to demographic growth and lifestyle changes, with projections of a rise of 18 Gigatons of CO2eq by 2050.  The staggering statistic that this model found was that up to 14% of overall agricultural emissions in 2050 could easily be avoided by a better management of food utilisation and distribution.  Cutting food waste at a household (or even individual scale) could be one key to mitigating these emissions.  

How can the food supply chain be made smarter and more efficient, and are consumers ready to be convinced to reduce food waste?  More research is needed, but this study shines a light on the complex relationship between food security and climate change (that will become ever more important in the future with more people to feed). 

The researchers explain, “Avoiding food loss could pose a leverage to various challenges at one, reducing environmental impacts of agriculture, saving resources used in food production, and enhancing local, regional and global food security.” 

20.04.16 Reducing enteric methane for improving food security and livelihoods

This information comes from the FAO and was collated by the Global Research Alliance, and looks at the important issue of reducing enteric methane.  For more information on the Global Research alliance, please click here.

What is enteric methane?

Enteric fermentation is a natural part of the digestive process of ruminants where microbes decompose and ferment food present in the digestive tract or rumen. Enteric methane is one by-product of this process and is expelled by the animal through burping. Other by-products of the fermentation process are compounds which are absorbed by the animal to make milk and meat.

The amount of enteric methane expelled by the animal is directly related to the level of intake, the type and quality of feed, the amount of energy it consumes, size, growth rate, levels of production, and environmental temperature. Between 2 – 12% of a ruminant’s energy intake is typically lost through the enteric fermentation process. 

Why is enteric methane important?

Enteric methane is a Short – Lived Climate Pollutant (SLCP) and has a half-life of 12 years in comparison to carbon dioxide, parts of which stay in the atmosphere for many hundreds to thousands of years. Methane traps 84 times more heat than Carbon dioxide over the first two decades after it is released into the air.

Even over a 100 year period, the comparative warming effect of enteric methane is 28 times greater than carbon dioxide (per kg). Therefore reducing the rate of enteric methane emissions would help reduce the rate of warming in the near time, and if emissions reductions are sustained, can also help limit peak warming. 

Ruminants are responsible for 30% of global methane emissions.

Globally ruminant livestock produce about 2.7 GtC02 eq. of enteric methane annually, or about 5.5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

Cattle account for 77% of these emissions, buffalo for 14% and small ruminants for the remainder. 

What can farmers do?

Getting farms to improve the productivity of ruminants is a key way to improve rural livelihoods and improve food security. Farming systems that are much more productivity generally also reduce enteric methane emissions per unit of animal product. There are three key areas to focus on.

Feed and nutrition

Improving feed quality can be achieved through improved grassland management, improved pasture species, forage mix and great use of locally available supplements. Matching ruminant production to underlying grazing resources, ration balancing, undertaking adequate feed preparation and preservation will improve nutrient uptake, ruminant productivity and fertility.

Animal health and husbandry

Improving the reproductive rates and extending the reproductive life of the animal will increase their productivity and generally reduces methane emissions intensity. 

The most relevant method of achieving this is to limit the incidence of disease within the herd / flock, as healthier animals are generally more productive and have lower emissions per unit of product. 

Animal genetics and breeding

Genetic selection is a key measure in increasing the productivity of animlas. Breeding can help adapt animals to local conditions, and can also address issues associated with reproduction, vulnerability to stress, adaptability to climate change and disease incidence. Improved breeding management practices (using artificial insemination for example and ensuring access by farmers to wide genetic pools for selection) can accelerate those gains.

What the scientists / policy makers / industry need to do.

Care is needed ot identify the most effective package of interventions that fit local farm systems, resources and capabilities, and to avoid inadvertent trade-offs. 

Methods need to be practical and usable on the ground in order for them to be taken up, and communicated to farmers in a way which conveys their use.

Win-win opportunities for farmers

Rumninant production systems with low productivity lose more energy per unit of animal product than those with a high productivity (not rocket science I know). This energy that is lost per unit of product includes methane, so the more productive we can make our systems, the more of that energy will be going into producing meat or milk and not being expelled from the cow and lost to the environment.

There is a strong correlation between animal productivity and methane emissions, which implies large opportunities for low cost mitigation and widespread benefits.

Ruminants are essential to the livelihoods of millions of farmers and critical to human health, global food and nutritional security. Ruminants convert their feed (from a diverse range of sources and production systems) into high value products for humans through fermentation.  They also produce important components such as asset savings, traction, manure for fuel and fertilisers and fibre. 

Relative to other global greenhouse gas abatement opportunities, reducing enteric methane through productivity gains is the lowest cost option and has a direct economic benefit to farmers. 

What is happening?

Efforts to address enteric methane emissions in developing regions is relatively new and fragmented with a number of on-going initiatives each targeting a single component of the challenge.  The project which is a collaboration between the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, and the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhous gas Research Centre funded by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the New Zealand Government in support of the Global Research alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse gases.

What are they going to do?

Analyse and prioritise opportunities for improved food security and resource use efficiency and the identification of production systems / countries for detailed assessment.

Develop packages of appropriate cost – effective technologies; recommend policy options that improve resource use efficiency.

Identify demonstration sites and partners for Phase 2 on-farm testing of the technical packages.

Communication, dissemination and outreach.

For more information on what’s happening click here.

For more information on reducing methane from ruminants and production efficiency click here to go to the Toolkit section. 

19.04.16 Adapting to climate change

How communities can work together to achieve change, whilst adapting to a future climate.

Last week, I went along to a talk given by the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce at Bridgwater College looking at adapting to climate change. I was fairly excited about going along to this as the main speaker was Professor Lord John Krebs who is fully involved in the 'climate change agenda,' chairing the Adaptation Subcommittee which advises on the steps that Government should be taking to prepare for the impacts of climate change.  The session was ably chaired by Matthew Taylor, a fellow from the society with extensive experience in policy and public engagement. 

Somerset had first-hand experience of severe flooding two year ago, and its proximity to the sea makes it exposed to risks in the future.  Flooding has devastating consequences that don’t just cost in terms of finance, but also bring with it personal loss, and in the case of farmers complete upheaval and devastation that can take a long time to recover from.  This was a talk that tried to  look at how we can change our thinking and behaviour now to make our communities more resilient against future weather events and risks.  

In terms of our legislative requirements, the UK government (on the surface) are committed to the ‘climate change agenda.’ The 2008 Climate Change Act which received all party support provided the legal basis which committed the government to act, however how it is translated into on the ground action is open to interpretation. 

Lord Krebs structured his talk around three key questions which were:

Is climate change actually happening?

What are the impacts on the UK?

What should we do about it?

Is climate change really happening?

Lord Krebs highlighted that although the media still has doubts about the existence of climate change, there are some facts that remain including:

During the 150 year period when temperature has been measured by thermometers, the temperature has gone up by just under 1 degree C. 

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone up because of burning fossil fuels.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.

The well-publicised climate change talks in Paris last year did provide us with some positive indicators, the sign up of 192 countries with intended contributions including the USA and China, which is a great step forward.  For the pessimists, however, even if all countries achieved their goals, it still isn’t enough to stop temperature rise and impacts.  

What are the impacts on us here in the UK?

One of the big issues comes with future predictions of climate change and weather patterns, as it stretches the limits of climate models.  It is important though to look at how we prepare ourselves to risks.

What are these risks? The government publishes a climate change risk assessment periodically (the next one is due in July), and it is likely to say that the biggest risks are:

Flooding (including riverine, flash and coastal flooding)

Natural environment – declining soil fertility

Transport – higher temperatures

Water shortage – especially in the south east (which can cause issues for farming)

For agriculture, arguably all of these risks affect us, to a greater or lesser extent.  

What should be done about it?

Whose responsibility is it? The answer to this question, was much easier and simpler.


Yes everyone is responsible.

It’s not up to one group of people, everyone has to engage and commit to building resilient communities.  

Interestingly Lord Krebs looked (unsurprisingly due to the location of the talk) at flooding and came up with some interesting statistics around individuals protecting their properties from damage.  At the current rate of action it will take 400 years to introduce enough features to protect our properties.  Add to this that as a nation we are not investing enough in flood defences and it paints a bleak picture. 

Lord Krebs alluded to two government reviews that are happening at the moment, to try and help with the issue.  One is looking at short term measures around flood protection, including how we can protect critical infrastructure from extreme rainfall, how to increase spend on flood defences in core cities and how to communicate flood risk to people better. 

The other review is looking at longer term strategies (and is more applicable to farmers) is looking at how we can manage water on a catchment scale.  This review is focussed in Cumbria and is setting up three pilot catchments which are being managed differently and mapping the impact on water flow and infiltration. The key point here, was that when water falls out of the sky, it has to go somewhere, and we need to treat that water with respect.

Following the talk, there was interesting debate and questions that followed a few key themes.

Communication – there was interesting discussions about communication on a couple of different levels.  Firstly communication by scientists – and the confusing use of terminology.  The key question is how to express probability and uncertainty without highlighting the unknown.  There is a need to develop smarter ways of communication which reinforce the key points without getting bogged down in the detail. 

This need for clear and consistent communication is still evident, (including in this talk).  It seems to me, that we are getting more and more up to date on the ‘why’ we should do something, but what we are (still) missing is the ‘how’.  Certainly in the talk, when pressed, there was very little clear direction (from a very receptive audience) into what they should be doing different.  The message was ‘we are all responsible, don’t leave it to someone else’ but then at the crucial point, stopped short of telling us what we should be doing. More information required please!

Another key point which was more relevant to farmers, was that catchment scale management of water is critical.  Although this wasn’t a purely farming audience, this resonated with me, and a few of the farmers that were present in the room.  How we look after and manage the water that falls on our farms has much wider impact than just on our land.  We have a responsibility to respect that water, use it to grow our crops and hold it in our (well structured) soils for so it can be released slowly.  Lord Krebs also suggested that we look out for the hotly anticipated Defra 25 year Environment Strategy to see whether anything about flooding is included. 

Another discussed question was 'ownership' and whether the small act of switching off a light or one household becoming more energy efficient really makes a difference against the emitting force of some of the powerhouse countries.  The point was echoed again that:

It’s about all of us doing our bit.

So all of us were challenged to inspire the nation to act.

I was impressed by the number of people that attended the talk, and by the speakers and the depth and intensity of some of the questions.  As I said above, what I felt was slightly lacking, from an audience who had voted with their feet and turned up, was where to go next.  What was the one thing that they could go home and do, to start ‘doing their bit’ which was what was being advocated.

On the drive home I was thinking that maybe they had stopped short of that because it isn’t a simple answer, and, like we find in farming, it all depends on your set up, soil type and what you are doing in the first place. But for how much longer can we hide behind ‘its not simple’ and when do we have the courage to stand up and say, although this isn’t going to achieve everything it’s a start? 

That’s all we need.

A start.

So what did I take home from the meeting? 

A couple of points really.  One which corresponds to what we try and do here at FCCT, and that’s what do we actually need to do?  What are those actions that although won’t make a difference at a global or national scale, will make a difference to me, and (as echoed in the talk) potentially make a difference at a catchment scale? I am going to make sure that we have the courage to give you the information that you need to do the HOW as well as appreciating the WHY.

Secondly, it made me realise that while I spend a lot of my day job looking at what agriculture can do to reduce emissions and improve resilience, I had fairly little clue what I personally could do, so I’m off to ‘climate-proof’ my life. 

18.04.16 France's 4 per 1000 Initiative developed further

France's 4 per 1000 Initiative is due to be scrutinised at the International Level to determine the future steps on April 28th at the International Agricultural Show in Morocco.

This meeting which will include the French Ministry of Agriculture along with the Moroccan Ministry will aim to set out the framework for the international governance structure of the initiative and determine what the next steps should be before the next international climate conference COP22 which takes place in Morocco in November.

For farmers interested in this initiative what this meeting should hopefully provide is clear direction and a roadmap as to how it is going to be managed and rolled out between May of this year and the COP22 in November.  

What is encouraging with this initiative is that it puts soil health and the need to provide farming systems that are resilient right up the agenda, while at the same time (hopefully) providing a robust method of measuring results.  The paragraph below comes from the recent release announcing this new meeting and reads:

"In 2050, global agriculture will have to produce a sufficient amount of food for a planet composed of 9.5 billion people in the context of climate change. Faced with this challenge, we must keep our soils alive because agricultural production is strongly correlated with soil health. Increasing carbon stored in soils is one of the major levers to respond to the triple challenges of food security, the adaptation of food systems and populations to disruptions linked to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

For more information on the project click here.

Source: French Food in the US news update

15.04.16 Climate smart soils may help balance the carbon budget

While farm soil grows the world's food and fibre, scientists are examining ways to use it to sequester carbon and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

"We can substantially reduce atmospheric carbon by using soil. We have the technology now to begin employing good soil practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Johannes Lehmann, Cornell University professor of soil and crop sciences, co-author of the Perspectives piece, "Climate-smart Soils."

Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, sequestering carbon and using prudent agricultural management practices that tighten the soil-nitrogen cycle can yield enhanced soil fertility, bolster crop productivity, improve soil biodiversity, and reduce erosion, runoff and water pollution. These practices also buffer crop and pasture systems against the impacts of climate change.

Currently, Earth's atmosphere holds about 830 petagrams (1 trillion kilograms) of carbon and humans add about 10 petagrams of carbon to the atmosphere every year, because of industrial and agricultural waste, and fossil-fuel burning vehicles, according to Lehmann. Soils, however, hold about 4,800 petagrams of carbon to a depth of 2 meters.

The good news is that soils have the potential to hold even more. "Improving prediction models, finding 'big data' approaches to integrate land use, soil management and technology to engage land users are key parts to realizing greenhouse gas mitigation from climate-smart agricultural soils," said Lehmann, a faculty fellow at Cornell's Atkinson Centre for a Sustainable Future.

One strong mitigation strategy includes avoiding degradation of native ecosystems, while restoring marginal land to perennial forest or grassland.

It's not all about science: Realizing the potential for climate change mitigation through global soil management requires understanding cultural, political and socio-economic contexts, said the scientists.

Land users, farmers and producers can abate greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon using several methods, but these stakeholders must be educated and need the decision tools to choose the most appropriate approach tuned to their situation.

Practices to minimize greenhouse gas emissions include reducing tillage; improving grazing management, crop rotation and nutrient management; applying biochar; adding cover crops; and providing perennial vegetation for inactive production fields.

"The mitigation potential of existing and future soil management practices could be as high as 8 petagrams per year, but how much is achievable depends on the implementation strategies, and socio-economic and policy constraints," said Lehmann.

Journal Reference: Keith Paustian, Johannes Lehmann, Stephen Ogle, David Reay, G. Philip Robertson, Pete Smith. Climate-smart soils. Nature, 2016; 532 (7597): 49 DOI: 10.1038/nature17174

Source: Farming Futures

15.04.16 Final report released on methods of assessing sustainability

The final report of the Ekhaga Sustainability Assessment project has been published.

The project which was run by the Organic Research Centre aimed to provide practical recommendations on the suitability of the available sustainability assessment frameworks, themes, tools and indicators for the organic sector and to help consider and further develop sustainability assessment approaches. 

This was a much needed project.  Sustainability and the need for sustainable production systems is ever more important in a world of global challenges (and that is however you define sustainability).  However the big issue has always been, although its a great and noble ambition, how do you actually measure its happening on the ground? And what can we use as suitable indicators that we are making progress?

The old adage of you can't manage what you don't measure is important as well.  Does it mean that we will all be managers of sustainable farming systems and how will we know if we get there.  Although we may be making progress in modelling and defining indicators that cover the economic and environmental pillars of sustainability where do we stand on the social indicators? And who is setting the targets about where we should be, and whether its achievable to get there?

This report, goes some way into trying to answer some of the questions around methodologies that are specifically applicable to organic and ecological systems and tried to answer some of the questions around any existing trade-offs and relationships between the themes of sustainability.

The report, which can be read in full here, provided some key points.

  • There is need for more work on assessing the synergies and trade offs within sustainable farm practices and whether these are adequately represented by the tools available
  • There is also need for farmers to accept some of the trade offs between economics and the environmental and social factors. This may need to be pushed by policy.
  • The encouraging aspect of this report was the recommendation (and realisation) that priorities need to be set depending on the specific context of the farm (not one size fits all blunt policy).

What did the report see as the strengths of the organic sector in sustainable farm management?

These included:

  • biodiversity
  • ecosystem diversity
  • soil quality
  • greenhouse gas emissions

The final recommendation explained that further development of the evidence base to these factors would help publicise the results further.

07.04.16 Best GHG mitigation opportunities from livestock sector

The global livestock sector supports about 1.3 billion producers and retailers around the world, and is a significant global economic contributor.

New analysis estimates that livestock could account for up to half of the mitigation potential of the global agricultural, forestry and land-use sectors, which are the second largest source of emissions globally, after the energy sector.

The lead author of this study, CSIRO’s Dr Mario Herrero, said this new account of the mitigation potential for the global livestock sector is the most comprehensive analysis to date as it considers both the supply and demand sides of the industry.

A key finding is that we can get the best mitigation potential from the livestock sector if we take an integrated view of land use and practice change that considers the whole of agriculture and forestry as well as looking at dietary patterns and how we address the needs of global nutrition.

“Livestock has a role in a healthy and sustainable diet, and the sector has an important economic and social role, particularly in developing countries,” Dr Herrero said. “We need to balance these health outcomes and the economic and social benefits, while also capturing the mitigation potential the livestock sector can offer.”

Dr Herrero said sustainably intensifying livestock production is one way this can be done. “We’ve found that there are a number of ways that the livestock sector can contribute to global greenhouse gas mitigation,” he said. “New management practices such as rotational grazing and dietary supplements can increase livestock production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need to increase the adoption of these different strategies by making sure that we have the right incentives. If appropriately managed with the right regulatory framework, these practices can also achieve improved environmental health over and above the greenhouse gas benefits delivered, for example through improved ground cover and soil carbon.”

Journal Reference: Mario Herrero, Benjamin Henderson, Petr Havlík, Philip K. Thornton, Richard T. Conant, Pete Smith, Stefan Wirsenius, Alexander N. Hristov, Pierre Gerber, Margaret Gill, Klaus Butterbach-Bahl, Hugo Valin, Tara Garnett, Elke Stehfest. Greenhouse gas mitigation potentials in the livestock sector. Nature Climate Change, 2016; DOI:10.1038/nclimate2925

06.04016 New IBERS research to boost grassland efficiency and improve prospects for livestock farmers

New IBERS research will give livestock farmers the opportunity to produce quality forage with lower nitrogen and phosphate fertiliser inputs, thereby saving costs whilst reducing any negative environmental impact caused by nutrient leaching, run–off and potential greenhouse gas emissions.

“IBERS has led the way in developing and applying innovative plant breeding techniques over the last three decades, producing many of the leading forage grasses and clovers now on the official Recommended Lists,” says Paul Billings, managing director of Germinal GB.

“This latest project will build on that heritage, drawing on this established genetic material as well as new germplasm, to create new varieties with the added advantage of nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) and phosphorus use efficiency (PUE).

“This is an example of vital near–market research that will deliver tangible benefits, not only for livestock farmers but also for the environment. Both aspects are important in the context of long term sustainable livestock farming.”

IBERS plant breeders will use a combination of conventional and innovative marker–assisted (MAS) approaches to improve the speed and precision of selecting varieties for NUE and PUE. The work will apply to both perennial ryegrass and white clover, where the potential for greater NUE and PUE has already been identified.

Source: Germinal Seeds

25.03.16 Good agricultural practices reduce soil erosion in Italy

Soil erosion in Italy could be reduced by 43% if Good Agriclutural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) were fully adopted, a recent study has found. Reducing soil erosion would also increase soil organic carbon stocks, particularly on cultivated sloping land.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, March 2016

Protecting European soils from erosion is therefore a priority under the European Commission’s soil protection thematic strategy 1 . To encourage environmentally sound agriculture, actions to protect soil are included in the cross compliance mechanism attached to pillar 1 farm subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Under the CAP Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) requirements, Member States are obliged to prevent soil erosion and maintain soil organic matter through national or regional standards, such as minimal soil cover maintenance (GAEC 4); minimum land management reflecting site specific conditions to soil loss (GAEC 5); and maintenance of soil organic matter level (GAEC 6). Should farmers not comply with these requirements, they are liable to a small penalty (approx. 5%) on their subsidy.

The concept of GAEC includes protecting soils against erosion and maintaining soil organic matter and soil structure (other GAECs are aimed at protecting water, biodiversity and animal health). It is up to Member States to establish standards which are appropriate to their conditions. Example actions include minimising the area of bare soil (e.g. by leaving  vegetable matter on soil surfaces); limiting soil loss through methods such as growing crops across or perpendicular to a slope; and maintaining soil organic carbon stocks (e.g. by residues management including restrictions on burning crop residues).

Although Member States must notify the commission on how they implement the GAECs, little is known about the effect GAEC standards have had on reducing soil erosion and increasing soil carbon stocks in Europe. In the first study of its kind, researchers, including from the European Commission’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability, have assessed the impact of the GAECs at the national level. They chose Italy as a case study because arable land there often has steep slopes with soil that is particularly susceptible to being eroded by heavy rainstorms.

The researchers linked an erosion model with an agro-ecosystem model to calculate the impact of GAEC practices on soil losses and soil organic carbon stocks. Average annual soil erosion losses due to changes in climate, land cover, soil properties, landscape features and agricultural practices were assessed using data from climate, land cover and agricultural databases, as well as satellite images.

The researchers looked at three scenarios. The first, ‘baseline’, represented the absence of any specific national policy on erosion prevention and carbon conservation and was based on conditions prior to the GAECs on soil being included in the cross compliance mechanism. The ‘current’ scenario is based on the implementation of compulsory GAEC standards, beginning in 2005. As a result of changes to practice, this scenario had different soil erosion rates to the baseline. Finally, the ‘technical potential’ scenario reflects the avoided erosion and the amount of soil organic carbon that could be stored by 2050, if GAEC standards were to be implemented across all arable land.

In short, the three scenarios represent: no GAECs; current GAEC implementation; and application of GAECs to the entire surface of arable land in Italy.

For the baseline, the researchers estimated that soil is being lost at 8.33 tonnes per hectare per year (t/ha/yr) across all arable land in Italy. Around 29% of the arable land had losses

greater than 10 t/ha/yr, which is the water erosion threshold indicator for tolerable soil losses in Mediterranean environments, at which point the rate of soil erosion becomes unsustainable.

 The researchers estimate that approximately 73% of soil erosion is occurring in 25% of the Italian cropland. Farms located on slopes (greater than 10%) experience around 64% of the total annual soil loss, as they are the most exposed to soil erosion.

For the current scenario, soil loss was estimated to be 7.43 t/ha/yr.  Approximately 25% of the arable land has losses greater than 10 t/ha/yr, which is around an 11% decrease compared with the baseline scenario. The ‘technical potential’ scenario could significantly reduce soil losses to 4.1 t/ha/yr, a 51% reduction compared with the baseline scenario and approximately 43% compared with the current scenario.

Top-soil organic carbon stock varied in the three scenarios depending on the location of arable land and land management practices. The study suggests that current GAEC practices have led to an overall 17% carbon accumulation through avoided soil erosion, compared with the baseline scenario. If these standards were fully implemented on all arable land, the soil organic carbon stock in Italy may increase by up to 11% in the long-term.

As monitoring soil erosion and carbon levels across all farms is not viable, the researchers suggest their modelling approach could help policymakers to assess the effectiveness of soil conservation measures at national, regional and even global levels. Research is also being conducted to assess sediment and carbon budgets, including transport and depositional processes.

16.03.16 Reducing the emissions intensity of livestock production: case studies of success

The information below was produced by the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, and more information on the alliance can be found by clicking here.

This case study looks at the French dairy industry and its efforts to reduce the environmental impact of milk production, with ambitious targets to reduce the carbon footprint of milk by 20% over 10 years.

The French Dairy sector

France is Europe’s second largest milk producer after Germany and contributes 3.5% of the global milk production, and generates 28 billion Euros in revenues and 123,000 jobs. There are a variety of production systems and the average herd size is 70 cows. Looking at the distribution of GHGs across France as a whole, the dairy sector represents 7% of emissions (including the national herd, and land associated with milk production).

What’s been happening?

Between 1990 and 2010 there have been improvements within the French dairy sector around milk yield per cow, as a result of genetic gains and improvement in farm management practices, including feed efficiency and herd management through an advisory programme. There has also been a reduction in fertiliser use through improved practices surrounding management of manures.

Effect of actions on emissions intensity of livestock production

During the last 20 years, the GHG emissions associated with dairy production in France has fallen from 1.4kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per litre of milk to 1.1kg. This has been due to reduced numbers of dairy cows as well as improved productivity and fertiliser use.

The LIFE Carbon Dairy action plan

This plan has been introduced that aims to reduce the carbon footprint of milk production by 20% over 10 years, avoiding emitting 140,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. It is being rolled out across 6 pilot areas which represent 65% of national production of milk.

The plan includes a tool for French dairy farmers to use which helps them to quantify their carbon footprint and environmental impact. As well as a national foot printing exercise the programme will set up 60 innovation farms to test new approaches to reducing emissions at a farm level.

Why bother?

By reducing GHG emissions on-farm, the plan will also help farm efficiency and sustainability. A lot of mitigation practices induce savings and less working time for farmers, for example by reducing energy consumption and the use of inputs.

There are some opportunities where additional investment may be needed in terms of purchase of new equipment. These are always difficult decisions to make especially when previously there has been little concrete evidence of the quantifiable benefits that these practices have. The advisors tools being provided in France allow farmers to link the economic benefits or costs to the environmental ones and determine the cost benefit in £/kg Carbon dioxide equivalent avoided (which may be linked to a carbon credit mechanism in the future).

Implementing the plan

The challenge in order to achieve the plan’s ambitious goals is to train farm advisors in providing appropriate advice and in promoting innovative techniques adapted to different operating environments.

Farms will be monitored throughout the programme and regular analysis and discussion with the farmer will allow alterations to be made (because of weather!) and check that everything is ok. The plan also aims to create farmer networks that will help producers understand the constraints and advantages of the implementation of innovative practices in different production contexts including the part of grass and silage in the system and agronomic and climatic conditions in regions.

For more information on the project please click here

14.03.16 Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock: what are the costs?

The livestock sector is estimated to contribute 14.5% of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This study, taken from a recent Science for Environment Policy briefing highlights some of the work that is going on looking to quantify the benefits of adapting management practices to reduce emissions and which may be suitable for policy targeting and intervention. The information below is a summary of the work, but to read the full article please click here.

Globally there is the potential to reduce GHG emissions from the livestock sector by as much as 2.4 metric gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions every year (a value that is incredibly hard to visualise or get your head round, but its big).  The vast majority of this potential is associated with ruminants and come from management such as improved production efficiency, and the use of feed additives or other products to suppress methane production, or measures designed to improve the carbon sequestration potential of the system through improved grassland management and the inclusion of legumes within forage mixes.

Up until now, there has been little research that has tried to assess the costs and benefits of different practices designed to reduce emissions. Those studies that have tried have suggested that there is a proportion of this potential is available at a price, but that much of the options available are not attainable in a cost effective manner. 

This project tried to dig a bit deeper into the statement above and tried to estimate the costs of reducing GHG emissions from the livestock sector globally. The results in this work looked at the marginal costs (defined as cost of producing one more unit and include all the costs associated with producing that unit), rather than the commonly reported average costs of abatement as such allowed for variability in the effectiveness of practices depending on the region and production system being reported.

What did they do?

This study used a 5 step analytical approach:

  • Focussed on ruminant production systems (which account for over 90% of all direct GHG emissions from livestock globally)
  • Then they looked at management practices according to their reliability and effectiveness at reducing emissions (no good looking at options that weren't going to achieve the desired outcome)
  • They also focussed on practices that targeted methane and carbon sequestration (rather than nitrous oxide) which have been documented as being the largest sources of abatement for ruminant production systems,
  • 5 practices were looked at - three for methane emissions and two for carbon sequestration
  • Data was analysed using a computer model and allowed the scientists to create graphs and curves which allow an understanding of how the costs increase with every additional unit of emissions that is reduced. 

What were the management practices that they looked at?

  • Feeding of dietary oils (reducing methane)
  • Feeding of nitrates ( in the form of calcium, potassium, or sodium nitrate, fed to reduce methane)
  • Urea treatment of crop straws fed to animals
  • Improved grazing management (carbon sequestration)
  • Inclusion of legumes within mix (again carbon sequestration)

What did they find?

Soil carbon sequestration
The two opportunities to improve soil carbon sequestration were both found to be affordable.  The potential of improved grazing management was found to be achievable at no cost to start with, costs did then increase when the opportunities to improve management are exhausted. Therefore ensuring that grassland management is optimal and efficient will help with carbon sequestration, and reduction of emissions associated with livestock production.  The inclusion of legumes was found to be affordable and effective. Despite the high upfront costs of establishment they are offset by the returns associated with increased forage production and animal productivity, 85% of its total abatement potential is achievable at a carbon price of $10 t of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

Reduction of methane emissions
The costs of dietary oils and nitrates are high at all levels of abatement due to the expense of oilseeds and lack of associated improvement in animal productivity.  The urea treatment of straws were also shown to be unprofitable which is in line with its modest uptake. 

What did they conclude?

The study offers guidance for targeting abatement efforts to have the highest impacts at the lowest cost. In western Europe, legume showing was the most efficient practice and, overall abatement practices were found to the most effective for dairy cattle.  The study suggests that around half of the abatement potential for improved grazing management and legume sowing could be achieved with extension and capacity building programmes. For the costlier abatement options though, stronger policy options would be required for example a carbon tax or emission quotas.

To read the full article click here.

01.03.16 Soil Farmer of the Year Shortlist announced

The shortlist for the inaugural Soil Farmer of the Year competition has been announced.  The competition, which opened on World Soils Day (4th December 2015) has attracted a wide range of entries, from small horticultural operations to large arable estates.  All the entries have the common theme of being passionate about their soil management, and recognising the crucial importance that soil health has to the running of their farming and growing operations.  

“Soil is central to everything that we do” explains one of the shortlisted applicants, “the soil must be our first consideration within a sustained and profitable enterprise.” The competition, which has been run by the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit (FCCT) and Innovation for Agriculture, has received a large number of applications that have all been of extremely high quality. 

FCCT Director, and organic vegetable grower Jonathan Smith explains his personal interest in soil management: “I have been working hard to create better soils with higher organic matter levels on my farm for years, it's central to what we do. I find the whole subject fascinating, not least because of the many different techniques that farmers and growers have to achieve the same end. This Competition has shown just how many great soil farmers there are out there. I hope this idea of being a 'soil farmer' grows in popularity.”

In total 17 applications were received, of which a shortlist of 7 has been created.  The judging panel consisted of scientists from Rothamsted Research North Wyke, the James Hutton Institute, farmers from the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit and Cotswold Seeds who are kindly sponsoring the competition and providing the top three entries with prizes of cover crop or green manure seeds to a value of £500.

The shortlisted applicants are (in alphabetical order):

Clive Bailye (Arable)

Jeremy and Heather Dale (Livestock)

Nigel Griffiths – Kent

David Miller – (Arable)

Iain Tolhurst (Horticulture)

David White – (Arable)

David Walston – (Arable and sheep)

The shortlisted applicants will be visited by FCCT, and then the decision of the top three soil farmers will be made.  This decision will be announced at the end of March, with the presentation of the award taking place on a farm walk in late spring, giving other farmers the chance to come and visit the UK Soil Farmer of the Year to see and hear how this farmer manages their most important asset.

24.02.16 If farm animals only graze pastures and eat by-products - livestock problem solved?

The extract below comes from an article written by Elin Roos, a postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and initially published on the FCRN website.  The link to the full paper is here

About 40% of the cereals and legume grains produced every year are used to feed farm animals. Many commentators argue that this is highly resource inefficient as around 70% of the human edible energy produced is lost in the process due to metabolic losses in the animals.  For example typically 4 kg of cereals and legumes is needed to produce one kg of edible poultry meat ( Roos et al., 2014), although the quantity varies by system. By contrast raising livestock on by-products that humans can’t or don’t want to eat or waste is often considered to be a resource efficient way of producing protein for human consumption, as is raising livestock on biomass from grasslands unsuitable for the production of human edible foods e.g. natural or semi-natural pastures or other marginal grasslands. (For a deeper discussion of the concept of efficiency please refer to the FCRN paper on efficiency)

This approach of letting the ecological resource capacity be the constraining factor for livestock production, i.e. to restrict livestock production to feeds not suitable for human consumption has been around for some time and was coined as "producing livestock on ecological leftovers" in a paper by FCRN's Tara Garnett in 2009 and explored further as one of the scenarios presented in ‘Gut Feelings

This concept of restricting livestock production is attractive in several ways. From a food security perspective it has been argued that diverting grains from animal feed to human food would increase available food supply. Further, the concept is compatible with principles of agro-ecology (e.g. adjusting production to context-specific conditions and making use of local resources) and makes use of pastures for food production which a vegan diet would not. It also yields a diet which would contain meat and dairy; products that most people appreciate in their diets. However, despite the popularity of framing sustainable meat production in this way, there are few studies that have looked into how a diet based on this concept would actually look like and what the environmental impacts of such a diet would be. This said, recently Schader et al.(2015) modelled various scenarios of global livestock production in which reliance on food-competing feed crops was progressively reduced. They found that greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts would be reduced (compared with the reference scenario), and enough food would be supplied although only 11% of protein would come from animal sources, as compared with 38% in the reference scenario.

In a study published late last year my colleagues and I made an attempt to apply this concept to Sweden and see what kind of diet that would give (Röös et al., 2015b)

To read more of this article please click here.

22.02.16 More research needed before we know how much tree planting can reduce flooding

From Farming Futures blog, 18th February 2016

Recently there has been much discussion in the media, parliament and wider society of ways in which we can reduce the impacts of flooding. One method that has been suggested and is currently being seriously considered by government is “to plant trees in the uplands to help slow the flow of rain water” The Times 25/01/16.

Many commentators have cited as evidence for tree planting the results of a study we carried out at Pontbren in mid-Wales between 2005 and 2012.

In the study we planted trees on previously grazed pasture and measured the subsequent effects on soil hydraulic properties and runoff processes. We found that soil infiltration rates were 67 x times faster and surface runoff volumes were reduced by 78% under trees compared with grassland.

Given the high level of attention given to our results and the significance to them attached by many I thought I should draw attention to some of the caveats presented in the full research paper. These suggest that a degree of caution is required when extrapolating the significance of our findings, particularly if one is planning major changes to existing countryside management policies.

What we found

Prior to our work several studies had shown that high stocking densities can cause soil surface compaction leading to increased surface runoff. Our study at Pontbren clearly indicated that excluding sheep and planting trees resulted in reduced near surface soil compaction, increased infiltration rates and reduced surface runoff volumes. However, what we didn’t measure was whether there was any change in the ability of the soil to store water and whether the water was able to penetrate deeper into the soil profile as a result of the presence of tree roots. These are important parameters that we need to know if want to try and estimate what size of storm this type of land use intervention may be effective against.

Our study and other work undertaken at Pontbren shows that the age of the trees is important and it has been predicted that further improvement in soil hydraulic properties could be achieved under mature trees. We also know that different tree species have different root architecture which will have an impact on the way that water is able to penetrate into the ground. Further work is needed to understand the full impact of trees as they reach maturity and whether the ability of soil below trees to store water could be further improved through tree species selection.

Soil types are variable

Across the UK, the landscape is highly variable with many soils types, often with very different characteristics. Many studies have shown a high degree of variability in hydrological function even for a given soil type depending on how intensely that soil is managed. What we found at Pontbren was that despite choosing four replicate sites with broadly similar soil characteristics, measured infiltration rates and runoff volumes were highly variable. Therefore we cannot say with any certainty what impacts planting trees would have on different types of soil. This indicates a strong need to measure these soil physical properties across a range of soil types to quantify the relative impact.

Scale issues

The results reported in our paper were from a field study undertaken at relatively small scale (each of the plot being 12m x 12m). The UK’s landscape has a very complex structure and one cannot simply upscale the results measured in plot-scale studies like ours to the catchment scale in order to predict the impacts that planting trees might have on flooding. In order to do this we need to employ hydrological models which take account of land use and land use change in their predictions.

Developing the evidence base

To gain a better understanding of whether tree planting would have a positive impact in reducing flooding we need to develop the evidence base. Our work is one of very few studies which provide any empirical information. In future we need to measure what effects planting trees has on soil hydraulic properties, such as the water storage capacity in the soil, under a range of soil types and conditions, as well as looking at different tree species and ages. An example of work towards this end is the Multi-land project, currently under way and funded by the National Research Network for Low Carbon Energy and Environment. We can then use revised estimates of soil parameters to improve flood model predictions to get a better understanding of where tree planting may be effective, what area they may be effective over and what size of storm they might be effective against.

Caution must be given to the expectation that tree planting is the panacea to all flooding. When soils are already saturated as has often been the case during the current winter, the positive contribution that trees may have in terms of providing additional water storage space in the soil below will be greatly diminished. Nevertheless, the added surface roughness provided by the trees and their understorey could aid in flood mitigation by delaying runoff. It is questionable however whether any land use intervention would be effective against the extreme events that the UK has experienced in recent months, we just need more research to work out the magnitude of these effects.

Finally, we need to think of the catchment as a whole when thinking of ways to reduce flooding. Planting trees is only one option amongst a suite of measures that we should consider.

Dr Miles Marshall works in the CEH “Catchment management and soils systems” research group. He is based at our site in Bangor, North Wales. His research interests focus on biogeochemical and hydrological processes and how they vary spatially and temporally, and the linkage to other ecosystem processes and functioning.

The publication discussed in this blog post is: Marshall, M.R.; Ballard, C.E.; Frogbrook, Z.L.; Solloway, I.; McIntyre, N.; Reynolds, B.; Wheater, H.S., 2014, The impact of rural land management changes on soil hydraulic properties and runoff processes: results from experimental plots. Hydrological Processes, 28, 2617-2629

From the CEH website

15.02.16 Which tests to use to assess the health of your soil?

This information below comes from GREAT soils, a project being funded by AHDB Horticulture.

Farmers and growers are concerned about the current health of their soils (compared to 30 or 40 years ago), and some of these concerns are supported by soil analysis data collected over the same period. Most farmers and growers understand the importance of soil health for the productivity, sustainability and profitability of their businesses, but many face significant challenges when interpreting results from laboratory analysis or when choosing suitable tools or methods for assessing the health of their soils beyond the standard pH, P, K, Mg analysis.

To be of value to growers and farmers, methods for soil assessment should not only measure soil health, but should also provide information that can be used to inform decision making in relation to soil management. This review aims to provide an informative overview of the various tools and methods currently available.

The functioning of soil depends upon a complex interaction between organisms large and small, chemical reactions in solution and on surfaces of clay particles within a structure determined by natural processes and modified by soil management. A broad range of appropriate indicators of soil health is therefore needed to evaluate the effects and sustainbilty of agricultural practices. the most commonly agreed and used indicators can be grouped into three categories of (1) biological, (2) chemical, and (3) physical parameters.

A list of the most commonly used indicators for soil health

Biological indicators

  • soil organic matter
  • number and diversity of macro and microorganisms
  • number and diversity of Mycorhiza (AMF) and root colonisation
  • Number and diversity of earthworm populations
  • Respiration rates
  • Enzymatic acticity
  • Microbial profiling
Chemical indicators
  • Nitrogen (N): mineralised N (N-min), ammonium (NH4+), nitrate (NO3-)
  • Macro nutrients: phosphorus (P), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg)
  • Micronutrients: e.g. iron (Fe), copper (Cu), boron (B), manganese (Mn) etc
  • pH
  • Electrical conductivity (C)
  • Cation exchange capacity
  • Salinity
Physical indicators
  • soil structure (e.g. aggregate stability)
  • Compaction
  • Erosion
  • Waterlogging
During a series of grower consultations in autumn 2015, regional grower groups in the UK discussed different approaches to soil assessment; what methods they find useful and reasons why others are not very commonly used.  They were asked to rate a list of categorised soil assessment methods and the results can be seen here

15.02.16 New guidelines from the Soil Association to Save our Soils

The Soil Association has released a document entitled Seven Ways to Save Our Soils which outlines seven key ways to increase soil organic matter (SOM) in UK arable and horticultural soils by 20 per cent over the next 20 years. 

The seven areas outlined are:

  • Increasing the amount of plant and animal matter going back onto the fields
  • Improving soil health monitoring nationwide
  • Encouraging soil organisms
  • Covering up bare soil with continuous plant cover
  • Bringing more trees onto farmland
  • Reducing soil compaction from livestock and machinery
  • Introducing crop rotations designed to improve soil health
To read the document which explains all these actions in more detail please click here.
For more information on building organic matter and soil carbon why not check out our soil carbon pages here on the FCCT website?

08.02.16 Human influence on climate in the 2014 southern England winter floods

This information comes from a recently published study in the journal Nature Climate Change.  To read the full article click here.

Storms which took place over southern England in 2013 / 14 caused severe floods and serious consequences for infrastructure and livelihoods. 18,700 flood insurance claims were reported leading to £451 million insured losses in southern England. Whether man made climate change contributed to the event was very much discussed at the time, with Prime Minister David Cameron quoted as saying to Parliament that “I very much suspect it is.”

This study used a range of models and observations and used ‘citizen science’ to model a large number of weather simulations under different climatic conditions as might have been with or without human influence on conditions.

In a large ensemble of climate model simulations, the study finds that as well as increasing the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold, anthropogenic warming caused a small but significant increase in the number of January days with westerly flow, both of which increased extreme precipitation.

Flood risk mapping showed a small increase in properties in the Thames catchment potentially at risk of riverine flooding, with a substantial range of uncertainty, demonstrating the importance of explicit modelling of impacts and relatively subtle changes in weather related risks when quantifying present-day effects of human influence on climate.


08.02.16 Increasing sustainability credentials on Irish beef farms, new report released

Figures from the Bord Bia Sustainability Report 2015 show that, on the average suckler beef farm, increasing the calving rate from 80% to 92% would potentially reduce the carbon footprint by 10% and increase the financial performance of the farm by 2,300 Euros per year.

Alternatively the figures state that a number of small adjustments, such as increasing the length of the grazing season by 18 days to 263 days; reducing age at first calving by two months; increasing calving rate to 85%; lifting lifetime average daily weight gain by 50g/day and changing the proportion of slurry spread in the spring from 50% to 70% would also amount to this improved financial gain.

Launched in June 2012, Origin Green is the world's first sustainability programme for a country's entire food and drink sector. Since Origin Green was established, more than 55,000 Irish Farms and 122 food and drink companies have become fully verified members of the programme. These farms account for 90% of Ireland's beef production and half of its milk output, while the companies are responsible for 85% of the country's food and drink exports.

A feature of Origin Green is the practice that all participating farms be audited and carbon foot printed once every 18 months. Since its launch, almost 90,000 carbon assessments have been carried out on Irish farms.

The Bord Bia report indicates total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could be reduced by 6% or by 1m tonnes if the lower-performing beef and dairy farms were brought back in line with the national average. Ireland's dairy herd already enjoys the joint - lowest footprint in the European Union, while its beef herd ranks at number five.

Under Origin Green, food and drink companies are required to create three to five year sustainability development plans in which targets are set in areas such as raw material sourcing, energy usage and emissions, water and waste management and social sustainability such as producing healthier foods and investing in their communities.

Source: Farming Futures

25.02.16 Flood related soil erosion, the impact of farming practices

How can land management can affect surface runoff volumes, and whether, in some circumstances, better soil management can help reduce flooding risk.

Recent extreme rainfall events in parts of the UK had devastating impacts on rural areas in parts of North Wales, Northern England and Scotland. Severe flooding led to damage to transport routes, collapse of infrastructure (including bridges, walls and buildings), accelerated soil erosion and loss of livestock.

The way soil and land are managed can influence water movement and some farming practices may have contributed to increasing surface runoff and the speed with which flow increases in ditches, streams and rivers.

David Harris, an ADAS consultant in this area explains that “soil compaction on arable land has been a concern for some time and changes in soil management practices may help reduce its impact on production and the environment. Recently, it has become apparent that many grassland soils are in moderate or poor condition, and this may be due to increases in the size of machinery in recent decades, the extent of tracking, treading by livestock and the greater area that larger farmers need to manage in often narrow ‘windows’ of good weather.”

Recent work involving ADAS has looked at tyre choice and management, tramline management and removing compaction in grassland.

“We have been able to increase water infiltration in grassland where topsoil structure has been degraded using techniques such as mechanical loosening, and on arable land to reduce surface runoff by over 90% by methods such as tramline disruption” says David.

Although there is much talk of the damage caused by surface runoff it is not always easy to see what the problem is or to relate it to your own farm. When high intensity or persistent rain falls on bare soil and/or compacted ground, the nutrients and sediment in surface runoff and the organic loading from recently applied organic materials can have significant impacts on the ecology of rivers and lakes.

“For the farmer, the losses of soil and nutrients may seem minor” David explains, “however, recent work from the ‘Demonstration Test Catchment’ (DTC) project (Defra) has indicated that soil and nutrient losses can be worth around £100 per hectare for a typical dairy farm. Furthermore, surface runoff can also result in the loss of soil organic matter, making soils more difficult to manage and less resistant and resilient to further damage from compaction and erosion”.

Soil losses from a field are not necessarily apparent when the erosion is in the form of a sheet of water moving across the soil surface (i.e. ‘sheet wash’). This is particularly the case in grassland. Nevertheless, losses from sheet wash over a number of hectares can still be significant. Rill erosion in the form of small channels is more common in arable soils and for a farmer may be no more than a minor embarrassment that is easily rectified through cultivation at the end of the season, but a number of small rills can add up to large volumes of transported soil.

“Recent work in the DTC project has shown that soil losses from grassland can be as high as 1.3t/ha and from arable crops up to 30t/ha. Whilst this may not look too disastrous spread over a whole field, it would look far worse if focused as gully erosion in a confined area” explains David.

In grassland, surface compaction can reduce infiltration of rain water and the proliferation of roots through the topsoil and into the subsoil. In winter such soil compaction can result in prolonged waterlogging, while in a dry summer reduced rooting depth and proliferation can result in the earlier onset of drought. Both situations can impact the yield from more productive grass varieties and can over time can also favour the survival and persistence of less productive grassland plant species.

If you have been affected by the recent flooding, or have concerns about flood risk on your farm, talk to an ADAS adviser to understand more on the practices to build resilience and reduce the likelihood of your land being affected in the future. David Harris can be contacted on 01332 776150 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Source: ADAS News release

22.01.16 Sustainability is complex

This great article has been written by Peter Mundy, following a conference that was held last week in Bristol entitled Steps to Sustainable Livestock. This conference held in Bristol, brought scientists and researchers together to discuss the complexities and controversies that surround livestock, their impact on the climate and food security.

For the link to the original article and website click here.

We face huge challenges in feeding the world sustainably. But one thing is certain: Grazing ruminant livestock—and the high-quality food they produce—can and should play a key role.

With ongoing reports and media headlines about the negative impacts of livestock—particularly beef cattle—on the environment and our health, this might seem like an unscientific statement. After all, livestock are now widely considered to be unsustainable. So it might come as a surprise to know this support for grazing ruminants was one of the key conclusions from the first International Conference on Steps to Sustainable Livestock—a ground-breaking multi-disciplinary event involving leading scientists working to find solutions for global food security, hosted by the Global Farm Platform and University of Bristol Cabot Institute in Bristol, UK, on January 12-15, 2016.

Over the three-day conference, 50+ scientists presented the stark realities of industrial livestock production and the challenges we face in feeding the world: The significant direct and indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; the widespread erosion and degradation of soils; the localized environmental pollution from concentrated output of fecal waste; and the human health threats posed by widespread farm antibiotic abuse. The list goes on. With the ever-increasing demand for meat and livestock products from a rising global population, it’s easy to think that ending all forms of livestock production—and adopting a plant-based diet—is the only answer. But it’s not.

We’ve said it many times before, but the scientific evidence presented at the Steps to Sustainable Livestock conference confirmed that grazing ruminant systems (in other words, managing cattle, sheep, goats and bison on pasture) can not only help feed the world sustainably, but also provide a number of important environmental and societal benefits.

Perhaps the most immediate take away from the Steps to Sustainable Livestock conference was that industrial grain-based livestock production is simply no longer justifiable—and may even be morally suspect. With over 800 million people on this planet going to bed hungry, and more mouths to feed every day, there was a near unanimous agreement at the conference that governments urgently need to pursue a ‘food not feed’ strategy, reserving prime agricultural land for growing human food—not livestock feed. Livestock currently consume around 70 percent of grains used by developed countries, and a staggering one-third (or 795 million tons) of all grain grown in the world, meaning that industrially raised grainfed animals are competing directly with hungry human beings for food. The very same concerns apply to the policy of using prime agricultural land to grow crops for biofuel.

Underpinning the Steps to Sustainable Livestock conference is the knowledge that ruminant animals have evolved the unique ability to convert high-cellulose plant materials (read grass and forage) that humans cannot eat into high quality meat and milk that we can, thereby allowing us to produce food from marginal land we could not otherwise use to grow crops. But the benefits of grazing ruminants do not end at utilizing vast areas of marginal land to produce much-needed food.

Grazing livestock are also a vitally important source of high-quality, protein-rich and nutrient-dense food. While no one can deny the excessive global consumption of industrially produced grainfed meat is simply unsustainable (not to mention bad for our health), researchers at the Steps to Sustainable Livestock conference praised the “extraordinary merits” of animal-sourced foods, arguing that modest quantities of high-quality pastured meat and dairy products (as part of a balanced diet) offer significant health benefits, providing a vital source of lean protein, healthy fats–such as omega-3s and CLAs—plus a smorgasbord of micronutrients essential for health, such as iron, magnesium and selenium. Changes in animal food consumption patterns have already had notable health impacts, with one researcher suggesting that a diet lacking the key micronutrients found in plentiful supply in livestock products (and milk) is resulting in serious emerging health problems—even in high-income countries.

We learned that grazing livestock systems result in many environmental positives—from improved biodiversity (above and below the ground) to the role of well-managed pasture and grassland as carbon sinks. While it is true that grazing ruminants produce significant levels of methane, researchers at the Steps to Sustainable Livestock conference argued that we must stop comparing livestock systems on methane emissions alone. Instead, we need to consider all GHG emissions and environmental impacts associated with all stages of any given production system—including the potential for well-managed grazed pasture to sequester significant levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. New research is already investigating the potential of alternative livestock diets to significantly reduce the amount of methane emitted, including new plant varieties and dietary supplements, while new livestock breeding strategies utilizing geonomics (not genetic engineering) can also aid the selection for positive methane emission traits. Potential solutions are emerging fast but we urgently need more research and support to encourage adoption of such practices at the farm and policy level.

Reflecting the multi-disciplinary and holistic nature of the conference, we were also reminded that animal health and welfare is directly related to our future food security. While welfare concerns might seem secondary to matters like maximizing animal productivity to feed a growing global population, researchers pointed out that healthy animals are productive animals and produce healthy, nutritious food. Conversely, unhealthy animals are not only less productive (and inevitably require routine drugs like antibiotics to maintain productivity), but can present a real disease risk to humans—as we are now learning at great societal cost.

The quest for sustainable food production is highly complex and there will be no one-size-fits-all solution. Indeed, the necessary solutions will inevitably be highly complex, multi-faceted and site-specific: it comes down not simply to what you eat, but fundamentally how it is farmed. There is no single diet solution for everyone, and consuming nutritionally appropriate levels of pasture-raised livestock products as part of a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of sustainably produced vegetables and fruits is not just an acceptable option, it’s a vital one. And while developed nations urgently need to reduce the production and consumption of unsustainable, low-welfare, intensively raised livestock products and highly processed foods (there’s a good chance many of us would feel a lot better for it), it is clear from current science that pasture-based livestock systems will not only continue to supply high-quality, nutritious food to global populations, but can help protect and enhance key ecosystem services and mitigate anthropocentric GHG emissions.

The International Conference on Steps to Sustainable Livestock marks a very important step towards sharing best practice on optimizing the sustainable use of livestock in many regions of the world, and challenging the industrial farming paradigm. As an organization that supports sustainable livestock farmers, it was refreshing and reassuring to hear that leading scientists from across the world believe that sustainably managed livestock have an important role to play in feeding the world, and to know that AWA’s farm standards already represent among the most sustainable methods available.

21.01.16 Bioturbation, worms at work

This time lapse film shows bioturbation (the mixing of plant residues into soils and sediments by biotic activity). This process is one of the fundamental processes in ecology as it stimulates decomposition, creates habitats for other (micro) fauna and increases gas and water flow through the soil.

Bioturbation - Worms at Work from Wim van Egmond on Vimeo.

Meet the film stars

There are three earthworm species involved in this film

Lumbricus terrestrius – an ‘anecic’ earthworm, feeding on leaves and living in deep vertical burrows; 2 of these are in the video.

Lumbricus rubellus – an ‘epigenic’ earthworm, feeding on leaves and living in shallow, non-permanent buows; 2 individuals present

Aporrectodea Caliginosa – an ‘endogenic’ earthworm feeding on decomposed organic matter and living deeper in the soil; three individuals present

Poplar leaves were applied on top of the soil as food for the earthworms. Different soil layers were simulated by mixing a topsoil (rich in organic matter) with quartz sand in various ratios.

The recording lasts for one month, and was recorded using time lapse photography, and was made in collaboration with scientists from the Department of Soil Quality of Wagengingen University in the Netherlands.

Types of Earthworm

There are hundreds of species of earthworms, but they can be grouped into one of three categories.

Litter dwellers (epigenic species)

  • Live in crop or forest litter
  • Not common in agricultural soils, more common in forest systems

Topsoil dwellers (endogeic species)

  • Live in the soil and feed on the organic matter they find there
  • Make horizontal burrows to feed in and move in

Subsoil dwellers (anecic species)

  • Make deep vertical burrows
  • They come to the soil surface in the evening and overnight to gather litter and fresh organic materials and drag them back down to their burrows

Assessment of populations

How many there are in your soil will be affected by a number of factors including

  • Soil type
  • Weather
  • Land management

As such just looking at one particular field at one time of year won’t give you a true representation of what you’ve got. In order to truly start to assess how full of life your soils are, you need to take a series of measurements across different fields over a number of crop rotations or years.

For more information in assessing biological populations in your soils click here.

Sources: AHDB Dairy, Healthy Grassland Soils, Penn State Extension, Crops and soils, Vimeo

18.1.16 Production efficiency is playing a key role in reducing carbon footprint

Souce: QMS

Efficiency of production provides the key not only to greater profitability, but also to reducing carbon footprint and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the expert speakers at a RuminOmics workshop organised by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) in Edinburgh.

The two-day European regional workshop, held in November last year, attracted around 70 delegates from 12 countries representing a wide interest in the subject of solving the challenge of emissions from livestock systems.

RuminOmics is an EU-funded 7th Framework project which was established in 2012 involving 11 partners from across Europe including QMS. The workshop in Edinburgh was aimed at transferring the knowledge collected to date and discussing how it can be applied on farm and used to help the industry progress.

Professor Cledwyn Thomas from the European Federation of Animal Science (EAAP) said the positive effect on the environment of livestock through grazing – including ecosystem and landscape benefits - was too often forgotten about.

However, the challenge going forward, he said, will be meeting the demand for animal products from a growing and more affluent world population without losing these benefits. This, Prof Thomas believes, is where technology and management come in.

"Greenhouse gas per kg of milk or meat produced is down globally but this is offset by increased numbers of livestock, therefore we have to look at greenhouse gas per ha or per farm or even per region,” he said.

One of the major areas of discussion at the workshop was whether GHG emissions could be reduced through livestock breeding programmes. Professor Thomas highlighted a range of mitigation strategies that farmers may adopt, ranging from feed additives to breeding. To useful strategies had to be profitable as well as reducing GHG. Breeding, he said, offered the greatest potential of up to 50% reduction in GHG emissions, according to some studies.

However, selection for low methane emissions may not be a sensible strategy since there was no evidence that low emitters were more efficient or profitable. Was it therefore better to select for efficiency, since this will reduce methane emissions.

Dr Jimmy Hyslop, Beef Specialist with SAC Consulting, part of SRUC, believed the focus should be on output per unit of fixed costs.

"It is quite simple really; profit equals income minus costs, and improving efficiency is the route to both improved profits, which in turn will also lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions," said Dr Hyslop.

His example was beef finishing where he said, although feed costs per tonne or per day were high on an intensive, fast-finishing (slaughter at 12 to 15 months) unit, the lifetime feed costs were low because the number of days required to produce a finished carcass were much less. This meant the fixed costs were similarly low and efficiency in producing beef over a short time was good, meaning that GHG emissions per kg of beef were also low as a result of fewer days to market.

Much of the work done by scientists on the RuminOmics team has been within the dairy industry and delegates were given a fascinating comparison of the Dutch and Irish systems by Dr Brendan Horen of Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority and Dr Erwin Koenen of CRV. CRV is a large co-operative cattle improvement organisation owned by Dutch and Flemish farmers.

In the Netherlands, there are 1.6 million dairy cows in 18,500 herds (average size 90 cows) producing 12.6 billion litres of milk per year. The average annual yield per cow is 7,900 litres from 2,100kg of concentrate. This gives a milk yield per hectare of 15,000 litres.

In contrast, Southern Ireland has 17,000 dairy farmers with 1.2 million cows (average 70 per herd) producing an average yield per cow of 4,750 litres from a grass-based system.

Both systems have government production and environmental impact targets to meet but they do it in very different ways. Dr Koenen explained that in an era without milk quotas, many Dutch farmers want to increase milk production to meet the increasing global demand for dairy products, but to comply with government legislation on reductions on nutrient surpluses (due to fertilisers, concentrates and manure application and GHG) emissions they will have to rely on new management and breeding tools.

He said: "To identify bulls producing more efficient daughters, CRV has developed a new breeding index based on breeding values for the main traits affecting production efficiency, this leads to increased profitability and lower methane emissions."

On the other hand, in Ireland's milk from forage systems, stocking rate is the main driver of productivity but the challenge here comes from environmental impact. Brendan said that a resilient, efficient system insulated from price volatility was the key.

Dr Horen said: "Irish farmers need to select cows suitable for a grass system, requiring traits such as longevity, able to withstand feed fluctuations and large herd situations. Desirable traits have swung away from milk production to fertility, ease of calving and new traits such as ease of management."

Interestingly, one of the RuminOmics studies, according to Professor Kevin Shingfield from IBERS, Aberystwyth University, indicated that producing higher quality grass silages and decreasing the reliance on concentrate supplements can maintain performance but lower whole farm GHG emissions It is possible to formulate diets that lower methane production, but care needs to be taken to avoid compromising productivity. He said the project had brought them much closer to understanding why when fed the same diet some cows emit more Greenhouse gas than others.

15.1.16 Seasonal nitrous oxide emissions under reduced tillage

from Farming Futures

Soil management practices shown to increase carbon sequestration include reduced tillage, amendments of carbon and mixed rotations. As a means to mitigate greenhouse gases, however, the success of these practices will be strongly influenced by nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions that vary with soil wetness.

Few seasonal data are available on N2O under different soil managements so we measured seasonal N2O emission in three field experiments between 2006 and 2009 in eastern Scotland.

The experimental treatments at the three sites were

1. tillage: no-tillage, minimum tillage, ploughing to 20 cm with or without compaction and deep ploughing to 40 cm, 

2. organic residue amendment: application of municipal green-waste compost or cattle slurry and 

3. rotations: stocked and stockless (without manure) organic arable farming rotations. 

Most seasons were wetter than average with 2009 the wettest, receiving 20–40% more rainfall than average.

Nitrous oxide emissions were measured using static closed chambers.

There was no statistical evidence, albeit with low statistical power, that reduced tillage affected N2O emissions compared to normal depth ploughing.

With organic residue amendments, only in the wet season in 2008 were emissions significantly increased by high rates of green-waste compost (4.5 kg N2O-N/ha) and cattle slurry (5.2 kg N2O-N/ha) compared to the control (1.9 kg N2O-N/ha).

In the organic rotations, N2O emissions were greatest after incorporation of the grass/clover treatments, especially during conversion of a stocked rotation to stockless.

Emissions from the organic arable crops (1.9 kg N2O-N/ha in 2006, 3.0 kg N2O-N/ha in 2007) generally exceeded those from the organic grass/clover (0.8 kg N2O-N/ha in 2006, 1.1 kg N2O-N/ha in 2007) except in 2008 when the wet weather delayed manure applications and increased emissions from the grass/clover (2.8 kg N2O-N/ha). Nevertheless, organic grassland was the land use providing the most effective overall mitigation.

Although the magnitude of fluxes did not relate particularly well to rainfall differences between seasons, greater rainfall received during some growing seasons increased the differences between tillage, organic residue and crop rotation phase treatments, negating any possible mitigation by timing management operations in dry periods. This was partly attributed to applying tillage and manures late and/or in wet conditions.  

11.01.16 NFU Survey concludes: weather volatility threatens British food production

The Survey from the NFU revealed that two thirds of farmers have noticed an increase in extreme weather consistent with the climate change impacts predicted by scientists. The majority of NFU members surveyed have seen changes in rainfall patterns and more floding with 25% also observing an increase in storms, gales or high winds.

Some farmers actually reported less severe weather with 10% saying that winters had generally become milder.

Download the infographic that has been produced with the key findings from the survey here.

Source: NFU 

06.01.16 New SIP newsletter out now

SIP Scene, the newsletter of the Sustainable Intensification Research Platform has released a new bulletin.

The Sustainable intensification research platform is focused on farming in England and Wales, but exists in a global setting of concerns over food security, global nutrition, climate change, economic instability, increasing technology, volatile food prices and threats to sustainability.

This issue includes articles by SIP partners and researchers.

To read it in full please click here.

To find out more about the project click here to visit the website.

21.12.15 Seasons greetings from FCCT

As the year draws to a close and, as the song says, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”, it seems fitting to reflect for a brief moment on the year here at FCCT. It’s certainly been a busy one!

The year has seen some real highlights and fine examples of what FCCT strive to do; namely connect farmers and growers together to share ideas, have great conversations and highlight practical examples of how we can all reduce emissions, and improve efficiencies and ultimately profit.

Bringing together farmers

Our big conference in February brought some great farmers, people and speakers to talk about how we can farm profitably in a changing climate. Highlights from the morning included the fantastic Rebecca Audsley from Scotland who brought some really inspirational examples from the Climate Change Focus Farm programme that she has been running in Scotland. This showed bottom line benefits of reducing farm emissions, usually with minimal capital outlay. 

The other thing that the FCCT team felt was of great benefit were the breakout sessions in the afternoon, which were facilitated by FCCT. Farmers who were doing something different were showcased, and provided a great opportunity for questions and conversations around practical issues and how things work at the farm level. This highlighted to FCCT that this role of ‘connecting likeminded individuals together’ and providing a space to explore these issues was something that we wanted to expand.

Focussing on organic matter in the soil

Recently great discussions were held at our organic matter event in Warwickshire, where it was amazing for me to see so many great farmers all together talking about carbon and building soil organic matter. Certainly the whole soil agenda, including organic matter and how it is intrinsically linked to carbon sequestration is gathering momentum. As the International Year of Soils draws to a close, it has helped highlight some of the issues, and the crucial role that we as farmers have to play in the management and care of our most precious resource.

Reading through some of the early entries to our Soil Farmer of the Year competition is inspirational. Seeing how committed many farmers are to managing their soil, and ensuring that its health is enhanced and safeguarded for future generations, makes me genuinely excited for activities that we have planned for next year. Our Soil carbon project has various meetings planned over the coming months, and if you are up for hosting or taking part in one of them, let me know and we’ll get something sorted.

Demonstration farms

Our demo farm project, which we have had funding from Esmee Fairbairn to set up is going to start properly next year. It has taken a while to get our demo farmers through the carbon foot printing process, and we have had numerous conversations about how, if we are going to be subject to more stringent targets in terms of emissions reductions and auditing, then we all have to work together to see how streamlined we can make the process. With all the advances in technology, it can’t be that difficult surely?!

There will be events happening at all three demo farms across England next year, so again keep your eye on the website and the events list for more details as we finalise the plans.

Joining in a global movement

As well as the Soil Farmer of the Year, we are asking all farmers and growers to join us in showing the world that #SoilsAreSexy and deserve our help. For those of you on social media – follow @FarmC02Toolkit on Twitter and upload a picture of your soil with the hashtag #SoilsAreSexy and join in with the fun.  For those of you who aren’t on social media you can always email your images to me and I’ll add them to the gallery on the FCCT website.

The recent climate talks in Paris have focussed the world’s attention on the issues surrounding climate change, temperature rises and emissions.  Surprisingly though, agriculture hasn’t played much of a part in the discussions.  The agreement though signals the global commitment to do something, although as is always the way with these things, the devil is in the detail and the Paris pledge alone won’t meet the two degree target.  Further negotiations (and tough decisions) will need to be made, and is bound to look more closely at farming and food production.

What was encouraging though, was to see some of the other initiatives that were launched, France’s '4 per mille' initiative that aims to adapt agricultural practices across France that store carbon more efficiently in the soil and to raise the organic matter level in French soils and wider across the globe  by 0.4% per year. What this will mean is that we can direct more research into the most effective practices for achieving this, and by letting farmers into the conversation with the researchers (as at our event in Warwickshire a few weeks ago), try and bridge the gap between research and practice to deliver effective solutions.

Making farms part of the solution

What is different with agriculture though, when comparing it with other industries that have carbon reduction targets is the sheer diversity of enterprises, systems and environments that we as farmers have to deal with. Agriculture is unique in that there is no “one-size fits all” answer. Our farms that we manage are a unique mix of the earth beneath our feet, the weather that comes down from above and what we do as farmers working with the natural elements. It’s different and special, also because we need farmers to produce our three meals a day, as well as all the other benefits farming brings in terms of preserving the natural environment, safeguarding resources, providing clean water and air... the list could go on!  However doing nothing is not an option any more.  And it’s because of all these amazing things that we are in control of that we have to be part of the discussions.

So we have some challenging times ahead, with potentially more stringent GHG reduction targets, but it’s something that we should embrace head on, work together, share ideas and use the technology available to us to come up with new ideas!  We’re certainly excited about the possibilities.

So from everyone here at FCCT, have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year, and see you in 2016.

18.12.15 FCCT seeks new company directors

The Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit (FCCT) is the UK’s only farmer-led organisation looking at practical, farm based actions to effectively reduce farm greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is currently expanding its director base in order to scale up its activities.

About the organisation

FCCT was established in 2009 to raise awareness of GHGs within the agricultural industry and also to provide practical responses that any farmer, whatever their farming system, could put into place on their farm.

FCCT currently has three directors – Adam Twine, Jonathan Smith and Andrew Rigg, and part time project officer - Becky Willson.

FCCT developed the Toolkit and the Farm Carbon Calculator. Available on line and free of charge, they are designed to give any farmer, grower or advisor an understanding of the significance of GHGs, how they are generated through farming activities and what are the most effective actions that would make a difference to any farm.

The Farm Carbon Calculator gives a numerical and visual estimate of the GHG emissions across all farming enterprises (using current internationally agreed emission factors) and shows how they might change with any proposed changes to that farming system. Uniquely, it also provides an estimate of the amount of carbon sequestration that that farm is achieving.

FCCT also organises farm workshops and conferences - with a strong emphasis of farmer-led discussions. It also delivers talks to conferences and informal agricultural groups across a range of topics including energy efficiency, soil carbon, renewable energy generation, the market drivers for reducing emissions and the complexities of reducing GHG emissions.

FCCT is structured as a Community Interest Company (CIC). Its directors are not remunerated for the time they put into directing the organisation but are able to claim appropriate travel and other expenses and have at times received remuneration for specific pieces of work that they have carried out on behalf of the Company.

What we expect from Directors

FCCT is hoping to appoint up to two new directors. All potential directors are expected to:

  • be closely involved in day-to-day farming,
  • have a good understanding of the challenge of climate change and the need to reduce GHG emissions
  • contribute their experience to the organisation and help make a difference in this area.

There are monthly Board meetings through the year; they are usually conducted remotely via Skype. In the quieter farming months (autumn and winter) there are also more frequent Directors meetings to discuss work programmes.

We also try to meet in person twice a year to review and plan future direction. In addition to this, when FCCT is organising events or developing new initiatives, the directors(s) responsible for that initiative are expected to give support to the project officer in between Board meetings to ensure the intended goals are met.

FCCT currently has funding from Esmee Fairbairn, has been operating on a stable budget of around £10k for the past three years, and is currently seeking additional funding in order to achieve greater outreach and impact.

Application process

If you are interested in applying please write to Becky Willson at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it giving your:

  • experience
  • reasons for applying
  • what you hope to bring to the organisation
  • how you would like to see FCCT develop

Applications close on Sunday 30th January 2016.

Interviews for shortlisted applicants will be conducted mid-February and successful applicants invited to join the Board by 1st March. 
More information about the aims and visions of FCCT are available here

For more information please contact Becky Wilson by email or phone on 07875 356611.

17.12.15 New WRAP bulletin released

Where improved soil quality is concerned, not all organic matter is equal.

WRAP, Digestate and Compost in Agriculture, Bulletin 8 - December 2015

The UN has designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils, "to raise awareness of the importance of sustainable soil management", which is vital for food, fuel and fibre production as well as ecosystem function and adaptation to climate change. Results from SRAP's DC-Agri field experiments have a key role to play in this.

The experiments, comparing the ability of a range of organic materials to build soil organic matter levels over time, have shown that not all organic matter is equal and that compost builds levels much more quickly than other organic materials. They also show that repeated applications of compost are a valuable means by which farmers can improve soil quality.

Soil organic matter (SOM) is the organic component of soil, consisting of three primary parts: fresh plant residues and small living soil organisms, decomposing (active) organic matter (OM), and stable OM (humus). OM is important to soil fertility and crop productivity, and building and maintaining it is vital for sustainable soil management. The amount of OM in soils depends on soil texture, climate, the inputs and composition of orgnaic materials, the rate at which orgnaic matter is decomposed and the type of farming system employed.

Arable soils contain typically 1-3% OM (generally higher in Scottish soils) whilst grassland soils usually contain more. In general, for any one cropping system, the natural level of SOM in a clay soil will be higher than that in a sandy soil and this level will be higher under permanent grassland when compared with a continuous arable rotation.

WRAP's DC - Agri field experiments have assessed the effects of different types of organic material additions over time to a network of seven experimental sites across the UK. The sites were selected to represent a range of soil types, climatic conditions and crop rotations.  

To read the next bulletin with further details of the experiments and what they found, click here.

16.12.15 The Smart SOIL Initiative

Sustainable farm Management Aimed at Reducing threats to SOILs under climate change

Source: Smart soil end of project report

Enhancing soil carbon through agricultural management provides an important opportunity to address challenges of climate change, soil degradation and for improving the fertility of soil to sustain the growing demand for food.

This project which was funded by the European Union and involved a consortium of people from across Europe was tasked with identifying management practices that can optimise not just soil carbon storage but crop productivity (the ‘holy grail’).

The aims were two fold:

To identify farming systems and agronomic practices that result in an optimised balance between crop productivity, restoration and maintenance of vital soil functions (fertility, biodiversity, water, nutrient cycling and other soil ecosystem services) and soil carbon sequestration and storage.

To develop and deliver a decision support tool and guidelines to support novel approaches, techniques and technologies adapted to different European soils and categories of beneficiaries (farmers, farm advisory and extension services, and policy makers).

What did they find?

Improved scientific understanding

Optimising crop productivity and soil carbon stocks

It has been known for some time that healthy soils provide a sound platform for crop production.

Healthy levels of soil organic matter improve the workability of soils, improve their ability to retain and store water and can increase nutrient supply. For this reason, soil management is critically important for producing high quality crops at yields that deliver good economic returns for farmers.

Principles of soil organic carbon management

Soil organic carbon is sustained through sufficient inputs of organic matter from roots, crop residues, manure and compost to balance losses from decomposition of soil organic matter.

Soil organic matter contributes to sustaining soil productivity by enhancing soil water retention and nutrient supply. Also soil organic carbon enhances soil structure and workability of high clay content soils.

Inputs of organic matter to the soil contribute to sustaining soil biodiversity, which also influences pests and diseases.

Preservation of current soil carbon stocks as well as enhancing these plays an important role for contributing to climate change mitigation. However potential trade offs with increased emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, (methane and nitrous oxide) as well as saturation of the carbon storage potential over time have to be considered.

Effective management of soil organic carbon requires a long term effort, has implications that extend beyond each farm and this commitment is more effective if it is a key element in strategic farm management.

Soil carbon management depends on current soil carbon levels. On soils with acceptable or good soil carbon the aim is to maintain these levels of soil carbon, whereas effective action needs to be taken on soils with low carbon to enhance contents.

Measures in both cases include adapted crop rotations, residue retention, manure applications and cover cropping.

Soil organic carbon management also involves management of nitrogen and phosphorus, and soil carbon management needs to be seen in the context of farm-scale nutrient management. The full benefits of enhanced soil organic matter levels on the crop yield are only fully captured if the actions undertaken to enhance soil organic matter are timed well to provide the water and nutrients that the crop needs.

How do we enhance soil carbon

In general soil organic carbon stocks can be increased in three main ways:

By enhancing plant residues and root inputs to soils

Increasing the quantity of organic matter inputs such as manures and composts to the soil (fron on-farm or off – farm sources).

By reducing decomposition losses through minimising disturbance of soils.

Management practices that enhance soil carbon levels

Crop rotations

Improved crop rotations in which carbon inputs are increased over a rotation involves growing crops with long growing seasons, in particular when combined with legumes to improve the quality of soil organic matter inputs. Tailored crop rotation regimes which build soil organic matter and soil carbon, can improve and maintain soil quality and fertility over the short and long term.

Residue management

Retention of crop residues incorporated into the soil or left on the surface can enhance soil organic matter and soil organic carbon storage, improving soil structure, root system development and plant growth, soil moisture retention, enhanced nutrient cycling and decreased soil loss.

Adding manure or compost

Adding manure and compost is efficient for improving soil carbon since the added organic matter is decomposed more slowly compared to plant residues.

Improvements in soil quality due to manure or compost application have been shown to boost soil productivity and stimulate crop growth rates, resulting in potential yield improvements.

Cover crops / catch crops

These crops during fallow periods provide year – round carbon inputs, not only from above ground inputs but also from root carbon. Adding cover / catch crops to crop rotations can help to improve soil quality, reduce soil erosion, retain nutrients, enhance nutrient cycling and water holding capacity and as a result potentially increase crop yields.

Conservation agriculture

Is characterised by continuous minimum soil disturbance (min till), permanent organic soil cover (crop residues, mulches, and cover crops) and diversification of crops gown (crop rotations). Min till can increase soil organic carbon in the upper layers of soil; the effect is a function of working depth, intensity of cultivation and extent of soil inversion.

What are the benefits to the farm business of building soil carbon?

Case study areas were studied to look at the impacts on farm businesses of adopting these measures.

In general the benefits included improvements in yield or reductions in costs. The reduction in the need for mineral fertiliser was noticed, due to more efficient use of nutrients from manures and crop residues.

Significant reductions in fuel use have also been found due to reduced inputs and less fuel intensive tillage. The improved organic matter content of soils has also improved their workability. Adoption of some measures can incur investment particularly where changes to machinery are required.

What did the farmers say?

Overall the farmers that the project spoke to found positive benefits from adopting the different management methods. They have identified improvements in their soils, including better structure, more earthworms, better drainage and improved water holding capacity. These improvements are appreciated in the context of increasingly uncertain weather patterns where healthier soil offers greater resilience. Higher organic matter contents have allowed access to soil for cultivation which would otherwise have been too fragile or waterlogged.

There is more information about the project and in-depth case studies from farmers who took part on the Smart soil website, which you can access here.

For more information on the FCCT soil carbon project and our resources click here.

14.12.15 Five things you need to know about the Paris climate deal

Source: Simon Lewis, Reader in Global Change Science at University of Leeds and UCL

From: The conversation

The UN climate talks in Paris have ended with an agreement between 195 countries to tackle global warming. The climate deal is at once both historic, important and inadequate. From whether it is enough to avoid dangerous climate change to unexpected wins for vulnerable nations here are five things to help understand what was just agreed at COP21.

1. This is a momentous world changing event

The most striking thing about the agreement is that there is one. For all countries, from superpowers to wealthy city states, fossil fuel dependent kingdoms to vulnerable low-lying island nations, to all agree to globally co-ordinate action on climate change is astonishing.

And its not just warm words. Any robust agreement has to have four elements. First it needs a common goal, which has now been defined. The agreement states that the parties will hold temperatures to "well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels".

Second it requires matching scientifically credible reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement is woolier here but it does state that emissions should peak "as soon as possible" and then be rapidly reduced. The next step is to:

Achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity.......

Third as current pledges to reduce emissions imply a warming of nearly 3 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, there needs to be a mechanism to move from where countries are today, to zero emissions. There are five year reviews, and "the efforts of all parties will represent a progression over time", which means at each step countries should increase their levels of emissions cuts from today's agreements.

Finally this all means developed countries need to rapidly move from fossil fuel energy to renewable sources. But the challenge is larger for the developing world, these countries must leapfrog the fossil fuel age. They need funds to do so and a key part of the agreement provides US$100 billion per year to 2020 and more than that after 2020.

There is a lot to like about this agreement, it gives a common goal to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the overall emissions cuts stated are reasonably credible, there is a mechanism to increase national emissions cuts over time towards "net zero" and there is funding secured to help poorer countries harness the power of the sun, wind and waves instead of coal, oil and gas. It provides a roadmap to get the world off its dangerous addiction to fossil fuel energy.

2. Its not enough to avoid dangerous climate change

What constitutes dangerous climate change is different for different people. For some poor people climate change is already beyond dangerous, its deadly. The threats escalate as the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase. Because this deal has been so long in arriving, the window of opportunity to limit temperature rises at 1.5 degrees C is closing fast, this spells trouble for many low-lying areas. Even the most ambitious pathways to zero emissions in the coming decades for a carbon budget associated with a reasonable (66%) chance of keeping 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels are extremely challenging. Countries have a long way to go to get to these levels of reductions.

Importantly there are no penalties, except public shaming for countries that do not meet their commitments to reduce emissions. To implement this deal, the public, civil society, organisations, opposition parties in politics and businesses will need to keep government policies in check. Essentially, it is the will of the people, most governments and enlightened businesses, pitted against the deep pockets of the fossil fuel industry.

One future fear is that when the "global stocktake" happens in 2023, some countries may see that others aren't doing their bit, and may themselves then stop reducing emissions and the agreement will fall apart.

3. We'll have to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

The warming we see from greenhouse gas emissions is dominated by the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide. Given the emissions so far, limiting warming to "well below" 2 degrees C, and anywhere near 1.5 degrees C means reducing C02 emissions to near zero extremely quickly.

Then society will need to continue further to negative emissions. That is, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it somewhere else. There are various options here, from planting trees and keeping restored forests in perpetuity, enhancing uptake in soils, or using biomass energy in power plants then storing the carbon dioxide underground (so called Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage). Expect to hear a lot more about this.

4. Expect across - the - board policy changes

To get to zero emissions this century requires many policy changes. Fossil fuel companies must have their subsidies stripped. Investments in high carbon emitting infrastructure must end, particularly World Bank loans and other regional multilateral bank support for countries. Zero emissions buildings will become the norm. Tropical forests will have to be protected to reduce and then eliminate deforestation.

Expect a greater push on the technological limitations on renewable energy, with big new investments mostly improving how to store power, for when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

Expect the cost of renewables to sink much further as these technologies are scaled up and implemented worldwide. Expect significant areas of the world to be given over to wind turbines and solar farms.

5. The world's most vulnerable countires got their issue centre stage

Paris was a high-stakes game of geopolitical poker. Surprisingly those countries with the poorest hand came out better than expected. The climate talks were subject to a series of shifting alliances going beyond the usual income-rich northern countries and income -poor global south countries. Central to this has been US- Chinese diplomacy both agreeing to limit emissions and more recently the new Climate Vulnerable Forum grouping of countries. From nowhere the forum has forced keeping global temperatures to 1.5 degrees C high on the political agenda.

We haven't heard the last of this level of ambition - one of the decisions in Paris agreement is to invite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to produce a special report on the impacts at 1.5 degrees C, and emissions pathways consistent with this level of warming.

These countries didn't get everything they wanted - the US would not accept liability in financial terms for states that may lose their territory to rising sea levels in the future. But they played their hand extremely smartly.

10.12.15 Boosting milk production efficiency can reduce cow methane – emissions intensity

In 2014, the United States national dairy herd produced twice as much milk as it did 90 years ago, but with about 60 percent fewer cows.

These whopping productivity gains - achieved through continuous improvements in animal genetics, nutrition and management -- are especially significant in these times of angst over global climate change. As a result of developing "cleaner, greener" cows, animal scientists and dairy producers have reduced by half the enteric methane emissions per unit of milk produced in this country, according to a researcher in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

One way to look at this phenomena: If the 94 million tons of milk we get now were produced by cows with 1924 emission rates, there would be an additional 1.6 million tons of methane emitted to the atmosphere, essentially more than doubling the current enteric methane emissions from U.S. dairy cows.

"The United States is one of the world's largest producers of milk and dairy products, with a dairy industry estimated at $140 billion in annual economic output," said Alexander Hristov, professor of dairy nutrition.

"Inevitable by-products of the industry are greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. In 2003, dairy methane emissions from enteric fermentation and manure management represented about 11 percent of the country's total methane emissions. But U.S. dairy farmers have been steadily improving the efficiency of milk production, which in turn has resulted in a dramatic improvement in enteric methane emission intensity."

Hristov, whose recent research has focused on feed additives Hristov, who has experimented with feed supplements that that can influence microbes and change the methane-producing chemistry of the dairy cow rumen, noted that livestock producers are striving to improve the efficiency of milk or meat production and reduce the carbon footprint of their industries.

Recently published by the Global Research Alliance on Greenhouse Gases, Hristov's article, "Reducing the Emissions Intensity of Livestock Production -- A Case Study of Success," underlines a growing consensus that increased production efficiency equals lower methane emissions per unit of product. Increasing animal productivity will always decrease greenhouse gas emission intensity, he stressed.

Hristov believes that the message -- increased productivity is the most efficient method to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- needs to reach producers in developing countries. The U.S. dairy industry is an excellent example, he pointed out.

Dairy cow productivity in the United States has steadily increased - 14 percent in the last decade alone and over fivefold since 1924, the first year dairy statistics were reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, the size of the United States dairy herd has decreased to just 43 percent of what it was in 1924. Modern dairy cows are larger and consume more feed, which results in higher enteric methane emissions per cow, about 2.5 times more in 2014 versus 1924.

"However, the intensity of enteric methane production has dropped from about 31 g/kg of milk in 1924 to 14 g/kg in 2014. This progress has been driven by continuous improvements in animal genetics, nutrition, health, management and free market mechanisms," Hristov explained.

"As an example, milk production from Holstein cows in the United States from 1960 to 2013 tripled from 3,195 to 9,916 kg per cow, per year. According to Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding data, approximately 55 percent of the increase in milk yield can be attributed to improvement in animal genetics."

Similar improvements have been achieved in crop production and animal nutrition, said Hristov. For instance, the yield of corn grain in 1960 was around 3.5 tons per hectare, compared with 10 tons per hectare in 2013. For the same period of time, the yield of corn for silage increased from around 16 tons per hectare to 43 tons per hectare.

The American dairy industry still has challenges, Hristov conceded. The intensification of animal production is not without what he termed a "penalty." The productive life of dairy cows in the U.S. is slightly less than three lactations, and cow pregnancy rates have been declining since the 1960s.

"The reproductive efficiency of the modern Holstein dairy cow in the United States has been decreasing in recent decades, although upward trends in breeding values for daughter pregnancy and cow-conception rates have been observed in recent years," he said. "These trends are encouraging and indicate that the negative impact of aggressive selection for milk yield can be reversible, while retaining the benefit of decreased greenhouse gas emission intensity."

Source: Penn State News

05.12.15 World Soils Day - Soil Farmer of the Year competition launched

Sharing best practice and innovation through championing farmers safeguarding their soils

As the International Year of the Soil draws to an end, the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit and Innovation for Agriculture are launching a competition to find the UK’s Soil Farmer of the Year. 

This competition, which opens today on World Soils Day, aims to find farmers and growers who are engaged with and passionate about managing their soils in a way which supports productive agriculture, biodiversity, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and builds soils organic matter and carbon.  

Sustainable soil management has great potential to be one of the cornerstones of a transformation towards a low carbon economy and farmers are at the forefront of this; being directly responsible for land management. 

Soil and its management underpins the entire farming system. A healthy well – managed soil rich in organic matter will support productive and healthy crops and pasture, which in turn supports a profitable and resilient farming system that also sequesters carbon. 

FCCT director Jonathan Smith explains more. “Soil is vital to all us farmers and growers and indeed all of society. When soil is managed well it produces healthy crops and/or livestock, whilst increasing biodiversity, holding water in the soil and sequestering carbon. The interest in good soil management is growing massively, but we want to showcase farmers who are really making efforts to implement not just good but excellent soil management. This can, and should be, an inspiration to all of us to do better with our soils.”

David Gardner IfA CEO comments 'Over recent decades our soils have been degraded and as a farming community we need to start rebuilding them. There is a huge amount of interest in soils amongst farmers at present and many are experimenting with new crop rotations, cover crops and alternative cultivation methods. The Soil Farmer of the Year competition will rightly reward one of these farmers for their commitment to leading an improvement in the nation’s soils.'

The competition is kindly being sponsored by Cotswold Seeds, who are offering £250 of green manure seed or fertility building leys to the winner, £150 to the runner up and £100 to the farmer in third place.  CEO of Cotswold Seeds Ian Wilkinson says, ‘Soil health underpins every activity on the farm and many of our seed mixtures, such as herbal leys, are designed to improve soil structure and fertility. The soil is a vital resource so we’re delighted to be supporting an initiative that encourages farmers to give it the respect it deserves.’ 

The competition is open to any UK farmers or growers who are managing their soils in a way which optimises soil health and quality. Applications are being taken online through this link,  where there is also more information on what the judges are looking for and the prizes available. 

The competition opens on World Soils Day on the 5th December, and will close on the 4th February. After the closing date three farmers will be shortlisted to be visited by the judging panel before the overall winner is announced on the 3rd March. 

04.12.15 COP21 Stories from Farmers Day

This article comes from Inter Press Service News Agency reporting from the Climate talks in Paris on Farmers Day.  The photo below is credited to Desmond Brown / IPS.

At 32, Krystal Cox is the holder of a degree in medicine. But she has chosen to get her hands dirty, working on a farm in her native St. Lucia. Cox has seen first-hand the effects of climate change on agriculture, something she describes as “a serious issue” which people don’t talk about enough and which requires more resources.

In the Caribbean, some women find themselves on the frontline with the battle to mitigate climate change. Meet Dr. Krystal Cox. She is one of three girls who all studied medicine and got medical degrees.

Unlike her two siblings who stayed in the medical profession, Cox, 32, is working in a different field. She works on her father’s farm tackling a different kind of threat than sickness and disease.

Having spent almost all of her life on the farm, Cox has seen first-hand the effects of climate change, something she describes as “a serious issue” which people don’t talk about enough and which requires more resources.

“This year it was a very bad drought and there were lots of crops and no irrigation in the area where they were planted,” she explained.

“When we realised that the drought was getting very serious we tried our best to get irrigation around the farm – a very expensive endeavour. It makes me wonder how the small farmers are able to manage. You can’t have the farmers not being able to produce for such a long period of time. How are they going to take care of their families and how are they going to pay their workers?”

“There is a river that runs along the border of our property and I have never seen it so low and even that poses a problem because if it’s too low we are not allowed to pump out of it because of course people need it,” she said.

“I was the one who was open-minded enough to go into farming and to get my hands dirty. I do everything that all my workers do plus manage the farm,” Cox told IPS.

“When I first started, my dad made it very clear that he wanted me to have an understanding of what the workers go through, not just to be compassionate towards them but also to have an understanding of what the work entails,” she explained.

“If a lady comes to me and said I can’t lift this box but I have to carry it to pack it, if I don’t have experience lifting that box then I will not understand why she can’t lift it. So it was important for me to have an understanding of every role,” she added.

Cox, who grew up on the farm, said she will ultimately be the one running it when her father retires. For now though, she continues to gain experience for when that time comes.

“I have planted, I’ve harvested potatoes and tomatoes, I’ve worked in the greenhouses, I drive my own tractor, I plough my own land, I drive my trucks, I do deliveries to the supermarkets that we serve,” she explained.

Cox is encouraging more women and youths to get into farming, assuring that there is nothing wrong with it.

“We can’t eat unless we farm and to not glorify it and to not put it in a position where it’s respected and the people who do it are respected then you are going to have a lot of short comings especially with finance,” she said.

Pamela Thomas, who heads the Caribbean Farmers Network (CaFAN), said there are finances available to assist farmers but accessing these finances can prove challenging.

“When a farmer who wants to get a loan goes to the bank or another financial institution, one, you can’t use your farm as security because you don’t have farming insurance. So that farmer may be asked to put up his or her property to guarantee a loan. Now that is high risk because it doesn’t only belong to the farmer but it belongs to the entire family,” she said.

CaFAN represents farmers in all 15 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Countries. Initiated by farmer organisations across the Caribbean in 2002, it is mandated to speak on behalf of its membership and to develop programmes and projects aimed at improving livelihoods and to collaborate with all stakeholders in the agriculture sector to the strategic advantage of its farmers.

Thomas also said that the impacts of climate change increase a farmer’s expenditure but farmers have serious difficulties accessing financing.

Thomas said many farmers do not keep proper records and this also poses a challenge to accessing finance.

“Yes there are funding opportunities but these funding opportunities come with their complexities. You have to be able to write the project document, you have to be able to write the reports to be able to access this funding. So when it comes to filtering down to the average farmer on the field it’s not happening,” Thomas added.

Agriculture and land use will be of paramount interest in the negotiations at the twenty-first session of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP21), 30 November to 11 December in Paris, France.

Jamaican entrepreneur and gender justice advocate Una May Gordon said the adverse impacts of climate change will particularly affect women but she noted that their unique knowledge and skill set concerning development and environmental management could greatly benefit adaptive efforts.

“It’s not where it is supposed to be but I think the recognition of the role that women can play in adaptation both at the level of the community and implementing adaptation options is much more recognised,” she told IPS.

“In the communities the women are probably head of households and therefore are more likely the most vulnerable of the lot when we have issues of climate change. They are the providers, they are the nurturers and therefore need to be treated as such,” she said.

“In the fisheries sector in the region one of the little known fact is that the women fishers are more vulnerable. They are the boat owners so they are the investors, they own the equipment and the fishermen who go to sea people always believe that they are the vulnerable ones but if you have no boat, infrastructure or equipment then there would be no fisheries,” Gordon added.

But she notes that the issue of women and climate change has come a far way along the spectrum, adding that “rural women are being given a voice in the climate change discourse.”

For many years, several international agencies have argued that the discourse on climate change does not pay adequate attention to women, either at the local project level or in international negotiations. They have argued that women are unable to voice their specific requirements even though the impact of climate change affects women and men differently.

Source: Inter Press Service News Agency 

02.12.15 Climate Smart Agriculture, preparing for a corporate soil and climate-grab in Paris?

 This article was published in the Ecologist on the 26th November and was written by Helena Paul. Click here to access the full article.

‘Climate Smart Agriculture' can be applied to anything from industrial monocultures to agroecology, writes Helena Paul - and fertiliser, biotech and agribusiness corporations are seizing the chance to cash in. Now COP21 host France is proposing to use soils as a giant carbon sink - a fine idea in itself, but not if it's used to 'offset' continued fossil fuel emissions, and to greenwash industrial agriculture.

We know that agriculture is responsible for high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, promoting climate change while destroying forests, water, soils, and biodiversity.

Yet we are told that food production must double to respond to the projected growth of human population to 9 billion by 2050, so yields must increase but use smaller areas of land for crop production, leaving more land available for biodiversity conservation or forestry.

So-called 'Climate-Smart Agriculture', we are told, can do all this. But what is it, when, how and why did it emerge, and who is behind it?

The Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome (FAO)"agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, resilience (adaptation), reduces /removes GHGs (mitigation), and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals." FAO wants to include forestry and the sustainable intensification of production using a landscape approach. But all this can be used to promote completely different types of agriculture.

'Climate-Smart Agriculture' (CSA) was first mentioned around 2010, for example at the African Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change, held in September 2010 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the firstnGlobal Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change. Then it was taken up by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban in 2011, where it was heavily promoted with a high level event featuring prominent African speakers such as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Smallholder farmers in Africa were constantly cited as key beneficiaries. But there were other targets too.

Reviving carbon markets ...

The concept of CSA perfectly suits the promotion of carbon markets, which are not flourishing at present. According to a World Bank report, the total value of the world's emission trading schemes, which began with the European Union scheme in 2005, was still only around US$30 billion in 2014.

However, the Bank still backs a major expansion of carbon markets in the future and aims to attract new investor and speculative interest with a vastly increased volume of units to trade. It has several initiatives to promote carbon finance.

Yet there are fundamental problems with carbon markets in agriculture: it is difficult to measure, report and verify emissions in this sector reliably. Emission reductions are not predictable in quantity or permanence, and the carbon supposedly stored in soils may be unstable for many reasons, ranging from changes of use or practice to increasing extremes of climate variability.

This is just one reason why many civil society organisations have steadfastly opposed the inclusion of agriculture in the climate negotiations.

Thus, unless CSA is carefully defined, it could be exploited to revive carbon markets by treating agriculture as a carbon sink for industrial emissions. Many governments would rather offset their mitigation obligations than tackle the real issues of reducing emissions at source and investing in clean technologies.

Climate bonds emerged more recently, reaching almost $US37 billion in 2014 according to World Climate Ltd. The Climate Bond Initiative's Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) Technical Working Group have just released for comment their proposed eligibility criteria for AFOLU projects that qualify under the 'Climate Bonds Standard, with the aim of inviting 'climate friendly' investment in agriculture.

With 'Climate-Smart Agriculture', anything goes

Currently,nothing is excluded from the range of practices that could count as 'Climate-Smart'. Thus both large-scale industrial monocultures with high inputs of fertiliser and pesticides, and agroecological approaches including agroforestry and organic agriculture may qualify.

Even though the first discussions of 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' highlighted the importance of small farmers and their vulnerability to climate change, particularly in Africa, no social or environmental criteria have been developed.

Although adaptation and food security are mentioned, CSA could instead stimulate land-grabbing for carbon sinks to offset continued emissions. Undaunted, the promoters of CSA launched the Global Alliance for 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' (GACSA in September 2014.

It includes 22 states, and 81 other members (such as the world's largest fertiliser company Yara and the global food company Danone). At the same time McDonalds, Kellogg Company and Walmart signed theJoint Statement for Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition, which has many of the same supporters as the Global Alliance, while Walmart announced its own 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' Platform.

One active member state is France, which hosts the climate conference in Paris in December 2015 and intends to address agriculture and soils there - see below. Meanwhile, the World Business Council on Sustainable Developmentlaunched a Low Carbon Technology PartnershipsMonsanto co-leads the 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' programme.

Recent Monsanto purchases include theClimate Corporation in 2013 and then (by the Climate Corporation)of Solum, which gives Monsanto new business in climate data, services and insurance, plus soil testing, in addition to its seeds and chemicals. All this could be exploited to securely capture and profit from 'Climate-Smart Agriculture'.

Among the sectors seeking to cash in is the, which comprises 60% of the private sector membership of the alliance. AsGRAIN points out: "They are essentially the oil companies of the food world ... They, too, have their fortunes wrapped in agribusiness-as-usual and the expanded development of cheap sources of energy, like shale gas."

Fertiliser production is estimated to account for some 1-2% of global energy consumption.According to FAO, synthetic fertiliser application is currently the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in agriculture.

GACSA member Yara also supports the agricultural growth corridors that will strive to bring its synthetic fertilisers to new markets in Africa. So is 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' just a cover for promoting an emission-intensive product to new markets?

The response from society

In a statement from September 2015 criticising GACSA, more than 350 civil society organisations say: "'Climate-Smart Agriculture' may sound promising, but it is a politically-motivated term. The approach does not involve any criteria to define what can or cannot be called 'Climate Smart'.

"Agribusiness corporations that promote synthetic fertilisers, industrial meat production and large-scale industrial agriculture - all of which are widely recognised as contributing to climate change and undermining the resilience of farming systems - can and do call themselves 'Climate Smart'.

"CSA claims to include all models of agriculture. However it lacks any social or environmental safeguards and fails to prioritize farmers' voices, knowledge and rights as key to facing and mitigating our climate challenges."

Small and family farmers still provide most of our food and must be central to the systemic change we need. 2015 is theUN year of the soiland healthy soils are fundamental to food production. It is also the year when governments are supposed to produce a meaningful climate agreement in Paris. La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, firmly

Small farmers around the world, however, still have the knowledge and the diversity of crops and animals to farm productively without the use of chemicals by diversifying cropping systems, integrating crop and animal production, and incorporating trees and wild vegetation. These practices enhance the productive potential of the land because they improve soil fertility and prevent soil erosion."

As la Via Campesina says, small farmers can 'cool the planet' by using careful, smallscale, often labour-intensive practices to care for soils, to keep them cool, fertile and moist with cover crops and help to preserve precious water supplies, while maintaining livelihoods and the agricultural biodiversity crucial for the future in their fields.

But this approach requires major changes in most agriculture, rural development, land-use and infrastructure policy worldwide. If the advocates of CSA do not define which agricultural practices are to be defined as 'Climate-Smart' and which are not, we have to assume the concept is a strategy to divide and confuse, and ultimately promote the very model of industrial agriculture that is already contributing so massively to climate change.

France's key role in GACSA and the Paris climate conference

France is a keen GACSA member and host of the climate conference in December 2015. Here it will launch the '' to increase levels of organic matter in soils and encourage agricultural practices that do so,

However, the conference may also see a major promotion of 'climate bonds'at the World Climate Summit for investment by corporations and governments. As Coordination Sud say in a Note, 'The 4 per 1000 Initiative: Caution':

"More carbon storage in the soil should not be understood as a license to emit as much or more in other sectors of human activity. By presenting the '4 per 1000' as a vast mechanism of compensation for emissions, certain economic players could take advantage of the system simply to maintain their emission levels in their industry while funding soil restoration programmes in developing countries, to obtain a result of virtually zero emissions (the zero net emissions concept)."

Thus we risk agriculture and soils being exploited in Paris as a carbon sink to enable corporations to 'offset' emissions, and thus 'mitigate' the impacts of continuing with business as usual. This would not advance food sovereignty, help adaptation or tackle the root causes of climate change.

01.12.15 Time for governments to talk about cutting emisisons from farming - article from the Soil Association

The article below comes from Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association and appeared on the Good Energy Blog.

Agriculture and land-based emissions are currently responsible for around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the EU.

The European Commission say that by 2050 ‘the agricultural sector will represent a third of the EU’s emissions, tripling the current share’.

At the Soil Association we believe that a priority for the COP21 talks in Paris must be the start of governments talking about how we can cut the huge ghgs from farming and food.

Climate Change and Farming in the UK

After a flurry of interest a decade ago, almost no attention is being given to reducing GHG emissions from English farming – and although the Scottish government has tended to be more interested, this has not led to real action.

The current UK Government’s consultation on their 25 year plan for English farming has omitted any reference to climate change.  However, Parliament’s Climate Change Committee, responsible for ensuring that the UK meets the legally binding target of 80% cuts in emissions by 2050, has been looking at farming’s record.

Farming’s two big sources of ghgs are Nitrous Oxide from manufactured fertiliser and Methane – mainly from cattle and sheep. Drops in livestock numbers, and some greater efficiency in the use of manufactured Nitrogen fertiliser, have helped reduce emissions slightly.

A revolution in farming is what’s required

Many scientists have agreed that a ‘revolution’ in farming will be required to hit 80% cuts. However, whether this should be a revolution in intensification and further industrialisation of farming, or a move to agro-ecological, low input systems, is not agreed.

This is despite the support for the agro-ecological route from over 400 international scientists in the IAASTD report, and results of scientific modelling which suggest the intensive route would lead to significant increases in emissions if many more people have to be fed (as they will be).

Work by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation suggests that if diets change (as they must to meet any climate targets) and food waste is reduced, organic farming could feed the world’s increased population by 2050 – with far lower ghg emissions.

(Part of) the answer lies in the soil

There is more carbon locked up in the world’s soils than anywhere else. Soils can either be a source of carbon emissions, or a very effective means of sequestering carbon over the long term.

Targets on soil could help prevent emissions. A recent global review of research found that organically managed soils have significantly higher levels of organic matter – in north-west Europe an average increase compared to non-organic farming of 21% over 20 years.

The International Panel on Climate Change says that 89% of all global agricultural emissions can be mitigated by improving soil carbon levels.

The Soil Association is calling on the UK Government to set a target to increase organic matter in UK arable and horticultural soils by 20% over the next 20 years.

This would significantly reducing the risks of flooding and increase resilience to droughts. It could also store 10 tonnes more carbon per hectare by 2035 – almost 0.5 tonnes per hectare every year. Even at low estimates of potential carbon storage, around 1.3 million tonnes more carbon could be stored in UK arable and horticultural soils every year – equivalent to the emissions saved by taking nearly 1 million cars off the road.

These are the issues that the organic movement will be working to get onto the agenda in Paris.

Given the scale of the challenge facing the planet, we cannot afford to allow agricultural emissions to continue to grow, nor ignore the huge potential that agro-ecological and organic farming has to sequester carbon and reduce emissions.

Source: Good Energy blog, 25.11.15 Peter Melchett, Soil Association

If you are interested in finding out more about how to build organic matter and carbon in your soils, why not check out the soil carbon pages on FCCT's website here?

23.11.15 Farmers day at Paris climate talks

Source: United Nations Framework on Climate Change

Coordinated by the World Farmers' Organisation in collaboration with the UNFCCC Secretariat, Farmers Day brings together farming groups, researchers, civil society, and other advocates to share perspectives on agriculture in light of the United Nation climate change negotiation this December in Paris.

Events will take place on 2 December in the official conference venue - a "blue zone" delegate pass is required but no further registration is needed. Further event details will be added here shortly. Join the conversation online using #FarmersDay and #COP21

For more information contact Ceris Jones, World Farmers' Organisation.


11:30—13:00, Observer room 03

Partnerships to improve agricultural resilience and productivity in a changing climate

Farmers from around the world and experts from science, finance and the market will discuss the possibilities and practicalities of improving agricultural resilience and productivity as the climate changes, and examine the value of partnerships

Speakers: Victor Biwot, tea producer Kenya. Luis Martinez, coffee producer Mexico, Romualdo Noble, Sugarcane producer Philippines. Fabian Waldmeier, Max Haavelar Switzerland. Mariana C. Rufino (TBC), CIFOR. Zaheer Fakir GCF Board. Andy Jarvis CIAT(TBC), Farmer representative WFO (TBN).

Organisers: Asociación Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores de Comercio Justo (CLAC); The Fairtrade Foundation; World Farmers' Organisation (WFO) 

15:00-16:30, Observer room 03

Partnering to scale-up climate-smart agriculture in Africa: from policy to tangible impact

This session will explore innovative partnership approaches to achieve climate-smart agriculture (CSA).

Organisers: International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), Norwegian Forum for Environment and Development (ForUM), Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU), University of Copenhagen (KU), World Vision International (WVI)

16:45—18:15, Observer room 03

Agroecology as a viable solution to create climate resilience and a sustainable food system

Agroecological practices, in particular agroforestry, can deliver many important services that will be vital in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. In particular we will speak about nutrition and food security, integrated landscape management and energy.

Speakers: ICRAF, IFOAM, UN Standing Commission on Nutrition, WeForest, country negotiators, donors

Organisers: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF); International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)

16.11.15 Soil Organic Matter, sharing Mediterranean experiences

Four Tips to improve organic matter content in Mediterranean soils

Compared to other European areas, Mediterranean regions suffer from distinctly lower organic matter content in their soils. However there are practical solutions to increase soil organic matter content and secure soil functionality and fertility. Philippe Hinsinger is the coordinating expert for the Focus Group on soil organic matter content in Mediterranean regions set up by the European Innovation Partnership for Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability (EIP - AGRI). He elaborates "This is a concern that farmers have had since the very start of agriculture. Few of the solutions that are available are actually new, as many of them were rather common before the intensification of agriculture in the 1950s. The Focus Group analysed pros and cons of the current solutions, resulting in concrete tips for farmers.

Use local manure

Animal manure and organic waste - for instance transformed to compost can influence soil organic matter. Philippe Hinsinger: "Animal manure is most likely the largest resource of organic carbon suitable for application in agriculture. In Mediterranean areas where there is little large-scale animal production it would become very expensive for farmers to pay for manure transportation as large amounts are needed. Promoting the use of sources available on or near the farm, or using dehydrated or composted materials is important to decrease the cost of transportation, thus improving the cost-efficiency of the application of carbon rich inputs."

Avoid ploughing

Tillage techniques have been widely practiced for centuries, so completely stopping this practice would require a considerable shift. Reduced tillage or no-till practices can be used to maintain or increase soil organic matter content. Soil surface cover by mulching can efficiently reduce the runoff and subsequent soil erosion. Mulching can also help to combat weeds and improve the ability of the soil to bear the impact of vehicles such as tractors without damaging the soil structure.

Choose your cover crops wisely

Crop residues are a major source of organic inputs in agriculture and should be part of a farmer's strategy to increase or maintain soil organic matter content. The way crops are managed in space and time also plays an important role in securing soil functionality: more diverse rotations and longer soil coverage by living plants can help to protect the soil and increase organic matter content. These practices are less common in Mediterranean regions, in spite of their positive impact on soil fertility and water conservation.

Seek other novel solutions

The Focus Group also looked at opportunities to further investigate how to improve soil orgnaic matter content in Mediterranean regions and identified 16 research priorities. On top of that the focus group experts proposed subjects for innovative projects, so-called Operational Groups, funded by the European Commission and by the EU Member States and regions via Rural Development Programmes. The Focus Group suggestions included the development of diagnostic procesdures and recommendations on the management of soil organic matter and organic resources from tree based cropping systems, such as olive or fruit orchards. 

Source: EIP Focus Group Soil Organic Matter

For more information or to read the factsheet on Soil Organic Matter in Meditteranean Regions click here

09.11.15 Minimising nitrous oxide intensities of arable crop products; the MIN-NO project

The information in this blog comes from the end of project report from the MIN-NO project, which is a Defra funded project looking at minimising nitrous oxide intensities of arable crop products. To read the full report and find out more click here.


The MIN-NO project (2009 - 2014) used multi-site industry data, field experiments and modelling to improve estimates of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions associated with major UK arable crops and their products. Of 24 field experiments conducted in widely contrasting rainfall, soil and crop conditions, 21 showed direct N2O emissions due to fertiliser Nitrogen (N) to be less than the 1% default emission factor (EF) assumed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A simple model summarising these emissions predicted a 30 year average EF for arable land across the UK of only 0.46% of N applied.

A set of 'smart' EFs was devised for consideration by UK stakeholders, based on the MIN-NO model, other MIN-NO results and associated evidence. The smart EF for fertiliser N predicted a decrease in emissions of almost 10% of the previously estimated total N2O-N emissions from UK agriculture (which excludes fertiliser manufacture). The greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity estimated with the MIN-NO smart EFs (which include reduced GHGs from fertiliser manufacture) expressed as emissions per tonne of UK feed wheat was 20% less than the 'benchmark' GHG intensity using a current default methodology.  Smart EFs also gave reduced GHG intensities for harvested rapeseed, similar intensities for sugar beet and increased intensities for vining peas. Thus most arable food products are likely to have smaller GHG intensities than are being estimated at present. Also, bio-fuels made from N-fertilised crops could be considered more effective in reducing GHG emissions than is currently assumed.

However prospects for mitigation of N2O emissions associated with UK arable cropping are less than was thought previously. Farmers already using abated N fertilisers and following good practice lack any easy means of further mitigation. Feasible approaches tend to have economic costs, so further mitigation depends on the arable industry finding ways of capturing financially some of the value. Four feasible options were identified and, if all of these were aggregated, a combined GHG emissions mitigation potential of around -30% was estimated for the harvested produce of most crops, and from -5% to -25% for their food or fuel products. The best mitigation options appeared to lie in employing more sophisticated crop nutrient supply systems, and/ or growing more N - efficient crops through better informed selection of species and varieties. Other options such as cultivation strategies to improve soil conditions, cannot be advocated without further research.

Key messages for industry and policy

Most arable food products have significantly smaller GHG footprints than are being estimated by or on behalf of industry at present.

Biofuels made from N-fertiliser crops grown in the UK are more effective in reducing GHG than was previously thought. The impact of this finding will be enhanced further if the UK defines NUTS2 regional emissions estimates for biofuels in a similar way to that suggested by the MIN-NO model, e.g. depending on regional rainfall.

Mitigation of arable GHG emissions by reduced use of fertiliser N was estimated to be largely ineffective if indirect effects on land uses elsewhere were acknowledged.

As proposed in recent UK reviews, many potential GHG mitigation methods may be applicable to arable crops; these can be classed into four distinct themes.

i. Fertiliser systems (method of manufacture, formulation, application and timing) with low GHG emissions per kg nutrient 

ii. Selection of species, varieties, and/or fertiliser systems that convert soil and fertiliser N more efficiently into harvestable biomass

iii. Sourcing of crop produce from regions with low rainfall and light soils hence low N2O emissions.

iv. Removal of crop residues if green, this applies to a minority of crops

Individually these approaches were estimated to have maximum mitigation potentials (on GHG intensities of crop produce) of -25%, -23%, -23% and approximately -16%/

The maximum GHG mitigation potential derived by aggregating all four mitigation approaches was around -30% for the harvested produce of most crops (grain, seed or root) hence from -5% to -35% for their food or fuel products, depending on the contribution of crop produce to total GHG footprint of the product.

This there are opportunities for industry to help further mitigate the GHG footprints of arable products through improved fertiliser systems (better regarded as crop nutrient supply systems), for example incorporating chemical inhibitors within fertiliser products, but their exploitation will depend on finding means of capturing some of the value e.g. through economic incentives offered by the supply chain.

Any improvements that the plant breeding industry can make int he N Use Efficiency of crop varieties will prove beneficial to GHG mitigation, but the scope will be modest, especially if further progress is made in fertiliser technology, because mitigation is multiplicative not additive.

The main opportunities for farmers to mitigate N2O emissions lie in selecting crop species and fertiliser systems. Unfortunately farmers using abated N fertilisers and following best practices have few other means of effective N2O mitigation at present (at least that could affect calculated GHG emissions). Even under- fertilising with N is counter - balanced by GHG effects through indirect land use change.

Thus the scope for the UK arable industry to further mitigate GHG intensities of its products is less than previously estimated, and GHG mitigation maxima could only be achieved if adequate and sustained incentives became available to support development and use of all the appropriate technologies.

Source: Minimising nitrous oxide intensities of arable crop products (MIN-NO), Defra Sustainable Arable LINK programme

05.11.15 The Science of Soil Health Video

The Science of Soil Health: Using cover crops to soak up nutrients for the next crop.

No farmer wants to lose precious nutrients in the cool season, but this is exactly what happens when the field is left fallow.

This video produced by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, visits Penn State University and talks to Dr Sjoerd Duiker about how they use cover crops to ensure that those nutrients stay where they belong.

Source: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

02.11.15 The Goals of the Paris talks

Following on from my introductory blog last week about the upcoming Paris talks, this blog looks in a little bit more detail about what will be being discussed at the event.  This information comes from a report written by the Green Alliance entitled Paris 2015, Getting a global agreement on climate change.

This agreement that will happen in Paris is set to be different from what has happened previously.  In the early climate change talks and negotiations the focus surrounded 'top-down' targets which drove national action. However in the lead up to Paris, individual countries have been required to present their own ambitions and plans for carbon reduction. Each countries pledged contributions will need to be agreed at the global level to ensure that the pledges add up to sufficient global action.

A good agreement will help provide a framework for change, which will allow individual countries to do more than they could alone.

Agreement is needed on the following elements of a global deal:

Ambitious action before and after 2020

The agreements in Paris will focus on a deal that comes into force from 2020. However at Durban talks in 2011, countries also agreed to accelerate action before 2020. Limiting climate change in the long term depends on cumulative emissions reductions so if less is done now, more is needed later. 

All the agreements are concerned with limiting temperature rises to less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrialised levels.

A strong legal framework and clear rules

To ensure action on the ground and to make sure countries deliver on promises made.  This includes having processes in place that deal with accounting and reporting methodologies, are transparent and measure change.

Central role for equity

The deal needs to be fair for all.  The agreement must therefore recognise the different contributions of countries to climate change and the changing nature of the global economy. It needs to acknowledge where nations have more responsibility and where they have more capacity to tackle climate change.

Long term approach

The aim is to use Paris to establish a framework on which to build with rolling commitments to reduce emissions on a 5yr cycle.

This will allow for the flexibility to include revised carbon targets as new science and technology emerges and increasing evidence of social and economic benefits of low carbon action once countries start implementing low carbon strategies.

Public finance for adaptation and low carbon transition

An agreement is more likely to be effective if it provides finance to support action on adaptation and mitigation. Funds can be delivered through the Green Climate Fund.

A Framework for action on deforestation and land use

Forest protection and support for sustainable land management should be a crucial part of a new agreement.

Any new agreement covering forest protection, land use and agriculture should be properly financed, have clear rules for emissions accounting and involve local communities.

The report also includes some quotes from politicians and officials about what these talks should achieve.

Ban Ki-moon (UN Secretary General)

" I challenge you to bring to the Summit bold pledges. Innovate, scale up, co-operate, and deliver concrete action that will close the emissions gap and put us on track for an ambitious legal agreement."

Christiana Figueres, (Executive secretary, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change)

"We are the first generation to understand the consequences of a high carbon economy on the planet, on future prosperity and , in particular on the most vulnerable around the world. Let us be the generation that stands up and takes responsibility conveyed by that knowledge."

Source: Paris 2015, Getting a global agreement on climate change. Green Alliance.

27.10.15 Countdown to Paris

So for the next couple of months here at FCCT we are going to do something slightly different in terms of blogs and look at the very exciting (if you like that sort of thing) talks that are coming up in Paris in December.

What are these talks I hear you ask? Well a quick Google search along the lines of COP21 or Paris Climate Talks will bring you up a range of media articles, opinion pieces and some really fascinating EU and United Nations web pages with strategies and rationale and ratification documents, which if you are having any trouble sleeping are my recommended reading.

Here at FCCT, we think these talks are potentially a big deal. As we will discover over the next couple of months, what is (or isn’t) agreed at these talks could have ramifications for our government in terms of targets for carbon reduction, and alongside that, a potential stronger approach to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. If they all talk nicely and reach an agreement, then it will shape the future of what our carbon reduction strategy looks like; if they can’t agree, it will continue being fought out until an agreed reduction target for the period 2020 – 2030 can be finalised.

So one of our missions over the next couple of months is to bring you all the facts and information on what is happening in this exciting time leading up to the climate talks and what it will mean on the ground for managing and sustaining our farming businesses.

To kick off then I thought that we would look at where we are currently and how we have got to the 21st conference of the United Nations framework Convention of Climate change (apologies if you’ve missed the last 20).

I promise to try and not get too bogged down in policy, jargon or European / United Nations history

Here goes

The basic policy

The United Nations framework Convention on Climate Change sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the challenge posed to us by climate change.

The process was started at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 where countries joined an international treaty to jointly consider what could be done to limit average global temperature increases and cope with the inevitable impacts.

The framework entered into force (by the time they had all agreed) on 21st March 1994, and 195 countries are now signed up to it.

The ultimate aim of the convention is:

“......stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthrogenic (induced by man) interference with the climate system.”

What does it do?

In summary the convention:

1.Recognised that there was a problem (which was a pretty big deal in 1994, when the science wasn’t as sure as it is now)

2.Set a big but specific goal – ultimate objective of convention is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations

3.Gets developed countries to lead the way. The theory goes that developed countries are the source of most past and current GHG emissions, industrialised countries are expected to do the most to cut emissions on home ground.

4.Directs new funds to climate change activities in developing countries, and this includes industrialised countries sharing knowledge, skills and technologies with less developed nations

5.Keeps tabs on the problem and what is being done about it – including mandatory reporting on emissions levels, what nations climate change policies are and what measures they are implementing

6.Charts the beginning of a path to strike a delicate balance – this deals with accepting the fact that the shape of GHG emissions produced by developing countries as they develop economically will grow, however the convention aims to help such countries limit emissions in a way that won’t hinder economic progress

7.Kick off a formal consideration of adaptation to climate change

Source: The European Commission

Where are we at the moment?

So there are a couple of famous meetings and regulations that have led up to where we are now including:

The Kyoto Protocol

This was developed in 1997, and finally entered into force in 2005. This protocol commits industrialised countries to stabilise GHG emissions by setting binding emissions reduction targets or 37 industrialised countries. The targets add up to an average 5% emissions reduction compared to 1990 levels over the period 2008 – 2012 (1st commitment period).

Doha (8th December 2012)

The Doha Amedment launched a second commitment period of emissions reduction targets, which started on the 1st January 2013 and ran until 2020.

Paris talks in a nutshell

The COP (Conference of parties) which includes all party states, meets every year. At the Paris Summit, the aim is to develop a new international climate change agreement that will cover all 195 countries.

The new agreement is set to be agreed at Paris in December and implemented from 2020.

Climate conferences in Warsaw (2013) and Lima (2014) agreed that all countries had to put forward their proposed emissions reductions targets well ahead of the Paris conference (so its not a case of I left it at home).

The UN would then publish these contributions and report (by the 1st November) to assess whether the proposals are sufficient to keep global warming below 2 degrees.

(Source European Commission)

So its going to be an interesting time. Watch this space for more blogs over the next few weeks which will hopefully keep you informed as to what’s happening.

19.10.15 Loss of soil carbon linked to climate change

Soil and plants store around 5% of the world's carbon, but carbon storage in some soils is in decline. Recent research has found that climate change accounted for 9-22% of carbon declines in organic soils in semi-natural habitats throughout England and Wales from 1978 -2003. The researchers say monitoring soils rich in carbon should be a priority to ensure that more carbon is not released to reinforce climate change. 

Soils accumulate carbon through the decomposition of plant materials and from carbon inputs like manure. Soils also release carbon as carbon dioxide and methane through root respiration and the breakdown of organic matter by microbes. The balance between carbon inputs and outputs determines whether the soil acts as a carbon sink or source.

Rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns caused by climate change are expected to significantly affect soil processes. If warmer temperatures result in more carbon being lost from soils through respiration than is returned by decaying plant litter, a positive feedback cycle would further amplify the effects of climate change.

Two studies in England and Wales reached different conclusions about the impact of climate change on soil carbon concentrations. A 2005 study based on the National Soil Inventory of England and Wales (NSI) found a decline in soil carbon stocks between two survey periods (1978 - 1983 and 1995 - 2003). The study found that these losses were unrelated to land use - which led the authors to suggest there was a link to climate change. However a separate study in 2007 found no significant change in soil carbon concentrations in the UK between 1978 - 2007.

The present study used soil carbon levels from the first NSI survey to model changes in soil carbon concentrations during the second survey period.

The researchers used the same land-use categories from the original NSI studies, and distinguished between survey sites with organo-mineral / mineral soils and organic soils (which contain >150g of carbon per kg of soil).  They then related estimated changes in average rainfall and temperature, using the UK Meteorological Office's climate data, at each site between survey periods with modelled soil carbon concentrations.

The researchers found that climate change affected the two soils differently. Carbon changes in organo - mineral / mineral soils could be weakly linked to rainfall but not temperature changes, whereas carbon declines in organic soils were strongly related to rising temperatures but insensitive to changes in rainfall.

Only up to 5% of declining carbon concentrations predicted in organo-mineral / mineral soils in agricultural land could be linked to climate change. The researchers concluded that declining carbon concentrations in these soils are more likely the result of reduced carbon inputs due to a reduction in grazing cattle.

In contrast 9-22% of carbon declines in organic soils in semi-natural habitats, such as bogs could be attributed to climate change. The researchers found that when temperatures increased, carbon changes in organic soils followed a similar pattern to bog vegetation changes.

Above an average annual temperature of 7 degrees C moss cover on temperate bogs with peat soils sharply declines and other plants such as trees grow more readily. The researchers suggest that warmer temperatures under climate change may induce plant cover changes which alter the quality of plant litter, returning less carbon to the soil.

These changes in plant cover could be responsible for the falls in carbon concentrations predicted in this study. for example, soil carbon concentrations in organic soils were stable at approximately 425g/kg until temperature reached 7 degrees C after which carbon levels fell as carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere.

The researchers say it is important to identify soils with carbon contents between 250 and 425 g/kg. These soils should be prioritised for surveillance to ensure that the carbon within them is not released, thereby contributing to climate change.

Source: Science for Environment Policy, 15th October 2015, Issue 431

19.10.15 Effects of extreme weather, climate and pesticides on farmland invertebrates

Cereal fields provide a staple food, but are also home to a wide array of invertebrates. This study analysed over 40 years of data to investigate the effects of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields in southern England. As pesticide use had a greater effect on abundance than temperature or rainfall, the authors also recommended reducing pesticide use.

Invertebrates  in arable farmland provide vital ecosystem services, including pollination, pest control and nutrient recycling. They are also an important link in the food chain that supports farmland animals and an important source of biodiversity in their own right.

However these invertebrates are under threat from climate change which is increasing the frequency and devertiy of extreme weather events. They are also facing the challenges of agricultural intensification especially increasing pesticide use.

Very few studies have investigated the effects of changes in weather and agricultural intensification together. It is important to understand how arable invertebrates respond to these combined challenges in order to devise mitigation measures.

In this study, researchers determined the impact of extreme weather events, as well as long-term trends in weather and agricultural practices on arable invertebrates. The study was based on a section of farmland on the Sussex Downs, in southern England. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has collected data on the invertebrates, plants and birds of this cereal ecosystem as well as its crop management practices, since 1970. Information on the abundance of invertebrates was obtained by sampling 100 cereals fields every year from 1970 - 2011. The 26 most commonly identified taxa were selected for analysis.

Weather conditions were also assessed. A droughts and temperature anomalies are most commonly associated with changes in invertebrate abundance, the researchers focused on monthly mean temperatures and totla monthly precipitation in their analysis. Extreme weather events were identified using data obtained from the UK Met Office and grouped into two categories: cold / wet and hot / dry.

Of the 26 invertebrate groups studied, 11 were found to be sensitive to extreme weather events. However the invertebrates were also remarkably resilient - only two took longer than a year to recover.

Some long-term trends in invertebrate abundance correlated with temperature and rainfall data suggesting that invertebrates are affected by climate change. However by far the most important factor in explaining the trends in abundance was pesticide use.

The researchers went onto investigate whether different habitats could encourage resilience to extreme events. Only habitat position influenced sensitivity to extreme weather events. During cold / wet events, abundance generalls increased from the previous year on west - facing slopes, while it decreased on other slopes, suggesting that west - facing slopes may act as refuges. There were no other clear links between habitat and resilience, suggesting that habitat manipulation is unlikely to offset the effects of extreme weather on invertebrates.

In the long -term, climate change will cause increases in certain groups of organisms, some of which will contain cereal pests. In turn, this will increase the use of insecticides, having an adverse effect on invertebrate populations. The authors say this is the most likely long-term negative impact of climate change on arable invertebrate numbers.

The researchers say using conservation headlands alongside beetle banks, which also protect farmland birds, may help to conserve invertebrates in cereal fields.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, 8th October, Issue 430

Author: Ewald, J et al, (2015), Influences of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields over 42 years. Global Change Biology, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13026 

16.10 15 France and soil management

France has a great plan for its soil and its not just about wine

This article is written by Professor John Quinton from Lancaster University and the full link is found here.

French wine lovers have always taken their soil very seriously. But not the country's government has introduced fresh reasons for the rest of the world to pay attention to their terroir.

As industrial emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase and concerns about climate change grow, scientists and policy makers are searching for potential solutions. Could part of the answer lie in the soil beneath our feet? French agricultural minister Stephane Le Foll thinks so.

Soil stores vast amounts of carbon, far more than all the carbon in the world's forests and atmosphere combined. Plants take carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and when they die the carbon they stored is returned to the soil.

This forms part of the soil's organic matter, a mix of undecayed plant and animal tissues, transient organic molecules and more stable material often referred to as humus. It is food for organisms in the soil that play a vital role in cycling nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. These organisms decompose the organic material and return much of the carbon to the atmosphere leaving only a small proportion in the soil.

In the UK alone, soils store around 10 billion tonnes of carbon - that's about 65 times the country's annual carbon emissions. Increasing the amount of carbon in our soils has the potential to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.

At a March 2015 conference on Climate Smart Agriculture, Le Foll proposed the ambitious target of increasing French soil carbon contents by 0.04% year on year ("4 pour mille). How France will meet the target is currently unclear but by throwing down the gauntlet Le Foll clearly wants to stimulate French farmers and researchers into action.

A 0.04% increase might not sound like a lot, but, given the scale of carbon storage in soil and the fact that small increases add up over the years, meeting the target would have a significant impact on atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Le Foll hopes that  protecting carbon rich soils like those in natural bogs, permanent grassland or wetlands, better use of organic manures and farming that returns more plant biomass to the soil (such as by using cover crops and ploughing their residues back into the earth) together with the use of bioenergy crops such as short rotation coppice, can contribute towards a 40% reduction in France's CO2 emissions by 2030. He plans to bring forward an international programme to promote increases in soil carbon and to propose it to the UN climate talks in Paris. Such a programme would include research, innovation and engagement with farmers.

Stuck in the mud?

There is no doubt that this is a bold move. Research has shown that raising soil carbon contents is not that easy due to much of the organic matter added to soils being lost to the atmosphere as it is decomposed by soil microbes. However protecting the carbon we already have in our soils and just storing a little more could make a big difference.

In the UK most soil carbon (by far) is found in peaty soils under bogs, followed by soils under grass, woodland and arable agriculture. Protecting this carbon should be the first priority. That means maintaining and restoring bogs, avoiding conversion of grassland and forestry to arable land or even reconverting arable land to grassland. These measures would all have a positive effect on soil carbon stocks.

Whether all this can deliver the 0.04% increase year on year that the French want is open to debate. What is lcear though is that not only does soil offer a way to store carbon and help mitigate climate change, carbon rich soil has numerous other benefits. It is more fertile and helps to promote food production, it improves the soil's physical properties - it protects against soil erosion and increases water-holding capacity, and it enhances biodiversity.

Promoting practices that increase soil carbon contents really is a win for both the soil and the climate.

14.10.15 The Bug benefits

Soil bugs play a vital role in supporting soil structure and plant growth on grassland farms, but farmers must look after their soil to reap these benefits, warns a leading soil expert. Dr Debbie McConnell, AHDB Dairy R&D manager, finds out why on behalf of Forage for Knowledge.

Soil is full of life. One small handful of soil contains more organisms than the total number of humans who ever lived on Earth, but what are these creatures and how do they influence our soil?

Speaking at a recent AHDB - BGS meeting, soils expert Dr Elizabeth Stockdale outlined the range of organisms in a typical handful of grassland soil. "It is packed with billions of organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes, mites, springtails, earthworms, insects, and millipedes, most of which are too small to see with the naked eye.

Dr Stockdale, the main author of the AHDB website explained that these organisms played many essential roles in the soil including:

Powering nitrogen fixation

Recycling nutrients into plant available form

Developing a sponge like structure to regulate water retention and drainage

"These organisms influence most of the processes which take place in the soil and, as a result, are essential for plant growth - no plant will grow in a sterile soil," she comments.

So how can farmers help encourage these organisms in the soil?

"Just by having plants in the soil all year round you are helping these bugs survive." explained Dr Stockdale. "Plants release carbohydrates and sugars into the soil through their roots, which provide a food source for other organisms." 

Other organisms then consume these bacteria and fungi, breaking then down into vital nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate, which are readily available for the plant roots to absorb.  As a result the organisms benefit from the plant roots and vice versa.

Adding organic matter such as farmyard manure (FYM), composts and slurry is also important to encourage soil biology, providing a key source of energy for many organisms. This is backed by recent research at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, showing that earthworm populations were five times higher on plots that received slurry each year than those that only received inorganic fertilisers.

However to get this benefit, Dr Stockdale advises managing organic manure inputs carefully. When earthworms come into contact with slurry, the high concentration of ions can extract body fluids from shallow skinned earthworms by osmosis, killing the worm. The risk is much lower with farmyard manure as the nutrients are less concentrated.

"Organic matter input is important so try and make sure most fields across the farm receive some . With slurry, try a little and often approach to minimise any detrimental impact on soil organisms, " she said.

Another key factor to help soil organisms survive is good soil structure. "When soils are compacted the air spaces are squeezed out, removing oxygen which is vital for organisms to survive" said Dr Stockdale.

"Regularly assessing soil structure and soil testing is something every farmer can do themselves to make sure their soil can support a range of soil organisms which in turn will aid grass growth, nutrient use efficiency and water retention."

Who's who in the soil environment

Earthworms. There are three main types commonly found in UK soils: epigeic, endogeic and anecic. Anecic earthworms are particularly good at improving soil structure, making large vertical channels throughout the soil.

Mites are the smallest (usually less than 1mm) and also the most diverse group of arthropods in soil and therefore show a very wide range of feeding habits and lifestyles.  The presence of these microarthropods markedly increases decomposition rates across a range of environments.

Nematodes are microscopic roundworms with a diameter of <50 micrometres. Different species of nematodes play different roles in the soil. Some feed of plant residues while others break down bacteria and fungi in the soil into vital nutrients.

Fungi - Fungal hyphae are usually 2-micrometers in diameter, but can extend to up to a kilometre in length. Fungi are involved in a large number of interactions and processes in soil. They are often found in close proximity to plant roots.

Bacteria are single -celled prokaryotes. The large majority of bacteria existing in soil (>95%) are not culturable and so for a long time could not be studied. Bacterial in the soil often have the ability to 'slow-down' metabolic activity and maintain activity in a dormant state, event under conditions of very low energy and nutrient availability.

For more information visit the Healthy Grassland Soils pages on the AHDB website pages.

12.10.15 New consultation released concerning diffuse water pollution

Defra has released a consultation on new basic rules to tackle diffuse water pollution from agriculture in England.  The rules have a particular focus on phosphorus.

The consultation is open for responses and comments on the proposals by the 24th November.  This includes which basic rules should apply and how they should be implemented.

The consultation sets out basic rules and actions covering fertiliser, livestock and soil management.

List of proposed rules
Inorganic and fertiliser management

1. Location of field manure storage at least 10m from a watercourse

2. Use a fertiliser recommendation system, taking into account soil reserves and organic manure supply

3. Spread fertilisers and manure accurately (e.g. by using calibrated and maintained machinery).

Livestock management

4. Use a feed planning system to match nutrient content of diets to livestock feeding requirements.

5. Livestock feeders must not be positioned within 10 metres of any surface water of a wetland.

6. Avoid severe poaching where likely to pollute a watercourse (compliance achieved if already meeting GAECs 4 and 5)

Soil management

7. Take action to prevent soil erosion and run-off from tramlines, lows, irrigation and high risk sloping lands or those lands highly connected to surface water (compliance already achieved if meeting GAECS 4 and 5)

8. Do not spread more than 30m3/ha of slurry or digestate or more than 8t/ha of poultry manure in a single app between between 15th October and end February. No repeat spreading for 21 days.

9. Do not spread manufactured fertiliser or manures at high risk times or in high risk areas.

Proposed Good practice

10. Incorporated manure into soil as soon as possible and within 24hrs after application at the latest.

11. Exclude livestock from watercourses (excluding uplands and common land)

Defra are proposing to introduce a minimum of 7 of the rules and that they will be clear and simple and will be supported by advice.

To read the consultation documents please click here.

To learn more about how you can tackle diffuse water pollution please click here

05.10.15 Investigating the effect of pH and fertiliser on Nitrous oxide production from farm soils

So for the last blog of the month looking at Nitrous oxide here is a piece of research conducted by Theo Platts-Dunn at Lancaster University as part of a Masters programme. Some of the data that informed the study is based on Adam's farm, so this is a great opportunity to see some research in action (which also fits nicely into our theme).

Our thanks to Theo for allowing us to publish it here.

What's is all about?

This project aimed to assess the effectiveness of how nitrification inhibitors work, in conjunction with common inorganic fertiliser (Ammonium Nitrate and Urea), to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from soil after fertiliser application. As the well as the effect of inhibitors on N2O production I was also interested in the effect of the pH on N2O as I had found some lack of clarity regarding its influence in prior research. I designed a laboratory experiment to investigate these themes.

What did it find?

The results of the experiment showed that the nitrification inhibitors drastically reduced the N2O production when applied together with fertiliser compared to fertiliser applied which contained no inhibitor (Up to a 90% reduction). With regard to pH, a slightly more acidic soil generally results in lower N2O production. This was true with the ammonium nitrate treated cores and the control cores. This is likely due to the enzyme inhibitory effects of a lowered soil pH. Soil cores treated with urea did not show a statistically significant difference between ambient and lowered pH suggesting that urea increases the pH of soil when applied.

What does it mean?

The findings of this report highlight some of the complexities of practically managing N2O production from soil. In addition to pH other soil parameters such as; soil water content, temperature, aeration, organic content, mineral N availability and soil texture have an effect on N2O production. These parameters not only have an effect individually but also combine and interact in ways which are challenging to model. The best approach for effective mitigation of N2O is arguably to carry out case-by-case mitigation strategies as opposed to broad scale guidelines offered by bodies such as the IPCC. However, the challenge really lies in incentivising land owners to carry out such assessments which may seem to them to involve additional cost and little economic return.

How can I read the full report?

The full thesis is available to download here.

29.09.15 Focusing on soil structure to retain healthy grasslands

A recent Defra-funded study of 300 grassland fields found that just 40 per cent had good soil structure. That alarming figure serves to reinforce the importance of an ongoing initiative from AHDB’s beef, lamb and dairy sectors – Healthy Grassland Soils – which aims to help grassland farmers study soil properties and choose the best management practices.

At this time of year, farmers should be investigating the health status of grassland soils, as where action needs to be taken this can be done straight away. At the end of the summer, soils are less dry and it’s a good time to assess their structure. Using aerators or sward lifters in the autumn also means that the soil and the roots have the winter to recover before the high demands of spring when grass growth really gets going.

In cases of mild compaction, soils do have a capacity to recover on their own, especially if the cause, such as grazing livestock, is be removed. In these situations it may be worth monitoring the field over a few weeks to see whether it improves. Taking photos on a phone is a simple but useful way to track soil condition.

There is good evidence that using aerators or sward lifters in soils without poor structure has limited benefit and can cause damage, especially if the soil conditions are not appropriate.

If an aerator or sward lifter needs to be used, it is important to make sure soil moisture conditions are correct to avoid further damage. If a handful of soil obtained from the depth that needs to be worked gives a moist smooth surface when rolled then it is too wet to work. If the soil starts to crack then the soil conditions are appropriate.

Aerators and sward lifters need to be working 2.5cm below the problem area so dig holes to make sure the equipment is doing the correct job.

As part of the Healthy Grassland Soils project, soil structure assessment tools and a website — — have been developed with more technical information, especially in relation to soil biology. An assessment sheet and pocketbook is available from the AHDB Beef & Lamb Better Returns Programme.

Source:Farming Futures blog 

29.09.15 Mitigation of nitrous oxide emissions from livestock part 2

Following on from the blog at the end of last week looking at mitigation of nitrous oxide emissions from livestock systems, this second part of the report looks at some of the science behind management that has been advocated to reduce GHG emissions (in particular nitrous oxide), and how these can integrate into management changes on the farm.

The diagram below comes from the paper (link here) that these blogs are based on, and highlights some of the areas to consider when looking to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from your system. If you click on the picture it will enlarge.

Animal management and housing

Structures used to house livestock do not directly affect the processes resulting in nitrous oxide and methane emissions, however the type of structure used determines the manure management methods used to handle, store, process and use the manure.

Housing systems with solid floors that use straw accumulate manure with a lighter DM which when stored in piles created conditions for nitrification and denitrification and thus greater nitrous oxide emissions. Farmyard manure and deep litter manure handling systems tend to produce greater nitrous oxide emission than slurry based systems.

Dietary effects on manure emissions

Manipulating rations to reduce nutrient excretion of N and P are well studied, but relating it to mitigation of methane and nitrous oxide is fairly new. Data in the effect of dietary protein on manure Nitrous oxide emissions is not consistent. Tannins as a dietary supplement has been studied, but more studies are needed in terms of relating tannin application through the diet to manure and GHG emissions.

Grazing practices

Improving pasture quality in terms of forage digestibility is an efficient way of decreasing GHG emissions from the animal and the amount of manure produced. In pasture based systems, improving forage quality often means increasing Nitrogen fertiliser application rates which can have a negative impact on urinary N excretion and thus ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions.

Reduction of nitrous oxide emissions from intensive grazing systems can be achieved by several strategies:

Improving N use efficiency through reducing the amount of N excreted by grazing animal

Optimising soil management and Nitrogen inputs

Optimising pasture renovation

Manipulating soil N cycling processes through soil additives

Selecting for plants and animals that maximise N utilisation

Altering grazing and feeding management

Manure storage and treatment

Greenhouse gas emissions from stored manure  are primarily in the form of methane (due to anaerobic conditions) although nitrous oxide emissions can occur and ammonia volatilisation losses are often large.

A direct way to avoid cumulative GHG emissions is to reduce the amount of time manure is stored.

Storage covers

Semipermeable covers tend to increase Nitrous oxide emissions because they provide optimal aerobic conditions for nitrification at the cover surface and at the same time create a low oxygen environment just below the cover favourable for denitrification and the production of nitrous oxide.


Due to the nature of the composting process N losses can be high and are influenced by a number of factors including temperature C to N ratio, pH, moisture and material consistency. Compost can be a source of nitrous oxide emissions with both nitrification and denitrification processes occurring during composting.

Land application

Application method and emissions

An important difference between mineral fertiliser and manure is that manure contains organic Carbon which, depending on soil condition may affect Nitrous oxide emissions.

Manure carbon may increase microbial respiration rates in soil, thus depleting oxygen providing the anaerobic conditions required for denitrification. Compared with mineral Nitrogen sources, manure applications increases soil Nitrous oxide flux in soils with low Carbon content. Soil nitrous oxide emissions can vary greatly and emissions factors of up to 12% of N input (for nitrate based fertiliser) and 5% for manure have been reported.

Incorporating manures can greatly reduce ammonia emissions, leaving more N susceptible to emissions as nitrous oxide. However reduction in ammonia losses with incorporation means that smaller quantities of manure are required and potential for nitrous oxide production is reduced.

Urease and nitrification inhibitors

Microbial processes that result in nitrous oxide production can be manipulated through the use of chemical additives (see earlier blogs).

Cover crops

Cover cropping can reduce soil erosion, improve soil quality and fertility, improved water, weed, disease and pest management and enhance plant and wildlife diversity on the farm,

Reduction of Nitrogen fertiliser use by growing leguminous cover crops has a direct mitigation effect on soil nitrous oxide emissions by reducing soil nitrate availability and potential leaching. Cover crops can increase plant N update and decrease nitrate accumulation and thus reduce nitrous oxide production through denitrification but the results on overall GHG emissions have not been consistent.

What does this show?

There are a number of animal and manure management practices that are feasible and can effectively reduce methane and nitrous oxide from manure storage and for land application. Therefore due to numerous interactions at the animal, storage and land applications phases of the manure management process, GHG mitigation practices should not be evaluated individually in isolation but as a component of the livestock production system as a whole.

Source: Montes et al (2014) Mitigation of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from animal operations: II. A review of manure management mitigation options, J. Anim.Sci. 2013.91:5070-5094

25.09.15 Nitrous oxide emissions and manure management

So for the last couple of blogs looking at nitrous oxide before we move onto something else, a big subject which hasn’t really been tackled yet is manure management and the impact of manure storage and application on nitrous oxide.

Animal manure is a nutrient resource containing most of the essential elements required for plant growth and can be a significant source of N in both intensive and subsistence production systems.

Applying this manure to fields (as we all know) has numerous benefits including building soil organic matter levels, microbial biomass and mineralisation rates, and improves soil tilth, water holding capacity, oxygen content and fertility, as well as reducing soil erosion, reduces nutrient leaching and increases yields. There is also the added benefits that come from using these manures as a source of fertiliser and when this is synchronised with crop requirements and uptake is a very cost effective resource of nutrients.

If these materials are not managed correctly however they can present environmental risks, including emitting Nitrous oxide (alongside methane and ammonia), which we want to avoid, not only because of its deleterious effects in terms of our GHG credentials, but also (more importantly from the farmer’s perspective) because it’s a source of nitrogen that we could potentially use to improve yield but is being lost to the environment.

Nitrous oxide emissions from manure

Nitrous oxide emissions from soil application of manure are a major contributor to total GHG emissions from agriculture.

Direct emissions of nitrous oxide from manure storage are small when compared with methane emissions. For nitrous oxide emissions to occur, manure must first be handled aerobically (with oxygen present) when ammonium or organic Nitrogen is converted to nitrate and nitrite during nitrification and then handled anaerobically (without oxygen) when the nitrate and nitrite are reduced to nitrogen and nitric oxide through denitrification.

Most of the nitrous oxide resulting from manure is produced in the soils where manures have been applied. The bits of the nitrogen cycle that produce nitrous oxide (bad) are the microbes present in the soil working on the manure under aerobic conditions (part of the natural process that can’t really get away from) and partial denitrification under anaerobic conditions (what we want to try and minimise), as it is the anaerobic conditions which produces more nitrous oxide.

Manure contains most of what it needs to kick-start the processes in the soil of nitrification and denitrification. However these processes are pretty fickle beasts and the rate of them occurring will depend on the amount and type of nitrogen present, the available carbon sources, water content, temperature of the soil and what bugs are there to work on the manure.

As you may be appreciating it’s a fairly complex system which depends on lots of variables as to where the emissions occur and whether its nitrous oxide, ammonia or methane that is the main issue. As nitrous oxide is emitted as a result of different microbial processes the rate of emissions is highly variable. This causes a bit of a problem when looking for those nice ‘one size fits all’ answers which we all want which will tell us how to minimise the emissions of nitrous oxide when we are applying manures (with all the great agronomic and economic benefits that occur).

What does the research say?

Scientists have been puzzling with this for a while, and clever computer models alongside very sophisticated measuring and monitoring equipments, means that it is now possible to look at how effective different mitigation practices are at controlling nitrous oxide and look at the effect this may have on the livestock production system.

However there is a further complication (nothing is ever simple).

Due to the nature of the processes that result in methane and nitrous oxide being produced, some practices that result in the reduction of methane emissions (yay!), increase nitrous oxide emissions. For example, one practice advocated by some is the aeration of slurry and manure during storage which reduces methane emissions. However if the aeration rate is sufficient to create an aerobic environment, the rate of nitrous oxide emission will often be increased.

It’s an area where we are not completely there yet. There is still much to learn about the benefits (and potential drawbacks) of particular mitigation practices, the effect of combining mitigation practices, the response of environmental indicators and the effect on the environmental and financial performance of the farm as a whole.

What this report does highlight is some indications of where efforts should be addressed.

To save the blog being massive, I’ll delve into some of these next week.

Source: Montes et al (2014) Mitigation of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from animal operations: II. A review of manure management mitigation options, J. Anim.Sci. 2013.91:5070-5094

14.09.15 Personal experience with global warming drives mitigation behaviour

A number of studies have shown that the public misunderstand global warming. Taking a fresh approach, this study investigated the willingness of the public to take part in activities that mitigate climate change. An international survey of 24 countries revealed that this is strongly related to personal experiences with global warming. The authors say linking actions to benefits could encourage climate change mitigation behaviour.

While we know public perception of climate science is often inaccurate, understanding of what causes beneficial behaviour change is less complete. The factors that influence the decision to take part in actions to mitigate global warming include not only knowledge but also beliefs in personal experience of unusual weather, general beliefs and worldviews.

In this study, researchers conducted an international survey to determine the factors that are most influential. The US-based researchers administered an online survey to 25 samples of participants in 24 different countries, gaining a total of 11 614 responses. The survey was designed to measure six key factors: belief in global warming, environmental worldview, self-efficacy (an individual’s judgement of their ability to have a significant effect on outcome), personal experience with global warming, belief in the free market system, and knowledge about the causes of global warming.

The survey also asked the participants about their general intentions to mitigate climate change, and willingness to take part in specific activities. General intentions were measured by statements such as “I plan to take some actions to stop global warming”, while specific behaviours included “Concerns about global warming guide my voting behaviour” and “I intend to carpool and drive less”.

Most samples endorsed general action more than specific actions, although several Asian countries did not follow this trend. In all samples, the most endorsed specific action involved adjusting home temperature (e.g. using less heating in the winter), followed by changes to commuting and then voting.

The researchers next analysed which factors best predicted intention to act, both for general and specific actions. Most significantly, they found that personal experience (e.g. “Changes in global warming have impacted my life already”) is most important in predicting specific action, while self-efficacy is more important for general intention to act.

The authors say this is because intention to perform concrete actions is strongly linked to personal experiences that highlight the value of these actions, while thinking about general mitigation action is more associated with abstract or ‘big-picture’ thinking and therefore feelings of self-efficacy.

The three factors most important in predicting action were pro-environmental worldview, personal experience with global warming, and feelings of self-efficacy.The least important predictors were gender, age, belief in the free market system, political affiliation and knowledge of global warming.

The researchers also found that differences between individuals within samples were greater than differences between samples, suggesting that willingness to take part in mitigation actions (and its drivers) does not much differ between nations and cultures. Importantly, this indicates that climate change communication schemes could be used across the world with little variation.

The authors provide recommendations on how to use their findings to encourage climate change mitigation behaviour among citizens.

For example, the study found that while most respondents were generally willing to mitigate climate change, they were much less willing to perform specific actions. The authors say this common problem could be tackled by highlighting the personal effects of future climate changes, such as more frequent flooding or the later blossoming of plants in a local area.

While personal experiences foster one’s perceived value of mitigation action, the random variability of experiences does not generate consistent (sustained) action that is needed. The researchers suggest that communication and education strategies focus on additional (or alternative) sources to foster perceived value in mitigation action.

For instance, as different locations will experience varying effects of climate change, which may increase variability in public opinion. An alternative way to motivate mitigation behaviour could be to link actions to their effects on the wider environment. The authors say this would improve ‘causal mental models’ and help the public to visualise the effects of their actions.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy Briefing, 10th September 

14.09.15 The effect of fertiliser formulation on poorly drained soils

Spreading N-based fertilisers on grassland can increase greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) such as nitrous oxide (NO2) and ammonia (NH3-N) resulting in lower amounts of N available for uptake by the plant. Researchers from Teagasc have been investigating how N fertiliser formulations can affect GHG emissions and grass yield. Across three sites of differing soil types, researchers examined GHG emissions and grass yield response to calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN), urea and urea treated with urease or nitrification inhibitors.

In wet conditions, switching from CAN to urea resulted in a dramatic reduction in NO2 emissions but this increased NH3-N loss, with 25% of nitrogen applied being lost as NH3-N. This rise in NH3-N, however, was mitigated by the use of a urease inhibitor. Across the three sites and multiple years there was limited effects of fertiliser formulation on grass yield, however, on poorly-draining soil in wet conditions, the use of urea with an inhibitor resulted in a greater proportion of N being recovered by the sward.

The effect of fertiliser formulation on fertiliser recovery

Source: AHDB Dairy website, Harty et al. (2015) British Grassland Society 12th Research Conference Proceedings p. 53 - 54 

28.08.15 The debate over nitrous oxide emissions from cover crops

A few weeks ago (back when the sun was shining and there was hope that we would have a nice hot summer!) I was getting ready for presenting at the National Organic Combinable Crops event and sorting out information to accompany the carbon footprint that we did of the host farm. One of the issues that I was trying to get my head around to explain was the GHG emissions associated with cover crops.

Indeed on the host farm leguminous green manures (mainly red clover) contributed 17% of emissions through nitrous oxide released. In organic systems (as the host farm was) legumes are often seen as the highest risk of nitrous oxide emissions. When the legume is incorporated and the soil bugs mineralise the Nitrogen, it is then available. It is this flush of Nitrogen that needs to be properly managed to be fully utilised by the following crop to avoid losing the Nitrogen that has been biologically fixed.

During researching my talk I found that the area of nitrous oxide emissions from using cover crops was something which needed further research and conflicting results had been found. As this month is nitrous oxide month, it was something that I was keen to come back to and explore further.

The rest of this blog is based on information from a research paper that was published at the end of 2014 (and can be accessed here). This paper has performed a meta-analysis on existing research to try and draw some conclusions as to the dynamics of nitrous oxide emissions from cover crops and how we can maximise the positive benefits that arise from using these crops and minimise the potential losses.

The well-known benefits of cover crops

There are many environmental benefits to incorporating cover crops into rotations including their potential to reduce soil erosion, reduce nitrate leaching losses, build soil organic matter levels (which leads to an increase in soil carbon stocks), reduce pest and weed pressures and provide a biologically fixed source of Nitrogen to the following crop.

How do they impact on Nitrous oxide emissions?

The net impact of cover crops on nitrous oxide emissions is not well understood. Nitrous oxide is emitted as a natural part of soil ecosystem function; however the extent to which it is emitted depends on various factors. These include the available mineral Nitrogen content, the soil water content, the availability of carbon and the physical structure of the soil. Cover crops can affect these factors and as such impact on the amount of nitrous oxide that is emitted.

For example when a cover crop is growing, it can suck up soil mineral Nitrogen (thus minimising the risk of ‘excess’ nitrogen in the soil to turn into N2O), as well as decreasing soil water through transpiration. Once the cover crop is cut, the mulching effect of residues on the soil surface can increase soil water (and thus the potential for the anaerobic conditions needed for denitrification and N2O emissions), depending on weather conditions. Also these residues decomposing on the soil surface can temporarily immobilise soil Nitrogen, and then increase carbon (from the residues) and Nitrogen which will affect emissions as well (it’s all very complicated!).

This research looked at three different suggestions as to the dynamics of cover crops and nitrous oxide emissions. These were:

That the type of cover crop would affect the nitrous oxide emissions (whether it was a nitrogen fixing legume or not). Legumes logically should have a greater potential to increase nitrous oxide emissions due to the fact that they are biologically fixing Nitrogen from the atmosphere.

Rainfall and the residues themselves would have an impact – because the denitrification process (which emits N2O) requires anaerobic conditions, if the soil is waterlogged then oxygen will be lacking, and a carbon source (provided by the residues).

Timing of measurements of N2O would be influential on what the different research papers had concluded. As mentioned earlier, minimising N2O emissions from cover crops has a lot to do with achieving synchrony of Nitrogen and managing the ‘flush’ of nitrogen that comes when the cover crop is incorporated – if measurements are taken during this flush then the emissions will be higher than if they are taken earlier in the growing season.

What did the research find?

After analysing lots of results, there were some conclusions that we can use to help us in understanding the dynamics of nitrous oxide emissions.

Denitrification – this process (which produces N2O) requires a Carbon and a Nitrogen source

Types of cover crop – was found to have an impact on nitrous oxide emissions. Because cover crops take up Nitrogen that might otherwise be lost to leaching, or because legumes fix nitrogen, cover crops may increase soil Nitrogen availability during decomposition and may increase the amount of nitrate available for the denitrification process (and thus nitrous oxide emissions from the field).More research is needed in this area.

When you measure it – as suggested earlier, depending on when you measure emissions the amount will change. Interestingly when looking at longer term experiments this study suggested that there is a net neutral effect of a cover crop on Nitrous oxide emissions, even if particular periods of the year see larger impacts. Again more research needed.The analysis revealed that the highest emissions occurred during the cover crop decomposition period, as the additional carbon added from the residues, with the available mineral Nitrogen led to high emissions of N2O. Emissions from the cover crop growth period were found to be the lowest of all the measurement periods. This suggests that the nitrogen uptake by cover crops holding that nitrogen over the risk period creates a larger sink than a source of nitrous oxide emissions or nitrate leaching.

To incorporate or not? The N2O emissions from studies that ploughed in cover crops rather than leaving them on the surface were significantly higher.Incorporation of cover crop residues contributes to an increase in Nitrous oxide emissions.

The effect of rainfall – Cover crops may alter the soil water status and thus the potential for anaerobic conditions (and denitrification) which normally follow intense rainfall events. Studies looked at had different responses to rainfall, however this report concluded that regardless of the cover crop type, above a certain threshold of rainfall a field with a cover crop is more susceptible to nitrous oxide emissions than one without.

Soil Organic carbon – The study found inconclusive evidence that cover crop biomass was an important factor controlling N2O emissions.

The effect of cover crops on global warming potential – Nitrate lost through leaching from fields is subject to denitrification and Nitrous oxide emissions off-site. Therefore given the ability of cover crops to reduce nitrate leaching losses, cover crops may contribute to an overall decrease in net global warming potential.

What did they conclude?

This is one of the most comprehensive analyses of research to date, but in some ways it throws up more questions than it answers. This highlights the fact that this subject needs more research done into the impact of different cover crops within rotations and the effect on emissions from management of these crops. It also shows that there isn't ‘one size fits all’ answer to these questions, due to the diversity of agricultural systems, crop rotations, soil types, weather (and all the other factors) each system is unique.

This study did conclude that from the literature analysed cover crops increased N2O emissions from the soil surface in 60% of published observations while cover crops decreased nitrous oxide emissions from the soil surface in 40% of studies.

Legume cover crops had higher relative N2O emissions at low N rates and lower emissions at high N rates whereas nitrous oxide emissions from non-legume cover crops increased as N rate increased.

Cover crops on average only lead to a small or negligible increase in N2O emissions when measured for time periods of one year or greater.

More research is needed!

Source: Basche et al (2014), Do cover crops increase or decrease nitrous oxide emissions? A meta - analysis, Journal of Soil and Water Conservation

07.08.15 Sustainable crop and animal production to help mitigate nitrous oxide emissions

The information in the blog below comes from a paper published last year which examines the different management options that are available to farmers to improve nitrogen use efficiency within farm production systems. To read the full paper please click here.

A common fact that we are presented with, which frames this debate is the need to feed more people with more food using less resources. Nitrogen plays a big part in this, as nitrogen is a key component of crop growth and increased yield, which will be needed to feed more people. In the past, increased food production has been made possible by the production and use of commercial Nitrogen fertiliser (with associated increases in emissions).

In order to address the current need for sustainable intensification, nitrogen use efficiency is a key component. How we increase crop productivity at the same time as protecting natural resources and the environment must be intrinsically linked with managing nutrients more efficiently and minimising losses.

Mitigation challenges

Improving Nitrogen use by crops

When crops are grown under laboratory conditions, the amount of nitrogen which is taken up by the plant ranges from 45-65%, while on-farm the plant nitrogen uptake (as a percentage of applied nitrogen) is often below 40%. This demonstrates that there are opportunities to alter management practices to more efficiently use Nitrogen inputs to reduce N losses that affect direct and indirect nitrous oxide emissions.

The issue is not as simple as just reducing the amount of N fertiliser that is applied, as this would jeopardise sustainable food production.

The grand challenge is how to improve Nitrogen use efficiency that leads to reduced nitrous oxide emissions while also achieving greater N effectiveness in crop and livestock production (i.e. more food output per unit of N input).

Other challenges exist with improving efficiency in that there is no single management change that can bring about both increased crop productivity and reduced nitrous oxide emissions equally well across different soil and climatic conditions.

Another compounding issue is that direct nitrous oxide losses are equivalent on average to about 1% of the nitrogen applied (so not a massive economic loss). To gain greater interest and be more likely to achieve significant reduction in both direct and indirect nitrous oxide emissions, it will be necessary to focus more broadly on practices which lead simultaneously to greater nitrogen use efficiency and effectiveness.

Nitrogen losses that occur through volatilisation of ammonia (from spreading slurry and manure on warm days, or application of urea), and nitrate run off (when Nitrogen is applied and the crop is not actively taking it up), leaching and drainage pathways may receive more attention as these losses represent a greater economic loss to the farmer than direct nitrous oxide emissions.

Nutrient management

Research shows that ‘mismatched timing of Nitrogen availability with crop need is probably the single greatest contributor to excess N loss in annual cropping systems.’ There is a global initiative that details the ‘4R Nutrient Stewardship initiative, which is based on the principle of using the right nutrient source, at the right rate, right time and in the right place to achieve the basic economic, social and environmental elements of sustainability.

It is also important to remember that adapting management to mitigate losses of nitrous oxide must be balanced with other considerations.One of my commonly used adages is that we work within complex biological systems, and as such it is important to not simply ‘swap pollutants’ between leaching and gaseous losses.

Use of precision farming technology

An increasing number of farmers and crop advisors around the world have access to GPS resources and GIS. This along with advances in technologies may make it increasingly possible to better match N rates and times of application with are sensitive to in season crop N demands.

The use of Nitrogen sensing technology aims to better match crop nitrogen needs with in-season sensitivity that leads to improved Nitrogen use efficiency, and greater farm profitability.

American studies have shown that using Nitrogen sensors across 16 trial sites could potentially save farmers 10-50kg of nitrogen per hectare on maize.

The uptake of these technologies by farmers is now well underway, indeed this paper states that the Yara N-Sensor was being used on more than 1.2 million hectares of the total 104 million cropland hectares in the EU-27.

Not synchronising nitrogen applications with crop needs has been cited as potentially the single greatest contributor to excess nitrogen loss in annual cropping systems. However achieving synchrony in nitrogen supply may not always reduce cumulative nitrous oxide emissions, instead, management practices that influence the rate of nitrification and soil nitrite accumulation, may be most likely to reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

Cover crops

Winter cover crops help provide soil cover and thus minimise erosion, help to build organic matter levels (and soil carbon), and help in the capture and retention of excess inorganic nitrogen. However there are some studies which suggest that in some soils cover crops stimulate and increase nitrous oxide emissions because of the release of carbon and nitrogen from crop residues (I will be writing another blog on this subject in a couple of weeks). Site variables including soil type, irrigation, variety and mix of cover crop, soil structural stability and organic matter Nitrogen mineralisation will all impact on the level of nitrous oxide that is emitted.

Management of livestock

One of the most promising ways for many livestock growers to enhance nitrogen use efficiency is to more optimally manage the protein content of the diet. In ruminants, the bulk of excreted Nitrogen is in the urine, while in pigs it is present in urine and faeces. Nutritionists can aim to make adjustments in crude protein levels in the diet to match animal nutritional requirements and significantly reduce ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions. Taking full account of manure nitrogen content, and maintaining optimum stocking rates, as well as the inclusion of clover within pastures can potentially raise the whole farm N use efficiency from 30% to nearer 65% which reduces Nitrogen losses and improves farm profits.

Management of manure

Incorporating manures greatly reduces ammonia emissions, with leaves a more ‘potent’ product, which is then more susceptible to losses of nitrous oxide. However when the manure is incorporated, and ammonia losses reduced, effectively a smaller amount of that manure is needed to provide the crop’s nutrient requirements and therefore the potential for nitrous oxide production is reduced.

This trade-off is often seen, and reducing losses of ammonia is important (since these losses indirectly emit nitrous oxide).

Improving nutrient use efficiency in livestock production systems will require site specific and targeted combinations of genetic improvements, feed planning and rationing for utilisation, and improved storage, handling and application of manure.

An emphasis on increased crop or animal outputs per unit of Nitrogen input (more efficient use of inputs) will help nitrous oxide emissions and also safeguard natural resources and improve profits. As with all agricultural issues though, we can’t look at nitrogen in isolation, research, policies and advice need to consider how to improve other essential nutrients, water and production as they all impact on nitrogen use efficiency.

Source: Agriculture: sustainable crop and animal production to help mitigate nitrous oxide emisisons

06.08.15 Field Effectiveness of nitrification inhibitors

Enhanced efficiency fertilisers (including nitrification inhibitors and urease inhibitors and slow release fertilisers have been developed to increase the efficiency of fertiliser use by crops. Currently Nitrogen use efficiency is fairly low from what is applied to what the crop takes up, as such research has been targeted to try and increase the efficiency percentage and minimise the risk of losses of nitrogen (either through nitrate leaching or nitrous oxide emissions).

Different compounds

Nitrification inhibitors are compounds which delay the bacterial oxidation of NH4+ (ammonium) by depressing the activities of nitrifiers in the soil.

Urease inhibitors are compounds that delay the hydrolysis of urea.

Slow release fertilisers show the rate of nutrient release through coating or chemical modification of the fertiliser itself.

What do they do?

Science has studied these compounds intensively and findings indicate that they can be effective in increasing nitrogen use efficiency and have other benefits such as reducing labour and fuel costs and reducing the incidence of nitrate leaching. The information below comes from a review paper which looks at different experiments on these compounds and tries to draw some conclusions as to their effectiveness in the field.

The IPCC 3rd Assessment report confirmed that management of Nitrogen Fertiliser by the use of Nitrification inhibitors, slow release fertiliser and organic manure could tentatively cut nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen fertiliser use by 30% on a global scale.  The next (4th ) Assessment report looking at nutrient management including the technologies described above in more detail and concluded that the mean mitigation potential of nitrous oxide through nutrient management was 0.07tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare per year.

What has the research looked at

Nitrification inhibitors have been the most widely studied as a mitigation option for nitrous oxide emission from agricultural soils. There have been some studies that have looked at the use of polymer coated, and sulphur coated fertilisers and a few using urease inhibitors.

Despite all these published field experiments, it is difficult to draw general conclusions because the performance varies depending on soil and climatic conditions and field management strategies. The authors of the paper looked at different studies and categorised results using different land use and type of fertiliser applied. This study also only included data from field experiments (rather than ones in a lab that were grown in pots).

What did they find out?

On average nitrification inhibitors significantly reduced nitrous oxide emissions compared with conventional fertilisers. The effect of nitrification inhibitors on nitrous oxide emissions also varied with land use type, with grassland having the best average reduction in N2O emissions of 60%. The coated fertiliser also significantly reduced N2O emissions compared with conventional fertilisers. When the study looked at urease inhibitors, the effect on emissions was not significantly different from the control treatments.

How do nitrification inhibitors work?

Both nitrification and denitrification are important pathways for nitrous oxide production in soil. They work by inhibiting ammonium monooxygenase, thereby blocking the first reaction or ammonium to nitrite. By minimising the rate of nitrification until the primary crop is in its log phase of growth. Nitrification inhibitors can give the crop a better opportunity to absorb nitrate and increase nitrogen use efficiency. By suppressing nitrification, inhibitors potentially reduce subsequent denitrification and nitrate leaching, thus reducing N2O emissions. The effectiveness of nitrification inhibitors was found to be more consistent compared with coated fertilisers.

What affected the field experiments?

Environmental factors such as temperature, alter the effectiveness of nitrification inhibitors in the field. They also differ in terms of how water soluble they are and their volatility. One product used in America found that using it:

·         Increased crop yield by 7%

·         Improved soil nitrogen retention by 28%

·         Reduced nitrate leaching by 16%

·         Reduced nitrous oxide and methane emissions by 51% (compared with conventional N fertiliser) 

Practical considerations with Nitrification Inhibitors

In general higher nitrous oxide emissions were observed from grassland than the other land uses in the studies. Nitrification inhibitors were more effective in reducing nitrous oxide emissions from grassland compared with their effect on other crop types.

Another advantage of nitrification inhibitors is that they can be used with both chemical and organic fertilisers, whereas coatings can only be used with bagged Nitrogen. Nitrification Inhibitors are effective in reducing nitrous oxide emissions from chemical and organic fertilisers and the consistent effect indicates that they are a potent mitigation option for future emissions.

Coated fertilisers (PCF)

These work by releasing nutrients by diffusion through a semi-permeable polymer membrane and the release rate can be controlled by varying the composition and thickness of the coating. PCFs can be effective in increasing nitrogen use efficiency and can substitute for split applications thus reducing the requirement for multiple field operations and in turn reducing labour and fuel costs.

When nitrogen release from PCFs is well synchronised with plant demand, PCFs have the potential to reduce nitrogen losses to the environment, such as nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.  In contrast, nitrogen use efficiency can be reduced significantly and environmental losses increased when nitrogen released from PCF doesn’t match plant demand. The effect of PCFs on nitrous oxide mitigation showed varying results depending on land use, crop and soil type.

Urease inhibitors

These slow the conversion of urea to ammonium and hence reduce the concentration of ammonium present in the soil solution (and the potential for that ammonium to be volatilised as ammonia). Together with uptake by plants, a lower concentration of ammonium in the soil can result in less nitrogen potentially undergoing subsequent nitrification and denitrification. One of the drawbacks of urease inhibitors is that they only delay the hydrolysis of the urea and the urea will eventually be hydrolysed and become ammonia. These compounds have not been as widely tested as the other two groups of inhibitors, and as such more studies are needed.

Take up by the industry

Although these products have been well researched, there is limited uptake of them in the field. At the moment, the uptake of the nitrification inhibitor technology is relatively slow, but that will change in the next 10 or 20 years as policies are developed that try to manage the nitrogen losses that are occurring and improve nitrogen use in the field. As farmers taking account of application timing, source of nitrogen being applied, application method, soil texture, and tillage are all factors that should be evaluated to determine how efficiently Nitrogen is being used in the system.

Source: Akiyama, H et al, (2009) Evaluation of effectiveness of enhanced efficient fertilisers as mitigation options for N2O and NO emissions from agricultural soils; meta - analysis

31.07.15 4 for 1000: A new program for carbon sequestration in agriculture

Source: French Food in the US

Agriculture can and must be part of the solution to climate change. The French Minister of Agriculture, Stéphane Le Foll, and Ambassador for Paris Climate 2015, Laurence Tubiana, emphasized this imperative at a conference that took place in Paris on April 27, 2015, during which they introduced the carbon sequestration program for agriculture, named “4 per 1000.”

What is the programme about?

This program aims to adapt agricultural practices with the goal of storing carbon more efficiently in the soil. According to Jean-François Soussana, Scientific Director for Environment of the French National Institute for Agronomical Research (INRA), an annual increase of “4 per thousand” (0.4%) each year of organic matter in soil would be enough to compensate for the global emissions of greenhouse gases. Indeed, soil is a veritable reservoir for carbon; it contains 2.6 times more carbon than the atmosphere thanks to plants that siphon carbon from the air and deposit it into the soil once dead. But through most agricultural practices, the soil lets its stock of carbon escape into the air. On average, cultivated soils around the world have lost 50 to 70% of their initial carbon stock, according to Jean-François Soussana. But certain agricultural practices can reverse this trend, fostering carbon-rich soils that will in turn be better suited for production. According to Stephan Le Foll, this program will “reconcile food security and climate change.”

Stephan Le Foll and Laurence Tubiana presented a work schedule for the researchers participating in this international program, which details the actions to be taken leading up to the climate conference in December 2015 in Paris.

Practical ways to build carbon

The following agricultural practices are recommended by the French National Institute for Agronomical Research (INRA) for fighting global warming:

Reducing the prevalence of chemical fertilizers by best management practices as well as by more accurately predicting crop yields and planning nutrient applications. This would reduce the emissions of nitrogen oxide in particular.

Using legumes during crop rotations. Legumes are able to harness nitrogen from the air and use it in the soil for plant growth. They act like a natural fertilizer for the subsequent crop in the rotation, which will then require fewer chemical fertilizers.

Developing no-till cultural practices. If not tilled, the soil retains its structure and stores carbon more efficiently. Furthermore, this practice saves fuel.

Planting more cover crops. It is preferable to plant crops instead of leaving the soil bare. This can help limit the emissions of nitrogen oxide.

Developing Agro-forestry: planting trees is a good way to utilize carbon from the air, and offers many beneficial effects to the crops.

Improving the management of grasslands by prolonging the pasture season, reducing fertilization, among other strategies.

Reducing the emissions of methane and nitrogen by changing the diet of cattle.

Retaining the methane by utilising anaerobic digestion.

Reducing the use of fossil fuels on the farm by improving insulation and ventilation in livestock buildings and greenhouses, for instance.

For more information on soil carbon why not check out the dedicated section on the FCCT pages? 

29.07.15 Inventories and scenarios of nitrous oxide emissions

As the third most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas, as well as the largest remaining anthropogenic stratospheric ozone depleting substance currently emitted, nitrous oxide (N2O) is one of the most important forms of nitrogen pollution.

How we mitigate and manage N2O emissions requires an understanding of where the sources of N2O are and how they may increase this century. One of the issues with N2O is that it is a by-product of several fundamental (and critical) reactions of the N cycle. As agricultural land has expanded and land management has advanced (including the use of legumes as N fixers), the N cycle has been altered. Another big impact has been the development of the Haber Bosch process, which plays a central role in feeding the world’s rapidly increasing population.

This growth in man-made fixed N has led to an unintended increase in global N pollution, including N2O emissions driven largely by the fact that mismatch between crop N demand and soil N supply frequently leads to N losses. It is impossible to completely eliminate global N pollution particularly from agriculture, its largest source.

This blog comes from a paper which tries to quantify the amount of N2O emitted from various sources, looks at how those emissions are calculated, what the common ways of measuring N2O are, and tries to project what will happen to the levels of N2O emissions under different management scenarios in the future. To read the full paper please click here.

Natural emissions sources

There are a range of measuring options used to assess the levels of emissions from different areas. ‘Bottom up estimation uses field based measurements and ‘top down’ estimations are based on measurements from the atmosphere and models.

There are lots of caveats and supposition to the figures as well as uncertainties, however both accounting approaches (whether you are basing measurements from the field or the atmosphere) suggest that natural emissions were and probably still are between 10-12 Tg of N2O per year.

Anthropogenic emissions (since 1850)

Difficulties in accounting strategies

Again top down and bottom up approaches can be applied to N2O emissions derived from human activities. Protocol has been developed by the IPCC for counties to estimate their N2O emissions by emissions factors (bottom up approach which calculates the amount of N2O emitted per unit of activity). Within agriculture, emissions factors are used to calculate the direct emissions from soils, amounts of fertiliser N that is leached into watercourses and volatilised as ammonia or N2O, as well as the indirect N2O emissions from downstream (which can be substantial). For example emissions from coastal, estuarine or riverine waters are estimated to be ~9% of total anthropogenic sources, although the original source of most of this N is from agricultural applications in the field.

This method (Tier 1, IPCC) has a lot of inaccuracies though and is difficult to apply across diverse systems. As with biological processes, relationships between variables are not always simple and studies have discovered that it is more likely to be non-linear than linear relationships. The non-linear relationship is likely the result of large increases in N2O emissions once N application rates are in excess of plant demands.

Advances are underway in terms of developing a more robust accounting method. Countries that have sufficient data are permitted (under IPCC Tier 2) to calculate more specific emissions and developments of validated biogeochemical models look towards Tier 3. There are new bits of kit (including laser technology) which can measure fluxes of N2O and these will all help with emission factors but it will always be a challenge due to the large spatial and temporal variation.

Providing an average for the UK doesn’t take into account the diversity of farming systems that exist, let alone the unique relationships between soil type, climate management and enterprise which makes every farm an individual entity (and probably incomparable).

Improvements in the quality of activity data for each county, including fertiliser application rates, livestock production and manure handling procedures will aid in the accuracy of estimates.

Emissions from agriculture (some headline figures)

Picture source: California Department of Food and Agriculture, Crop N uptake and partitioning 

Agriculture is the largest source of anthropogenic N2O emissions, responsible for 66% of total.

Emissions estimates include direct soil emissions from N fert and manure applications and indirect emissions from downstream or downwind waterbodies and soils after nitrate leaches away from fields and after N emitted from fields as ammonia or Nitrogen gas is deposited back.

Also included are N2O emissions resulting from crop residues, manure management, cultivation of organic soils and crop biological N fixation.

The central factor responsible for agricultural N2O emissions is a lack of synchronisation between crop N demand and soil N supply with an average 50% of N applied to soils not being taken up by the crop.  This is something that needs addressing.

Other sector contributions

Industry and fossil fuel combustion (responsible for about 15% of total anthropogenic N2O emissions.

Biomass burning (~11% of total gross N2O emissions)

Waste water, aquaculture and other sources

Projections for future emissions

So as you can imagine, as we can’t reliably assess what’s going on now, it becomes incredibly difficult to predict future scenarios. Especially when there are lots of things that could change including population growth, rates of food waste, nutrient use efficiency, land use change, climate change and other variables.

Four sets of published N2O emission scenarios have been looked at to characterise the range of future anthropogenic emissions.

Scenarios looked at from research

Business as usual – if we don’t mitigate any emissions and continue ‘business as usual’ then emissions are set to increase by ~83% based on 2005 levels.

Moderate mitigation scenarios – if moderate mitigation methods were achieved an increase of 26% compared to 2005 would be possible.

Concerted mitigation – would lead to emissions reductions on average per year of 1.8Tg N2O to 2020, with a reduction of 57% by 2050.

It is important to remember however that these projections are based on 2005 figures and since then significant differences have been seen. So far (up to 2013 when the study used the data from) actual global N2O emissions have been closer to Business as usual trajectories rather than the mitigation scenario which research was expecting.

What does this all mean for agriculture?

Agriculture currently accounts for 56-81% of gross anthropogenic N2O emissions. Some N2O emissions associated with food production are inevitable, but future N2O emissions from agriculture will be determined by several factors including population, dietary habits, and agricultural management to improve N use efficiency.

Another rising issue is the growing demand for biofuels on future N2O emissions which is uncertain depending on types of plants grown, their nutrient management and the land resource needed. More research will help to full these current knowledge gaps. Accounting methodologies are not fully developed and further research is needed, however what we can do as farmers is try and look at N balances and flows in crop rotations and try and ensure synchrony between N supply and crop demand as much as possible.

Source: Davidson, E. and Kanter, D. Inventories and scenarios of nitrous oxide emissions,  Environ. Res. Lett. 9 (2014) 105012

27.07.15 Global best practice guidelines for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock

The Livestock Research Group (LRG) of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GRA) and Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform have joined forces to compile information about greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation options currently available, and a roadmap of emerging options based on current research, to help make progress on meeting global food demand while reducing the food industry’s contribution to global climate change.

The document summarises current best practices ready for implementation at the farm level, as well as emerging options at various stages of research to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of livestock production across a range of farm systems.

The document covers intervention options for animal feed and nutrition, genetics and breeding, rumen modification, animal health, manure, and grassland management. It provides a readily accessible guide to current best practices that can help reduce emissions intensity of livestock production, but also outlines current areas of active research that offer opportunities for industry to engage with the science sector to help expand the range of options and their effectiveness in different farm systems.

The document was commissioned by the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) on behalf of the LRG co-chairs and the SAI Platform.

Download the guidance here.

Source: Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse gasses

24.07.15 Compost and climate change: a novel mitigation strategy?

Native soils are thought to take up more of the greenhouse gas methane than land used for farming. This study shows that, while agriculture can exert an adverse impact on soil methane uptake, the application of soil conditioners like compost may compensate for loss of the methane sink function. The researchers propose new land management strategies based on this finding.

Agriculture has become the most dominant land use in Europe. Traditional landscapes have been transformed into modern, intensive agricultural land, notably owing to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. This entails the increased use of soil conditioners, biobased residues added to soil to improve its quality and fertility.

While the addition of these residues may make the land better for growing, it can also decrease the methane consumed by agroecosystems. This is of concern from a climate change perspective as methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential more than 30 times that of carbon dioxide. However, agricultural land does have the potential to take up methane, as well as emit it. Methanotrophic bacteria, which use methane as a source of carbon and energy, are found in wetland agricultural soils like rice paddies as well as dry (aerated) soils. While methanotrophs within rice paddies have been studied extensively, those in well-aerated soils have received little attention, as they are assumed to have a low capacity for methane.

This study is the first to properly test this assumption. The researchers measured methane uptake in two aerated soil types — sandy loam and clay — taken from two typical agricultural fields in the Netherlands. The researchers applied organic conditioners to the soil, then measured the effect on methane uptake. The conditioners tested were sewage sludge, aquatic plant material, compost, wood material and compressed beet leaves, added at amounts typical of intensive agricultural practice.

After being added to soil samples, the mixtures were incubated in a chamber for approximately two months. The researchers measured methane and carbon dioxide flows, as well as the rate at which methane was oxidised.

Their analysis revealed a surprising finding: the addition of the soil conditioners contributed to increased methane uptake. The researchers suggest the conditioners had this effect by increasing the nutrients available in the soil by introducing new methanotrophs, both of which can stimulate methane oxidation (although the latter by a lesser extent).

The researchers determined methane uptake rates at a range of methane concentrations using the untreated agricultural soils. The agricultural soils showed the ability to oxidise methane over a wide range of concentrations, from atmospheric levels to very high concentrations, but after treatment, methane consumption increased up to threefold higher than in the untreated soil.

Consistent in both soils, amendment with compost had the greatest effect, and was able to offset approximately 16% of net emitted carbon dioxide. Applying compost to agricultural soils could thus reduce the impact of carbon dioxide and methane emission — both of which are greenhouse gases.

The transformation of land for intensive agriculture is known to reduce methane uptake relative to natural landscapes. This study makes recommendations for management strategies to compensate for this. The authors suggest simple changes, such as the repeated application of compost, could reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. It is important to note that this research was conducted in the laboratory. The researchers therefore recommend field-based studies, as well as investigations of the impact of the intervention on nitrous oxide emission, another major greenhouse gas.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, 23rd July 2015

16.07.15 Theme of the month: Nitrous Oxide

So we are having a bit of a change this month and focussing for the next few weeks on nitrous oxide and the issues that arise from agriculture and land use that concern emissions.

The deal with Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous Oxide is over 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, so reducing the emissions of this gas is particularly important.

About 66% of man made nitrous oxide emissions come from agriculture. Within agriculture, nitrous oxide is emitted from the nitrogen in fertiliser, manure and slurries, and crop residues. The next most important sources are burning fossil fuels for energy and transport, making up 15% of emissions and forest fires and biomass cooking at 11%.

Warming impact

Although there is a far lower concentration of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it’s a important greenhouse gas for two reasons, its very efficient at absorbing energy and it stays in the atmosphere for a long time.

Agricultural sources of nitrous oxide

Nitrous Oxide (N2O) is produced naturally in soils through the microbial processes of denitrification. These natural emissions of N2O can be increased by a variety of agricultural practices and activities, including the use of synthetic and organic fertilisers, production of nitrogen-fixing crops, cultivation of high organic content soils, and the application of livestock manures and slurries to growing crops. All of these practices directly add additional nitrogen to soils, which can then be converted to N2O. Indirect additions of nitrogen to soils can also result in N2O emissions. Surface run-off and leaching of applied nitrogen into ground water and surface waters can also result in indirect additions of nitrogen to the soil. Nitrous oxide is also produced through the denitrification of the organic nitrogen in livestock manure and urine. The production of N2O from livestock manure is likely to depend on the composition of the manure and urine, the type of bacteria involved in the process, and the amount of oxygen and liquid in the manure system.

What can we do about it?

We can’t get away from the fact that nitrous oxide naturally occurs as part of the nitrogen cycle. However we can influence the amount of indirect emission by adapting the way that we manage our soils, manures, fertilisers and rotations. These are the things that we will be focussing on this month (and hopefully provide you with lots of useful insights for you to consider                                                                                        whilst sitting on your tractor for harvest!).

Sources: FCCT Toolkit, IPCC report, Davidson and Kanter, (2014) Inventories and scenarios of nitrous oxide; Environmental Research Letters

16.07.15 IYS2015 The Soil Atlas

The Soil Atlas 2015 presents facts and figures about earth, land and fields; its broad ranging significance and its current state in Germany, Europe and the world.

Price explosions and land speculation, increasing soil loss as a result of erosion and sealing, the effects of globalised agro-industry on production and food availability across the globe, the problems associated with the land distribution all impact on the management and risks for soils that we need to grow productive crops and feed the growing population.  These are all looked at in this new soil atlas.

The Soil Atlas provides insights into the current state of the soils on which we depend and highlights the threats posed to them in numerous illustrations and texts.

The Soil Atlas 2015 aims to inform and improve the ability of consumers to make informed decisions and sketches out pathways to a responsible agriculture and soil policy.

Download the atlas here. For more information on other soil resources for the International Year of Soils click here.

For more information on practical ways to build and maintain soils please visit the soils pages of the FCCT Toolkit.

10.07.15 Sustainable Intensification Platform, first newsletter out now

The Sustainable Intensification Research Platform (SIP) is a multi –partner research platform funded by Defra to explore the opportunities and risks for sustainable intensification, from a range of perspectives and at a range of scales across England and Wales.

There are three linked interdisciplinary research                                                                                          projects:

SIP 1: Integrated Farm Management for improved economic, environmental and social performance

SIP 2: Opportunities and risks for farming and the environment at a landscape scale

SIP 3: A scoping study on the influence of external drivers and actors on the sustainability and productivity of England and Welsh farming

The projects are being delivered by a consortium of academic research institutions as well as farming and environmental organisations.

What’s happening now

The first newsletter from the SIP network is now available to read. This edition of SIP Scene essentially forms an introduction to SIP and outlines the planned research as well as containing some wider thought pieces and views from in and around the Platform.

Download the current version here.

To make sure that you don’t miss out on subsequent versions, why not sign up to receive it straight to your inbox, by emailing Jennifer Preston at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

10.07.15 The living kingdom beneath our feet - video

Did you know that soils support more life beneath their surface than exists above? Soil is a living, dynamic resource at the surface of the earth. It is a complex habitat of mineral and organic particles; living organisms including plant roots, microbes, and larger animals; and pores filled with air or water. In a thimble full of soil—about a gram in weight—you can expect to find 100 million to 1 billion bacteria! This video explores the living kingdoms beneath our feet and helps illustrate the fact that soils support more life beneath their surface than what exists above the surface What is a living soil? It’s where the plant and the soil are one. This is symbiosis at its best.

09.07.15 Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change: 2015 Progress report to Parliament

This report compiled by the Committee on Climate Change was released at the end of June. This is the Committee’s first report to the new Parliament on the progress we are making towards meeting the UK’s emissions reductions targets.

Reducing emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change provide the opportunity to drive innovation, support growth, contribute to improved health, develop effective and resilient infrastructure and minimise the disruptions caused by flooding, water scarcity and other climate change risks.

The full report is available to view here, along with broken down technical reports into each of the main areas that have been studied. These areas are electricity, buildings transport, infrastructure and land and water management. Unsurprisingly I will be concentrating for the rest of this report on the information regarding agriculture, but if you are interested there is much more information on the others here.

What’s in the report?

The report deals with three things:

As assessment of progress to date to reduce GHG emissions and prepare for the impact of climate change including recommended actions

A more detailed report on the progress to date towards meeting C budgets and the UK’s statutory targets to reduce emissions in 2050 by at least 80% from 1990 levels.

Details on progress being made to prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

What are the main recommendations for agriculture?

The overarching recommendation is to preserve and enhance the country’s natural capital in order to sustain agricultural productivity in a changing climate, maximise Carbon sequestration and safeguard the natural environment.

Within the report there are firm measures to preserve fertility and organic content or agricultural soils to achieve the goal of all soils to be sustainably managed by 2030. As well as this, it is recommended to accelerate efforts to restore natural assets and counter long term declines in ecological conditions of the farm countryside, and review effectiveness of agri-environment schemes in controlling protected peat land sites that are of international importance in terms of their natural capital.

Climate change and the UK

The report concludes that the global climate is changing. Sea levels have risen about 20cm and the average surface temperature has risen by 0.8%. Greenhouse gas emissions affect lives in the UK. Action is needed in this Parliament to ensure the pace of emissions reductions accelerates whilst still supporting economic growth.

What action do we need?

Targeted and coordinated actions to adapt to climate change and reduce emissions are needed. Decisions in the new parliament will largely determine how much progress is made to 2030 and beyond. The Committee for Climate Change have recommended five main actions for parliament during this time.

Electricity – ensure the power sector can invest with a 10 year lead time

Buildings – Develop plans and policies that deliver low carbon heat and energy efficiency, whilst also addressing the increasing risk of heat stress and flooding

Transport – maintain support for the up-front costs of electric vehicles

Infrastructure – make decisions that help reduce emissions and improve the resilience of infrastructure networks and services during periods of extreme weather

Agriculture, land and water management- preserve and enhance the country’s natural capital

Latest progress

Emissions reductions progress – provisional emissions for 2014 indicate that UK domestic GHG emissions were 520 MtCo2e. This is an 8% decrease compared with 2013. Emissions are now 36% below 1990 levels. This large reduction across the economy was driven by falls in emissions from buildings, industry and power generation, many of which reflect one-off changes and uncertain factors rather than replicable trends. Also it is important to point out at this stage that emissions estimates for agriculture, waste and other non CO2 sources are not yet available.

Three priority areas (these aren’t agriculture specific)

Low carbon investment – many low carbon policies and funding streams have no certainty beyond the new few years, which prevents efficient investment in low carbon technologies and their supply chains which often have long lead times and payback periods.

Developing future options and innovations – many of the technologies that could contribute to meeting the 2050 target are still developing in terms of cost and performance. Governments need to maintain a clear future market for low carbon products.

Low carbon choices – how lifestyles continue to change and people make decisions will continue to determine whether we continue to reduce emissions.

What are the adaptation priorities for agriculture?

Improving the fertility of agricultural soils

Improving / maintaining the ecological condition of the farmed countryside

Water demand by agriculture

Flooding of agricultural land

Innovation / knowledge transfer; sharing of ideas and best practice

Maintaining / improving the ecological condition of terrestrial habitats (as well as freshwater, riparian and marine environment as well).

The deal with soils

This report makes a big deal on soils, and concludes that soil erosion and the loss of organic carbon is an important issue. It continues, “Agricultural soils are being degraded by intensive farming practices in some areas with deep ploughing, short rotations and exposed ground leading to soil erosion from wind and heavy rain. Although the soil erosion risk may be decreasing, the rate of loss is not sustainable as soil takes a long time to form. Water shortages and drier soil conditions put the profitability of farming in some areas at risk, reducing the productivity of UK farming.”

There is a governmental ambition for all soils to be used sustainably by 2030. At the moment this initiative is in its ‘evidence gathering’ phase until 2016 at which point it will be followed by a plan of action.

What happens now?

This report outlines how the committee on climate change considers the best way to be to reduce emissions and prepare for climate change cost effectively. The progress against these goals will be reviewed in 2016 and the government needs to respond to this report by October of this year (as well as work at how it is going to make up the shortfall for the 4th Carbon budget (2023 – 27).

What are the recommendations for agriculture?

Deliver the Smart Inventory

Defra is working to better understand and measure how biological systems and different farming practices impact on emissions. This will allow for a more sophisticated methodology for measuring, reporting and verifying emissions.

Strengthen the current voluntary approach to reduce agricultural emissions

Assess the effectiveness of the current Greenhouse gas action plan (GHGAP) scheme which is an industry led initiative which sets out how the agricultural industry is responding to the challenges of feeding a growing population with less impact.

Co-ordinate efforts across four nations

Ensuring that measures being implemented across the four nations are feasible, cost effective and consistent with low carbon budgets. No mean feat!

So watch this space to see what happens next. In the meantime to find out what you can do to reduce GHGs on your farm and improve efficiency and profit; why not check out the Toolkit?

09.07.15 Study: Crop Rotation Has Positive Impact On Soil Microbial Communities

A study authored by Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences assistant professor Lisa Tiemann is the first of its kind to show that crop rotations, in isolation from other management factors, can increase the functions performed by soil microbial communities that benefit plant growth. The findings were published online May 25 in Ecology Letters, a highly selective peer-reviewed journal.

Research for the project took place at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, an MSU research center in Hickory Corners, Michigan, northeast of Kalamazoo. In the paper, Tiemann and her co-authors address the relationships among crop rotational diversity, soil structure, microbial community structure and activity, and soil organic matter chemistry.

“Although the aboveground benefits of crop diversity have been well-documented, the belowground effects remain uncertain,” Tiemann said. “Understanding how crop diversity alters microbial community dynamics and the specific mechanisms controlling positive impacts of biodiversity belowground is critical for sustainable soil management."

A byproduct of increased pressure on soils from agricultural intensification is a negative impact on microbial diversity. Over-farming is problematic worldwide and can lessen soil’s ability to perform important ecosystem functions. Results may include threats to long-term food security, increases in greenhouse gas emission, flooding and a reduction in water quality.

Researchers sought to combat these challenges through crop rotation, restoring positive interactions above- and belowground by increasing biodiversity. The group concluded that a diverse set of crops can sustain soil biological communities, with positive effects on soil organic matter and soil fertility.

“The data we present are the first to support the hypothesis that increasing rotational diversity fundamentally changes microbial community structure and activity, with positive effects on aggregate formation and soil organic matter accrual,” Tiemann said. “These findings provide further support for the use of rotational diversity as a viable management practice for promoting agroecosystem sustainability.”

Tiemann, whose work is funded in part by MSU AgBioResearch, indicated that this knowledge can ultimately be used to help land managers determine how to maximize soil sustainability, particularly in low-input cropping systems.

Co-authors for the study are Stuart Grandy and Marshall McDaniel, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of New Hampshire; and Emily Atkinson and Erika Marin-Spiotta, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The study was supported by the USDA Soil Processes Program, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the U.S. National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research Program.

Source: Crop life 

02.07.15 The management of land to encourage and support the development of mycorrhizal fungi

As the earlier blog this week looked at the benefits that come from AMF developing associations within agricultural soils, this second blog is looking at how field and soil management impacts on these organisms. 

A quick recap, numerous studies have shown that arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi can provide direct benefits to host crops that lead to increased crop productivity. The benefits include increased nutrient uptake (especially phosphorus and zinc), and increased pathogen resistance. The positive benefits that are focussed on the soil include improved soil structure, increased water infiltration and retention and a reduced risk of soil erosion.

How do we manage them?

Mycorrhizal fungi can be found in abundance in most farm soils, but certain practices can reduce their ability to form associations with host crops. Abundance of AMF has been found to be negatively associated with intensive agricultural production. Tillage, high levels of nutrients (particularly phosphorus) and frequent fallow periods are all predicted to decrease the abundance of viable AMF propagules such as spores and mycelium.

There is strong evidence that AMF colonisation and spore numbers can be stimulated by altering management practices, for example mediating fertilisation regime, reducing fallow and / or growth of non-mycorrhizal crops and introduction of organic management schemes, including the planting of temporary grass – clover pastures.

Crop choice and association potential

Some crops have the potential to form very good association with AMF, including oats, barley and legumes. The brassicas however don’t form associations with AMF. Crops incapable of forming mycorrhizal associations inhibit mycorrhizal fungi. Following such crops, growers should avoid planting species that are highly dependent on mycorrhizal fungi.

AMF Carrying Capacity

In order to influence how many AMF are there and the carrying capacity of the field, crop choice and fertilisation may be particularly important. There is a strong correlation between soil phosphorus (P) levels, and root colonisation decreases strongly with increasing P.


Tillage greatly influences spatial aggregation and thereby competitive interactions. Spores produced by mycorrhizal fungi are generally resistant to physical soil disturbances. However, tillage can damage their hyphae, which also serve as an important source of inoculum. Following tillage there are reduced levels of mycorrhizal colonisation. Therefore reducing or eliminating tillage will help promote the formation of arbuscular mycorrhizas.

Cover cropping

Fallow periods are detrimental as AMF depends on host plants for their nutrition. Cover crops help to maintain their populations.

The conundrum in conventional agriculture

The scientific literature widely concurs that high levels of AMF are beneficial to plant nutrition only where the soil supply of nitrates and / or phosphate is limited. In conventional systems therefore where the supply of nutrients are less limited (as they can be applied when needed), the need for assistance from AMF may be less important.

The use of AMF in organic farming systems

Organic farming systems may be less detrimental to AMF because they don’t use bagged fertiliser and as such are not providing more optimal conditions for the AMF to form associations.

The available evidence suggests that this leads to increased AMF inoculum in soils, greater crop colonisation, and enhanced nutrient uptake. AMF might therefore be able to substitute for reduced fertiliser inputs on organic systems.


Arbuscular Mychorrizal Fungi and Organic farming, Gosling et al, 2006, Agricultural Ecosystems and Environment,

Verbruggan et al, 2012, Mycorrhizal Fungi establishment in agricultural soils; factors determining inoculation successes, New Phytologist

Koide and Haider, Mycorrhizal Fungi and Field Crops,

29.06.15 Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi – forging links

Healthier soil is a fundamental necessity for increased food production, and soil fungal populations are a significant contributor to soil health.

Until quite recently, the biological world has included plants and animals; now however there is research and attention being devoted to other components, including fungi, that are largely invisible but are where the greatest amount of biological activity occurs.

Over the last couple of years there has been more and more attention devoted to one group of fungi that resides in soil, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, due to the relationship that it forms with plant roots and the beneficial effects that it can have on crop growth, nutrient availability and soil aggregation (leading to better soil stability). Over 80% (and maybe as many as 95%) of plants form a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship with soil fungi.

This relationship however between fungi and plants, although highly significant, is not essential.

How do they work?

Mycorrhizal fungi produce structures called hyphae that allow them to forage for nutrients more effectively than roots alone.  Once established 10-40% of carbohydrates (mostly sugars) which the plant produces by photosynthesis can be absorbed by mycorrhizal fungi. In turn the long thread-like structures of the fungi act as an extension of the plant’s root system and increases the plants access to essential nutrients. The fungi provide these nutrients as they are required by the plant, and as long as there is an adequate supply of carbohydrates, they will continue to promote plant health.

In some cases the relationship is essential for the plant. The relationship is always essential for the fungi because plants are their only source of energy.

Why is it beneficial to improve (or maintain) mycorrhiza in farm soils?

In agricultural soils mycorrhizal fungi has been shown to increase crop yields in nutrient poor soils, increase yields for agricultural plants that have large requirements for nutrients and water and restore structure and fertility to degraded soils. The resulting soil structure allows air and water movement into the soil, encouraging root growth and distribution allowing intra-aggregate organic matter to be slowly decomposed by microbes and converted into plant available nutrients and makes soil less susceptible to wind and water erosion.

Nutrient availability

The fungal hyphae are much smaller than plant roots so they can easily penetrate into small spaces between soil particles. The thread-like hyphae are structured in such a way that they can extend for a metre or more, far out into the soil to scavenge even highly immobile nutrients, efficiently absorb the maximum amount of available nutrients and deliver these back to the plant inside the root cell wall.

The case for phosphorus

Phosphorus is critical for plant growth and makes up about 0.2% of dry weight, but it is one of the most difficult nutrients for plants to acquire. In soil it may be present in relatively large amounts, but much of it is poorly available because of the very low solubility of phosphates of iron, aluminium and calcium, which leads to low soil concentrations and very low mobility.

Plants have evolved a range of strategies that increase the capacity of the plant to take up the phosphate ions or the availability of the phosphate in the soil. The most common of these is mycorrhizal fungi and its symbiotic relationship with the plant root. Recent research has revealed that the fungal pathway plays a major role in the uptake of phosphorus regardless of the extent to which the fungi benefits in terms of increased growth or P uptake.

Disease and pathogen management

Modification of plant pathogen relationship: Mycorrhizae influence the colonisation of roots by other microorganisms, reduce the susceptibility (or increase the tolerance) of roots to soil borne pathogens such as nematodes or phytogenic fungi. Secretion of antibiotics and support of a community that competes or antagonises pathogenic microorganisms thus aiding in disease suppression.

Mycorrhizal fungi can protect the roots from disease organisms through simple spatial interferences by improving nutrient uptake and by producing glomulin and other metabolites that inhibit disease. Stress in plants can be reduced because the mycorrhizal fungi can solubilise mineral nutrients from plant unavailable forms to plant available forms and translocate those nutrients to the root system in exchange for sugars provided by the plants.

Soil Structure and formation of aggregates

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) play an important role in the structure and development of new soil and in the sequestration of carbon in the soil. The hyphae of AMF produce a glycoprotein called glomalin which acts as a protective coating in fungal hyphae to keep water and nutrients from being lost prior to reaching the plant host and to protect hyphae from decomposition and microbial attach.

Glomalin contributes to the formation and stabilisation of soil aggregates. It provides a protective coating to aggregates to stop them from breaking apart. These bigger aggregates increase the soils stability against wind and water erosion, maintain soil pores (which provide air and water infiltration rates favourable for plant growth), improve soil fertility by holding nutrients in protective microsites near the plant roots, store carbon by protecting organic matter from decomposition and assist in nutrient cycling. This glue that holds soil particles together and builds soil structure makes the ground less vulnerable to erosion.

The link with soil carbon

AMF while promoting plant growth, which fixes more carbon into vegetation, can also directly and indirectly contribute to the stabilisation of carbon in soil.

First the fungi filaments have a carbon rich component that can remain in the soil for decades. Second it provides the first step for other soil fungi to convert plant waste into stable soil carbon. Both of these attributes have the potential to reduce atmospheric, carbon based greenhouse gases.

Other benefits

There are other benefits to the plant from forming associations with AMF including:

The MF threads or filaments promote drought resistance in the partner plant by enhancing the water holding capacity of the soil

The fungi selectively exclude the passive uptake of toxic elements limiting the partner plants exposure to heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium

At high latitudes, high altitudes and other rocky environments, AMF dissolve and take up nutrients from primary rock surfaces.

In boggy regions, the filaments buffer plant partners from the high acid content of peaty soils

In saline ground the fungi can protect partner plants from the high salt concentrations

So we have had a look at all the beneficial attributes of AMF and the benefits that it can bring in terms of improved crop yields and quality and soil structure. However there exists a conundrum, as practices that encourage its persistence and provide conditions that are concurrent with AMF growth and persistence sometimes conflict with farming practice. Later in the week we will be looking at the two sides of the debate.


Smith, S.E. et al (2011) Roles of Arbuscular Mycorrhizas in Plant Phosphorus Nutrition: Interactions between pathways of phosphorus uptake in Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Roots have important implications for understanding and manipulating plant phosphorus acquisition. Plant Physiology

Koide, R and Haider, K, Mycorrhizal Fungi and Field Crops

Johns, C Agricultural Applications of Mycorrhizal Fungi to increase crop yields, promote soil health and combat climate change, Soil Regeneration Research Program

26.06.15 New study highlights methods to safeguard UK food security

The new study, “The Role of Agroecology in Sustainable Intensification”, undertaken by the Organic Research Centre with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, was commissioned by the inter-agency Land Use Policy Group (LUPG) and funded by Scottish Natural Heritage and Natural Resources Wales.

The study found that Agroecology – food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging precious resources – can help maintain agricultural productivity. The researchers reviewed evidence for agro-ecological practices including processes that maintain closed cycles, using on-farm resources to limit inputs and reduce waste. They also studied the use of legumes (peas, beans, etc) for enhancing soil fertility, cover crops, minimum tillage, the use of beneficial insects to control pests and agroforestry.

Download the report here.

26.06.15 Ten principles of soil biological fertility

Carrying on our theme of soil biology that we are following this month, while doing some research, I came across the Soil Health website. This website houses loads of resources about the physical, chemical and biological properties and processes that go on in soil and how to manage soils to protect them for the future.

Housed on this website is a publication entitled ‘Soils are Alive!’ which houses stacks of information on the different biological populations that live in soil, how to look after them, and ultimately how to keep them happy and get them to work with you (and improve yields, structure, nutrient retention and utilisation and overall resilience!) rather than against you.

One article that I was looking at was explaining the 10 principles of soil biological fertility, and the linkages that exist between microbial populations and the ability of the growing crops to access pools of nutrients that are found in the soil ecosystem.

Corresponding to these principles is also what we as farmers can do to maximise the benefits, and how we can manage our land to ensure that we create good habitats for the bugs to live in and perform these key functions.

Soil organisms are most abundant in the surface layers of soil

What can we do?

Minimise soil erosion (as if we are losing soil, we will also be losing the soil organisms that live in that soil). Although it is recognised that this is more of a problem for some soil types than others, soil erosion does not just remove the precious fertile top soil, but also can pollute watercourses, clog drains and lose nutrients.

Some things to consider:

Use crops to create ground cover – by creating green cover the plant roots hold the soil particles in place where we need them in the field.

Avoid capping and compaction – keep soils in good physical structure to prevent layers of compacted soil which will allow water to travel sideways rather than through the soil profile to where the plant roots need it to grow.

Be aware of field contours -  look at the use of grass buffer strips or hedges to break up any long unbroken slopes which can create channels for water and soil to run through.

Cultivation techniques – do you really need to plough? What are the other options?

Build soil organic matter – organic matter doesn’t just provide a food source for the bugs, it helps create a stable soil structure.

Soil organic matter is necessary for nutrient cycling and soil aggregation

Its all about retain retain retain! Feed the soil to feed the crops. If the soil bugs don’t have anything to eat then they can’t provide those vital functions that we need them to do.

Building soil organic matter is one of the most important things you can do to enhance long term soil performance.

Maximising soil biological diversity depends on a diversity of organic matter and habitats.

So as we now know, there are millions (and billions) of different species that live in our soils, and the different groups do different things. Within these different functional groups, there are also different diet requirements, therefore whilst building organic matter remains crucial, ensuring that there is a diversity of ‘food’ available to soil bugs via growing different crops and ensuring species diversity on top of the ground (which will bring similar results underground) will maintain soil health.

Nitrogen fixing bacteria form specific associations with legumes under specific conditions

Nitrogen fixing is probably one of the most well-known functions of soil biological populations. Through a symbiotic relationship which rhizobacteria (that are found in soil), legumes are able to fix atmospheric Nitrogen and provide it in a form that is readily available to plants. Growing legumes in rotation allows for plant N to be built up in above and below-ground residues. It is broken down by microbial activity following incorporation and released for uptake by the following crop. Legume-based leys provide additional benefits through soil cover and reduced soil disturbance. Greater N fixation has been demonstrated in minimum tillage systems. Ensuring that pH, soil characteristics and environmental conditions are right will increase the efficiency of the nitrogen fixing (and help reduce the need for bagged nitrogen).

Nitrogen is released during organic matter breakdown either into soil or into the soil microbial biomass

Lets recap slightly on a section of the Nitrogen Cycle. In agricultural systems, nitrogen is primarily stored in living and dead organic matter. Through the Nitrogen cycle, this organic nitrogen is converted into inorganic forms when it re-enters the cycle via decomposition. Decomposers in the upper soil layers (bacteria, actinomycetes and fungi) modify this Nitrogen through mineralisation into a form which plant roots can access.

Nutrient management planning therefore plays a role in ensuring that we take account of the natural processes of nutrient cycling that is occurring in soils. If legumes are included, it makes good business sense (as mentioned above) to take account of this nitrogen, but similarly, looking at previous cropping, whether residues have been incorporated or removed and soil characteristics through taking account of the Soil Nitrogen supply (SNS) index in planning is a good idea. Inputs of nitrogen fertiliser should be calculated to complement nitrogen cycling from organic matter.

Arbuscular mychrrhizal fungi can increase phosphate uptake in P deficient soils

Inputs of phosphorus fertiliser should be calculated to complement and enhance activities of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Watch our for a further blog on AMF next week!

Soil amendments can alter the physical and chemical environment of soil organisms

Often through past research and management advice, soil biology has been much overlooked; we have focussed on the important aspects of maintaining soil physical structure and condition (pH, nutrient indices) to grow crops in, but by starting to consider the effect of what we are adding to the soil on the biological populations a more complete picture is possible. The three sides of the soil health triangle, the physical, chemical and biological health, are all of equal importance when making management decisions on-farm. When adding anything (including fertiliser, sprays, composts, manures, and crop residues) looking at how that affects the soil biological populations will help to continue to allow them to perform their functions (in terms of nutrient cycling, maintaining structure etc) which will help produce good quality crops. More research is also needed into this topic.

Some crop rotations and tillage practices decrease the suitability of soil for plant pathogens

Crop rotations and tillage practices should be selected to avoid development of soil conditions that enhance the growth and survival of plant pathogens.

Production systems based on soil biological fertility can be profitable

Great news! It makes sense, but how do we get there (whilst missing out all the potential ‘snake oil’ products that will apparently sort it all out for us?

Soil biological processes develop slowly and the time required will differ with the type of soil, environment and land management practices applied

This is a fairly crucial point. As (with most of farming) we are dealing with complex biological systems, these are not quick fixes that yield instant results. The biology found within the soil performs multiple functions including nutrient cycling, disease suppression, aggregation of soil particles to form micro and macro pores to allow infiltration of water and carbon sequestration. Harnessing some of this potential through increased understanding of the populations within soil and how to maintain them will allow the development of profitable and resilient systems that are less reliant on inputs, but it needs a leap of faith to start the process.

Source: Soil Health, Ten Principles of soil biological fertility and their corresponding land management guidelines

Why not read the FCCT section on soil carbon and building soil organic carbon?

19.06.15 Whispers in the dark – do earthworms talk to plants?

A bit of a sideways step to end the week, with an article from Professor Mark Hodson, from the University of York, who is involved in a NERC funded project looking at whether earthworms talk to plants.

The information below can be viewed in full at the link here, and comes from the University of York website.

Earthworms are widely recognised as being beneficial to ecosystems. They are responsible for many of the soil processes that give rise to so called “ecosystem services”, that is the things that ecosystems do and provide for humans such as food production and recreational opportunities. One commonly observed benefits that earthworms have on ecosystems is to increase plant growth. Plants tend to grow larger and more rapidly when earthworms are in the soil. With increasing concerns about food security and sustainability anything that can increase plant productivity in a “natural” way warrants investigation.

There are a number of mechanisms by which earthworms could increase plant growth. They might alter the micro-organisms population in the soil, either increasing numbers of beneficial micro-organisms or reducing numbers of detrimental ones; ingestion of seeds by earthworms may increase germination success rates; earthworm consumption and digestion of organic matter may increase nutrient availability; burrowing activity may increase the aeration of the soil or the amount of water the soil can hold. All the above mechanisms undoubtedly play a part in the way that earthworms boost plant growth. Another, less well understood mechanisms by which earthworms might affect plant growth is through the production of plant growth promoting hormones.

Plants just like animals, respond to hormones. Soil micro-organisms exploit this fact to get food. Plant roots release organic compounds into the soil; soil bacteria feed on these compounds. Other soil micro-organisms feed on the bacteria and this releases nutrients that help the plants to grow. The soil micro-organisms release plant growth promoting hormones which leads to more plant growth. This increase in plant growth leads to the release of more organic compounds by the plants into the soil and thus an increase in the amount of food available for micro-organisms.

Recently it has been suggested that earthworms might also increase the concentration of plant growth promoting compounds in soils. They might do this for similar reasons to the bacteria, to increase the amount of food that is available to them.

Earthworms feed on root debris and soil micro-organisms. By increasing levels of plant growth promoting compounds in the soil, earthworms could stimulate the production of more plant roots and also more soil micro-organisms feeding on the increased levels of plant secreted organic compounds that come from them. How earthworms increase the concentration of plant growth promoting compounds is not known and that is what we will seek to discover in this project.

Earthworms could release plant growth promoting hormones themselves, the hormones could be produced by bacterial populations that are boosted by earthworm activity, or the hormones could be produced by the digestion of organic matter by earthworms. Plants may also have a role, stimulating earthworms to produce the hormones. Our study will consist of a series of experiments in which we test a variety of earthworm – bacteria – plant – soil present / absent combinations to allow us to state which of the above mechanisms are important.

Our results could help lead to a change in land management practices to maximise the natural boost that earthworms give to plant growth.

18.06.15 Diverse soil communities can help offset impacts of global warming

Maintaining a healthy and diverse soil community can buffer natural ecosystems against the damaging impacts of global warming according to a new study led by American University Yale.

Decomposition of dead plant and animal material by soil microorganisms generates an annual global release of a shed load of carbon (50-70 petagrams) in the form of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.  Scientists have known for a long time that global warming has the potential to accelerate this process, which would lead to increased carbon emissions that use a feedback cycle to then feed into more warming and accelerate climate change.

The information, which was published in Science Daily in May this year describes the results from a study which was a collaboration between Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F and ES), the University of Helsinki, the Institute of Microbiology of the ASCR in the Czech republic and the University of New Hampshire was designed to shed light on this issue.

This study found (when liking at this feedback cycle) that where soil animals were not present, the feedback was strong. However where the soil community is healthy and diverse (with lots of biology), the animals feed on the microorganisms, which limits the feedback effect.

The researchers found that small animals that reside in soil (insects and worms) can play a regulatory role in soil ecosystems by feeding on the microbes that can trigger increased carbon emissions.

This isn’t the complete picture; as we all know that within soil and plant populations there are complex biological cycles which take part in numerous processes.  The rate and interaction of soil insects with the microorganisms also has implications for wider research going on which is focussed on how atmospheric warming and nitrogen deposition are likely to alter natural ecosystems under future climate change scenarios.

This highlights the importance of further understanding of soil biological communities, and how they interact with each other under different conditions. This knowledge will help the scientists that are developing complex climate models that aim to predict the effect on the climate and nature of temperature rise.  It also highlights the range of functions that the soil biota are involved in and how crucial they are to natural cycling processes and ecosystem function and regulation.

To read the article in full click here

15.06.15 Soil Microorganisms contribute to plant nutrition and root health.

Soil micro-organisms provide an essential function in nourishing and protecting plants. They also play a crucial role in providing soil, air and water services that are absolutely critical to human survival. Understanding this linkage allows better nutrient management decisions.

This information here comes from an article published in Better Crops, developed by the  International Plant Nutrition Institute at the beginning of this year by Mark S Coyne and Robert Mikkelson. To read the full article please click here.

Sustainable crop production is essential to a healthy and adequate food supply. At first glance a healthy crop reveals only the above ground plant; the roots that support the visible plant are seldom seen. However these plant roots grow in an incredibly complex environment which is teeming with billions of soil organisms, particularly bacteria and fungi, which play a crucial role in promoting health and maintaining an adequate supply of plant nutrients for crop growth.

As previous blogs have shown, we are nowhere near knowing all about what goes on within the soil and the details of all the interactions that take place. It is understood that plants modify their soil environment by exuding large amounts of carbon from their roots. This zone in the soil where the roots are becomes a hotspot for the biological populations that live in the soil. Adding carbon to the soil surrounding the roots leads to a huge increase in the number of micro-organisms living within and outside the roots.

As soluble carbon is released by roots, micro-organisms are stimulated and colonise the soil surrounding the roots. This can result in competition for nutrients because plants and microbes rely on the same essential nutrients for growth.

Below are some of the key interactions between soil microbes and plant nutrition in a diagram and explained in more detail underneath.

Nutrients are converted to plant-available forms

Living organisms have a crucial role in controlling the transformation of plant nutrients in soil. In most soils nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur are present as various organic compounds that the plant can’t use. Micro-organisms play a crucial role in regulating the conversion of these organic pools into plant available forms. This conversion takes place through numerous mechanisms. Various management practices including tillage, irrigation, residue management, using manures and the addition of specific biological inhibitors or stimulants and innoculants can be used to influence these important microbial processes.

If these biological processes aren’t accounted for in soil / nutrient management, then excessive nutrient loss or plant nutrient deficiency with a significant reduction in crop yield / quality can result.

Nutrient recovery is enhanced

Nutrient recovery has an intrinsic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. The small diameter of the fungal hyphae allows greater access to soil pores than roots alone which gives the plant better utilisation of water and nutrients and maintaining root sorption activity in older parts of the root.

Mycorrhizal fungi can increase the supply of various nutrients to plants (including Copper, Iron, Nitrogen, Phosporus, and Zinc) in exchange for plant carbon. The boost in Phosphorus uptake provided by Mycorrhizal fungi is especially important for crops with high P requirements. Mycorrhizal fungi can also release various enzymes to solubilise organic phosphorus and they can extract soluble P from the soil at lower concentrations than plant roots are able to do alone.

Nitrogen fixation is facilitated

Certain specialised symbiotic bacteria can fix atmospheric N2 into ammonium based compounds for plant nutrition. The most important of these organisms for agricultural plants are from the species Rhizobuim and Bradyrhizobium.

It is estimated that N2 fixation provides between 10 -20% of the N requirement for cultivated crops and between 25-40% of the entire annual reactive N in the world.

Improved soil structure promotes root growth

An often overlooked contribution of soil microorganisms to plant nutrition is their enhancement of soil physical properties. Good soil structure enhances plant root growth and results in greater extraction of water and nutrients.

Individual soil particles are bound into aggregates by various organic compounds (especially polysaccharides) released from soil microbes. Glomalin, which is a protein released by mychorrizal fungi and is in the green picture at the top of the page, sticks soil particles together and improves overall soil structure. The more aggregation in soil, the greater the porosity which often leads to greater soil aeration and water storage capacity.

Pathogens are controlled

There is a growing appreciation of the link between soil microbes and plant pathogen control. Soil bacteria that produce siderophones can deprive pathogenic fungi of iron. Various antibiotics have been identified on soil that can suppress pathogenic organisms. Rhizosphere organisms can compete with pathogens for attachment to the plant root and essential nutrients for growth.

There is still much more to learn about how soil micro-organisms improve the health of plant root systems and overall nutrient efficiency.

Effect of fertiliser on soil microbial communities

Any management practice has the potential to influence soil microbial communities in positive or negative ways.

Short term, the effect of addition of mineral fertilisers on biology will be negative and will cause temporary osmotic stress. Long term experiments with wheat from Rothamstead show that adding mineral fertiliser over a longer term did not significantly influence the diversity of the bacterial population or two genes specific to important N transformation.

Other literature has shown that mineral N fertiliser application was associated with an average 15% increase in microbial biomass and 13% increase in soil organic carbon, compared with unfertilised control soils. They found that increases in microbial populations were largest in studies with at least 20 years of fertiliser. But it also showed the importance of pH, with soils with an acid pH (less than 5) having a negative affect on biological populations.

Soil micro organisms interact intimately with plants to stimulate productivity by supplying essential nutrients in a soluble form. Healthy plants stimulate the microbial community of the soil through the root exudates they secrete and the organic residue they leave behind.

Source: Soil Microorganisms contribute to plant nutrition and root health, Mark Coyne and Robert Mikkelsen.

12.06.15 Beneficial soil fungi boosted by organic farming with reduced tillage

The biodiversity and abundance of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi - important soil organisms that can help plants to capture nutrients - is greater in organically managed soils with reduced tilling compared to conventional methods, a new Swiss study suggests. This illustrates the impacts that land management practices such as ploughing can have on soil biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides.

Soil organisms are important for nutrient cycling, and there has been some suggestion that their decline may increase the need for artificial fertilisers. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) are found in the roots of most land plants, including agriucltural crops, and can help supply nutrients to the plants. However they can be vulnerable to some agricultural practices such as ploughing or tilling, which disturbs the top layers of soil.

For this study researchers compared the AMF communities in the clay soils of seven sites, all in close proximity to each other in a Swiss Valley. Four of the sites were long-term, organic field experiments, each site divided into sub-plots to compare the combination of different management options of the land: Two tillage systems - reduced and normal tillage, and two fertilisation regimes - applying farmyard compost and slurry or slurry only. One of the other three sites was organically managed grassland, while the other two were cultivated using conventional farming practices - normal or semi-reduced tillage, and the application of mineral fertilisers on both sites.

For all seven plots, the researchers took soil samples from four layers - top soils (0-10 cm and 10-20 cm deep) and undisturbed sub-soils (20-30 and 30-40 cm deep). The researchers also cultivated AMF communities in pots from soil taken from six szites. The pots were planted with seeds from four different plant species and kept in a greenhouse for 20 months.

The results show that although the researchers found that fertilisation regimes affected the AMF communities in the seven sites, tillage practices had a stronger impact. The number of AMF species collectively identified through field samples and the soil cultivation experiments was greatest in the grassland site, at 38. This dropped to 33 species in the two reduced tillage organic sites, 28 in the one of the conventionally ploughed organic sites and to 28 in the conventionally managed site with normal tillage. Overall, 32 species were found in the conventionally farmed site with semi-reduced tillage.

Furthermore, the number of spores and diversity of AMF species was highest in the top soils of the grassland, next highest in the top soils of the two experimental plots where reduced tillage was used and lowest in the two experimental plots that had undergone normal tillage. Normal tillage disrupts the extensive spread of hyphae, fine strands of the fungi that form in the top soil layers, affecting spore production. Across all sites, the number of spores and different AMF species were lower in the bottom layer (30-40cm) than in the top layer.

AMF diversity was also higher in reduced tillage plots compared to normally tilled plots. Some AMF species are better adapted to the effects of ploughing than others and may dominate AMF communities in normally tilled soils, reducing their overall diversity.

Together these results show that organically managed soils can produce diverse AMF communities that will benefit plant nutrition, productivity and health and enhance sustainable practices.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, 11th June 2015

10.06.15 Natural England, State of current knowledge on soils

At the end of last month, Natural England released a document looking at where science and research is with regards to knowledge on soil and soil management.  The document sets out Natural England's assessment of the evidence relating to their soils and how we conserve and manage them.  It assesses what we know already, areas that are currently being researched and what we don't know yet.

When looking at soil biodiversity, the common consensus is that there is still much to discover in terms not only of the millions of organisms that live there, but also how they interact with each other and aid key processes in soil that help us grow profitable crops.  The information in the report is broken down into different sections and the messages below deal specifically with what we know about the life beneath our feet.

What we currently know

Soils are habitats for millions of species ranging from bacteria, fungi, protozoa and microscopic invertebrates to mites, springtails, ants, worms and plants. 

A single gram of soil can contain a billion bacterial cells from up to 10,000 species (Torsvik et al, 1990, 2002).

Soil organisms are involved in delivering all the main supporting and regulating ecosystem services (Turbe et al, 2010) including:

  • food and fibre production
  • soil formation
  • flood risk management
  • water quality
  • climate control
  • waste and pollution processing
  • nutrient cycling

Soil biota are strongly influenced by land management (Stockdale et al, 2006), what we do as farmers impacts on soil biological populations

Agricultural land management practices which reduce disturbance and increase / diversify organic matter inputs will most likely benefit soil biota and their function (NE, 2012)

Soil biodiversity reflects above ground plant diversity (Wardle), but can be highly variable over short distances and times.

Soil organisms are arranged in food webs or varying complexity with internal feedbacks (Bardgett et al 2005). If organisms don't like the conditions they can effectively go to sleep for a long time (but stay there). We don't really understand the true requirements of most soil organisms.

The vast unexplored biodiversity of soils will be economically important in such areas as medicine, industry, agriculture and environmental bioremediation - the possibilities are endless!

Soil biodiversity has been largely ignored by conservationists (Usher, 205) the topic has often seen to be too complex to address.

Areas that are currently being researched

The extent to which soil diversity is important to soil function and resilience - resilience as a concept and how well the soil can function in different conditions has been the subject of many discussions (including among the FCCT team!). There are such a vast range of functions that occur in soil and some can be done by different organisms and some (for example nitrogen fixation) are more specific to certain groups of organisms.

The impact of climate change on soil communities and their function

How to best integrate soil biolgoy into farm advice (can we produce tools which accurately assess biological activity and health, or are we still counting worms?)

The extent of variation in many soil organisms across soil types and their interdependence with vegetation and management - soil pH is a major determinant of soil community composition

Whether it is possible to deliver measurable improvements in agricultural or environmental functions as a result of management to enhance soil biota in UK farms.

Whether DNA barcoding can be linked to genome data to identify and characterise soil communities.

What we don't know

A basic knowledge of most soil organisms - out of over 11 million species of soil organisms, an estimated 1.5% have been named and classified (Turbe et al 2010).

The range of soil species occurring in the UK - increased genetic barcoding will help

The distribution abundance and population trends for almost all of our soil dwelling organisms.

The habitat management requirements for conservation of most soil organisms (including their requirements for undisturbed sites).  How do we know the extent to which soil organisms benefit from conservation?

Specific circumstances where soil innoculation is worthwhile to encourage the beneficial function of mycorrhizae, rhizobia or other beneficial organisms in agriculture.

How to interpret soil biological measures to link them to desired soil function, conditions and services - Defra have shown that soil life and its functions are sensitive indicators of change, but we don't know whether they can be benchmarked to provide subtle information on soil functions to inform soil management or set targets.

This information is only from the section of the report looking at soil biodiversity.  There are also sections on:

  • the soil itself
  • soils and society
  • soils and landscape
  • soil carbon and greenhouse gas flux
  • soils and land management
  • sustainable land use in relation to development
  • soils in climate change adaptation
To read the full report click here.

So what this highlights, is that although we have made progress in certain areas, there is still a load of stuff that we don't know.  A lot of previous research has looked at the physical and chemical characteristics of soil and managed to miss out the biological perspective. However what we now realise is that in order to manage soils in a sustainable manner which allows us to grow profitable crops that yield quality produce, we need to manage all three aspects of soil.  Neglecting the biology is like trying to dry washing in the rain, you'll get there eventually but its so much easier when the sun shines. To read about managing soil and FCCT's soil carbon project please click here.

08.06.15 Insecticides - new best practice advice from the Voluntary Initiative

The new insecticide advice highlights four foundations of best practice: identification of environmentally sensitive areas on the farm, following an integrated approach, using pest thresholds as a decision making tool for treatment, and ensuring treatment is made safely and accurately.  Following this advice alongside the Voluntary Initiative's Integrated Pest Management Plan (IPMP), or similar tools will help farmers and sprayer operators minimise  the environmental impacts of insecticides and safeguard the future use of plant protection products.

VI Chairman Richard Butler said 'I try to use insecticides only when absolutely necessary and will use the new VI insecticide guidance to minimise risk.  I also take account of advice from my agronomist and use these revised business thresholds for specific insect pests, which I find very helpful when deciding when it is necessary to spray.

David Ellerton from Hutchinsons praised the VI's insecticide advice: 'Following these simple guidelines will help the farmers and operators I work with to minimise the risks of their crops being affected by pests and helps give them the confidence to make the right decision about when to resort to the use of insecticides by checking thresholds.'

To find out more, download the Voluntary Initiative's guidance document 'Insecticides: Best Practice advice for farmers and operators.' Hard copies will be available at Cereals and the Highland Show.

Source: NFU

05.06.15 Greenhouse gas mitigation practices - England Farm Practices Survey

The information below comes from the recently released Greenhouse Gas mitigation practices - England Farm Practices Survey 2015.   Compiled by Defra and the Office for National Statistics the document contains the results from the February 2015 Farm Practices Survey which focused on practices relating to greenhouse gas mitigation.  

Where does the data come from?

The survey is usually run every year and collects information on a range of topics usually related to the impact of farming practices on the environment.  This release includes the results from the survey run in February 2015, which largely focussed on practices relating to greenhouse gas mitigation.  There was a range of topics covered including nutrient and manure management planning, the uptake of farm anaerobic digestion, fertiliser, manure and slurry spreading and storage, farm health planning and livestock breeding and feeding practices.

The results and data come from a questionnaire that was sent to approximately 6,000 holdings in England.  The sample was targeted by farm type and size, and the response rate was 44%.

Below I have highlighted some of the key points that (when I read it this morning) stood out to me.  If you want to read the full report please click here.

Nutrient management

If you have been a regular follower of some of the FCCT blogs you will be well aware of the fact that nutrient management planning is one of the keys to farm profitability.  Knowing crop requirements, and taking account all input sources to arrive with a balanced supply will not only help to target nutrient applications to crop growth and minimise over application (saving money), but also reduce the amount of nutrient that is sitting in the soil and not utilised (with the associated GHG emissions and pollution risk).

Manure and slurry storage and application

Calibrating fertiliser, manure and slurry spreaders can help to improve input efficiency and reduce GHG emissions.  How manures and slurries are stored and applied has an effect in the amount of nutrients that are available to the growing crop (thus saving you money on bagged fertiliser), and also affects the potential for GHG emissions and the release of ammonia  to the air. 

Grassland management

Grass is often described as 'the cheapest feed,' however the way that it is managed has a massive effect on its productivity and feed value.  Efficient grassland management hinges on how efficiently we convert the grass we grow into milk or meat (what we get paid for), and some of the methods that are often used are the inclusion of clover in temporary grass leys or the use of high sugar grasses.  When looking at the effect on GHG emissions, high sugar grasses improve the efficiency of animal production (this lowering the amount of GHG per unit of product, meat or milk), and clover will fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil and be available for the growing crop.

Farmer attitudes to emissions and their importance

The data from this section looks at the importance that farmers place on greenhouse gas emissions when making decisions about their farms.  The data also shows which, if any, actions farmers are taking to reduce emissions and their motivations.  

For more information on this and to read the report please click here.

03.06.15 Theme of the month: Soil biology

This month, the theme that we will be looking at is soil biology. Over one fourth of all living species on earth live in the soil, (and we haven’t finished identifying them and counting them yet). Soil organisms are hugely diverse and can play a range of critical roles in most soil processes. Soil biota is a collective terms for all these living organisms (excluding plant roots), and is also referred to as soil life.

Farm management practices can both help and hinder the biological processes that happen in soil. The ultimate aim in farm management is to produce healthy crops that sustain livestock and people, soil biology is a crucial component to us achieving this aim. Healthy soils produce healthy crops, and it is the intimate relationship between the soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties that drive the key processes needed and allow us to manage our soils better.

However this is not a simple process, as I alluded to earlier within the soil health triangle, the soil biology is the least well known and understood. We work with complex biological systems in farming and growing, so to start the month off, below is a quick introduction to some of the issues.

The importance of soil biology

Biology present in soil helps to add to and stabilise soil structure. Processes that are undertaken by soil biology impact on plant and animal production systems by modifying the soil’s physical, chemical and biological environment within which plants grow and persist.

Soil biology can have a direct effect on soil structure. The stability of aggregates is related to the level of soil organic matter and to the activity of soil organisms. Soil biology is crucial to the functioning of the phosphorus cycle. Different organisms are responsible for the mineralisation of organic phosphorus from organic to usable inorganic forms, suitable for plant uptake. 70-80% of identifiable free living soil microbes produce enzymes involved in phosphorus mineralisation.

What do these organisms do?

As the organisms found in soil grow, they eat and move their way through the soil and perform a vast array of functions. Beneficial microbes decompose available organic matter including manure and plant residues; fix atmospheric nitrogen and solubilise soil minerals into plant available forms; store and recycle soil nutrients; enhance soil aggregation; build soil organic matter and increase nutrient and moisture retention.

The link between soil biology and carbon

Plants sequester (remove) carbon from the atmosphere through growth. Carbon dioxide is converted into plant tissue through photosynthesis. After a plant dies, the plant material is decomposed primarily by soil microorganisms and carbon is released back into the atmosphere through respiration or left behind as humus.

Plants and the micro-organisms in the soil provide the link between the carbon in the atmosphere and how it can be stored or fixed to biological matter in the soil.

What can we do?

Soil biology is not completely understood, but is widely researched. Through most of the literature, three golden principles remain that confirm what is needed to make soils healthy and support healthy and active biological populations that drive the system.

Increase organic matter inputs – the more food provided, the more activity

Reduce tillage intensity – consider the necessity of tillage in the rotation

Increase plant diversity – Plant diversity is important as it stimulates organisms that have particular associations with particular plants to support different types of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (the beneficial fungal hyphae that facilitate nutrient transfer to plant roots). A diverse population of plants above ground will support a diverse population under the ground which will allow beneficial functions and produce healthy crops.

Source: DairyCo Healthy Grassland Soils project, SWARM Hub

02.06.15 Keyline Design - Whole Farm Planning for improved water management and utilisation, soil health and creation, and increased productivity

17th - 19th June Huntstile Farm, Goathurst, Nr Bridgewater

With damaged soils and the likelihood of more extreme weather events and unreliable weather patterns, tools and techniques which regenerate and build soil and sustain production through challenging weather patterns as well as extending growing seasons are becoming ever more critical to the success of UK agriculture.

Some UK farmers have been exploring how practices developed in other parts of the world might benefit the UK in this way and RegenAg UK has been delivering courses to support that.  In June Regen Ag UK host Owen Hablutzel a leading Keyline Design trainer will deliver three days training in Somerset.

In the words of Ben Mead, one of the first UK farmers to start to implement Keyline subsoiling, it "shows enormous potential" to contribute to developing a healthy and highly productive agro-ecology within the UK.  With Keyline nature assists the farmer rather than the farmer being in conflict with nature, and the farmer assists nature too - redressing the damage to soils and mitigating the more extreme climatic dynamics.

Keyline Design is a whole farm planning system which addresses soil fertility and productivity via water management within the landscape - restoring healthy water cycles, replenishing aquifers, massively reducing run-off and flooding as well as drought (and the effects of burn-off), building the soil as well as deepening the root profile and remediating compaction.  Inherent in this process is the sequestration of carbon 'back where it belongs' (underground) in the form of humus - the black gold of farming.

The Keyline pattern is used in conjunction with a specific subsoiler (originally and technically a Keyline Plough (or rather 'Plow' after the original American Homes Chisel plow designs on which Yeomans based his design) - but if you have an existing subsoiler the insights from this course will enable you to use that instead much more effectively and efficiently than otherwise).  Where appropriate a network of high level reservoirs, drainage, and irrigation ditches is also installed.  The effect is that run-off is significantly slowed and even eliminated and erosion is minimised, water infiltration as well as soil aeration is increased and (if reservoirs and an irrigation network are incorporated) water available for irrigation is stored at a high enough point in the landscape that it can be distributed by a passive flow Keyline irrigation system.

Keyline Design is applicable and appropriate to free-draining soils whether they are pastured or cropped and using Keyline Design when integrating trees adds yet more potential to the system (Landews Meadow Farm are pioneering this at the moment). Soils with a tendency to become waterlogged can also benefit when Keyline Design is used to slow the flow of water from higher areas to wetter lower ones.

In the past unsympathetic farming methods in the UK haven't had the impact that they have elsewhere due to the forgiving climate, but this is changing and the damage done only to become more obvious and have a greater impact on wildlife as well as productivity.  Our past / current farming practices have already created soils which are far less resilient to the effects of weather, as well as less fertile, and reliant on ever more expensive and oil - dependent agro-chemicals to sustain production; we need to start applying the principles of Keyline Design and other regenerative principles to our landscapes to build permanent resilience as soon as possible, restoring and enhancing ecosystems and natural cycles to provide the fertility, resilience and resources to sustain both wildlife and productivity for the foreseeable future.

More information

For more information on this Keyline Design course click here.

As well as this course, Regen Ag UK have a number of workshops coming up in June all with Owen Hablutzel see here.

For RegenAGUK events in general including the workshops see here.

For more details about RegenAg UK please see here.

01.06.15 Agricultural ammonia emissions could be reduced without affecting crop yield

Ammonia released by nitrogen fertilisers in Spanish agriculture could be reduced by up to 82% with only a very minimal impact on crop yield, finds new research.  This could be achieved by combining optimised management of manure with the use of non-urea synthetic fertilisers.

Agriculture accounted for almost 94% of total European atmospheric emissions of ammonia in 2011.  The main source of these emissions are nitrogen fertilisers such as synthetic urea and livestock manure applied to the surfaces of fields.

As the ammonia escapes into the atmosphere (through volatilisation), it reduces the nutrient value of fertilisers.  It can also cause soil acidification and eutrophication.  For this reason a number of legislative steps have been taken to reduce ammonia emissions, including those under the EU's National Emission Ceilings Directive and the international Gothenburg Protocol.

Various strategies have been proposed to reduce ammonia emissions from fertilisers.  However these mitigation measures have been shown by most studies to suffer various limitations.  For example they can bring trade-offs, such as reduced crop yields or poor efficiency in their use of nitrogen which could have effects on farms, consumers and food security.

This study aimed to identify the most effective measures which could optimise the use of nitrogen based fertilisers at regional and country-wide levels to minimise ammonia emissions without reducing crop yields.  

Spain was selected for the study as it had the highest increase in ammonia emissions in Europe between 1990 and 2011, and is Europe's third largest producer of agricultural goods.

The researchers developed a series of 11 nitrogen mitigation scenarios which included different fertiliser options and combinations to reduce ammonia volatilisation.  These included: incorporating manure in soil to a depth of 10cm (rather than leaving it on the surface), mechanically incorporating urea to a 5cm depth and reducing application of synthetic fertilisers.  Tghe impact of these scenarios was modelled and compared with a baseline scenario based on practices in 2008.

The results suggest that all mitigation scenarios would cause a decrease in ammonia emissions compared with the baseline.  Incorporating manure into soils had the biggest impact of the individual options, reducing national ammonia emissions by more than 57%.

Of the 11 scenarios, four led to a significant reduction in emissions while maintaining or even increasing crop yields compared with the baseline.  Five of the scenarios led to reduced crop yields.

The best overall solution balancing yield and ammonia reduction, relied on a combination of manure incorporation and use of non-urea synthetic fertiliser.  In this instance, crop yields were at 98% of the baseline, a near - match, while ammonia emissions were reduced by 84%.  However, there were also other combinations which, depending on how yields are valued, could also lead to reductions in ammonia release but also achieve increased yields.  For example, using urease inhibitors (which prevent the conversion of urea to ammonia) alongside manure incorporation, which achieved a potential 73% reduction in ammonia release and 9% increase in crop yield.

Since soil types and environmental conditions vary across provinces, which may affect ammonia release, the researchers also considered the effects of the strategies for each province.  By applying the most effective individual (non-combined) fertiliser options in each province, total ammonia emissions for the whole country could be reduced by 67%.

This study demonstrates that significant reductions to ammonia emissions could be achieved without sacrificing crop yields thus helping to achieve dual goals of food security and environmental protection.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, 21st May 2015 

21.05.15 Pioneering techniques for increasing soil fertility event

A one day workshop with Friedrich Wenz

The ideal of any farm is to generate and increase its soil's fertility from within the farm rather than having to bring in inputs from off the farm.  Friedrich has experience of doing this for many years on his stockless arable farm in Germany.  Fridrich has gained his experience all over the world developing minimum tillage, working with green manures and catch crops, mulching and other techniques.

This workshop and a follow up in September, will share these techniques and the theory behind them.  Friedrich gave a short presentation in the UK in 2014 to wide acclaim.  These workshops offer a rare opportunity to explore in depth his cutting edge research and practice into building long term soil fertility.  They will be of interest to farmers, growers and gardeners alike.

Event details:

When: 9th June 2015, 9.00am - 4.00pm followed by tea and discussion

Where: Emerson College, Forest Row, East Sussex, RH18 5JX

Cost: £65 to include lunch and refreshments

How to book and more information - To book contact the Biodynamic Association on 01453 759501, by email or online.

20.05.15 Essentials of Resilience Thinking and Implementation

We're aware that the rate of change in the world around us is speeding up and that a single change usually has multiple and far ranging impacts. We're also becoming even more aware of how vital and urgent wise management of interconnecting systems is on a wider level, as we are regularly reminded about the increasingly critical social as well as environmental impacts of for instance climate disruption, pollution, soil depletion and ecosystem collapse - and varying governance regimes.

So how do we take care of both humanity and the natural world into the future, via a 'systems thinking' approach? In seeking to manage our own lives and our impact on those / that around us we could all benefit from greater insight into how interconnecting systems with which we are interacting function - and this is true if we are addressing farm management or other landscape planning, development, environmental, social or even government policy - as well as day-to-day living.  This workshop introduces us to tools for doing just that.

Increasingly we are also hearing the word Resilience bandied around, but many may wonder what it really means / how it really functions. Resilience Science emerged from the ecological sciences in the 1970s, and a modern definition of resilience (from the book 'Resilience Thinking') is 'the capacity of a system to absorb change while still maintaining it's basic structure on which we rely for support and fulfilment, from social ones such as family / community structure, to farms and factories, to the natural world, to be able to maintain their 'productivity' whilst impacted by change around them -whether that productivity is emotional nourishment, food, shelter, and warmth, or ecosystem services from clean water and biodiversity?

Resilience is what enables systems to continue providing those 'goods and services' regardless of inevitable surprises and resilience thinking informs us so that we can build more resilience into our personal lives and the world around us; it is highly adaptable right up to global treaty level.

Since emerging from ecological science, resilience thinking has evolved considerably, with many researchers developing a framework for that thought, including concepts such as the 'Cycle of Adaptive Change' and 'the Nine Planetary Boundaries). There are specific principles for building resilience in social - ecological systems' and there are now well developed analytical tools and practical strategies for increasing resilience in the wholes we manage.

This workshop will introduce you to the resilience framework, these concepts and more.  Although based in an agro-ecological context, being an introduction, it is relevant for everyone, right up to policy makers at international level, and will act as an invaluable starting block for launching yourself into a resilience thinking approach to your life and work.  If you are managing land - or would like to integrate resilience thinking into your research or teaching this is an excellent place to start.

Instructor Owen Hablutzel has been integrating resilience thinking into farm agro-ecosystem design and regional planning applications since 2007.  While serving as an invited member of the Resilience Task Force of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN - Committee for Ecosystem Management) he continues to weave resilience thinking into a transformative practice and process of 'Dynamic Design' with wide applicability to the contexts of our rapidly changing world in the 21st century.

What makes this workshop special?

The material covered is thoroughly embedded in the global conversation and practice of Resilience Science; it is grounded in the framework and principles developed over the past decades by Resilience Researchers and presents ways to embed that theory in practice.

For more information on this workshop see here.

Regen Ag UK (RAUK) have a number of events coming up for June; for RAUK events in general including these see here.

A more extensive exploration of Resiliencey ('Resilience Landscapes, Resilient Futures) is also planned for later in the year, click here for more details.

For more details about RegenAg UK please see here.

Source: RegenAG UK.

19.5.15 SOS: Save our Soils

This interview was featured in the ACRES magazine in the US and documents an interview between Dr Christine Jones a soil scientist and ACRES.  

To the pressing worldwide challenge of restoring soil carbon and rebuilding topsoil, the Australian soil ecologist Dr. Christine Jones offers an accessible, revolutionary perspective for improving landscape health and farm productivity.  For several decades Jones has helped innovative farmers and ranchers implement regenerative agricultural systems taht provide remarkable benefits for biodiversity, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, water management and productivity.  After a highly respected career in public sector research and extension, in 2001 Jones received a Community Fellowship Award from Land and Water Australia for "mobilizing the community to better manage their land, water and vegetation."

Three years later she launched Amazing Carbon as a means to widely share her visions and inspire change.  Jones has organized and presented workshops, field days, seminars and conferences throughout Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Europe, the United States and Canada. Last year she gave presentations to American organisations and institutions as diverse as Arizona State University, NRCS, Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, the Massachusetts chapter of Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), San Luis Valley Soil Health Group and the Quivira Coalition.  IN 2015 Jones personal commitment to make the biggest possible impact globally will take her to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Kansas, New Mexico, California, Florida, Costa Rica and South Africa, as well as many regions within Australia, 2,500 miles from her home, to hold the first in a series of Soil Restoration Farming Forums, in which 11 farmers will receive monetary awards for reversing soil deterioration in dryland cropping systems through intercropping with perennial warm season grasses.

To read the full interview please click here.

Source: ACRES magazine, March 2015, Vol 45, No. 3

18.05.15 Some farmer experiences from Scotland

Following on from the blog last week about the fab Farming for a Better Climate project, below there is a bit more information about some of their focus farms that they have worked with for the last few years, and more importantly, the results that these farms have found.

Glenkilrie Farm, Perthshire

Is an upland beef and sheep farm, which houses 140 suckler cows and 1000 ewes which are split into two flocks. David grows some forage rape plus grass which is them ensiled or made into big bales. In addition to the farm business, Glenkilrie is the location of a well-established bed and breakfast business.

Under the five key action areas, David considered a range of measures that fitted in with his farming system. Examples of measures undertaken at Glenkilrie include:

Silage analysis– David knew that the feed quality of his silage was reasonably good, but testing silage quality was needed to accurately put together a ration. The high quality of silage reduced the need for purchased feed, meaning financial savings of around £3,000 and nearly 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) per year.

Reduced age of calving - David identified a small batch of heifers suited to calve at 24 months rather than 36 months. Pleased with the result, David intends to expand this across the majority of the herd. From the initial batch calved at 24 months, it is estimated that David has saved £7,000 and 19.9 tonnes of CO2e.

Reduced use of straw - Bedding cattle on straw is expensive; due to the geography of the farm, straw was purchased anywhere from 15 to 25 miles away from the main steading. David has trialled bedding a group of cattle on recycled wood fines, reducing straw use. The livestock have taken to it and it has proved to be more cost effective than straw. This measure has already saved David nearly £700 and 2.74 tonnes of CO2e.

Find out more about what has been happening at Glenkilrie here.

Upper Nisbet Farm

The farm has an award winning beef enterprise and grow 242ha of winter wheat, winter barley, spring barley and beans, 202 ha under grass and rent an additional 80 gha of grass on a neighbouring farm.

The 300 cattle on the farm are Limousin crosses with all progeny finished on-site.

Measures explored included renewable energy generation, nutrient applications, soil management and scrutiny of production costs.

Find out more about what has been happening at Upper Nisbet here.

Torr Farm

Torr Farm has 170 dairy cows, mainly Holstein Frisian and Montbelliarde along with a few Ayrshire and Norwegian Red. The business retains all of the offspring from the dairy herd, either for breeding or for finishing.

Approximately 100ha of the 398 ha farm is woodland or rough grazing, 80 ha are used for growing cereals especially arable silage, spring barley and winter wheat, and the rest is sown to grass for grazing and silage.

Measures explored included improved energy use in the dairy, reducing the age of calving and improved farm drainage and alleviation of compaction.

Find out more about what has been happening at Torr Farm here.

Stewart Tower Farm

A mixed 160 ha dairy and arable farm near Stanley in Perthshire. Wheat and barley are grown for feed with some malting barley plus grass silage. The farm also has an ice cream business, including an ice cream parlour within the farm shop.

Measures explored included improving fertiliser and dung policy, improving grassland management, tailoring fungicide sprays to arable crops, better use of electricity and installation of a 100kW wind turbine.

Find out more here.

13.05.15 Farming for a better climate – the Scottish project showing increased profits and lower emissions

So the last initiative that we will be looking at during this (slightly elongated!) monthly theme of global emissions, is the Farming For a Better Climate project from Scotland.  

The project is run by the Scottish Rural University College (now called SRUC, formally SAC) on behalf of the Scottish government and provides practical help and advice to Scottish farmers to help them choose the most relevant measures to improve both their farm performance, and resilience to future climate change effects.

The project runs climate change focus farms which aim to look at the effects to the farm business of implementing some of the practices that are recommended to reduce emissions.  Working from a body of academic research and on-farm results, the project has come up with five key areas to consider where most farms can benefit from, without any loss of productivity.

Use Electricity and Fuels efficiently


The aim is to ensure that farm equipment, vehicles and buildings are using energy and fuel as efficiently as possible.  Using less fossil fuel means lower energy bills and fewer emissions.

How to do it

Monitor and record fuel use, conduct a farm electricity and fuel audit.  This will highlight which activities are costing you money.  

What are the real farm results?

Dairy farm Ross Paton saved nearly £2,000 on the farm electricity bill and £6,600 on farm diesel through simple tweaks to current practices.  Beef and sheep farmer David Houston saved around £450 just from reducing the daily running time of the feed mixer.

Locking carbon into the farm


Through slight adaptations to current practices, farms are in a good position to lower their carbon footprint and lock carbon into the soil and vegetation, a process called carbon sequestration.

How to do it

Take action to control soil erosion

Consider reduced tillage on suitable land and ploughing in stubble and crop residues

Manage existing woodlands and consider new planting schemes

Retain and conserve semi-natural grasslands.

Develop renewable energy on-farm


Renewable energy can boost farm incomes and secure a source of power for the future.


Consider if your farm is suitable for any renewable energy technology including solar, wind, hydro, anaerobic digestion or heat pumps.

Real farm results

Electricity use in the dairy, ice cream parlour and farm shop at Stewart Tower accounted for ~130,000kWh per year.  Conservative estimates by farmer Neil Butler suggested that the 100kW wind turbine would produce over 200,000 kWh per year.  If half of that was used in the farm shop and dairy, savings on the electricity bill would be in the region of £12,000 per year.

Making the best of nutrients


To make the best use of nutrients and manures on the farm and reduce emissions.

Better targeting of fertilisers can cut waste and improve profits.  For the majority it will not be practical or economic to replace all fertilisers with manures and slurries but the aim should be to make maximum use of the manures and slurries that are available on-farm.

How to do it

Soil testing will help you know pH and nutrient status of soils and adjust fertiliser and lime accordingly

Know nutrient value of manures and slurries

Apply fertiliser at the optimum rate and time for the crop

Real farm data

Each 10m3 tanker of dairy slurry could equate to the equivalent of £30 – 50 worth of fertiliser.

Optimising Livestock Management


To ensure efficient management of livestock and poultry and their manure.  This can significantly reduce GHG emissions and improve farm profitability.


Draw up and regularly review animal health plans

Increase longevity of breeding stock – which will result in a higher output per breeding unit

Improve efficiency of feed conversion; achieve optimum daily liveweight gain

Increase efficiency in fertility

Consider slurry and manure management

Real farm data

By making good quality silage and knowing its feed value, Ross Paton at Torr Farm was able to reduce 1kg concentrate per dairy cow per day over the housed period.  Over the typical winter, this saved 32 tonnes of concentrate which would have cost the business £10,355 and reduced the farm carbon footprint.

This project is doing great stuff in Scotland and putting some much needed farm data onto the recommended management.  Later this week I’ll post the links to a couple of the farm case studies that have reduced emissions and improved profits, the ideal win-win that we all aspire to!

To read more about the project please click here

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.


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

24.04.15 US announce partnerships with Farmers and Ranchers to address climate change

Agriculture Secretary for the USA today laid out a comprehensive approach to partner with farmers and producers to address the threat of climate change. The new initiatives will build on the creation of the USDA’s Climate Hubs last year and will use voluntary, incentive based conservation, forestry and energy projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration and expand renewable energy production in the agricultural and forestry sectors.

The 10 building block for Climate Action in the US

Soil health: Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction. USDA aims to increase no-till implementation from the current 67 million acres to over 100 million acres by 2025.

Nitrogen Stewardship: Focus on the right timing, type, placement and quantity of nutrients to reduce nitrous oxide emission and provide cost savings through efficient application.

Livestock Partnerships: Encourage broader deployment of anaerobic digesters, lagoon covers, composting and solids separators to reduce methane emissions from cattle, dairy and swine operations. USDA plans to support 500 new digesters over the next 10 years as well as expand the use of covers on 10 percent of anaerobic lagoons used in dairy cattle and pig operations.

Conservation of Sensitive Lands: Use the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to reduce GHG emissions through riparian buffers, tree planting, and the conservation of wetlands and organic soils. By 2025, USDA aims to enrol 400,000 acres of CRP lands with high greenhouse gas benefits, protect 40,000 acres through easements, and gain additional benefits by transferring expiring CRP acres to permanent easements.

Grazing and Pasture lands: Support rotational grazing management, avoiding soil carbon loss through improvement management of forage, soils and grazing livestock. By 2025, USDA plans to support improved grazing management on an additional 4 million acres, for a total of 20 million acres.

Private Forest Growth and Retention Through the Forest Legacy Program and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, protect almost 1 million additional acres of working landscapes. Employ the Forest Stewardship Program to cover an average of 2.1 million acres annually (new or revised plans), in addition to the 26 million acres covered by active plans./p>

Stewardship of Federal Forests: Reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. USDA plans to reforest 5,000 additional post disturbance acres by 2025.

Promotion of Wood Products: Increase the use of wood as a building material, to store additional carbon in buildings while offsetting the use of energy from fossil fuels. USDA plans to expand the number of wood building projects supported through cooperative agreements with partners and technical assistance, in addition to research and market promotion for new, innovative wood building projects.

Urban Forests – Encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, storm water runoff, and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal, and property values. Working with partners, USDA plans to plant an average of 9,000 additional trees in urban areas per year through 2025.

Energy Generation and Efficiency: Promote renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency. Through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, work with utilities to improve the efficiency of equipment and appliances. Using the Rural Energy for America Program and other programs, develop additional renewable energy, bioenergy and biofuel opportunities. Support the National On-Farm Energy Initiative to improve farm energy efficiency through cost- sharing and energy audits.

To read the full news release please click here.

24.04.15 Reducing New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions

The emissions intensity of New Zealand agriculture (the measure of the GHG’s generated per unit of meat or milk produced on-farms) has declined on average by about 1% per year since at least 1990. This has happened because farms have become more efficient through employing techniques such as improved animal genetics, management and better grassland management and feeding practices over the past 20 years.

On the flip side of this however, the reduced emissions intensity has been more than offset by the increased overall product generated by the sector. As such the emissions from New Zealand agriculture have risen by 15%, (although without the efficiency gains this would be much higher, about 30%). So while farmer’s efficiency gains are addressing a large proportion of the problem, they are not enough to counter the extra greenhouse gases being produced overall.

What’s the solution?

Although the drive for efficiency on-farm provides part of the solution, and by continuing to improve efficiencies, New Zealand farmers will continue to reduce the intensity of emissions (per unit of prouduct), in order to stop the total emissions from rising there is a need for practical and cost-effective tools to reduce emissions and achieve economic growth targets.

What are the research priorities?

The priorities that are being investigated in New Zealand are described below.

Low methane animals – methane emissions vary between animals. The level of emission is a genetically heritable trait, so it can be included in a selection index. Lower emissions appear not to affect other production traits so selecting for lower methane emissions would not impact negatively on a farm’s production

Low methane feeds – some feeds help reduce methane emissions and increase nitrogen utilisation. Identifying and confirming these feeds will mean recommended feeding regimes can be developed based on current and new feed options for use in different farm systems.

Methane vaccine – scientists are working on a vaccine programme which could reduce emission by up to 20% without reducing productivity. The vaccine stimulates antibodies to counter key methane-generating microbes within the rumen in livestock.

Methane inhibitors – Inhibitors can knock out methane – generating microbes. Researchers are looking for substances that work in the rumen without side-effects across a range of microbes. Successful inhibitors could be delivered in feed, a bolus or drench, mineral lick or within the water supply.

Reduce nitrous oxide and nitrate leaching – research is looking at novel interventions and on-farm management guidelines that reduce nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.

Increasing soil carbon – increasing carbon in the soil could offset greenhouse gas emissions. Research is looking at soil carbon levels across New Zealand and techniques to verify changes in carbon content. Work is also exploring management practices that increase carbon sinks.

What are farmers doing now?

At this point the biggest impact on greenhouse gas emissions intensity comes from New Zealand farmers continuing to increase the efficiency of their operations as much as possible. The research highlighted above is the crucial next step as these additional tools are needed soon.

Source: Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, New Zealand.

17.04.2015 Australian Climate champions

Following on from yesterday's blog looking at the Farm 300 programme that is running in Australia, below are a couple of videos of farmers who are 'climate champions' and have already adapted their businesses to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and boost profit.

The Farm 300 project has three aspects:

  • allowing farmers, growers and advisors access to the latest research and development on GHG emissions
  • upskilling advisors with the technical knowledge to help farmers
  • from this pool of advisors 25 are working with 300 producers across the country through a process that will develop a plan specific to their business that will subsequently improve their productivity and also mitigate GHG emissions

Climate champion Farmers

The two videos below highlight how 2 farmers have adapted their business management to improve profitability and reduce emissions.

Improving farm resilience using native grasses

Cattle and sheep producer James Houston from the Upper Murray region has increased productivity on his property by rotational grazing which has increased native grasses, allowed calves to be weaned and sent to market earlier. These changes have not only allowed carrying capacity to be improved but have also reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Heifer management to improve efficiency

Peter Whip and his wife Raeleen, are developing a highly efficient enterprise at Royston, south of Longreach.  As well as managing seasonal variability they are proof that reducing emissions from cattle production does not have to come at the expense of profit.

Source: Meat and Livestock Australia

16.04.15 The Farm 300 project, Australia

The weather down here in Cornwall seems to have turned for the better recently. I for one am enjoying the extended evenings, the sunshine and a general feeling of optimism that seems to be around when the temperature rises. However during international month here at FCCT, I am turning my attention to the other side of the world, (where, let's face it, this would probably be considered cold weather) where climate variability is proving more problematic for farmers trying to maintain profitable businesses.

Agriculture and land management activities produce almost 17% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions with 60% of those emissions coming from livestock. The information below is a few key facts and figures about Australia’s livestock industry to put it in perspective.


  • Australian National Sheep flock is 75.5 million head
  • Australia is one of the world’s leading producers of lamb and mutton
  • Off-farm meat value of Australian sheep meat industry is $4.2 billion
  • 42,012 properties with sheep and lambs
  • Sheepmeat industry accounts for 33% of all farms with agricultural activities


  • National cattle herd stands at 29.3 million
  • 76,807 properties with cattle
  • 13.4 million beef cows and heifers
  • The beef industry accounts for 55% of all farms with agricultural activity
  • Red meat industry employs approximately 200,000 workers across farm, processing and retail

Source: Meat and Livestock Australia

Farm 300 project

The Farm 300 project has been developed by the Meat and Livestock Australia and offers cattle and sheep advisor training and support to build practical knowledge and skills that can boost on-farm production and profitability by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.

The project is tasked with raising awareness and understanding of the practical options available to farmers in different production systems to improve profitability and efficiency while at the same time reducing emissions by creating groups looking at different areas. Farmers within these groups attend meetings and seminars and try out the methods at home. The project monitors the effect and then reports back.

The website is following 6 producers through creating videos at the start and throughout the year. If you want to watch them then click here. At the moment the website has the introductory videos on it, and as new ones are uploaded I will try and post the link again.

Focus groups

Groups that have been formed include:

  • A sheep farmer who is focussing on increasing stocking rate and matching it to the carrying capacity
  • A cattle producer looking at using a by-product of the wine making industry as a supplementary feed source to improve kg/head and reduce emissions.
  • A sheep producer matching stocking rate with feed availability in a changing climate
  • A cattle and sheep farmer looking at alternative pasture species and feed to fill feed gaps, increase efficiency and reduce methane emissions
  • A mixed farmer who is measuring the efficiency, emissions and profitability of the family’s feedlot.

The last farmer comments in his video:

Talking with a lot of the other group members in our Farm 300 group, it’s quite interesting with the GHG emissions and farm 300 and also where we’re wanting to go in terms of being more profitable and turning stock off earlier, being more efficient. I think that we are all heading in the same direction anyway and it is, if anything, reiterating what we’re doing and enforcing our practices that we’re trying to do because the margin is getting smaller and smaller and we need to figure out ways to increase it.

This group of farmers round here, we’re all pretty conscious of the environment anyway, to be sustainable we have to be; in order for us to be profitable we need to go down this path anyway."

As well as setting up these groups, the project has made videos looking at climate champion farmers who have already started doing things to help improve profitability and reduce emissions. I’ll post those videos up tomorrow.

27.03.15 FCCT Loves Soil

Just a quick blog to round the week off, before a week of peace and quiet next week while I’m away!  While doing some research for the global stuff we are focussing on at the moment, I came across this little project that is focussing on spreading the love of soils around the world.  So here is FCCT’s effort, the gauntlet is thrown down – I’m sure that you can all do better!  At the moment there are no pins on the map from the UK, so lets change that.

It also got me thinking about all the great functions that soil performs; soil underpins life.  Below are some of the things that I came up with.

Have a great Easter.

26.03.15 European Soil carbon research

The information below comes from a project called SmartSOIL. This project is a European wide project aimed at looking at sustainable farm management that will reduce the threats from climate change. It looks to reverse the current degradation trend of European Agricultural Soils by improving soil carbon management in European arable and mixed farming systems. To read more about the project please click here

What soil organic carbon measures are the most cost –effective?

Research conducted through the Smart-SOIL project looked at the cost effectiveness of implementing management to improve soil carbon stocks across 6 case study regions. The regions involved in the study are:

  • Zealand, Denmark
  • Central Region, Hungary
  • Tuscany, Italy
  • Mazovia, Poland
  • East Coast, Scotland
  • Andalucia, Spain

Cost effectiveness of the measures was assessed in terms of the impact on the typical gross margin per crop. The results indicated that in each of the case study regions, there was potential for the uptake of measures that produced benefits to the farmer’s bottom line and the soil organic carbon levels.

Measures were grouped into three broad categories.

Reduced input costs: Measures such as minimum tillage and the use of manures are estimated to be highly cost-effective event where modest reductions in yield occur because of the potential to reduce input costs. These input costs include:

The fuel and time required for cultivation relative to conventional tillage and reduced mineral fertiliser costs (manures)

Zero tillage performs less well as there is a cost incurred for increased cost protection spraying.  The inclusion of legumes in the rotation also appears to be cost effective due to the reduced need for mineral fertiliser input; however, our analysis does not consider impacts over the course of a rotation.

Loss of revenue from by-products – Residue management has a high potential for soil organic carbon increase in most case study regions, but this could only be achieved at a loss of revenue from selling straw as a by-product.

Increased input costs. Under assumptions of unchanged or reduced yield impacts, cover crops were estimated to result in a large reduction in gross margin due to the additional costs or seeds and cultivation. But where yield was assumed to increase the cost-effectiveness improved for some crops in some regions. This highlights the potential role for good agronomic advice to ensure that the benefits of SOC measures can be fully realised.

A significant barrier to implementing soil carbon management is that most farm production related decisions are taken in the short-term, whereas managing soil carbon effectively needs a long term approach. Key barriers to uptake of practices include: perceived difficulty in demonstrating the positive effects of soil carbon management practices and economic benefits over a long time scale; and advisers being unable to provide suitable advice due to inadequate information or training. Most farmers were unconvinced of the economic benefits of practices for managing soil carbon. Incentives are therefore needed either as subsidies or as evidence of the cost effectiveness of practices.

Real life case study

Rafael Alonso Aguilera runs the family owned Oro del Desierto farm in Andalucia in Spain. It is a 650ha organic mixed farm with 110ha olive groves, cereals, vineyards and pasture for livestock (irrigated systems). He has loam, sandy-loam and sandy soils but manages to avoid soil erosion problems and water shortages common in the area due to managing the organic matter in the soil using minimum tillage, gutters or infiltration canals; terraces, control furrows, cover crops, inert cover (mulch) and adding organic matter (their own compost).

Rafael comments “We have analysed our soils and we have recorded that the soil organic matter is increasing compared to the beginning. We realise that leaving the pruning debris and grass and the applications of composts have largely contributed to an increase in the soil organic matter and in turn soil fertility. Thanks to these practices, the soil water retention is much better, erosion is reduced and the soil biology populations are larger. You can obtain many advantages from sustainable management.”

Why not check out our soil carbon pages for more inspiration?

25.03.15 Global Strategies to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture

This is the interesting theme that we are going to tackle for the next month here at FCCT. Although we have enough in the day on our own farms to deal with, especially with spring being a busy time of year for most, it is interesting (for us anyway!) to look at what other nations are doing to reduce emissions, and see if there is any overlap.

There are projects all across the world which are dealing with the same sort of issues that we are here. Reducing GHG emissions, improving productivity and efficiency whilst maintaining profitable businesses is not unique to British agriculture. We all have targets of one type or another concerning emissions and some nations are experiencing a more dramatic shift in climate patterns which is affecting production capabilities as well.

To start the month off, I thought that we would have some food for thought. The material below comes from a report written in the US by California Environmental Associates in 2014 which looks at Strategies for Mitigating Climate Change in Agriculture and the issues globally which we need to consider. The link here is to the abridged report (still 84 pages long), but if you are interested and are up to date with all your jobs outside, the link to the full document is here (146 pages).

Agriculture contributes substantially to global climate change. The sector accounts for roughly a fifth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when one considers the full life cycle of production including agriculture’s role in deforestation. This is a massive number, comparable in scale to the transportation sector. Further, this ratio can be even higher in developing countries where the agriculture and forestry sectors together often account for a majority of total emissions. Yet, historically, climate negotiators and policy makers have paid relatively little attention to the agricultural sector in the global effort to slow climate change.

Key global agricultural producers that can achieve major productivity goals

Reducing enteric fermentation emissions from Brazil’s cattle population and India’s dairy

The mitigation opportunities are large, would yield productivity gains, and ought to be in the best interest of the farmers and governments. In each case, the opportunity involves improving the quality of livestock diets so that farmed animals can reach market weight more quickly, and produce more meat and milk. These changes not only result in lower emissions on per unit of product, but also improve the economics and productivity of the herds, and can allow smaller animal populations to support a sustained production level.

Increasing the efficiency of nutrient use on China’s croplands

China is believed to have the greatest overuse of fertilizer globally. Simple measures can greatly reduce GHG emissions from fertilizer application in China without harming yields. In many cases, reduced fertilizer application would benefit yields and long-term soil fertility. In addition, securing major industrial inefficiencies in China’s fertilizer production would yield very significant GHG

Reducing rice emissions in Southeast Asia.

Although this opportunity is spread across a region instead of a single country, rice farming has both high emissions and mitigation potential due to the amount of rice grown in flooded fields. Many of the interventions used to reduce rice emissions are complementary with productivity gains, such as adding irrigation to better control water, which allows for double cropping.

Improving stored manure practices in industrialized livestock systems.

While mitigation interventions that target stored manure management do not benefit productivity, they also present no serious food security risks and have other co-benefits (e.g., water quality).

Unlike many mitigation options, manure management has been addressed through progressive policies in many countries.

These are some of the issues that are being discussed on a global research scale. However the report also throws up some other questions that we will be looking at, including creating a robust methodology to measure emissions that can compare results between countries and conflicting national and regional policies and pressures to reduce emissions.

Sitting comfortably?!

23.03.2014 Water capital grant scheme opens for applications

£10 million available to farmers and land managers for water quality improvement works.

How much is available?

Farmers and land managers in England can now apply to Natural England for a water capital grant of up to £10,000 to help them carry out works that will improve water management and quality on their land.

Providing a total of £10 million worth of funding to the farm industry these government grants will fund new projects that reduce the impact agriculture can have on our water quality.  Applications to the water capital grants fund can be submitted from 2nd March 2015 and must be received by Natural England on or before 30 April 2015.

The water capital grants make up the first phase of the governments new Countryside Stewardship scheme. Set to be rolled out in full later in the summer, Countryside Stewardship will commit around £900 million to benefitting the environment over the next 6 years. This will help farmers and land managers develop environmentally friendly techniques and adopt initiatives such as restoring hedges, planting woodland, enhancing wildlife habitats and improving water quality.

What can be funded?

Water capital grants are one-off payments towards the cost of specific items or activities, and land managers can select from a wide range of practical projects that will attract different amounts of funding. There are more than 40 items eligible for grant funding including:

  • installing biobeds
  • preventing livestock access to watercourses by erecting watercourse fencing
  • providing drinking troughs as an alternative to watercourse drinking for livestock
  • relocation of sheep dips and pens
  • roofing of sprayer washdown areas, manure storage areas, livestock gathering areas, slurry stores and silage stores.

Funding will be competitive with grants awarded to applications that best meet the scheme's priorities and have the greatest environmental benefits.

How to apply

Anyone interested in making an application to the grant fund is strongly advised to contact their local Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer or Catchment partner for advice before making an application. Support is available to help identify the main opportunities for water quality improvements, provide advice on what capital work could be eligible and help with completion of  the application.

Applications will only be accepted from land holdings in a priority catchment.

For more information please click here.

23.03.15 Climate metrics and footprints

This information below comes from a research letter published in a journal recently entitled Climate metrics and the carbon footprint of livestock products: where's the beef?, and deals with the subject of metrics and greenhouse gas emissions. I must confess that I glanced at this paper last Friday afternoon, and quickly moved it to my Monday pile, and have now re-read it refreshed after the weekend, when it now makes more sense.

Metrics are inherently fairly complicated things, and measuring the Carbon footprint of products has never been an easy task.  Add to this the intricacies which come with measuring the footprint of agricultural products and it tends to make the brain hurt.

As an industry however we need to reduce the carbon footprint of our products in order to minimise the warming potential, the effects of climate change, and improve business efficiency.

Because of this, there are a group of clever scientists that have devoted their careers (and still are) to developing robust methodologies to measure climate impacts. The “Global Warming Potential (GWP)” is a commonly used method which assigns different values to different greenhouse gases and provides a common figure that can be comparable.

However when looking at agriculture, unlike many other industries, carbon dioxide isn’t really the big problem. Emissions of nitrous oxide (from soils and fertilisers) and methane (from ruminant livestock and manure storage and handling) pose much more of a problem than the carbon dioxide that is used on-farm. Add to this that the “intensity” of these gases in terms of their effect on climate change is higher and we start to see the difficulties that arise.

Due to this large share of non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions that arise from agriculture, the way that the calculation is done and the method used is crucial when policy makers and scientists are looking at the contribution of agriculture to global greenhouse gas emissions.

This paper (which if you are in the mood for, you can read in full here), examines this issue in lots of detail and looks at whether in agriculture, instead of using the 100 year global warming potential (GWP100) there is a better way of describing it. The method that it looks at is the global temperature change potential.

A couple of definitions

Global Warming potential (100 years)The Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a useful metric for comparing the potential climate impact of the emissions of different Long Lived Greenhouse Gases. Global Warming Potentials compare the integrated radiative forcing (the change in energy in the atmosphere due to a greenhouse gas) over a specified period (e.g., 100 years) from a unit mass pulse emission and are a way of comparing the potential climate change associated with emissions of different greenhouse gases.

Global Temperature change potential (GTP) – the global temperature change potential can be defined as the temperature impact at a future point in time due to an emission pulse of the gas, divided by the temperature change of an emission pulse of carbon dioxide.

The study recommends that metrics used to assess greenhouse gas emissions should be re-examined. We all recognise that agriculture is a dynamic changing system and assigning values to products will always be challenging. The study argues that basing current GHG metrics solely on temperature impact in 100 years is inconsistent with the current global climate goal of limiting warming to 2degrees C, a limit that is likely to be reached well within 100 years.

A reasonable GTP (global temperature change potential) value for methane, (accounting for current projections for when 2 degrees centigrade warming will be reached) is about 18, which calculates the carbon footprint as being 20% lower than if it was measured using GWP.

However by using this GTP method and using a 2 degrees C limit, this results in the methane valuation increasing rapidly over time as the temperature ceiling is reached. This means that the carbon footprint would rise by around 2.5% per year, and as such would then overtake the original result using GWP in 10 years.

This shows that using the GTP method would show positive results in the short term, however over a longer term the impact on the livestock sector would be much larger.

So what does this mean?

For me, having read it through twice, it means that although this other method seems to show the emissions in a more positive light in the short term, it catches up in the long term. It just goes to show that statistics can be made to show different things depending on how they are reported. However it’s good that the statisticians and other clever people are at least recognising that agriculture is complicated in terms of measuring and that it needs more thought.

In the meantime, what does this mean on the farm?  Well to me, it shows that while they argue over the best method, we all have a chance at home to make our systems as productive as possible (which will be a good thing for the carbon footprint of the farm, and our pocket).

To read it in full please click here.

20.03.2015 Building Carbon in farm soils

Carbon conscious farmers in the UK work with nature not against it, concerned about the health of their soils for future generation.  They use principles of 'feeding the soil not the plant', understanding and encouraging soil biology, and harvesting sunlight to maximum effect.  These farmers understand that we must repair damaged soils, and reduce our dependency on chemical fertilisers made from nonrenewable fossil fuels and that also reduce soil health.  These farmers are serious about building carbon in their soils, and their approaches are backed up by hard science.

This info comes from an article written by our very own Jonathan Smith from FCCT, that has just been published in Farming Matters.  To read the full article click here.

For more information on managing soil carbon please visit our pages here.

17.03.2015 The Shropshire Agroforestry Project

Getting in to Agroforestry

by Peter Aspin, Shropshire Agroforestry Project

My personal interest in silvopastoral agriculture (i.e. the integration of trees into permanent pasture) developed from two angles. Firstly, the observations over several decades of the interaction of cattle with trees in terms of using them for browsing - cattle are most definitely not simply grazing animals, and shelter, be it sun, rain, wind or cold. Secondly, becoming fascinated by the concept of forest gardening, the main practitioner of which in Western Europe was a man from the south of this county, Robert Hart.

As I developed a small forest garden, I became more fascinated by the concept of agroforestry throughout the world and began to develop a system here almost fifteen years ago, initially simply using ash and walnut trees but as my interest and knowledge and curiosity developed, planting many other species which I felt had a relevance and requirement of further research.

The integration of tree crops into pasture or arable crops goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Most people know of the age-old practice of growing cork oaks in pasture in the Iberian peninsula, known as “dehesa” in Spain and “montado” in Portugal. In the seventeenth century, the diarist and arboreal advisor to Charles II, John Evelyn, commented on the management of walnut trees in wheat fields in northern France and how little they affected the yield of corn.

Agroforestry systems are well-developed in much of Asia, especially China, but these are largely silvoarable in nature. The Holy Grail in agriculture has for many years, and continues to be, perennial corn and I often wonder why no independent farmers in the UK are prepared to research the likely candidates. But the ultimate perennial crop is the tree, with so many myriad uses of all its component parts.

How it started here

Climate was the spur to the research here. I sold the dairy herd here in 1996 and since then reared beef cattle bought in as calves. About half were black, either Limousin or Angus crosses. On hot summer days they were very uncomfortable in open fields and many spent large parts of the day in the buildings, which is obviously not good for liveweight gain.

We’ve probably all observed cattle in the shade of trees or hedges. The hot summer of 2013 was a perfect example of how not to keep cattle in large open fields without shade, resulting in many losses and production problems. We are told that the average temperature will increase by 2-3 degrees centigrade by the end of the century. But the mean figure inevitably hides the extremes.

Much work has been done in both the UK and the USA about the use of trees to moderate urban temperatures, none as far as I am aware in terms of crops or livestock, and this continues to be part of the research here. As well as providing actual shade, agroforestry also produces convection currents as the warmer air away from the trees rises, drawing in the cooler air from beneath the canopy. And trees in leaf produce copious amounts of oxygen as they separate the components of carbon dioxide.

How it works on my farm

Planting here is in rows aligned north-south at five metre intervals between individual trees, with slightly larger distances to the headlands for machinery operation. There is a single permanent electric fence either side of the row to prevent damage by livestock. Spacing between rows is twenty metres, which I felt was the absolute minimum where cattle are grazing, without resulting in a “corridor” effect where the cattle spend too much time and effort going up and down the alley, and not enough foraging. Therefore on this farm the cattle are allocated a length of, say, 100 metres or 150 metres, depending on forage growth, multiplied by the width of the alley, 20 metres.

The most efficient shape to graze is the square, maximum area, minimum length of boundary. If this had been a larger farm, then inter-row spacing would have been 30 to 50 metres, but as I needed to get as many trees as possible (500 plus) into the area (20 acres), options were limited.

Browsing animals

As mentioned earlier, bovines are to a considerable degree browsing animals. The main browsing tree in the past has been the English Elm, but since its demise its place has been taken by the ash. However, virtually any deciduous tree or hedging plant (especially at leaf emergence) will be readily consumed. A recently retired veterinarian I know jokes that he has the healthiest and quietest flock of sheep because of the salicilin (aspirin) they intake from the abundant willow in the hedgerows.

Indeed, livestock often prefer tree foliage to ground forage. And so many species of trees are grown here to provide forage for the cattle, and though the medicinal effects are vague and unproven, the very fact that there is developing such a varied diet as the trees grow, will manifest itself in healthier animals. The diet of so many farmed animals today is so frighteningly narrow.

We have all been made aware recently of the degradation of our soils, fertility and structure, that has taken since the last ice age to build up, being lost at an alarming rate. Virtually every time I am in the countryside, I see appalling land management which takes no account whatsoever of the long term damage to the land.

The finest soil conditioner of all is leaf litter and there are two methods of leaf fall in autumn. Wind induced defoliation disperses the leaves over a wide area. Frost induced defoliation concentrates the leaves below the tree, which can result in damage to and destruction of perennial crops. Some years in early winter harrowing is essential beneath mature oak, and especially sycamore, trees along the farm boundaries to prevent this. On the whole, the small leaves or leaflets of trees such as elm, robinias (black locust) or gleditsias (honey locust) are quickly absorbed . The larger leaves of trees such as walnut, sweet chestnut or sycamore take much longer to degrade or be taken below the surface by invertebrates. But generalisations are not possible.

The all-important tree of Chinese agroforestry, the foxglove tree (Paulownia spp.) has very large leaves but these degrade rapidly and are not problematic. The high calcium content of deciduous leaf-litter also tends to neutralise the soil (increase the pH), whilst, conversely, the leaf-litter of coniferous trees acidifies the soil over time.

Trees grown at Shropshire Agroforestry Project include:



Sweet chestnut





Monkey puzzle

Hackberry (Celtis),

Black and Honey Locust

Pasture management

As far as I am concerned, the plough is an instrument of last resort, a means to repair the result of poor management. Three alleys (6 acres) where the grass/clover components had become unproductive, owing to such poor management and excessive leaf fall damage, were reseeded in the autumn of 2014. It is ten years since any of the land was last ploughed and I foresee no need for it in the future. If any sward becomes short of an ingredient, perhaps clover, then I broadcast that just before grazing so that the cattle tread the seed in, so long as the ground is not too dry. This alley is then taken out of the grazing rotation and cut for silage seven to eight weeks later to enable the new seedlings to emerge and consolidate. I also use the traditional method of reseeding hay meadows whereby the sward is allowed to go to seed before cutting. The resultant tedding of the drying grass distributes the seed-heads across the pasture which the machinery wheels then incorporate into the surface layer.

The effect of this system of farming on drainage is very interesting. A few years ago a water mains burst in the main road running alongside the farm exemplified this. The alleys which had just been grazed were flooded owing to the recent soil compaction, but the rows where the trees were planted absorbed the water very quickly and the flooding came to a very sudden end by the third row. This outcome has also been observed after heavy thunderstorms. In the dry summer of 2014, narrow fissures running several inches deep along the rows of trees were conspicuous. Conventional thinking concerning field drainage is probably not appropriate in agroforestry.

The forage is conventional long- term organic seed mixtures with a fairly high proportion of white clover. Some herbs have been included in the past but the only persistent one has been yarrow.

Tree pruning

In the first few years after establishment, tree pruning to shape is essential. The ideal is to have a clear stem of about two metres with branches radiating out from this height. Much below this figure and ground shading would become a major problem affecting yields of the crop beneath. The usually accepted critical figure is one third canopy cover, below this level crop production is barely impacted, but above it production loss begins to become significant.

For similar reasons late leafing trees are necessary in agroforestry systems. In Asia the aforesaid foxglove trees (very fast growing producing timber for construction) are often grown with wheat, which invariably reaches its full height before the trees come into leaf, so all the corn then has to do is ripen as shading intensifies. Here, about forty varieties of walnut have been established, and some do not come into full leaf until the second half of June, so grass production is barely affected.

All crops grown under shade tend to become “leggy”, that is tall and thin. Here, this is especially apparent on the southern boundary where an existing mature row of trees shades the ground all year round. But this accidental shelter belt has benefited the rate of growth of trees planted within its influence. Conventional high-yielding ryegrasses prefer to grow in full sun whereas fescue grasses grow well in some shade. The reseeding last autumn included a percentage of Fest(ul)olium which is a ryegrass/ fescue hybrid in order to try to maintain high growth rates under conditions of some shade.

As well as walnuts, other nut trees established include sweet chestnuts, hazels, almonds, hickories, gingkoes and monkey puzzles (araucaria); browsing trees include a number of species of ash and elm, several varieties of hackberry (Celtis), black and honey locust trees (both also leguminous),timber trees include hornbeam and sweet gum (liquidambar) and Liriodendron (tulip trees) but there are also trees for rubber and cork production, even root beer. However, all trees by their very nature are multi-purpose: walnuts not only provide nuts and timber and edible sap but the smell of their foliage deters biting flies and when the cattle begin to browse the astringent leaves you know they are hungry and need moving on to the next rotation block.

Further developments

However, there is so much more research that needs to be done concerning the integration of trees and ground cover crops. I had hoped to establish a curvilinear system on another twenty acre field, to discover at what angle to due north yields were highest. Also which would depend on latitude, prevailing wind direction, strength of morning to afternoon sun etc., but that is for others now. On sloping land, contour and spiral contour strategies need to be assessed. If temperatures are to rise then wind velocities will become more problematic making shelter belts essential. And, of course, these landscapes/treescapes must be established decades before they are required. Finally, and in purely economic terms, it is usually accepted that production from an established agroforestry system has a fifty per cent higher total output than the same area of land devoted separately to conventional cropping and woodland.

Peter Askin

Shropshire Agroforestry Project

13.03.15 Planting trees on-farm: funding options

The Woodland Trust offers financial and practical assistance to help farmers benefit from trees, supporting business objectives and the environment.

Benefits from farm trees

Cost effective livestock shelter - extending the period animals can stay outside

Control stock movement - keep stock away from unsuitable areas

Shelter for crops - improve plant water efficiency by slowing wind speeds

Soil management - protect soils from wind and water erosion

Reduced flood risk - improve water infiltration by up to 60 times, helping water travel deep into the ground

Cleaner water - trapping agricultural pollutants

Reduce costs - by growing on-farm firewood supply or woodchip bedding

Boost pollinators - trees sustain pollinators when other food sources may be scarce

Sporting interest - provide valuable cover for game and other wildlife

Landscape value

Funding to plant farm trees

Through the PUR project farmers are able to access:

  • a whole farm tree assessment
  • thoughtfully designed planting schemes tailored to your farm business
  • advice on tree planting, maintenance and management
  • free trees and guards
The scheme is quite flexible and can be adapted to your needs - for example planting shelterbelts, riparian strips, pasture trees, woodland or developing agro-forestry systems
For more information please contact 01476 452356 or click here.

Watch the video of Stephen Briggs our great blogger from earlier this week.

Following on from the fab article that Stephen Briggs wrote earlier this week on implementing agro-forestry systems on his farm, here is a video produced by the Woodland Trust that shows him explaining his reasons behind the project and some great footage of the farm.

09.03.15 Climate smart cropping with new horizons

Stephen & Lynn Briggs rent a 105ha farm in Cambridgeshire, UK. Stephen is also a farm business consultant with ‘Abacus Agri’ where he specialises in organic arable production, and is the author of the book ‘Organic Cereal and Pulse Production’. Lynn is also an environmental consultant as well as helping run the farm.

The farm set up

Given their passion for organic farming and conservation, it is unsurprising that the farm was converted to organic as soon as they started renting the farm in 2007 on a 15 year agreement. Our overwhelming challenge is to develop an organic farming system with a balance of productivity and environmental management that is suited to high quality peat soils, which produces a good financial return and which is sustainable in the long term, on a farm where soil fertility is good but where the challenges for weed control are high. Another major concern is that the light peat soils on the farm have very high levels of organic matter (c.23%) and are subject to oxidation and wind erosion – and a loss of the farms most important resource. We wanted to do something that would protect the soil whist retaining productivity and enhancing biodiversity.

System design

With previous experience from time spent working in Africa and recognising the environmental and economic benefits of agroforestry, they were keen to develop a system at the farm to create a mixed tree & arable crop landscape on 52ha. With changes to the EU CAP Pillar 1 Scheme in 2009, apple trees were chosen as the tree species. We chose apple trees as we wanted to get a commercial return within the period of our farm rental of 15 years. If we had a longer rental period, nut, coppice or timber trees could be considered. Diversification into apples, along side or indeed, mixed in with arable crops creates a greater enterprise mix or perennial and annual crops, spreading cropping risk, whilst also capitalising on a resurgence in demand for English apples. After setting out the planting rows, MM106 semi-dwarf root stock were planted. Thirteen different varieties were planted for eating and juicing markets, with varieties selected for taste, good storage, pollination, disease resistance and late ripening. Late ripening was important so that apples can be picked after the cereal harvest in the autumn. After harvesting arable crops in the autumn, the farm will move straight from cereal to fruit harvesting, and the risk of a difficult harvest will be spread over a wider harvest window.

Compared to a normal orchard with over 1000 trees per ha, a planting density of 100 trees per ha allows normal farm equipment to be used, eliminating the need for specialist orchard machinery. This keeps fixed and operational costs down and means any equipment is multi purpose.

Between the rows of trees there is a 24m wide cultivated area for the cereal, root or vegetable crop. We held our breath when drilling the first cereal crop between the rows of trees, but the layout worked, the cereals performed well and there were no problems with harvest. But we did remind the combine driver to drive straight!

Unlike a new orchard where all the land is occupied by trees and narrow alleys, approximately eight percent of the land area is now occupied by trees. This means that we can continue to crop ninety two percent of the area whist we waited the five years for the apple trees to reach commercial productivity. This is a major plus point for the system with regard to cash flow. The arable crops provide short term income and the trees and fruit provide longer term income and a capital asset.

They have also introduced a wide range of conservation measures, including over winter cereal stubbles, green manures, feed plants for wild birds and Nectar flower mixtures, multi species legumes and wild flowers sown beneath the tree strips to attract insects and pollinators – important for fruit production and beneficial to surrounding crops.

On reflection Stephen and Lynn sum up “we think what we are doing at Whitehall Farm is creating a sustainable business integrating conservation and profitable farming using some very novel approaches, which we believe have a bright future and which create new horizons - literally !

A couple more pictures of Steve and Lynn's farm


Some background on agroforestry

Agroforestry is a concept of integrated land use that combines elements of agriculture and forestry in a sustainable production system. Agroforestry systems are classified as silvoarable (trees & crops) or silvopastoral (trees & animals). With an emphasis on managing rather than reducing complexity it promotes a functional bio-diverse system that balances productivity with environmental protection. Systems can combine production of a wide range of products including food, fuel, fodder and forage, fiber, timber gums and resins, thatching and hedging materials, gardening materials, medicinal products, recreation and ecological services. Tree species can be timber, fruit, nut, coppice or a combination etc, and the rows in between trees can produce cereals, vegetables, fruit, forage etc. Careful selection of crop components is required in relation to market outlets, local climate, soil, alley spacing, tree height, planting and harvesting timing, tree leaf production and shading etc.

Agroforestry systems modify local microclimatic conditions (temperature, air water vapor content, evaporation and wind speed) and provide benefits to crops which are grown with the trees by reducing soil degradation and enhancing biodiversity, pest and disease control. Agroforestry also reduces nutrient loss by maximizing internal nutrient cycling through leaf litter return.

Cropping the extra dimension

Most crop production systems exist by exploiting sun, air, water and soil nutrients in a relatively thin layer above and below ground, typically no more than a meter or so. Combining trees in the system can make much better use of these resources in space and time. Tree roots access nutrients and water at greater soil depth than most farmed crops and branches make better use of sunlight above an understorey crop. Agroforestry systems use resources over a longer period of the year. The secret is to combine complementary components. For example, cereals require most resources from April – June, whereas a later leafing tree species may require most of its water, sunlight and nutrients later in the summer and autumn after the cereal has ripened. This allows the farm to better utilize natural resources and also crop an extra and widely underutilized dimension, upwards!.

There is a growing understanding that agroforestry can provide multi-functional land use and environmental benefits. These are not yet clearly acknowledged or understood by UK farmers or policy makers. By integrating trees into the agricultural landscape there is also a real potential to impact on the local economy by increasing economic stability, diversification of local products and economies, diversification of rural skills, improving food and fuel security, improving the cultural and natural environment and the landscape diversity. Combined with the positive impact of agroforestry on resource use, resource protection and climate change mitigation, the benefits of agro forestry are slowly becoming better understood and documented. However, the role of agroforestry in protecting the environment and providing a number of ecosystem services has not yet been fully appreciated in the UK.

Article written by Stephen Briggs, Whitehall Farm.

06.03.2015 Agroforestry Ammonia Abatement, practicalities, implications and policy

This work was done by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Scotland, in collaboration with work in Spain and France. It looked at the potential for abating ammonia emissions from livestock production systems.  80% of the UK’s ammonia emissions come from animal manures, either from livestock housing, storage or spreading – a further 10% comes from inorganic fertiliser.

Planting tree shelterbelts upwind and downwind of livestock housing or slurry storage facilities will reduce ammonia emissions in two ways. Firstly the shelterbelt will result in a lower wind speed directly above and around the building or slurry store and thereby will increase the time taken for emitted ammonia to be transported away in the air. Secondly the trees will recapture a proportion of the emitted ammonia both directly through cuticular uptake and indirectly through increased deposition.

In addition to the recapture of this emitted ammonia, there are additional benefits of agroforestry systems including animal welfare, carbon sequestration, options for wood fuel and the protection of semi-natural areas. However in order to be able to quantify the effects and benefits of agroforestry systems, so that a national planting policy could be developed, there needs to be scientific research and modelling studies to provide the evidence and research into practical implantation (for example the choice of tree species, structure and planting area), for maximum ammonia recapture.

This research looked at quantifying the effectiveness of ammonia recapture and it’s knock on benefits using a range of modelling, lab and field experiments, as well as case studies, to look at what the potential is for UK wide agro-forestry ammonia abatement.

What did they find?

A wind tunnel experiment looking at ammonia recapture, found that a belt of small conifer trees were capable of recapturing up to 18% of ammonia emitted.

When this was scaled up (release under a forest canopy) the results were less clear.

Three case studies carried out for 6 months found woodland to be significantly abating ammonia levels at local level, both via dispersal and uptake.

Theoretical configurations using models were also tested. Results showed that leaf area index (LAI) and leaf area density (LAD) play an important role in recapture efficiencies.

Up to 20% recapture potential was modelled for a housing / lagoon with a 25m main canopy and 25m backstop stand of trees down wind and a 45% recapture for understorey livestock with 100m main canopy and 25m backstop.

Tree belts can be seen to significantly increase carbon stocks

Timber production from tree belts are not financially feasible because of small scale and high arable opportunity cost.

Applying a UK model shows that silvopastoral practice has the potential to reduce national scale emissions of ammonia by up to 2.9% resulting in a 2.2% reduction in deposition.

What does this mean?

Agroforestry systems have an important role to play in reducing ammonia emissions and effects. Ammonia impacts occur in the rural environment, so the landscape structure has the capability to buffer these effects.

Under best case scenarios, agroforestry ammonia abatement systems can decrease ammonia emissions by up to 45%.

A note of caution.

It is important to remember that this best case will not necessarily be practically possible or always economically feasible. For new tree planting it will take several years before ammonia recapture would be optimised.

To read the whole study please click here.

05.03.15 Soil, our greatest asset

Along with air to breath and water to drink, soil is one of our most important natural resources. Without it we would starve. However, due to poor farming practices, we are using soil at a completely unsustainable rate. The United Nation’s General Assembly has designated 2015, the International Year of Soils, to raise awareness of the urgent need to switch to sustainable soil management. If we do not make major changes to farming methods, food production will decline in future, instead of rising to meet the needs of a growing population.

To download the image as a PDF please click here.

The information in this blog comes from an article written by Elizabeth Winkler and published by the Sustainable Food Trust. For more information on the SFT and to read the full article, please click here.

04.03.15 Introducing trees to enhance farm sustainability

This case study from the SWARM Hub website follows Michael Rogers, a farmer from South Devon and looks at his strategies for introducing trees to the farm.

Michael has focussed on planting productive trees with a 2-3m gap between the hedge and the fence.  A variety of different species have been incorporated such as dog rose, spindle, applies, hazels, blackthorn, ash, rowan and some transplanted alders.

Read the full article here.

23.02.15 Agroforestry - essential for a sustainable future

Agroforestry is the growing of trees or shrubs with other agricultural crops. It can range from lines of trees intercropped with a cereal like wheat, to fully integrated forest garden systems incorporating trees, shrubs and perennial crops in a self-sustaining system.

Over the last few hundred years almost all the research and agricultural effort has been focussed on annual plants, to the extent that most of the world population depends on them. This wasn’t always the case, though, and many people have forgotten that the mass growing of annuals on a field scale is never going to be sustainable because they take a huge amount of energy to grow. As long as energy is cheap and available they can continue their dominance – but it is clear now that energy is not going to remain cheap for much longer.

We need to move much more towards perennial crops – whether it be tree-based crops (for example, nuts to take the place of some of the cereals) or smaller plants – for example perennial vegetables like perennial onions. In other words a move towards agroforestry.

Perennial plants, once established, take much less work to maintain than annuals – you only have to plant once (in a long while anyway), and most plants look after themselves with far less susceptibility to pests, diseases or the vagaries of the weather than annuals. Perennial plant products are often more nutritious than their annual counterparts too, because their roots systems are larger and can get more nutrients out of the soil.

Sustainable growing requires a change in attitudes too. Agriculture has been misled into thinking that every bit of ground needs to be productive – in other words needs to have a crop coming from it.  This is never going to be sustainable. Truly sustainable growing systems must devote a proportion of the land to plants with ‘system’ functions – in other words, plants which increase the health and resilience of the whole growing system (whether or not they produce a crop). Such plants would usually include nitrogen-fixing species (to make the use of nitrogen fertilisers unnecessary), and also plants to deter pests and diseases by, for example, attracting predators of likely pests or by confusing pests with aromatic emissions.

The most sustainable systems will be closed-loop systems, where no extra nutrients are brought in and the growing system sustains itself. Forest gardens are an example of this.

Agroforestry systems are less suited to very large scale production than monocultures, so by their nature they will smaller scale – which also means that they are much more likely to be integrated far better with their local economy: crops are likely to be sold and used locally, so the mass transport of food should decrease significantly as these systems become more popular.

Agroforestry systems have many other benefits – for example wildlife value is very high, they can provide shelter and thus reduce energy usage for heating or cooling, and so on. Once understood we’ll wonder how we ever did without them!

Martin Crawford, 2015

Martin is Director of the Agroforestry Research Trust (and his books include Creating a Forest Garden (Green Books, 2010) and How to Grow Perennial Vegetables (Green Books, 2012). 

17.02.15 The potential of legume based grassland livestock systems in Europe

So for the final blog of this month, I will be looking at the potential of legumes to aid with livestock production from pasture based systems. There is a well-known debate that rears its head in the media from time to time about meat consumption and methane emissions and how we should all be reducing our meat consumption to reduce the effects of climate change and reduce emissions.

Running alongside this debate is a growing interest in the emissions from pasture based systems. At the moment, science has not advanced sufficiently to allow us humans to eat grass, and digest the fibrous lignocellulose which ruminants are able to convert into meat or milk and as such grazing livestock will continue to be part of our environment. However where we can have an impact is on how we manage that grassland to get optimal production from that pasture. Making sure that there is a balance of inputs and outputs to that grassland, ensuring adequate soil structure, as well as optimising nutrient and animal management will allow us to use that pasture to ensure efficient production.

One of the ways that grassland production can be “improved” is to include legume species within the sward. Grassland production will need to keep pace with requirements for higher meat and milk production from ruminant systems and with a changing climate. Legumes offer important opportunities for sustainable grassland based animal production because they can contribute to important key challenges by:

  • Increasing forage yield
  • Substituting bagged N fertiliser inputs with plants which are able to biologically fix nitrogen
  • Mitigating and supporting adaptation to climate change
  • Increasing the nutritive value of herbage and raising the efficiency of conversion of herbage to animal production

This blog content comes from a paper entitled “Potential of legume based grassland – livestock systems in Europe” which was compiled by Luscher et al and brings together information from a wide range of European research on different properties of legumes to assess the contribution that legumes can make to sustainable livestock production from grass. To read the paper in full please click here.

For this blog in this monthly theme of livestock diets, the bit that I will be concentrating on is the properties that are found in some legumes that suppress methane production from ruminants. Without diving into a complicated biochemistry and nutrition lecture, a key feature of legumes are the plant secondary metabolites.

There are a few legumes which possess additional features which offer promise for ruminant nutrition and health as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These features include tannins, polyphenol oxidase and protease enzymes.  Sainfoin holds particular promise for alkaline and drought prone soils.

Condensed tannins are a group of fabulous compounds that are found in some forage legumes including birdsfoot trefoil. Sainfoin, sulla and the flowers of trifolium species. Total concentrations of these compounds depend on the variety, plant organ and processing methods.

The role of these condensed tannins in reducing protein degradation in the rumen is well documented. By forming bonds with dietary proteins, condensed tannins generally slow the rate of protein degradation during fermentation in the rumen, and as such will reduce losses associated with rumination. What is not yet fully understood is which types of condensed tannins create optimal degradation rates. For example, high concentrations of condensed tannins in trefoils may be too potent, as cattle cannot utilise its dietary protein fully, as such, it is excreted and results in high faecal N contents.

What does all this mean?

Grass clover mixes with 30-50% of legumes in the mix seems to be an optimal system. These yield high amounts of N from biological fixation (symbiosis), generate high forage yields of high nutritive value, which generates high voluntary intakes and livestock performance and at the same time they minimise the risk of N losses to the environment. The big challenge for legume based grassland husbandry systems however will be to maintain the proportion of legumes within this optimum range.

As a component of mixed grass legume sward, forage legumes offer important opportunities for tackling future agricultural challenges.  The great potential of legumes for sustainable intensification is related not just to one specific feature, their strength stems from the fact that several of their features can act together on different “sites” in the soil plant animal atmosphere system. The multiple advantages benefit the whole grassland husbandry system through reduced dependency on fossil energy and industrial N fertiliser, lower nitrate and GHG emissions, into the environment, lower production costs, higher productivity and protein self-sufficiency.

Legumes generate these benefits at the land management unit level, and although these benefits are brilliant, there are some limitations and further research is needed to make sure that we as farmers have all the facts and can make best use of them within our swards and rotations.

To read the full paper please click here. Are you managing to hit 30% legumes in your sward? Let us know how you manage their persistence and graze them to optimise productivity. FCCT would love to know how you manage them.

12.02.15 Soil biodiversity reduces nitrogen pollution and improves crops' nutrient uptake

Increased soil biodiversity can reduce nitrogen pollution, improve nutrient uptake by plants and even increase crop yields, according to new research.  The two-year study found that levels of nitrogen leaching from soil with an abundant soil life were nearly 25% lower than for soil with a reduced level of soil life.  Practices which enhance soil biology such as reduced tillage, crop rotations and organic farming may therefore help to reduce the environmental impact of fertilisers and improve agricultural sustainability.

Fertilisers boost crop growth by providing important nutrients. However the amount applied in modern agriculture is often far in excess of that taken up by the crops. For instance it is estimated that only half of all nitrogen applications are used by plants; the rest can be leached from fields or lost to the atmosphere as gas, causing environmental problems.

Intensive agriculture also threatens soil organisms, such as fungi, earthworms and others; in fact studies have shown that soil biodiversity is under threat in 56% of EU territory. These organisms are known to be important for nutrient cycling and there has been some suggestion that their decline may increase the need for artificial fertilisers.

In this study, part-funded by the EU project BRIO, the researchers investigated whether the abundance and biodiversity of soil organisms could affect plant growth and nutrient use as well as nutrient leaching. They filled 16 containers, each with a volume of 230 litres, with sterilised soil that was then treated with either a reduced or a high level of soil life and placed them outdoors. The containers were monitored for two years, and rotated with maize, grass and wheat crops.  Fertiliser was applied twice during the study.

What did the research find?

In the first year, nitrogen leaching was 51.5% lower in containers with higher soil life compared with reduced soil life containers; the equivalent of 150.6kg per hectare of nitrogen (kg/ha) leached from the low soil-life containers, but just 74.4 kg/ha from the plants in the biodiverse containers contained 28.9% more nitrogen, and 110% more phosphorus than those in the reduced soil-life containers.

Crop yields and plant biomass were also significantly higher in the biodiverse containers. For example, maize in the reduced soil-life containers showed yields of 33.2 tonnes per hectare (t/ha) but this increased by 22.3% to 40.3t/ha in the biodiverse containers.

In the second year the differences were not as pronounced and the only statistically significant differences were a greater biomass of wheat and higher plant phosphorus levels in the biodiverse containers. However this does not imply that biodiversity is not important in the long term, the researchers say. They point out that, in the second year, the reduced soil-life containers were invaded by a variety of soil organisms including arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (which are particularly important for plants and nutrient cycling).

The researchers note that the phosphorus leaching was higher in the more biodiverse containers. However, this reflects increased mobilisation of this element by soil organisms, they say, which also makes the phosphorus easier for the plants to take up. As a result, relative phosphorus losses, defined as the number of grams of phosphorus leached per kilogram of phosphorus taken up by the plants, was actually 25% lower for biodiverse containers compared with the reduced soil-life containers.

The importance of soil biodiversity

Increased soil biodiversity could be an important step on the road to sustainable agriculture. Management practices known to enhance soil biodiversity, such as reduced tilling, and crop rotations could provide real improvements in nitrogen and phosphorus use efficiency.


"Science for Environment Policy": European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by SCU, The University of the West of England, Bristol.

09.02.2015 The effect of grazing behaviour of suckler cows on predicted methane emissions

A research paper published last year in the Journal of Animal Science has looked at the effect of grazing behaviour on predicted methane emissions. This study used a computer model and a large dataset from a large scale grazing study to identify the potential impact of grazing behaviour and performance of different breeds of cattle on predicted methane emissions.

The study used GPS collars and activity sensors to monitor dairy cows that were grazing extensive semi natural grassland. The diet selected by cows of three different genotypes (Aberdeen Angus cross Limousin, Charolais and Luing) was simulated by matching their locations during active periods with hill vegetation maps.

Measured performance and activity were used to predict energy requirements, dry matter intake and methane output.

The cumulative effect of actual performance, diet selection and actual physical activity on potential methane output and yield was estimated. Sensitivity analyses were performed for the digestibility of intake, energy cost of activity, proportion of milk consumed by calves, and reproductive efficiency.


This study suggests for the first time that measured activity has a major impact on estimated methane outputs. Predicted methane emissions was highly sensitive to small changes in diet quality, suggesting the relative importance of diet selection on diverse rangelands.

Extending these results to a farm systems scale, methane outputs were also highly sensitive to reductions in weaning rates, illustrating the impact on methane at the farm scale of using poorly adapted breeds on habitats where their performance may be compromised.

The paper demonstrates that variations in grazing behaviour and grazing choice have a potentially large impact on methane emissions, illustrating the importance of including these factors in calculating realistic national and global estimates.

Source: J Animal Science, 2014 Mar; 92(3): 1239 – 49

06.02.2015 Leading soil regeneration expert coming to Devon

On 21st February, RegenAG UK are pleased to bring a leading soils expert to the south-west, and at the moment there are still a few places left with funding for farmers (£48 plus VAT, thanks to RDPE/DEFRA).

Joel Williams integrates understanding of the physical aspects of soil chemistry and nutrient balancing (Albrecht style) with the biology (Soil Food Web) and will present a full-day workshop at Bicton EaRTH Centre.

If you would like to explore the potential to cheaply and easily improve soil health and nutrient availability and thereby also productivity, then registering for the seminar could be an excellent starting point. Improving soil health will of course also help with water and disease management.

For further details see the website,  - specific event page is here.

RegenAG UK acts within the UK to promote Regenerative Agriculture, which addresses the need to respond to ongoing changing conditions in order to regenerate soil fertility and natural cycles for sustained productivity and wellbeing. Collaborating internationally with like-minded organisations and individuals enables the organisation to make best practice from around the world available more locally.

05.02.2015 Spring Nitrogen Advice Update

ADAS have brought together data on excess winter rainfall and topical information to help farmers make correct nitrogen decisions this season.

In summary:

  • Rainfall data indicates that the majority of the UK has experienced average rainfall so far this winter.
  • Nitrogen leaching losses are likely to be close to average over most of the country.
  • The relatively mild autumn and early winter provided good growing conditions in most areas.
  • Early drilled, well established crops are likely to have taken up useful amounts of soil Nitrogen.
  • Updated rainfall maps will be issued in March.

This information has been provided by ADAS, and the in-depth advice sheet can be accessed here.

20.1.15 A new year challenge!

In going about the day to day business that is farming, including making business decisions, adapting to the weather and changing prices, making sure that you are not annoying the RPA, looking after stock and crops and finding a bit of time to get on top of all those maintenance jobs that need doing, worrying about reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is not usually high up the priority list.

This has been confirmed in a recent opinion poll by Defra, which found that “many farmers, but not the majority, recognise the importance of GHG emissions, but most remain unconvinced about the business benefits of reducing them, and struggle to find time to do anything about it.”

So for 2015, the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit is trying to do something about this, by bringing together pioneering farmers and experts to show where the business benefits are from reducing emissions and show that everyone can achieve savings and increase profitability.

The conference entitled “Farming Profitably in a Changing Climate” is on the 3rd February at the Rural Innovation Centre in Cirencester, and will explore practical measures to improve profitability on-farm and reduce emissions.

“Far from being another opportunity to berate farmers about the challenges that come from managing resources, this conference really aims to highlight the positive economic benefits that come from reducing emissions” explains farmer and FCCT directors Adam Twine. “There is a real opportunity for farmers to make a difference to their bottom line by making small changes to management of soil, nutrients, livestock and crops in spite of difficult economic conditions.”

“This conference will champion real farmers who are achieving real savings and give them a stage to show others how to do it.”

The morning sessions will include a talk by Rebecca Audsley, Climate change project manager from Scotland who has been running a demo farm project with Scottish farmers for the last three years. These demo farms which span a wide range of farming systems have yielded real results in terms of cutting carbon and costs. “This will be a great opportunity to share what has worked well on other farms and get practical ideas to boost farm profits and cut carbon,” explains Rebecca. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is really about maximising resource efficiency, which can in turn benefit both the farm business and the environment.”

The chief climate change advisor from the NFU Dr Ceris Jones will explain the policy drivers behind the science and show that getting involved isn’t complicated. She confirms “if your aims for your business are to improve productivity and profitability, then it’s likely that you’re already on the road to becoming a lower carbon farmer or grower.”

The morning session will also include the retailer’s perspective, with speakers from Marks & Spencer and PepsiCo on what’s driving them to focus on carbon and sustainability. There will also be an inspirational key note address from Farmers Weekly 2014 Sustainable Farmer of the Year Richard Clothier on implementing sustainability and low carbon technology at Wyke Farms.

In the afternoon the fun continues with delegates able to attend either a livestock or arable focussed session. These will be led by farmers who are achieving a real difference on-farm and will be supported by scientists. For arable farmers Nick August, a champion of cover cropping and controlled traffic farming will share his experiences, ably supported by Dr Jenni Dungait, a leading research scientist on soil carbon, and fertiliser advice from Yara and Edaphos. For livestock farmers, Nuffield Scholar Robert Thornhill will share his experience of implementing sustainable grazing systems and dairy farmer Tim Lock who supplies Marks & Spencer will explain how he integrates carbon into his business. This session will be supported by FCCT’s Becky Willson who will lead a discussion on manure management.

It promises to be an interesting day, with lots of discussion and sharing of ideas as well as opportunities to be inspired and make a change to your bottom line at home.

When looking at greenhouse gas emissions and carbon on-farm, the real danger is that because there is confusion, we do nothing and ignore it. So my challenge to you is to get involved now. Come along to the event and find out how to reduce emissions in a practical way and increase returns to your business.

For more information and to book your place please contact Becky Willson at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or phone 0845 4587485.

This conference is supported by the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) for which Defra is the Managing Authority, part funded (or financed) by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development: Europe investing in rural areas.

16.1.15 Strategies for reducing enteric methane emissions in forage based beef production systems

Management strategies to reduce enteric methane emissions can be categorised into three sections, forage utilisation, feed additives and improved production efficiencies. The material from this blog comes from a review of scientific research into strategies for beef cattle and was done in Canada, as such some of the strategies that they recommend are not available in the UK.

Science has demonstrated that forage quality has a significant impact on enteric methane emissions. This can be seen both in conserved forage (when stock are fed hay or silage) and in grazing systems. The research suggests that animals fed higher quality feed, so hay and silage with a higher D value or animals allowed to graze pasture early in the season, emitted less methane than those fed on lower quality forage (either fresh and conserved). Emissions seem to be influenced by pasture dry matter availability and quality. High levels of enteric emissions would be seen when the animal is presented with poor quality forage and limited ability to select higher quality forage as a consequence of reduced dry matter availability.

Species included

There is research that suggests that inclusion of legume based forages in the diet is associated with higher digestibility and a faster rate of passage, which results in a shift towards high proprionates in the rumen and reduced methane production. The study that looked at this also found that because of this improved feed utilisation within the cow, as a consequence of reduced enteric emissions, growth rates were 11% higher in the legume mix pasture.

Feed additives

There have been difference additives produced that claim to reduce enteric methane production. Ionophores (the technical name of a class of additives commonly fed to cattle to improve feed efficiency and rate of weight gain. They are antibiotics that alter the chemistry of the rumen by changing the bugs in the gut to produce increased amounts of proprionic acid releases more energy per unit weight to the host cow upon oxidation than acetic and butyric acids do, as such is important to global beef production (not in the UK production). There have been studies done that show that these ionophores reduce methane emissions, but not over a long time period, effects “wear off” after around 2 weeks.

Another method that has been looked at is the addition of fat supplementation into high energy finishing diets. Results have shown a reduction in methane emissions of 33% when oil was added to a high concentrate diet (85%). Fat supplementation may well effectively reduce enteric emissions for finishing cattle, although there are not consistent results for emissions in low quality forage diets.

Improved production efficiencies

Consensus amount the research community is that a good strategy that all farmers can implement for mitigation is to decrease methane loss per unit of product (in this case per kg of beef produced). Using this approach, strategies should include effective management of feed resources other than forage, for example water quality, mineral supplementation, and ration balancing.

Other than effective management of feeding programmes, there are several other ways that will improve animal productivity, which include selecting animals for improved production, breeding and fertility management.

Adoption of strategies that serve to improve production efficiency, including feed analysis, ration balancing, pregnancy testing, and provision of minerals and quality water sources will not only serve to reduce enteric methane emissions but will also prove to be economically beneficial.

For more information on strategies to reduce emissions from beef production, please click here to visit the Toolkit.

05.01.15 Reducing GHG emissions from livestock - best practice and emerging options

This report has been released from the livestock research group of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse gases and the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) platform.

As we have been focussing on livestock and especially the role of diets in GHG emissions. Livestock pays an important role in climate change. Livestock systems including energy use and land use change along the supply chain, accounted for an estimated 14.5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in 2010. More than half of these (about 65%) are related to cattle. Direct emissions from livestock and feed production constitute 80% of total agricultural emissions and as such need to be part of any effort to reduce the contribution of food production to global climate change.

This report describes 6 broad areas where on-farm emissions from animal production can be reduced, broken down into different intervention options. Management strategies have been broken into:

Improving feed quality and digestibility

Improving animal health and husbandry

Manure management: collection, storage and utilisation

Precision livestock farming

Feed and nutrition

Feed and nutrition directly affects an animal’s productivity and health status and can strongly influence GHG emissions per unit of product. When dealing with ruminants, a large fraction of GHG emissions is caused by enteric methane production in the rumen. There are multiple ways in which feed quality and digestibility can be improved in all production systems, which will in turn improve rumen efficiency. As well as improving quality, there are substitutes and supplements that have been developed to increase resource efficiency and change fermentation processes in the animal to decrease GHG emissions intensity. The efficacy of upscaling these approaches however, may in some instances, conflict with food security if crops are used to feed animals instead of humans directly.

Improving forage quality

Grazing management and improving forage quality by changing forage species can equally contribute to an improved diet formulation in extensive systems which can substantially increase feed efficiency and production. Reductions in emissions intensity of 30% are considered possible in systems that currently use very low quality feed.

Dietary improvements and substitutes

Feed substitutes can change fermentation processes in the rumen and influence methane production. Feeding corn or legume silages, starch or soya decreases methane production when compared to grass silage. When looking at feeding alternatives, brassicas have been shown to reduce methane emissions in sheep and cattle although with differing implications for productivity. Another option investigated was the combination of maize and legume silage, which was found to reduce N wastage, providing improvements in terms of water quality and GHG emissions.

Feed supplements

Concentrate feed and starches will generally provide more digestible nutrients than roughages, which increases the digestibility of feed and generally lifts animal productivity. The sustainability of this approach (in terms of GHG mitigation) depends on the access to and availability of feed and potential competition with direct human consumption. There are a variety of cost effective lipid sources that are found in by products of industry, for example distiller’s grains, or meals from the biodiesel industry. Lipids seem to increase feed efficiency but their effect depends on feed consumption and the effect is limited on pastures. The long term effects on productivity and product quality need further research.

Precision feeding

The area of precision feeding is all about getting the right nutrient to the right animal at the right time. Understanding an animal’s need on a daily basis can result in major resource efficiency gains. Although direct mitigation effects are uncertain and hard to predict, precision feeding will increase feed efficiency and productivity and consequently can improve farm profitability.

Customised balanced feeding programmes in dairy cattle have been shown to be effective at increasing productivity and reducing methane emissions intensity (by between 15-20%) and also N excretion (20-30%) which results in reduced emissions from manure. Precision feeding has the greatest potential in high value systems that are already using technology on-farm.

What’s next?

Increasing animal productivity has financial benefits associated with it. In order to achieve this, knowledge and understanding of feed quality and the animals’ need is required as well as flexibility to change production systems to grow sufficient quantities and qualities of feed.

What are the barriers?

To implement precision feeding systems, investment will be needed in new technology as well as knowledge in how to run it, as well as the existence of adequate infrastructure and supply chains.

For strategies that involve using substitutes or supplements as well as system changes, new knowledge may be needed by farm managers and the impact on the whole farm and the wider supply chain of using different products will need to be monitored.

For more information and to read the report in full, please click here.


22.12.14 Seasons greetings

19.12.14 Dietary research from around the world

So following on from the other blog this week on research that has been taking place in the UK looking at dietary strategies to reduce GHG emissions from livestock, it seems like a good idea so see what other clever scientists around the world are looking at. As nutrition and strategies for reducing emissions from livestock are so important, not surprisingly there has been a great focus into seeing whether there are any magic compounds or feeding strategies that can help address the emissions concerns.

The info below brings you details of a few research projects that have been going on, mainly from Australia, America and Canada. Under current welfare laws here, some of the practices that have been trialled abroad may not be replicable in UK conditions.

Nutritional mitigation of methane production is founded on three basic approaches:

  • Ingredient selection to alter volatile fatty acid (VFA) production patterns
  • Increased rate of passage which can alter the microbial populations and VFA production patterns and shift some digestion to the intestines
  • Feeding better quality diets to increase milk production per cow which dilutes the methane costs associated with maintenance energy requirements

What’s going on down under?

Researchers are studying novel feed supplements, pasture forages and pre-treatment of cereal based grains for use in livestock feeding, quantifying the impacts on both methane emissions and animal production.

In the lab

They have been comparing perennial and summer active annual forages, maximum gas was produced in forages containing more fermentable organic matter. They have also compared different forages harvested at different times over winter, spring, and summer, which showed that pasture species has a greater influence on the amount of gas produced than did the date of harvest. Other studies have looked at pre-treating wheat with different products to suppress methane production in the rumen.

Studies in cattle

Using dairy cattle, the researchers compared different what dosages in the ration.  The results showed a linear decrease in methane emissions in response to greater amounts of wheat as well as a linear increase in milk yield.

Supplement studies

Trials are currently underway looking at the effect of forages and supplements. Supplements that have been trialled in Australia include grape products and the effects of including chicory, plantain and brassicas in the ration.

Research in America

Type of carbohydrate fed

Greater dry matter intake with higher milk yields and lesser methane yields are often achieved by feeding more digestible carbohydrates. Cows fed increasing amounts of dried distillers grains rather than corn emitted less methane that those fed corn based rations.

Forage quality, species, harvesting and storage

Increasing forage quality and feeding high quality forages is central to good farming practices and often increases profitability. Different additives and inoculants have been added to silage with limited success in reducing methane production.

In the UK research is currently underway at Aberystwyth looking at the use of high sugar grasses as a tool to reduce methane production per litre of milk produced.


In the lab, many additives and inhibitors suppress methane production by 60-100%.  However when these additives are fed to animals however, the reduction in methane emission has either not been evident or only transient.

To date no feed additives have demonstrated sustained reduction in methane emissions without a negative effect on milk production in lactating dairy cattle other than the use of nitrate, which has issues with animal toxicity.

At this time greater opportunities exist in reducing enteric CH₄ emissions from dairy cows through nutrition, feeding management, genetic selection and improvements in herd health and productivity. More research is needed!

Rumen modifiers

Rumen modifiers such as ionophores improve dry matter intake efficiency and suppress acetate production which results in reducing the amount of hydrogen released. In some of the published research, CH₄ has been reduced by 10%, however the effect of the ionophores has been short lived in respect to methane production. Research is ongoing.

Feeding fats and lipids

Dietary fats have the potential to reduce methane by up to 37%. This occurs through bio hydration of unsaturated fatty acids, enhanced proprionic acid production and protozoa inhibition. The effects are variable and lipid toxicity to the rumen microbes can be a problem. This strategy can however affect milk components and result in reduced income.


Condensed tannins can reduce methane production because they have a directly toxic effect on methanogens. However even at relatively low concentrations in the diet, condensed tannins suppress seed intake, reduce diet digestibility and reduce milk production.

It is the condensed tannins in some legumes that make them bloat safe, and there have been breeding efforts since the early 1990s to increase the tannin content of these species to reduce their potential to cause bloat in grazing cattle. These bloat safe legumes might also act to reduce methane production.

18.12.14 New report on the effect of feeding regime on GHG emissions in dairy cattle

Dairy farming is responsible for a significant release of GHGs from various aspects along the production process. Globally the dairy sector contributes 4% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions. Most of these emissions are from the biological processes that underpin the daily rhythms of the cow, such as feeding and dunging and are inherent in the production of milk. However, as with most complex biological processes, there are a range of factors that influence the scale of these emissions and many of them are open to management changes and improvements.

The most significant emission is from 'enteric fermentation' from the cows themselves as the micro-flora in their rumens breakdown the forage, with the subsequent release of methane (CH4) which is then emitted out by the cow. If the dairy industry is to meet the growing global demand for dairy products, ways to minimise greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product will become increasingly important.

New research

Improving milk production through livestock feeding and genetics, has been advocated as a promising approach for reducing GHG emissions from dairy production systems. This recently has been investigated in a study published in Livestock Science from the Scottish Rural University College. The study investigated the emissions intensity output of high producing dairy systems. It compared the results for cattle fed a high forage and low forage diet, and within each group compared cattle with high genetic merit (top 5% of UK genetics for milk fat and protein) with control animals. Data was analysed using Life Cycle Analysis to evaluate the effects of the rations on the whole emissions picture from the farm (so including effect on emissions from manure, fuel used to grow the crops for the diets and nitrous oxide emissions from soil).

What they did

Animals were placed into two feeding groups, high forage and low forage. The high forage group were fed a TMR ration, of which 75% was made up from home grown forage crops, and the remainder from concentrates (that were bought in). The high forage group were also grazed outside on ryegrass when conditions allowed (through March to November).

Animals in the low forage group were fully housed all year round and fed a TMR ration which was made up with 45% forage and 55% purchased concentrate feeds.

Within each forage group, there were two contrasting sets of animals in terms of genetics. Control animals were bred to be of average genetic merit for milk fat and protein production, and select animals represented the top 5% of UK genetic merit.

What they found out

This was a long term experiment that looked at emissions from the whole farm system. There was huge amounts of data that was all crunched together by some very clever people and the main results are below.

If you want to read the full paper (and fully digest the stats!) then follow this link.

The most GHG efficient system was defined as having the lowest emissions intensity per unit of product. The low forage diet with the selected genetic merit cattle was the most GHG efficient system. The high forage diet control cows had the highest emissions intensity. Looking at the split between the three most greenhouse gases, methane contributed the highest to the overall GWP (global warming potential), comprising 51-52% of the total, and on-farm CO₂ emissions making the lowest contribution in all systems.

What does this mean?

This research then suggests that there is potential to reduce the GWP per unit of milk yield of a typical conventional dairy system by up to 24%. By improving the genetic merit on its own, a reduction of 9% could be possible. Genetic improvements obviously take time through breeding and could realistically take several years to return results. Long term results from this study however found that the higher genetic merit delivered an 18% increase in milk yield and contributed significantly to lowering overall emissions intensity.

When looking at dietary strategies, the results suggest that switching to the low forage regime holds potential to reduce GWP by up to 16% per unit of milk production.

The results in this study agree with the findings of previous studies who found that improving milk yield of the herd would significantly reduce enteric methane emissions and overall emissions per unit of milk. Furthermore results of this study confirm that implementing a low forage regime reduced the GWP per kg of milk production irrespective of the cow’s genetic merit. It is important to remember however that when looking at the whole farm system, the low forage regime is much more sensitive to the by-products market than home grown forages.

For more information on strategies to reduce methane emissions from cattle, please visit the dairy section of the Toolkit.

Source: Ross, S.A et al., Effect of cattle genotype and feeding regime on greenhouse gas emissions intensity in high producting dairy cows. Livestock Science (2014), 

9.12.14 Theme of the month: Livestock Diets

With the festive season upon us, and with us all turning our attention to the meals that we will be having towards the end of the month, here at FCCT we thought that we would focus on livestock diets and the effect that diets have on greenhouse gas emissions.

Animal production is a significant source of GHG emissions both in the UK and worldwide.  The main processes that contribute to direct non-C02 greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are enteric fermentation and manure decomposition.  These processes are the largest sources of methane and nitrous oxide from any animal production system.

Enteric fermentation

So how does it work?  Ruminants digest fibrous plant materials by fermenting them in their rumen (which contains a complete mix of microbes).  In this mix of microbes are methanogens, which produce methane as a by-product expelled in the breath when the animal burps.  Monogastric animals such as pigs and poultry produce much less methane than ruminants.  Methane production captures the hydrogen produced during fermentation.  There are however competing fermentation pathways in the rumen that do not produce methane.  There are a variety of dietary and other possible approaches to promote alternative fermentation pathways to reduce methane emissions.

Quantifying the emissions

There are various figures quoted as to the amount of methane emitted due to enteric fermentation, and the range is somewhere between 12,800 - 17,600 MTCO2e of methane annually in the UK.

Improved feed formulation

Methane production in the rumen is driven by the content of the food supply.  Fermentation with higher proprionate concentrations in the rumen have been widely associated with lower levels of final methane emissions.  There are a variety of nutritional management strategies to bring about reductions in enteric methane that have been suggested and these will be discussed in more detail.

Dietary strategies to reduce emissions

There are various strategies advocated to reduce methane emissions which will be discussed this month.  They include:

  • high protein
  • high sugar
  • high quality forage
  • high starch
  • oils and fats
  • supplements

Final thoughts

It has been suggested that ruminant livestock production and consumption makes a large contribution to GHG emissions, which can be attributable to food production.  It is important to remember however that ruminant livestock play an important role in global food security as they can convert the ligno-cellulosic and non protein nitrogen compounds found widely in plants, but indigestible to all monogastric animals including man, into high value protein for human consumption.  Future ruminant agriculture will need to capitalise on this important benefit.  Ruminant agriculture therefore has a key role to play in maintaining and enhancing the provision of quality proteins and essential micronutrients in man's diet, provided that the challenge of reducing GHG emissions and methane in particular can be successfully addressed.

08.12.12 Assessing farm woodland and hedges for woodfuel

Until now there has been no simple way of assessing the potential of small woodlands and hedges on the farm to deliver sustainable biomass for energy. However recent cross channel co-operation with areas of northern France has enabled the Cordiale Project to develop a new toolkit. In parts of Brittany and Normandy hedges are now coppiced and the resulting timber is chipped to provide fuel for domestic, and district heating schemes.  At present in the UK hedge trimmings are simply allowed to rot, representing a wasted resource that could replace fossil fuel use on the farm.

A toolkit to assess the sustainable harvest from farm hedges and woodlands has now been evolved, based on the French model, in collaboration with the Silvanus Trust and Devon Hedge Group. The methodology is now being further tested on a variety of farms in Devon and Cornwall and further afield. Hedges and woodlands are surveyed and the data entered into spread sheets that then generate the potential output in terms of biomass, energy and financial value.

The work is being co-ordinated through the Tamar Valley AONB who managed the woodfuel element of the Cordiale Project under an Interreg Programme. For more information and to try out the toolkit on your farm please contact Corinna Woodall at the AONB office on 01822 835037 or email on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

Wood Fuel from Hedges

If you would like some more information on how to manage hedges for woodfuel, the book described below has been recently produced.

How to manage and crop hedges in south-west England for fuel by Robert Wolton

This A4 illustrated handbook is packed with up-to-date, clearly worded technical information on how to manage hedges for wood fuel. It includes legal advice, facts about yields, fuel types, efficient woodchip production, cropping regimes, production costs, environmental benefits, planting new hedges and much more. Managing hedges for wood fuel will help ensure that our distinctive hedge networks will survive and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as farm and domestic heating costs. Focused on south-west England, information is based on recent research in Devon and Cornwall and considerable experience from Normandy and Brittany.

Published 2014 by Tamar Valley AONB, the Devon Hedge Group and Devon County Council, price £5.00 plus £1.25 available from the Tamar Valley Centre, or send cheques made payable to Cornwall Council. For card payment, tel 01822/835030 Website

ISBN 978-1-83785-042-3, 21pp, paperback, full colour

21.11.14 Farm Power - Putting Agriculture on the grid

The Farm Power Coalition, an organisation made up of a growing number of farming bodies, businesses and NGOs has released a report today detailing their vision for Farm Power in 2020.  

The vision highlights how UK farms and rural communities will be making a significant contribution to a resilient, low-carbon energy system by 2020.

The report shows that there is at least 10GW of untapped resources across UK farms, equivalent to more than three times the installed capacity of the proposed new nuclear power plant at Hinckley Point C and a significant increase on current levels.  But despite various efforts to help farmers negotiate the energy landscape farmers are not yet fulfilling their potential as significant players in our energy system.

The vision is displayed below. To read the full report please click here.

Farm Power's Vision for 2020

By 2020, UK farms and rural communities will be making a significant contribution to a resilient low-carbon energy system.

We believe that:

♦  Despite the pioneering efforts of some, the considerable potential of farms and rural communities to contribute to the energy system remains largely untapped;

♦  The potential can be realised in a manner that enhances food production  and a variety of other societal goals including:

 the provision of essential ecosystem services, such as improved carbon,                                                       biodiversity, water and land management; and

 job creation and rural economic development;

♦ These broader goals - and the potential for energy investments to support them - must be explicitly factored into decision making around the UK's energy future (yet are currently largely ignored);

♦ The income provided by energy production will increase the economic resilience of farms and thus the UK food system

♦ Farm-based energy provides an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between farmers and their communities through mechanisms such as shared ownership and jointly-constructed community energy plans;

♦ Investment in sustainable farm-based energy is a means to kick-start the inevitable transition to a smart, dynamic and increasingly decentralised energy system.

To achieve this the Farm Power Coalition will:

♦ Help farmers make informed choices about the best technologies and options for their businesses

♦ Work with Government and business to:

 Break down the barriers that are stifling investment in sustainable farm-based                           energy

 Put in place a supportive regulatory, planning and financial environment

◊Ensure that energy assets are located appropriately, and are designed to maximise                     co-benefits;

♦ Strive to create markets for sustainable farm-based energy, both within local communities, and along the corporate agricultural supply chain (and beyond)

♦ Work to ensure that farms and rural communities have easy, fair and affordable access to the grid.

24.11.14 On-farm renewable fuels

Mike Woollacott, Greenwatt Technology

Transport is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Around a quarter of domestic carbon and other GHG emissions in the UK come from transport. Current studies on the links between transport and the environment are almost entirely focussed on urban systems and neglect to look at the environmental, social and economic transport issues and opportunities from a rural perspective.

With an increasing demand for food provenance and quality, UK farming is set to maintain it’s primary role and importance of feeding the nation. However what is also evident is that the industry can make a significant contribution to the UK renewable energy supply whether in the form of electricity, heat or transport fuel.

Emissions from Agricultural transport

British Agriculture represents around 8% of all UK transport GHG emissions, coming from on and off-road transport and other fossil fuel driven machinery.  The UK farming sector will be expected to implement changes to mitigate against environmental pollution, as well as taking positive actions to reduce the energy and fuel costs incurred in livestock and arable enterprises. In mitigation, farms have the potential to be a significant source of renewable energy generation and sustainable transport fuel production. The prospect of running farm, commercial (HGV) and passenger vehicles on renewable electricity, on biomethane (AD biogas upgrading), on biofuels (biodiesel, bioethanol), from biomass processes (gasification, pyrolysis) and from hydrogen could have a direct impact upon the farm and rural economy as well as the environment.

To understand the key issues for more sustainable low emissions farm and rural transport and to stimulate the application of low carbon transport technologies and fuels on-farms and rural businesses, the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) commissioned the study “Refuelling the Countryside.” The aim of the study was to investigate the potential for innovative, low carbon transport technologies and fuels on-farm which could reduce farm transport fuel costs, lower the carbon footprint of agriculture and meet the transport needs of rural businesses and communities. The report was prepared by farm energy and renewable transport consultants Greenwatt Technology.

The report draws on national and international research, interview and case studies, and identifies activities already underway as well as reviewing a range of new energy and fuel technologies which will provide opportunities for farming communities who are open to investing in these innovations.

The study shows that there is a clear lack of field performance data relating to renewable transport fuels on-farm, which means that there is little evidence to demonstrate the real economic and environmental benefits of a shift away from high emission fossil fuels. Such technology developments could offer significant cost savings whilst reducing the carbon footprint of British agriculture.

Future innovations

Diesel has been the fuel of choice of farmers for many years and a shift to alternative more sustainable fuel sources will be neither easy nor straightforward. The study analysed a number of likely farm energy scenarios for the future and the main drivers of change that would influence each one. These scenarios highlight the relevance and impact that low carbon fuels can make for farming, the rural communities where they are located and the wider population they can both feed and fuel.

The electric farm of the future

Many farmers already produce renewable energy (RE), from solar panels, wind turbines or AD plants through CHP units. In the electric farm of the future we will see not only an increase in the amount of RE produced on-farms but also a greater focus on how that electricity is used, stored or sold. This will encourage storage solutions such as hydrogen.
Click here to enlarge image

The biogas farm of the future

Biogas generated from an AD plant has three potential uses:

♦ To power a CHP unit – with the electricity used on site or exported to the grid and the heat used on-farm or distributed to local users via district heating schemes

♦ To be upgraded to biomethane and injected
Click here to enlarge image                                   directly into the national gas grid (assuming the                                                                                                farm is close to a gas grid pipeline

♦ To be upgraded to biomethane for use as a renewable transport fuel. Biogas (biomethane)( fuelled tractors are already in operation in Germany, Scandinavia and the USA. Other farm vehicles could benefit through conversion to biomethane / CNG. With legislation in place, on-farm biomethane could service local collection / delivery transporters (like milk tankers) as well as local delivery vehicles.

The hydrogen farm of the future

Storage of renewable power will receive increasing attention from research and development programmes in the future. With most of the on-farm renewables being dependent on natural patterns or variable weather conditions, and national grid demand for electrical power fluctuating at peak times, hydrogen provides a likely RE storage solution.
Click here to enlarge image

In the future wind and solar energy will be used to power an electrolyser which splits water generating hydrogen and oxygen and stored in secure tanks. This stored hydrogen can then be used for fuel cell powered vehicles for farm transport needs, or converted back to electricity.

Hydrogen will lead to more autonomous farm vehicles (tractors of the future) powered by fuel cells and being used across the farm for arable cultivations and livestock operations.

Recommendations for policy makers

The report also introduces a number of policy recommendations, such as the creation of a Rural Green Energy Task force that could implement strategy, build upon local initiatives and co-ordinate inputs and engagement of rural businesses, community groups, representatives of land based organisations and other stakeholders.

Building upon the innovative reputation of British Farming, the UK could become a global example of a successful transition to a low carbon agricultural economy. Technological development will be driven by several factors – the need to farm more efficiently and sustainably, the importance of reducing soil compaction, the improvements needed to maintain farm productivity and improve farm income and the need to control and reduce the economic and environmental costs of farm transport and GHG emissions.

To read the full report, including lots of examples and case studies of farmers and rural communities already implementing some of this technology please click here.

18.11.14 The Farm Crap App needs your vote!

Following on from the success of the Farm Crap App at the Soil Association Innovation Awards a few weeks ago, the top three entries are now being pitched against each other in a public vote to see which one is the most innovative idea for 2014.

The app is designed to help farmers and growers value the nutrients found in their manures and slurries by providing a visual assessment of spreading rates of different types of manures and calculating the crop available nutrient content of that manure spread at that rate (depending on crop being grown, soil type and season). The app is free to download and doesn’t rely on mobile signal or wi-fi to work so you really can use it in the field.

The app has been developed to help prevent over application of manures and slurries and to promote proactive nutrient management planning which safeguards water quality, minimises greenhouse gas emissions, and reduces fertiliser bills.

If you would like some more information on the app please click here.

To vote for the app in the awards please click here. Voting closes on the 21st November.

18.11.14 RHI Obligations

If you have installed a heat system that is accredited under the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme there are various rules and record keeping requirements that you need to adhere to in order to comply with the scheme.

The Farm Energy Centre has produced a guide which explains these ongoing RHI obligations and what you need to do in terms of record keeping.

Download the summary document here.

For more in-depth information and to read the guidance from Ofgem please click here

6.11.14 New IPCC summary reports released

The IPCC released two major reports on Sunday (2nd November), a report which summarises the key findings from the three working group reports which were issued earlier in the year (see earlier blog here), and a summary report on the main findings.

This is the strongest and most unequivocal statement of scientific certainty from the IPCC. Some of the key points are below.

Observed changes and their causes

Human influence on the climate system is clear and recent anthropogenic emissions on greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.

Observed changes in the climate system

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.  The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished and sea levels have risen.

Causes of climate change

Anthropogenic greenhouse have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with these of other anthropogenic drivers have been detected throughout the climate systems and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

Impacts of climate change

In recent decades changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans. Impacts are due to observed climate change, irrespective of its cause, indicating the sensitivity of natural and human systems to changing climate.

Future Climate Changes, Risks and Impacts

Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reduction in GHG emissions, which together with adaptation can limit climate change risks.

Predicted change in the climate system

Surface temperature is predicted to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions.  The oceans will continue to warm and acidify and global mean sea level to rise.

Future risks and impacts caused by a changing climate

Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities.

This includes species extinction, lower oxygen levels for marine organisms, increased vulnerability for coral reefs and polar ecosystems, and increased risk to coastal and low lying regions from sea level rise.

Food security – marine biodiversity will be reduced affecting fisheries production, and in tropical and temperate regions, wheat, rice and maize will be negatively impacted when temps rise higher than 2˚C (although some locations may benefit).

Temperature increases of 4˚C or more combined with increasing food demand will pose large risks to food security globally.

Rural areas are expected to experience major impacts on water availability and supply, food security, infrastructure and agricultural incomes including shifts in the production areas of food and non-food crops.

Climate Change beyond 2100, irreversibility and abrupt changes

Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries even if anthropogenic emissions of GHG are stopped. The risk of abrupt or irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of warming increases.

Future pathways for adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development

 Substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, increase prospects for effective adaptation, reduce costs and challenges of mitigation in the longer term and contribute to climate resilient pathways for sustainable development.

Risk reduction through mitigation and adaptation

Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high / very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally.

Mitigation in the near term and throughout the century can substantially reduce climate change impacts in latter decades of the 21st century and beyond.

Some risks from climate change are unavoidable even with mitigation and adaptation.


There are multiple mitigation pathways that are likely to limit warming to below 2˚C relative to pre- industrial level. These pathways would require substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades and near zero emission of carbon dioxide and other long lived GHGs by the end of the century. Implementing such reduction poses substantial technological, economic, social and institutional challenges which increase with delays in additional mitigation and if key technologies aren’t available.

Adaptation and mitigation

Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and co-operation at all scales and can be enhanced through integrated responses that link adaptation and mitigation with other societal objectives.

Mitigation options are available in every sector.

Effective adaptation and mitigation responses will depend on policies and measures across multiple scales, international, regional, national and subnational.

So it all makes for quite scary reading. What stood out for me is that the message is very strong and clear in that we are facing severe widespread and irreversible impacts if we don’t start to reduce emissions and mitigate our actions.

Carbon Visuals, a London based company which aims to help people visualise what carbon emissions look like, has produced this great little animation on what carbon emissions currently look like, and helps us to appreciate the size of the challenge that we all face to reduce GHG emissions and create a sustainable future. The video can be accessed here.

Source: IPCC Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report

03.11.14 Energy generation: A view from the farm

Recently appointed FCCT director Andrew Rigg has just taken carbon saving a step further on his farm in Hampshire. An all-electric car, a Nissan Leaf Acenta has arrived in the yard.  With a supply of electricity from his 20kW ground-mounted solar panels, Andrew has not only zero emission driving, but also zero cost…..

The panels are performing well; with 10kW installed at the higher rate, and another 10kW installed in 2013 they are collectively giving a 14% return on investment from the feed in tariff. In addition to this the farm’s electricity bill has been cut by 30%. The farm is a net exporter of electricity.

Not all the solar electricity is being used on the farm. A significant amount is also being exported to the grid with no further benefit to the business. “We looked at all sorts of mad and not so mad ways of using this ‘free’ electricity” says Andrew, “and finally decided that an electric car was a good way to go. The actual financial saving from using your own electricity is not huge, but the satisfaction of this, and never visiting a petrol station again, is immense!”

The range of the Nissan Leaf is about 100 miles, so you have to do some careful planning. This is made easier by the fact that car uses GPS and the phone network to look after you and guide to available charging points on your journey. 

“It’s almost worryingly quiet, but otherwise much like driving an automatic, though in addition to having no clutch it has no gearbox either. If you switch out of ‘Eco Mode’ it has quite fast acceleration, though of course you run the battery down quicker.”

It’s pretty clear to Andrew that these cars are going to get very popular, but there is another dimension to this story.

Nissan are working on a system to use the battery in the car as storage that you can then use to power your house. A fully charged Nissan electric car battery can power the average house for two days. The technology is not quite available yet, but it is not far off. For Andrew this will be an opportunity to maximise the benefits from the solar panels, as he will be able to use his car to store electricity produced from the panels in the day, to power the house in the evening. This will further cut his electricity bill, and put an even bigger grin on his face!

29.10.14 New figures on run-off from maize stubble

Maintaining green cover on maize stubble over winter saves on Nitrogen costs.

Its that time of year again when the weather is on the turn and attention is drawn to the damage that can be done through harvesting maize and stubble management.

The Maize Growers Association has decided to advise all maize growers on management over winter.  Leaving bare maize stubble over winter either on relatively flat or sloping land, increases the risk of soil and nutrient loss either via leaching or direct run-off.

To reduce the risk of soil and / or water loss from maize fields, growers should either:

  • Rotate their maize with autumn established crops such as winter cereals / crops or grass leys
  • Follow their maize crop with an autumn established cover crop which could be grazed, cut or incorporated in the spring pre - establishment of next year's maize crop.
  • Roughly cultivate stubbles to be left uncropped

Research in the UK and on the continent confirms that such management will reduce the volumes of water, sediment and nutrient loss to the environment, if the above advice is followed.

Lost soil and nutrient is not only damaging for the environment, but also represents a financial loss.  Research suggests that in the region of 40kg of N (worth £30/ha, assuming Ammonium N price of £265 / tonne) would be retained if a green cover is maintained over winter.

Free environmental advice

The Maize Growers Association offers free advice and information to any grower on the environmental sustainability of maize growing.  For more information click here or phone 01363 775040.

Source: Maize Growers Association

24.10.14 New guidance released on good practice for solar farms

A new document was released last week which describes good practice and opportunities to manage small livestock enterprises and ground mounted solar panels concurrently. The "Agricultural Good Practice guidance for Solar Farm" has been developed by a number of UK solar farm developers and organisations concerned with agriculture as well as the NFU.

Why has this come about?

Field scale arrays of ground mounted PV panels are a relatively new development seen in Britain only since 2011. As part of the “10 Commitments” of good practice, the majority of solar farm developers actively encourage multi-purpose land use, through continued agricultural activity or agri-environmental measures that support biodiversity, yielding both economic and ecological benefits.

In many planning applications for large scale ground mounted systems it is often included that the land between and under the rows of PV modules, should be available for grazing of small livestock. There are obvious practical considerations with larger animals including horses and cattle, as well as pigs and goats which may cause damage to cabling, however sheep and free ranging poultry can be used to manage grassland surrounding the panels.

Opportunities for cutting hay or silage or strip cropping of high value vegetables or non-food crops need careful layout with regard to size of machinery, however other productive options (for example bee keeping) could be used. The aim is, that the terms of the solar farm agreement should include a grazing plan which maintains access to land by the farmer, ideally in a form that enables the farmer to claim support through the Basic Payment Scheme.

This guidance covers lots of different aspects of management for solar farms and livestock and includes:

Conservation grazing for biodiversity

  • Solar farm design and layout
  • Eligibility for CAP support and greening measures
  • Long term management, permanent grassland and SSSI designation
  • Good practice in construction and neighbourliness
  • Research needs

Case studies

As well as this it has some case studies of different farmers who are managing to successfully combine solar modules and farming including:

Benbole Farm, Wadebridge – One of the first solar farms developed in Britain in 2011, this 1.74MW installation on a 4ha site is grazed by a flock of 20 geese. A community scheme enables local residents to benefit from free domestic solar panels and other green energy projects.

Higher Hill, Somerset – A third generation farmer, installed a 5MW solar farm on his own land. Located near Glastonbury the site has been grazed by sheep since its inception in 2011.

Wyld Meadow Farm, Dorset – Farmers continue to graze their own Poll Dorset sheep on this 4.8MW solar farm established in 2012 on 11ha. The solar farm was designed to have very low visual impact locally with an agreement to ensure livestock grazing throughout the project’s lifetime.

For more information and to download the guidance click here.

24.10.14 Low carbon growing event

A one day course to understand how to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sequestration in horticultural systems.

Featuring Iain Tolhurst, organic grower for nearly 40 years, on how he manages carbon in his veg growing business. Jonathan Smith, Director of FCCT and co-founder of the Farm Carbon Calculator will give an understanding of how to calculate carbon footprints and manage carbon.

Venue:       Tolhurst Organic, near Pangbourne, Oxfordshire

Date:          Tuesday 11th November

Time:        10.00 - 16.00

Cost:         £38.40 for eliglble delegates, including organic lunch

To book please email Becky Willson, FCCT project co-ordinator at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The day will feature group discussion, a workshop and a farm walk. The emphasis is on gaining understanding of the important areas to focus on in your business and practical solutions to help reduce your carbon footprint.

This event is applicable to growers on all scales, whether organic or not.


10.00 Registration and coffee

10.15 Welcome and outline of day

10.30 Group - who you are, what you do, what you want to get from the day, experiences so far

11.00 Why carbon matters - Jonathan Smith

11.30 Tea break

11.45 Low carbon growing at Tolhurst Organic and workshop session - Iain Tolhurst

12.15 Examples from other horticultural farms - Jonathan Smith

12.45 Questions and discussion

13.00 Organic lunch, based on Tolhurst Organic veg

14.00 Farm walk - practical measures to reduce carbon emissions and build carbon sequestration

16.00 Finish

This event is supported by

21.10.14 Theme of the month: Energy generation

We are completely reliant on energy as farmers, from powering machinery and lighting sheds, even just moving around the farm, energy is indispensable. However international oil prices have quadrupled in the last ten years, and coal and gas prices more than doubled, and further increases are expected. There are also long term energy supply challenges as fossil fuels are used up, therefore as farmers and growers we need to take action to cushion the impact of these twin factors.

This month therefore we will be looking at energy generation, and how it can give you higher energy security, lower energy prices, lower carbon emissions and an additional income stream to the farm.  Farming is inherently by its very nature energy intensive.  Generating your own energy can give you control over price and the ability to forecast costs and introduce additional income to the farm business.

Renewable energy covers all energy from a source which is naturally replenished when used.  The main sources of renewable energy are – energy from sunlight, heat from the earth, air or water sources, plants grown for fuel (biomass or biofuel), waste and the movement of water (hydro) or wind.  

What do I need to consider?

Before installing a particular technology on-farm there are various factors that are useful to consider.

Consider your energy use – what gets used and where?

Wherever possible, reduce your energy demand through energy efficient measures before considering installing renewable energy technologies

Identify any opportunities or constraints to renewable energy on your site

Check with the local planning authorities whether there are any planning issues

Seek independent advice

Speak to others who have already installed generating equipment

Choose technologies based on suitability and fitness for purpose rather than the promise of additional income

Get quotes from different installers

On-farm renewable energy options

Renewable energy can provide power (electricity) for lighting, machinery and appliances and direct heating or cooling for sheds, farm buildings, grain storage and offices. All installations should be carried out by MCS accredited companies (Government approved installers) and the installer's financial and energy generation projections examined carefully before committing to a project.

We cover farm-use scale projects below, but we as farmers are in a unique position compared to other industries, in our ability to consider large scale projects on our land. Such projects (typically over 2MW in capacity) are technically, financially and legally distinct from smaller scale projects and require detailed, tailored advice.

Some statistics

WIND – currently we have 4570 onshore turbines, equating to a onshore capacity of 7534 MW (Renewable UK)

SOLAR PV – In August 2014 the UK reached 5GW installed capacity with the south west the leading region in terms of capacity (Regen SW)

AD - There are now over 100 AD plants (that are outside of the water industry) that are operational (WRAP).  This figure is growing rapidly.

Renewables share of electricity generation was 16.8% in 2014, up 0.9 percentage points on the share in 2013 (DECC)

So for the rest of this month, we will be looking at various issues concerning renewable energy generation on-farm, hearing from a couple of familiar faces from FCCT who generate at home, and looking at the future in terms of where we go from here.  For more information on the different technologies, do have a look at the FCCT Toolkit pages here.

14.10.14 The Farm Crap App - efficient manure management

So some of you may know that as well as working for the fab Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit, I also work on the SWARM Hub which looks at sharing information on resource management for farmers and growers from a website.  It started out as a European funded project in the South west which was tasked with translating scientific research into farmer friendly material on soil, nutrients, water and energy management; analysing data from advice schemes to see what was happening on farms in the south west in terms of managing our resources and trying to come up with novel ways of spreading the key messages.

Throughout this journey we were fortunate enough to attend lots of different events, speak to lots of different farmers, students, advisors and researchers about issues we face as an industry moving forward.  Making better use of resources on-farm including the soil, livestock, manures, water and energy will enable us to create a far more resilient agricultural industry than if we have to rely on inputs to remain profitable.  

One of the topics that we came up against time and time again was manure management.  Through research that we conducted in the south west, we found that farmers were undervaluing manures produced by their livestock as a nutrient source as well as the value they produce in terms of minimising bagged fertiliser applications and improving soil structural quality and organic matter levels.  The sticking point came around application rates – being able to visually assess what was being applied and what that application was giving you in terms of crop available N, P and K (and as such equivalent fertiliser value) depending on when it was applied and to what crop.

Thus the Farm Crap App was born.

The app which is free to download and available on Android and Apple devices, allows you to visually assess what is being applied and calculates what that application is providing you in terms of crop available nitrogen, phosphate and potash.  It uses data from Defra’s RB209 and matches the information with an image library of different spreading rates of cattle slurry, farmyard manure, pig slurry and chicken muck to allow you to factor manure applications into your nutrient management planning.

In terms of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions better manure management is a great place to start.  If we are applying manures at a point where the crop is actively growing the nitrogen will be sucked up by the plant and will be at a much lower risk of sitting in the soil and being emitted as nitrous oxide.  Accurate knowledge of what is in your manures and more importantly factoring that into fertiliser planning will also minimise the risk of over application (which again will reduce the risk of emissions).

Last week was a great week for the app, as we went and presented at the Soil Association Annual Conference at their Innovation Awards.  Following a presentation, the attendees voted for the most pioneering idea in farming and growing across the UK in 2014, and despite stiff competition from some great innovators, we won!  The prize funds will allow us to further develop the app and ensure that we can make it a really useful tool for farmers and growers and the increased attention will hopefully allow more people to hear about it, download it and make better use of their manures.

For more information on how to download the app for free please click here.

13.10.14 The controversy around fracking


So just to finish this month’s theme off looking at attitudes, we are shifting the focus slightly away from climate change in general and looking at something which has received a lot of media attention recently, the recovery of shale gas by fracking.

Why do we need gas?

A third of UK energy demand is met by gas. In 2012 around a quarter of gas used in the UK was used to produce electricity, about a fifth by industry and around 40% to cook food and heat buildings.

In 2003 the UK were a net exporter of gas, but North Sea production is now declining and the UK is a net importer. By 2025 it is expected that the UK will be importing near to 70% of the gas consumed (DECC figures) if we don’t use shale.

DECC’s aim is to secure energy supply by maximising UK production of the fuels that we need, increasing generation from renewables and using energy more wisely.

So how does fracking work?

Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) is a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock. It is done by drilling into the earth and directing a high pressure water mixture at the rick to release the gas inside. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rick at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well. The process can be carried out vertically or horizontally by drilling and can be used to extend existing channels or create new pathways.

How does it score on emissions?

The process of extracting the gas, which includes exploratory drilling, hydraulic fracturing, gas production and well abandonment phases, has the potential to release methane into the atmosphere. These emissions could increase the carbon footprint of shale gas and in large quantities it could lessen the climate benefits of using natural gas when compared to oil and coal.

At exploration stage there is usually no use for the gas and so it is burnt off (or “flared”) to minimise emissions. Flaring reduces GHG emissions by about 80% compared to allowing it to escape into the atmosphere. When it is in full production operators capture as much of the methane as possible and export it by pipeline.

Minimising the carbon footprint

A study by the chief scientist for DECC looked at the effect of emissions, and found that the carbon footprint for shale gas is significantly less than for coal when it is used for electricity generation. Most carbon emissions will come from its final use as a fuel.

Why is it controversial?

Fracking has been used extensively in the US and has raised some environmental concerns. The environmental concerns focus around three key issues:

1. Water use – the process of fracking uses a huge amount of water that needs to be taken to the fracking site at significant environmental cost

2. Contamination of groundwater – Some of the chemicals that are used in the fracking process are nasty and there is a fear that potentially carcinogenic chemicals could escape and pollute groundwater around the fracking site.

3. Tremors – there are also worries that the fracking process can cause small earth tremors.  In 2011, in Blackpool two small earthquakes were reported following fracking.

Environmental campaigners suggest that fracking is distracting energy firms and governments from investing in renewable sources of energy, and encouraging continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Attitudes towards fracking

Put fracking into a Google search and as well as a range of imaginative (and not so imaginative!) puns around the word “frack”, you will find a whole heap of campaigns, articles, and blogs from people who are opposed to fracking. Below are just a selection

Dangers of Fracking

In Texas, traffic deaths climb amid fracking boom

Fracking is too dangerous; it threatens the water we drink, the air we breathe and our health”

A colossal fracking mess

What is the effect on farmers?

Just last week the NFU released a statement saying that farmers need assurances of compensation if fracking reduces the value of their land. Interestingly this article from the NFU and the issue of declining land value above fracking sites, all comes down to public perception. NFU members are fearful that the value of their land above fracking sites could be reduced “because of current attitudes and perceptions of fracking” event if no harm was actually caused.

Dr Jonathan Scurlock from the NFU said that the NFU are seeking assurances from the government that landowners will be protected against any possible indirect impacts of fracking.

DECC have responded to the NFU with the following statement: “Whilst the shale gas industry in Britain is in its infancy, extensive research confirms that we – in the UK – have the right regulations in place to ensure that drilling so farm underground has no negative impact on the surface.  Of over half a century of oil and gas production in the UK there has been no evidence that house prices have been impacted and there should be no reason for this to change for shale gas.”

The debate continues...

2.10.14 How do we adapt moving forward?

So following on from the blog at the beginning of the week about communicating climate change and some of the issues surrounding attitudes, this is “part 2” for the end of the week about what this means going forward.

The research from Wiles in 2012 came up with some recommendations for policy makers following on from their discoveries surrounding farmers understanding and interest in climate change and reducing GHG emissions. These included

1.To develop clear and simple information and guidance on climate change and on the mitigating actions that may be taken by farmers. The guidance should be developed through further research and better understanding of farmer perceptions of climate change and the actions needed to mitigate emissions.

2.Encourage positive action and a clear message through the media and other communication pathways.

3.Use financial incentives to encourage practice change

This will all help to achieve the “vision of success” that the UK Government has come up with where agriculture is “efficient, competitive and climate friendly. Very little biomass is landfilled, emissions are tightly controlled and material formerly landfilled is used for renewable energy, compost and fertiliser.”

Scottish data

Research from Scotland is coming up with the same sort of messages. Their research into effective communication messages concludes that “invoking both the profit and stewardship motives” in farmers, would be likely to encourage a balance of business and environmentally oriented behaviours.

What now?

So how do we move forward? Do we need to regulate reducing emissions in order to get everyone engaged? Or do we target grant schemes to those farmers who are engaging with the agenda? Do we install a “carbon compliance” along with cross compliance requirements? There are various options available to those who are making the decisions.

Regulation – placing restrictions on what farmers are legally allowed to do and prohibit undesirable management practices. This works best in situations where the target group is already, or can quickly be persuaded that regulated actions fall below an acceptable, reference level of responsible farming practice.

Economic incentives – taxes and subsidies are the most widely used and analysed methods

Market led and voluntary approaches – promoting environmentally beneficial management practices to encourage higher standards of environmental behaviour among farmers. These have significant potential to encourage high standards of management practices on-farms and are attractive because they offer win-win options to motivated producers, but are unlikely to be sufficient to drive enhanced management of the countryside as a whole.

Education / information provision – raising awareness of environmental issues, including what can be done to address then and why this could be beneficial to farmers.

Opportunities for retailers to help drive up standards?

All major UK supermarkets are currently promoting low carbon products and encouraging producers to calculate the GHG emissions of their products.

Is this an opportunity for retailers to promote emissions reduction methods for producers and include them in their reduction target plans?

What do we do as an industry?

So which of the options do we take? Do we use the stick first and regulate practices that are damaging in terms of emissions? Or do we use the next round of grant funding that will be coming out over the next few months and prioritise those applications which are reducing emissions and sequestering soil carbon? Or do we remain as it is now that if farmers are interested and adapt voluntarily then they will achieve the business benefits, or do we just raise the education level?

One thing is for sure, is that it’s not going to disappear? So what do you think is the best way to make British Agriculture more sustainable and reduce its emissions? Why not let us know now?

29.9.14 How farmers’ perception of climate change alters how we communicate

So as part of this month’s theme of looking at attitudes towards climate change, I thought that I would look at what the social scientists have done in terms of research around farmer attitudes and how this shapes how the messages are communicated. This has involved delving into a subject that I haven’t had many dealings with before, surrounding how you quantify behaviour change and attitudes towards things.

However before we start, I will just first offer some reassurance that I am not going to spend this blog trying to explain the complicated world of social science, but merely look at some of the results that have come from the clever people and places who have asked the questions.

The decision making process

If we look at the general population, in going about their daily lives, people generally do what they have done, what impulse tells them to do or what their neighbours or friends do even when this might not be the most beneficial option for them. The decision making process is complicated. I myself am guilty of putting things off that I don’t want to do and doing all the things that are easy first, or eating a chocolate biscuit when I know that I really shouldn’t. The decision making process for farmers is inherently more complicated as there are numerous factors at work. And when we include climate change in the mix it becomes more complicated again as it is such an important factor in profitability. Climate is the primary determinant of agricultural productivity, and therefore changes in the climate influence many components of agricultural systems, including crop and livestock production, input supplies, soil quality and water supply.

Climate change threatens the long term capacity of food production through increased soil erosion and reduced soil fertility. The certainty of an increased need for food to feed a burgeoning global population and the uncertainty of the short and long term effects of climate change on agriculture combined make efforts to enhance the resilience of agricultural systems a top societal priority. If policy makers, climate scientists and advice programmes are to effectively support farmer adaptation to climate change then farmer’s attitudes towards climate change must be understood.

Put simplistically, for successful policies to help us adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change, farmers need to be concerned about climate change and understand the vulnerability of their business to changing weather patterns. It is probably a good idea at this point to clarify the difference between adaptation and mitigation in terms of effects on behaviour.


Adaptation in this context refers to adjustments in ecological, social or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts. It refers to changes in processes, practices and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change. It is much more related to actual threats from the climate and the adaptation of management practices to deal with their effects.


Mitigation (in a climate change context) means implementing policies on-farm that are directly related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions or improving the level of carbon sequestered in the natural environment (trees, soils, hedgerows etc).

In terms of adjustments of farmer behaviour, adaptation is all about changing due to perceived vulnerability (risk management), whereas mitigation is more about acknowledging that human activity (including agriculture) is a cause of climate change and developing management strategies to reduce those.

Some studies around the world.

American data

The data below comes from an American study based in Iowa. This region (sometimes referred to the Corn Belt) contains some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world. Whilst it only occupies a fraction of US farmland, it produces over half of all US corn and soybean. As a state, it has experienced extreme weather events that have had adverse impacts on agricultural production and the natural resource base.

The data below summarises what they found when they interviewed 1,300 farmers from Iowa. To read the full paper click here.

  • 68% indicated that they believe climate change is happening

  • 10% attributed climate change mostly to human activities

  • 35% believed that climate change is occurring and caused equally by human activities and natural variation

  • 23% attributed climate change primarily to natural causes

  • 28% of farmers indicated uncertainty

  • 5% of people did not believe that climate change is happening

English data

A study by Wiles et al in 2012 (full text here) looked at farmer’s perceptions of climate change and found that:

  • The impacts of climate change are not seen as a pressing threat, nor are extreme weather events regular enough for the majority of farmers to invest time and resources into taking immediate action. Farmers are working to prevent the impacts of short term impacts and maximise opportunities rather than mitigate long-term risks.

  • The majority of farmers are sceptical about long term projections of climate change noting they are confusing lacking consistency and clarity. Instead farmers are likely to take actions based on their own perception of short term variations in weather.

  • There is a disconnect between understanding climate change and taking action to mitigate that change. Lack of government support, information and financial incentives to take action are all noted as key factors.

  • Farmers of necessity are first and foremost focused on profit and performance management of their farms, hence any incentive to take action will need to make sense financially.

  • Scottish Data

    In Scotland as part of a national project evaluating factors influencing farmers’ attitudes and behaviours towards climate change, 550 farmers were interviewed.

    • 50% of respondents believed that average annual temperature will increase in the future

    • 32% agreed that climate change will only impact negatively in the long term

    • 16% were receptive to adopting practices which would reduce emissions

    This work also looked at the different sets of factors that influence decision making, grouped into 4 categories – economic, external, internal and social.

     Economic factors

    Market volatility – agricultural systems are dynamic, since producers and consumers are continuously responding to changes in crop and livestock yields, food prices, input prices, resource availability and advances in technology.

    Economic motivation – only once economic condition had been satisfied , could land managers focus on other priorities.

    Whether or not to participate in economic schemes – economic considerations are acknowledged to be the primary driving force behind participation (along with fit with existing farm management).

    Issues relating to non-profitable farming systems – to maintain high nature value sites.

     External factors

    Capacity to change – regardless of how willing the farmer is to alter their management practices, they must also have the capacity to change.

    Farm size and type – including the theory that larger farmers are more likely to participate in schemes, some research has suggested that farm type is a more significant factor than size.

    Farmer demographics – a massively complex issues that spans subjects including age, tenancy status, education level etc

    Internal factors

    Attitudes, values and beliefs – again massively complex issues which ranges from perceived threat level from effects of climate change to risk management.

    Social factors

    This section deals with the fact that attitudes and behaviours don’t take place in a vacuum, but are influenced by the social content in which they occur.  Decisions are affected by the views and behaviours of their peers and neighbours as well as other family members and society at large.  Also included in this category is the whole area surrounding decision making on the farm.  There is evidence to suggest that in larger complex farm businesses, in particular, decision making is spread among family and non-family members.

     So what does this all mean in terms of moving forward?

    Since farmers are influenced by their social networks, desired behaviours in the innovator / early adopter group need to be encouraged, endorsed and promoted.  Highlighting what farmers are doing to both adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change at the farm scale will help to encourage more to engage with the climate change agenda.  This will be discussed more next week.

    25.09.14 The People’s Climate March – changing attitudes

    The UN Climate Summit is happening this week in New York. This is a meeting with a lot of VIPs at it. The who’s who of international leaders (as well as Leonardo di Caprio) are gathering in New York to discuss the issues surrounding climate change and what we are going to do about it. It’s the first time that they are discussing it since Copenhagen 5 years ago where they didn’t manage to get a binding agreement and so stuck to voluntary pledges instead.

    These talks, being run by Ban Ki Moon are meant to be a chance for governments, cities and businesses to show some ambition on tackling climate change. The summit has two goals:

    • To mobilise political will for a universal and meaningful climate agreement next year in Paris
    • To generate ambitious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen resilience.

    As well as world leaders, there has been a chance for industry and business leaders to attend. The World Farmers Organisation, chaired by Peter Kendall will attend, as part of the Global Alliance of Climate Smart Agriculture. This Alliance aims to make agriculture, forestry and fisheries part of the solution to the negative impacts of climate change.

    Normally this wouldn't make its way into an FCCT blog, unless the talks were concluding with some ground breaking new figures, pledges or statistics that applied to farmers and growers, but the thing that has made this somewhat different (and fits nicely into this month’s blog theme) is the marches that occurred last weekend before the start of the talks. On Sunday 21st September, 2,700 climate events happened around the world with campaigners taking to the streets to demand action on climate change through the People’s Climate March.

    Organisers of the event declared it an overriding success with the climate change profile being raised and over half a million people demonstrating, making it the largest climate change march in history. The march in New York topped 300,000 people and in London 40,000 people took part.

    Some people’s opinions for attending in London are below:

    “I’ve come along because climate change needs more attention. I’m hoping the numbers will be large enough to warrant some sort of attention”

    “It’s the biggest problem we've got to face, but we don’t because we think its too big and its too far off. Its not far off now. You’ve just got to do whatever you can so it goes up the political agenda. Its all our futures, our children’s futures.”

    “The Peoples’ Climate March made it clear that while some may choose to retreat from the inevitability of change, many more are embracing that change with passion, creativity and an unstoppable force. As I marched along with 40,000 others, I felt we were marching towards something rather than away from it. We made history on Sunday, in towns and cities around the world.”(Rob Hopkins, Transition movement)

    We fought apartheid, now climate change is our global enemy” (Desmond Tutu, not at the London March but in the newspaper).

    So will the march have any effect on the decisions coming out of the talks? Let’s wait and see (perhaps optimistically), and next year in Paris where targets may well be set. One thing is for certain, is that the climate change has moved higher up the agenda, and what we do now is crucial. Now is the time for all us to make a start and engage with the issues. There is also an opportunity now to respond to changing public perceoptions and educate people about how farming and growing are central to resolving the issues surrounding sustainable profitable food production and safeguarding natural resources.

    Some photos from marches around the globe

    Photo credit - Philip Barnes

       Photo from Melbourne

    Photo from Perth, Australia

    Sources: RTCC Website, Peoples Climate March website, UN Climate Summit pages.

    12.09.14 Theme of the month – attitudes to climate change

    In the general stresses that surround farming including making business decisions, not annoying the RPA, looking after stock and crops and coping with the weather, worrying about what is the carbon foot print of your business and how it will affect the climate in fifty years’ time for most farmers and growers doesn’t seem immediately relevant.

    Indeed one of the challenges for anyone concerned about the impact of climate change is not only that it seems a long way off from whatever it is that we’re doing at the moment and but also that there’s no tangible reward for possibly changing what we’re doing and making our lives any more complicated or hard work than they are currently.

    The statistical report compiled by Defra recently (that we have done a few blogs on last month) that looks at issues surrounding climate change has asked some questions regarding attitudes to climate change and to start the month, I thought it would be a good starter for 10.

    Research outcomes

    The report highlights some of the problems with adaptation and attitudes. Indeed it reports that “many farmers, but not the majority, recognise the importance of GHG emissions, but most remain unconvinced about the business benefits of reducing emissions. Ensuring a greater understanding of GHG emissions, whilst not a pre-requisite for changing practices and reduced emissions, is likely to be an important driver for change for some farmers. A greater understanding may also lead to the adoption of more measures and cost effective solutions for reducing agricultural GHGs that fit with the farm business.”

    There are numerous research projects that suggest practices that will reduce GHG emissions and provide a business benefit (win win situations). There is even now the terminology of “win win win” situations where not only are you reducing GHG emissions, and saving money, you are also sequestering carbon (who knows how many wins we could end up with?!). Practices advocated include better use of organic manures (and integrating their use with fertiliser applications to avoid over application), ensuring efficient livestock production, managing soil structure, tillage management and energy usage.

    The problems with GHG emissions

    The issue comes that all these practices that are advocated are long term solutions and results are  not visible immediately. If you have a cow that goes down with mastitis, you can treat her, and she will recover over a short time period, she returns to being productive with saleable milk and you can immediately see the business benefit. With management practices concerning GHG reduction, there is less immediate effect and sometimes the benefits are not so clear cut. If we return to our cow example, if cow A has mastitis (providing you know what strain it is and what antibiotic to treat it with), the cow will respond to treatment and return to production. It doesn't make much of a difference as to whether the cow is in Scotland or Cornwall, whether she is being fed a TMR or forage based diet or whether she is a high or low yielder the results will be the same. If we compare this to soil management, the scale of benefits you will see will depend on your soil type, its current state in terms of compaction and what you are growing (along with a whole other host of factors). Its much less clear cut.

    Most farmers are likely to be influenced to change behaviour and practice because it makes business sense; and so it is important when we are communicating research outputs that we highlight the practical and financial considerations.

    The other barriers

    Even considering all this, there are several key barriers to uptake which are non-financial, or not directly financial. Some of these aspects include a lack of willingness to undertake practices advocated, which could be due to limited trust in what is being asked and the outcomes that result, or a lack of ability to undertake (through a lack of understanding, skills, time or capital).

    The latter part (a lack of ability to undertake), can be addressed by making sure that we have effective dissemination of options available, and, if necessary, funding options available to farmers to implement them. Making sure that the information that goes out to farmers on how to reduce emissions is clear and considers all the impacts that the change will have on-farm (for example the effect on existing management, financial implications, suppliers and end market) is imperative. It does rely in part on two way communication, and farmers asking questions and challenging the researchers to get more information.

    The first part which involves a deeper level of trust from farmers and growers and a willingness to engage with the climate change agenda and reducing GHG emissions, is trickier, and will be one of the things that we will be considering this month.

    A call to arms

    Moving forward however, the very real risk is that because of the confusion over potential benefits or drawbacks of implementing one form of management or another, and the range of possible actions available, we are impassive to the whole thing and do nothing. And because we do nothing, and don’t pose the questions that we need answering and switch off from the whole thing, the mistrust and apathy continues.

    Doing nothing is not an option anymore.

    So the challenge this month is to do something. And even if that something is just to tell me that I’m talking a load of codswallop, that’s great too. Communication is the key, to enable us all to ask the questions to the right people and start to normalise discussions about emissions, to highlight practical implementation problems with research, to demand answers and get excited about it. Join in now.

    09.09.14 Why measure carbon emissions on your farm?

    Greenhouse gases are much talked about but are inherently intangible. You can't smell, see, taste, hear or touch them; they're all gases that are released in relatively small quantities on a continuous basis. So how do we understand what is going on with them, and how do we talk a common language?

    Greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions are commonly talked about as 'carbon emissions'. In farming the main GHGs are carbon dixoide, methane and nitrous oxide, and all have different 'warming potentials' – i.e. how much they cause the planet to warm, or how potent they are. But by converting them all to CO2 equivalents (described as CO2e), we can talk in a common language about kilos or tonnes of CO2e.

    Benefits to your business

    Reducing carbon emissions in a farming business makes sense on many levels. High carbon emissions tend to be linked to high use of resources, and/or wastage, so reducing emissions also tends to reduce costs. This makes the farm more efficient and should improve profitability.

    Collectively, the UK Government has committed to an 80% reduction in GHGs by 2050, and farming has to play its part in that. Agriculture is directly responsible for nearly 10% of national carbon emissions, so it's a very important sector. Farming businesses of all sizes are realising that reducing emissions is not just a moral obligation, it also brings a very positive public image.

    Furthermore, farmers and growers are able to sequester (absorb) carbon in biomass and soils on the farm. This unique attribute enables farms to play a hugely important role in reducing carbon emissions. More on this later.

    How to get started

    Before being able to reduce emissions, you need to know where they're coming from. Are the largest emissions coming from livestock, soils, fuels, fertilisers? It is vital to get a picture of your business, and this is what happens when we do carbon footprinting.

    The first step is to gather all the input data, including details such as fuel use, livestock numbers, fertiliser inputs, use of materials, waste produced, etc. In order to be accurate you need to be comprehensive in your assessment. The list can look daunting at first, but if your record keeping is reasonable then this process should be achievable in a few hours. Once you've done it once, the next time will be quicker.

    Once your input data is assembled you are ready to enter data in to your chosen carbon calculator. There are quite a few of them online, free to use and designed for farmers and growers. The Farm Carbon Calculator is designed by farmers for farmers, is comprehensive and user friendly.

    The process of entering data shouldn't take more than an hour, after which you will have a breakdown of carbon emissions by sector, both in amounts (kg of CO2e) and percentages of the total. Armed with this data you are then ready to be able to think about how to reduce emissions.

    Taking action

    The Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit has specifically designed a Toolkit to enable farmers and growers to understand how to reduce emissions on their farms. It has background information, helps you understand processes and has specific advice on taking action. There are also links to further information and case studies of farmers who have already taken steps to reducing emissions.

    When carbon footprinting, doing it once is great as it gives you a snapshot of where you are at that time. But to really understand whether your emissions are increasing or decreasing it's important to repeat the process at regular intervals – we recommend annually. When you do this you can start to see what direction the farm is moving in and whether the actions you're taking are working.

    Your farm as a carbon sink

    Farming and forestry are almost unique industries in being able to sequester (absorb) carbon on very significant scales. When CO2 is absorbed by trees (and other perennials), the carbon is locked up in woody material. If the amount of woody material is increasing on a farm – through more planting and/or natural increases in age structure, then the farm will be continuously drawing down more CO2.

    Even more significant is what happens in the soil, and this is where the real win-win situation happens. Any organic material that decomposes and becomes part of stable soil organic matter, is essentially locking up carbon in the soil. If soil organic matter increases then more CO2 is drawn down out of the atmosphere. The best part is that soils that are high in organic matter are also better to work, have higher fertility levels, are more stable and should produce healthier crops of a higher yield.

    The Farm Carbon Calculator is the only carbon calculator that fully measures carbon sequestration on the farm. We think this is very important as it makes a large difference to the overall carbon footprint.

    It's important to consider that farms can not just reduce emissions, but that the soils and biomass can actually absorb more CO2 than the rest of the farm emits. This is surely the goal that all farmers should be working towards.

    05.09.14 A view across the pond: A global perspective on emissions

    For one of the last blogs on this month’s theme of calculators and metrics, I thought that I would have a look at the emissions situation from a global perspective. The data below comes from the recently released Agricultural Statistics and Climate Change report compiled by Defra.

    The report provides international comparisons of agricultural productivity and the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of agriculture. Anyone who has delved into the complex methodologies and models that are used to produce the figures quoted on emissions (and emerged unscathed!) will know that it is not an easy task. Couple this with the amazing diversity of production systems that exist within UK agriculture and it is all made more complicated. So you can imagine the fun that occurs when comparing the UK’s results with other countries. Cue loads of caveats and information on what’s included and what’s not (click here for more info). Put simply its difficult to make comparisons. For this report the results have been calculated by assessing GHG emissions on the basis of emissions per unit of output (either GDP or unit of production). To be honest moving forward, assessing whether there is a way of simplifying the terminology and ironing out a common method for measuring emissions may be something that needs to be addressed by policy makers(but that is a subject for another blog).

    International comparison results

    International comparisons of GHG emissions per unit of agricultural production.

    The graph above shows agricultural emissions (as CO2 equivalent) per unit of gross agricultural production. The results are a result of the different crops grown under different climatic conditions across the world. The countries at the top of the list in terms of lowest emissions (in this calculation) are ones that tend to be growing high value crops (for example olives and grapes), whereas countries with a high proportion of grass fed livestock tend to have higher emissions.

    Yields and GHG risk factors


    In the UK, the main cereal crops produced are wheat and barley. In 2012 the UK accounted for 2% of the world’s production of wheat and 4% of barley. The advances in yield for different countries over the last 20 years are shown in the graph below. UK yields have risen by about 10% in this time period. However in terms of emissions, focusing on yields is limited as nitrous oxide emissions are produced from sources other than cereals. It therefore might be better to consider the effectiveness of nitrogen use within the production system (how efficiently the crops use available nitrogen) and manage the nitrogen balance by optimising fertiliser, soil and manure management.


    The graph below shows international comparisons of milk yields. Whilst the milk yield figures don’t measure GHG emissions, a positive correlation has been found between yield and levels of input. This can be seen with predominantly grazed systems (as found in NZ and Ireland) having a lower average yield per cow than systems based on a high level of concentrates (as found in the USA.

    Obviously within all the statistics there will be a massive range depending on management efficiency, system set up and feed quality. This also concurs with what is advised by levy bodies in terms of minimising emissions; to make your production system as efficient as possible, so that an optimal level of production is achieved from the inputs (feed, fertilisers etc).

    In terms of optimising production, this is where potentially looking at oversees data may help. It has already been achieved to a degree by adopting New Zealand management in grass based dairy production by using spring calving herds maximising the production of milk from grass.

    In terms of future climate and weather patterns, looking at management of crops in other countries that experience the conditions that may become prevalent in future UK agriculture, may allow us to get new ideas.

    02.09.14 Caplor Farm

    So in preparation for our second field lab event looking at practical ways to reduce GHG emissions from farming, here is a blog written by our second host farm Caplor Farm, explaining a little bit about where they have come from and what inspired them to delve deeper into sustainability and issues surrounding carbon management on-farm.

    Gareth Williams’ had been leading a 100 acre mixed farming family business, when in 2007 floods severely affected his potato crops. The farm, in Fownhope, Herefordshire has been run by the family since 1923. The extreme weather lead him to re-evaluate how best to manage his farm to ensure the future generations of the Williams’ family will be able to manage it successfully.

    Image: Potato sorting on the farm

    He found himself reading about Triple Bottom Line accounting and incorporating this approach into his business, providing him and his young family with a sustainable future whilst making the world a better place.

    Image: Gareth Williams and Caplor Farm Solar Thermal and PV Array

    Renewable Energy was a natural way for Caplor Farm to diversify after a 70kWp Solar Panel system was installed on the farm in 2009. Gareth Williams was so impressed with the returns and satisfied that the new approach was saving 15 tonnes of carbon on average annually, that he wanted to spread the word and help others achieve success from renewable energy installations. Caplor Farm now enjoys the benefits of additional renewable energy technology such as Solar Thermal production of hot water, Biomass heating for several buildings on site and even a Wind Turbine. Combined, these technologies see less money being spent on electricity, less farm waste going to landfill and more control over on-site energy production.

    Image: Gareth Williams and Schoolchildren see animals on Caplor Farm

    Since the beginning of this journey, Caplor Energy and Caplor Farm have been involved with the local community environment collective - Fownhope Carbon Reduction Action Group, speaking at corporate events and inviting School children to experience Renewable Energy in action on the farm.

    From this integrated approach to environment, social and financial matters, Gareth Williams hopes to enable Caplor Farm to react proactively to changing climates and farming practices ensuring a commercial future for his family and community who it involves.

    To find out more about the event which is taking place on the 5th November, and to book your place, please click here.

    26.08.14 - The business benefits of benchmarking

    In recent years benchmarking has been seen of paramount importance in improving the performance of UK agriculture. Huge amounts of money have been invested in developing software packages and research to allow farmers to critically assess the performance of their business, to compare with other producers in a similar situation and develop tools to help them appraise management decisions to move the business forward.

    Benchmarking and the benefits that it brings to farm business management fit into our theme this month here at FCCT of calculators and metrics. Simply speaking, benchmarking involves the comparison of performance indicators derived for one business with the same performance indicator derived for one or more other businesses. However benchmarking also incorporates a focus on the production (physical and technical husbandry), ecosystems, resource management, human resources and business management practices and processes used in the business. Benchmarking focusses on the key variables that influence productivity, profitability, liquidity and solvency. It is an on-going process aimed at continuous improvement. Completing benchmarking at whole farm, enterprise and margin level helps focus on-farm and business performance allowing managers to identify areas of success and where improvements and changes are needed.

    There are many tools available to producers to help to benchmark production and assess areas for improvement. A couple are listed below:

    HGCA Crop Bench

    Crop bench plus was launched in 2014 by HGCA to enable arable farmers to benchmark their arable enterprises to help them improve their efficiency and profitability. The software allows farmers to compare a whole range of data with other growers in their region. Reports cover physical and financial aspects of crop production systems and can help farmers discover best practice and develop new techniques as well as increasing profits.

    Dairy Co – Milk Bench

    Milkbench was designed as a benchmarking tool specifically for dairy farmers. The software produces six cost cluster reports including feed and forage costs, labour costs, herd health and herd replacement costs, machinery and power costs, property, rent and financing costs and overheads. The software produces a Dairy Enterprise Cost report which provides a breakdown of all costs incurred in the production of milk as well as a breakdown of dairy income.


    For beef and sheep producers, EBLEX offers Stocktake, which provides more detailed benchmarking figures and extra data on physical performance than previous Business Pointers. These figures produce data which producers can use to benchmark their performance on costs of production and look at areas where there is scope for improvement.

    Benchmarking environmental sustainablilty

    But where does environmental and carbon footprinting benchmarking come into all of this? We all realise that it presents a complex picture. Farmers and land managers are engaged in multifunctional activities, with environmental management and sustainable land stewardship central to core activities. Whilst there is an often held perception that farmers prioritise profit above all else, in reality profit and efficiency drivers sit alongside other objectives in a farm business. There are potential win-wins that can exist where strong technical and business performance can occur alongside environmental outputs, and potentially this is where focus should be moving forward in terms of minimising emissions and decreasing the carbon footprint of agriculture.

    Looking at research that has come out of Defra, this seems to be what the scientists are advocating moving forward. Metrics can help in the diagnosis of areas of weakness in a business, but also in identifying solutions and driving technological changes in a direction that supports more solutions.

    Results from research spanning different agricultural production systems seems to suggest a broadly similar short term conclusion. Improved efficiency in terms of breeding and feeding livestock, optimal use of resources (including fertiliser and manures), and higher levels of farm management (including measuring and benchmarking) will all help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as drive efficiency and profit, and create a sustainable and resilient agricultural industry.

    For more information on practical measures to reduce emissions click here to access the FCCT Toolkit with sector specific information on what to do now.

    18.08.14 Agricultural statistics and climate change

    So following on from the introductory blog last week, this week’s blog is a little bit more detail on the newly released Agricultural Statistics and Climate Change report compiled by Defra and the Office for National Statistics.

    This report provides an update on how the UK Agricultural Industry is doing in responding to the need to reduce GHG emissions from agricultural production by 3Mt CO₂e by 2020 (from 2007 baseline levels).

    Methodology and data collection

    So in order to calculate how we are doing, the people who do the number crunching and create the statistics use a variety of data. Data on land use and livestock numbers comes from Defra’s June Census information. When it comes to looking at what is happening out on farms and what practices are being used, a couple of studies are used including Defra’s Farm Practices Survey as well as the British Survey of Fertiliser Practice. These sets of data allow the researchers to look at whether we are changing what we are doing out on farm in terms of fertiliser applications, livestock diets, planning nutrient applications and managing the farm business and what the drivers are behind it.

    This data is used alongside a model developed by ADAS and Defra called Farmscoper. Farmscoper is a decision support tool which can be used to assess diffuse agricultural pollutant loads on a farm and quantify the impacts of farm mitigation methods on those pollutants. The model also determines the potential additional consequences of adopting these mitigation methods on biodiversity, energy and water use.

    The headline results.

    Over the next couple of weeks we will be delving into some of the sections in more detail, but to start things off here are the headline results that have come out of the study.

    There are 10 indicators used in this study to look at how we are progressing in terms of minimising GHG emissions. These indicators (which are described a bit further down) suggest that by early 2014 a 1.15MtCO₂eq reduction in GHGs has been achieved (a reduction of 33% when compared to the 2007 baseline).

    Results from the different indicator measures

    Attitudes and Knowledge

    7% of farmers reported that it was “very important” to consider GHGs when making farm management decisions while 39% thought it fairly important.

    59% of farmers were taking action to reduce emissions (within this percentage there were more large farms than small

    Uptake of mitigation methods

    By Feb 2014 approximately 1MtCO₂e reduction in GHG emissions had been achieved from the uptake of key mitigation methods

    Mitigation methods related to nutrient management (for example calibrating your fertiliser spreader) collectively provide the greatest potential to reduce emissions

    The technical potential reduction (if methods were implemented on all farms) is 3MtCO₂e

    Soil Nitrogen balance

    Surplus N in soils provides environmental risks in terms of pollution and water quality. This indicator shows potential environmental pressure from agricultural production.

    Over the longer term the N surplus (kg/ha) in England has fallen by 18% since 2000. The main drivers have been a reduction in applications of bagged fertiliser (especially to grassland) and a reduction in manure production (due to falling livestock numbers).

    As well as these three indicators, there are also a host of sector specific indicators which are listed below.

    • Pig sector – feed conversion rate for fattening herd
    • Grazing livestock – beef and sheep breeding regimes
    • Dairy sector – ratio of dairy cow feed production to milk production
    • Poultry – feed conversion ratio for table birds
    • Cereals and other crops – manufactured fertiliser applications
    • Slurry and manure (storage, use and application)
    • Organic fertiliser application

    So although we are making progress against the targets there is scope for us to do more in terms of reducing GHG emissions. Simple measures like calibrating your fertiliser spreader, ensuring that nutrient applications are planned and take into account field conditions and crops grown as well as optimising efficient livestock production will all help not just in terms of maintaining profitable farm businesses but also reducing GHG emissions and increasing the sustainability of agricultural production, a challenge for us all to think about moving forward.

    To read the full report click here, or keep an eye on the blog as we will be looking at more statistics from this report throughout the month.

    Why not have a go at using the FCCT Carbon Calculator to take stock of where your business is now and see where it may be possible to reduce emissions?

    08.08.14 Theme of the month calculators and metrics

    The old adage of you can’t manage what you don’t measure is the underlying message for this month’s theme.

    The issues of carbon calculators, emissions factors, efficiency measures and how to unravel it all to aid management decisions for the farm business is a fairly complex situation and one that we will be attempting to sort out. So at the beginning of the month, here’s a quick summary of what we are going to be looking at and what the issues are.

    Carbon Footprinting

    Identifying the carbon footprint of a farm business is the first vital step in being able to quantify the contribution that the farm is making to climate change. A carbon footprint calculation identifies the quantity and source of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emitted from the farm (as well as carbon sequestered in soils and woodland) highlighting areas where improvements or changes can be made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Action Plan

    This initiative which is managed by an industry partnership, has been set up to look at options for producers to reduce emissions on-farm. The action plan sets out how reductions in emissions can be made through greater resource efficiency, generally involving changes in farm practices which are also good in terms of business operations through more efficient use of fertiliser or more efficient animal husbandry.

    Targets and Statistics

    Without getting too caught up in policy, targets and figures we will also bring you an update on what’s happening in terms of agriculture and climate change mitigation in the UK. Statistics produced include data on emissions and links to information on farmer attitudes to climate change mitigation and uptake of mitigation measures. The latest edition of Agricultural Statistics and Climate Change (a fascinating document albeit very long at 115 pages!) looks at the effect of management practices on the emissions data. Without giving away the results, before a blog on it in the near future, current indicators suggest that by early 2014 a 1.15MtC0₂ equivalent reduction in GHGs had been achieved, around 33% of the estimated maximum technical potential.


    Benchmarking your business is a valuable tool in order to evaluate and asses how you farm is performing. It helps to formulate and frame the right questions, highlights strengths and weaknesses and all this enables greater focus on priorities for further assessment and better use of resources.

    There are a wide range of opportunities for benchmarking various commodities and production systems within agriculture (for example crop bench, milk bench) as well as the Farm Business Survey and Key Performance Indicators.

    So that’s a quick run down of what we will be up to this month. So for those of you who aren’t sat on a combine and might have a spare few minutes, why not have a look at the FCCT carbon calculator and see how your business is performing in terms of emissions. We’ll have more detail on it, as well as a couple of farm examples later on in the month.

    06.08.14 Spotlight on: Regen Ag UK

    RegenAG UK promotes the use of tools and techniques which regenerate the triple bottom line of farming; net productivity, the ecosystems that relies on, and the people involved with and affected by it. We deliver courses and co-ordinate peer-peer learning with regard to specific tools, techniques, and understanding which support optimization of ecosystem services whilst significantly reducing inputs and simultaneously increasing net productivity and are developing a ‘community of practice’.

    Our focus was inspired by the work of Darren Doherty of Regrarians Ltd, who uses P.A. Yeomans’ Scale of Permanence as a base to a framework for farm design. He integrates Allan Savory’s Holistic Management decision-making framework as well as Holistic Planned Grazing and Joel Salatin’s pioneering example of intense sustainable diversification, internships and apprenticeships which increases the productivity of an given area of land manyfold. Alongside this Darren (and RAUK) promotes the use of biofertilisers and soil chromatography as cheap methods to understand soil health (or lack of and what is required) and remedy imbalances between microbial, mineral and organic matter elements.

    Holistic Management (HM) and Holistic Planned Grazing(HPG):

    Holistic Management is a decision-making framework applicable to any scenario but developed particularly with land-management in mind. Place a ‘W’ at the front of ‘holistic’ and it’s nature becomes more apparent in that it helps us make and test management decisions with the benefit of different wholes in mind (the family, the estate, the business, the community, etc.).

    HPG is based on insights about the ways that grazing patterns affect not only plant growth but also soil health and wildlife biodiversity, and the ways in which all these factors interact in terms of improvement in one feeding back beneficially to the others. Grazing is managed in a way which mimics the movement of large herds of stock across the landscape, as they did as many ecosystems developed, and the careful attention to timing (long rest periods with short but intense grazing periods) has been shown to result in benefits in terms of production and animal health as well as to the environment.

    Courses are running in October, with funding available to help with the cost for English farmers – for more details click here

    05.08.14 GHG emissions from dairy production systems

    GHG emissions from dairy production systems have a large impact on agriculture’s carbon footprint, with approximately 20% of the industry’s emissions attributable to dairy production.

    Efforts to reduce this figure have primarily concentrated on making the production system more efficient, creating animals that produce high milk yields and have a good feed conversion efficiency. This logically would then suggest that selection for yield and the pursuit of high milk output per cow would be the most effective way to lower the carbon footprint per litre of milk.

    This would also indicate that those systems which rely more heavily on grass and forage based feed and are less focused on pushing for yield and more on producing long lasting animals that are more dual purpose (in terms of milk and meat), are less efficient in terms of GHG emissions.

    This research has moved slightly away from the traditional use of Life Cycle Analysis for a product (for example the GHG emissions per litre of milk or kg of meat) and has tried to create a model which takes into account the overlap into the beef supply chain when male dairy calves are reared for beef.

    There were two phases to this research:

    Phase 1

    -looked at the impact of animal welfare improvements on GHG emissions (for example lameness and mastitis) and found that they could produce up to 10% improvements in GHG efficiency.

    Phase 2

    -compared different production systems, looking at GHG emissions from a high yielding herd versus a pasture fed dual purpose system including the impacts on beef production. Modelling results in this phase showed that these moderate output grass based dairy systems were as GHG efficient as high yield dairying. Utilising the male dairy calves for beef production increased GHG efficiency.

    So what does it mean?

    The study concluded that efforts to utilise grass, increase beef production from the dairy industry and linking up the dairy and beef supply chain were all valuable ways to maximise the efficiency of milk production and GHG emissions.

    Interestingly it also recognises the value of grass based systems using low cost, low input resources to produce milk. The UK’s climatic conditions are well placed for growing grass and in the face of rising feed prices and increasing competitiveness for arable crops for human food production, systems that can utilise cheaper and more resilient feed resources (i.e. grass) are more preferable in terms of sustainability.

    The study recommends that we put effort into linking up the dairy and beef supply chain and look at where they overlap in terms of emissions so that we can maximise efficiency. For more information and to read the paper please click here.

    26.07.14 Carbon conscious farmers

    Our message about good soil management has just spread a little but further with an article in Resurgence and Ecologist written by FCCT Director Jonathan Smith.

    Drawing on our event in March on building soil carbon, it outlines some of the techniques three of our speakers are using on their farms, and the impacts if such techniques were deployed on a wider scale.

    Read it in our Resources section here

    23.07.14 Reducing methane emissions from sheep

    So this week, I am fortunate enough to be spending my time at the Royal Welsh Show. I can’t fail to be impressed by it, it is refreshing to see a show which maintains it’s agricultural focus and its been a great opportunity to talk to Welsh farmers about what theissues are but also have a bit of a look at what advice and research they have going on concerning GHG emissions reductions and climate change mitigation.

    On my wanders round the stands I came across a booklet produced by Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) which was entitled Reducing methane emissions from sheep and thought that it would be a good subject for this week’s blog, so here goes.

    The Welsh government (as in England) has set out a commitment to reducing GHG emissions by 3% per year from 2011. In Wales the percentage that comes from agriculture is estimated to be around 9% of total emissions.

    For sheep production, reducing methane emissions is the main challenge. And as we all know, the actual amount of methane produced by an animal depends on various factors including the level of feed intake, feed quality and differences in an animal’s own efficiency of food conversion.

    How to reduce methane emission from sheep

    HCC advocate hat here are various different options that will help to reduce emissions from sheep. These can broadly be divided into two categories – nutritional strategies and increasing efficiencies.

    Nutritional strategies

    One of the ways to reduce the amount of methane emitted by the sheep is to alter the diet that they are eating. This can be done by changing the feed components that they are eating, or adding specific compounds that are designed to suppress methane production. Welsh research is currently looking at the use of high sugar grasses, the addition of garlic to feed and also breeding high lipid content oats (to suppress methane production). Once the results are published, we will keep you up to date.

    Increasing efficiency

    This approach is based on reducing methane emissions per kilo of lamb produced. Methane production is linked to energy requirements and feed intake therefore although increasing production increases the total energy requirement (and methane produced) the proportion of energy that is required for maintenance is reduced.  When you are looking at levels of production, the overall methane emissions per unit of output is lower for more productive animals. However, a slight word of caution, while improving profitability is one of the key principles to reducing methane emissions, to be effective it needs to come from a drive to be more efficient rather that just by increasing inputs.

    Genetic improvement

    The HCC have done research into the potential to use production traits in breeding and breed more efficient animals, and then looked at what the effect is on the methane emissions from those more productive animals. Genetic improvement is able to play a vital role in improving production efficiency. Data from HCC (as from EBLEX in England, available in the Toolkit) shows that using high index rams can provide financial benefits ranging from £2 to £3.50 per finished lamb.

    Increasing rearing percentage, growth rate of slaughter lambs and increased longevity in replacements and breeding stock will also reduce methane emissions and produce more efficienct animals, and these are traits which can be used in genetic selection.

    Research has just finished in Wales looking at the effect of breeding sheep for individual traits on methane emissions.  Traits looked at were lamb growth rate, carcass confirmation and weight, lamb survival, ewe litter size and ewe longevity, and the model considered both hill and lowland flocks.

    The full results are available here, but the results show that a reduction in methane emissions is possible from looking at breeding regimes and maximising efficiency.  Changing management to make your flock more efficient will reduce emissions.  For example improving traits such as lamb survival through improvements in flock management will lower methane emissions per tonne of carcass produced.

    To read the full report please click here. And if you are visiting the show, do come and say hello, I am in the green pavilion.

    17.07.2014 Reducing emissions from livestock: challenges and adaptation

    Central to the debate around climate change and agriculture has been livestock’s contribution to emissions. Livestock play a part in agriculture’s carbon footprint; this fact is indisputable but the production of livestock brings many benefits to the UK food chain.

    The Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) commissioned a piece of work looking at reducing emissions from livestock. This article, written by Dr David Garwes looks at the contribution livestock makes to the UK food chain, the environment and the farming industry in the UK. This report has examined various strategies that could be adopted in the coming years to help reduce GHG emissions and that may need further research. Some of these measures are summarised below, but to read the full report click here.

    Reduced animal numbers

    The most cost effective approach is to make every animal more productive, whilst continuing to meet food production needs.

    Increased yield from each animal

    Improving the genotype of cattle can generate increased yield (kg of meat or litre of milk). It may be possible to include selection traits that bring about a reduced environmental footprint. This would improve the cost of production.

    Reduced breeding stock numbers

    Improvements in reproductive performance of breeding stock will reduce the numbers of animals that are needed to generate productive offspring. A study from Nottingham University found that if dairy cow fertility returned to the level documented in 1995, methane emission from the national herd would fall by 11%.

    Improved feed conversion

    Feed is a significant proportion of rearing costs.  Data highlighted in sector specific roadmaps show that there are significant differences between management practices and species in terms of efficiency.

    Optimise feed intake

    Selection of stock that consume only what is needed for optimal production will reduce pollution from excess nutrients.

    Improve nutrient balance in rations

    Better ration formulation will allow a balance to be met between nutrients produced and animal demand.

    Feed sources that reduce methane and ammonia emissions

    Increasing the availability of fermentable carbohydrates in dairy feed promotes higher milk yields and reduces the amount of Nitrogen lost through urination. Examples of plants to add to rations include clover and chicory (high in tannins) and red clover (high in polyphenol oxidase).

    Manage manure

    Reducing leaching losses and covering slurry storage can be options to consider. Future developments include using nitrification inhibitors and scrubbing effluent air from production units to reduce emissions to the atmosphere.

    Use manures as a resource

    Apply manure precisely based on nutrient content and crop requirements. The faster slurry can be incorporated into the soil, the lower the nitrous oxide emissions will be,

    These points above are expanded and explained in more detail in the full report available here. For more information on reducing emissions from livestock enterprises click here.

    14.07.14 Sustainable Organic and Low Input Dairy

    The SOLID project is an EU wide initiative that is concerned with promoting sustainable dairy production. It aims to improve the technical performance and economic competitiveness of organic and low input dairy systems in Europe while maintaining their potential to deliver environmental goods and enhance biodiversity.

    The project is looking at how feeding, breeding and technology can be used to improve profitability and sustainability through constructing new research, as well as looking at what farmers are doing by producing in-depth case studies.

    In the UK a Welsh dairy farm has been put under the spotlight, focussing on managing grassland and herd breeding to improve margins. Click here to read more about it.

    If you are interested in finding out more about what the project is up to, and how to assess sustainability in dairy systems the Organic Research Centre is putting on an event on the 24th September. This project workshop will look at sustainability assessments and the various carbon footprinting tools available for dairy farmers, as well as new methods for including soil carbon changes and biodiversity indicators.

    If you are interested in attending, click here to download the flier and here for the booking form.

    11.07.14 Low methane emitting cattle

    Enteric emissions and respiration in the form of methane, together with the losses from manures and land use changes comprise the majority of livestock related greenhouse gas emissions.  Technologies that increase rumen efficiency and lower methane emissions form a vital mitigation strategy to reduce global warming impacts.

    The Ruminomics project

    Methane from cattle makes up 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and 1% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions according to Phil Garnsworthy professor of dairy science at the University of Nottingham. He is part of Ruminomics, an EU funded research project that is looking at how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. The project is looking at connecting the genetic research, with knowledge on the gastrointestinal microbiomes and feeding to improve the efficiency of rumination (and as such lower methane production and improve environmental impact).

    The project has discovered that the amount of methane that cattle produce during rumination can vary. It is investigating whether combining different dietary and breeding options make it possible to produce the same volume of milk with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

    Current science suggests that there are three issues that determine how much methane the cow emits, the diet, genetics and the rumen microbiology. “It is possible to image cutting emissions from cattle by a fifth, using a combination approach including breeding from lower emitting cattle and changing their diets” explained Garnsworthy.

    Interestingly the science also suggests that reducing methane emissions may also have the capacity to increase milk production as the methane is “lost energy” that could go into producing milk. So if the right genetic mix can be found, it is possible that cattle could be bred that are less polluting, more productive and ultimately more profitable. To read the project report please click here.

    What can I do now?

    In terms of what this means for farmers we will have to wait a while for the scientists to finish the research. However while we wait, do check out the dairy and beef pages on the FCCT website which highlight current research and practical options concerning reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The roadmaps produced over the last few years by EBLEX, DairyCo and BPEX have all suggested that efficient production systems are a good strategy when managing our livestock. DairyCo advocate concentrating on improving the efficiency of milk production through improved feed efficiency. This will benefit the bottom line and reduce GHG emissions per unit of production. Paying attention to improving overall herd health, to increase growth rates, improve fertility and reduce culling rates will all contribute to a healthier and more productive herd.

    To read the livestock section of the Toolkit please click here

    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.


    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 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 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.


    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.

    12.06.14 Cover cropping and Controlled Traffic Farming

    Below is a link to an interesting video that pinged into the FCCT inbox this week from Controlled Traffic Farming Europe about the use of cover crops in controlled traffic farming systems.

    The video features a farmer from Bedfordshire who manages his soil and cropping using a controlled traffic farming system as well as direct drilling and using cover crops. The farmer in question was able to direct sow a cover crop of spring oats immediately after wheat harvest, and then again direct sow linseed intonthe sprayed off oats in the spring.

    What strikes me when watching this video, is the growth of the linseed, even under what seems to be a dense mat of oat crop residue. Surely if these crops can grow away and produce a good yield, while at the same time, getting all the benefits of keeping the soil anchored in the field, and minimising nutrient losses, its an interesting prospect?

    Watch the video here and let us know what you think. Are you growing cover crops on your farm and willing to share your experiences with other farmers? Get in touch here.

    05.06.14 - Cover cropping R and D - filling in the knowledge gaps

    So following on with this month’s theme of cover cropping, I have come across an EU funded project that is tasked with looking at how cover crops fit into rotations and their subsequent management. One of the barriers that seems to be there at the moment in terms of using cover crops in the field is a lack of clear information about management, advantages, disadvantages and cost.

    The OSCAR (Optimising Subsidiary Crop Application in rotations) project is aiming to look at all of these issues. It is an EU funded project that aims to extend the existing knowledge available on these subsidiary crops and to disseminate this information to growers and producers. The project includes 20 partner organisations from 9 European countries plus Morocco and Brazil. The project is collaboration between scientific researchers, agronomists and small businesses experienced in technological innovation for the production of farm machinery.

    The project is looking specifically at the use of cover crops and living mulches. As discussed in an earlier blog, cover crops are primarily grown to provide cover, and are normally incorporated into the soil or killed off with herbicides. Living mulches grow for a long time with the main crop and are intended to serve the function of a mulch (such as weed suppression, and regulation of soil temperature). It is aiming to develop new cropping systems based around the use of cover crops and living mulches and will optimise these systems for use in low tillage agriculture.

    The project started in April 2012 and is due to run until March 2016. It has varies work packages attached to it which are designed to look at different aspects of cover crop growth and management. Some of the particularly interesting bits are below. If you want to explore the project site in more detail click here.

    Field trials

    The overall aim of the field trial sites is to improve the understanding and use of cover crops under a broad range of environmental conditions and interactions with management techniques and farm technology.

    Different cover cropping and mulch systems will be compared in the context of a series of co-ordinated field trials in different European and Mediterranean environments and on-going long term experiments. A two year sequence of wheat and a spring crop (maize, potatoes or veg) is the common experimental base on which to compare the different cover crops.

    Identification of potential new genotypes and species

    To maximise the economic and environmental benefits, investigation is needed into potential new genotypes and species to improve the balance between main crops and subsidiary crops, fill niches in crop rotations and improve soil conditions.

    The main characteristics of a cover crop species should be that its fast growing and highly productive and fit in with the off season between the main crops. In contrast a living mulch should not be competitive and should complement the main crop.

    Both types of crop should contribute to soil fertility and soil health as much as possible and potentially generate additional income from the farming system.

    Farm technology and machinery (the kit stuff)

    This part of the project will assess the current state of technology in use for min till systems that are based on cover crops and living mulches. It will also assess the requirements in terms of appropriate machinery design for sowing mixed stands, direct drilling and planting into cover crops, for complete or partial cover crop suppression, and for weed management.

    Weed control

    Improved understanding of how cover crops, main crops and weed plants compete with each other in cover cropping systems is essential in terms of making the cropping systems profitable. Knowledge will be used to develop new cultivating methods and to inform development of appropriate machinery for weed control. Competition depends on numerous factors – the most important ones are the plant density, spatial distribution pattern, acquired competitive advantages, competing ability of involved genotype and environmental factors such as day length, temperature, rainfall and nutrient availability.

    Current project resources

    As well as the research described above, the project is also providing helpful advice and info on species, management, growers experiences, and benefits, of different cover crops and living mulches. The “Cover Crop and Living Mulch wiki page” is an interactive knowledge source of relevant information on leguminous and non leguminous cover crop and living mulch species, machinery and farm case studies. Access it here.

    When this project starts to produce some results from its field experiments we will highlight it on the FCCT website so keep an eye out. Also if you are inspired to delve slightly deeper into the world of cover cropping and fancy giving it a go on your farm, let us know and we would love to hear from you. Contact us here

    28.05.14 Theme of the month: Cover cropping and green manures

    This month here at FCCT we will be looking at the subject of cover crops and green manures and their practical use in rotations. We will be considering how to choose the correct species to grow, where they fit in the farm cropping patterns, what the benefits and drawbacks to them are and look at a couple of real life examples.

    So to start the month off, an introduction into the world of cover cropping and green manures.

    Cover crops are primarily grown to provide ground cover rather than leaving bare soil. This covering of the soil prevents losses of soluble nutrients such as nitrates from leaching as well as protecting the soil from erosion by “anchoring” it in the field, thus reducing losses of organic matter and phosphorus.

    Green manures

    A green manure is a crop grown 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 and improve soil fertility.

    Agronomic Benefits of using cover crops

    Cover crops can improve soil structure and quality, add nitrogen, and reduce weeds, pests and diseases. These will all be explored in more detail through the month. Frederic Thomas of BASE Conservation Agriculture (an enthusiast from France) suggests that most growers should be able to benefit from cover crops in some way.

    What are the effects on emissions?

    Along with the agronomic benefits that arise from reducing nitrate leaching, a key benefit of retaining more nitrogen in the soil is the environmental benefits that arise from reduced N fertiliser applications. This reduction in fertiliser reduces nitrous oxide emissions from soil prior to crop uptake and also the nitrous oxide emissions associated with fertiliser manufacture.

    Cover crops are also advantageous in terms of carbon sequestration. These crops increase the amount of carbon trapped in soils by adding organic matter which is where the carbon is stored. This in time improves the soil structure and contributes significantly to crop rooting, health and drainage.

    Choosing a cover crop

    The benefits of using the cover crop need to outweigh the costs involved in its establishment and management. Things to take into consideration include rotation, soil conditions (for example pH and drainage), crop cover and climate as they will all impact on establishment and long term survivial rate.

    Knowing why you are growing a cover crop and what function you want it to perform will also determine which crop to grow. If you are looking for ground cover to reduce soil and nitrate loss a fast growing leafy species (for example forage rye) may be useful; if you are looking for N fixation a legume will help, and buckwheat will help raise the phosphorus level. The use of deep rooting species including chicory will not only improve physical soil structure but may also allow plants access to trace elements.

    For more information on soil management please click here to access the soil section of the Toolkit.


    23.05.14 Fertiliser production - emissions, effects and solutions

    So as the month of blogs looking at fertilisers and fertility draws to an end, it seemed like a good time to look at emissions associated with fertiliser production.  Now before some of you switch your computers off in horror at the thought of a chemistry lesson, I must confess that I’m not an expert in this field at all.  This won’t be a blog explaining all of the new techniques that are being developed in terms of reducing emissions, but just a summary of what’s going on.

    Here at FCCT we have written blogs in the past about fertiliser use efficiency and bandied the statistics around that 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertilisers are attributable to the production process.  Therefore management of cropping patterns, maintenance and use of precision equipment, nutrient management planning, and taking account of any manure and slurry applied to avoid over application will all have a significant effect on emissions from your farm.  For more information on how to minimise emissions from fertiliser application please click here.

    Unfortunately there are yield implications when we stop using Nitrogen fertiliser.  Nitrogen fertiliser has played a key role in enhancing food production and keeping half of the world’s population adequately fed.   Decades of fertiliser overuse in many parts of the world have contributed to soil, water and air pollution, reducing excessive Nitrogen losses and emissions in a central environmental challenge in the 21st Century.

    The process of manufacturing fertiliser

    N fertiliser is produced using the Haber Bosch process.  This involves combining Hydrogen (from steam reforming) with Nitrogen (from the air) to create ammonia.  The process is very energy intensive, needing high pressure and high temperature to be most effective, and this comes with a large carbon footprint attached to it. 

    Work by the International Fertiliser Industry Association (IFA) showed that fertiliser manufacture accounts for approximately 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  If associated Nitrous Oxide emissions from applying the fertiliser are taken account of as well, the total increases to 2.5% of the global total.

    New technologies for reducing emissions.

    There are long term solutions that are in development to reduce the emissions associated with fertiliser production.  These include carbon capture and storage, renewable electrolysis (to produce the hydrogen rather than the very energy intensive steam process), or the use of biomass gasification.  Biomass gasification uses a biomass based feedstock to produce a gas mix which is high in Hydrogen, which can be used to create the ammonia needed.  This ammonia is then combined with nitric acid to produce Nitrogen fertiliser (ammonium nitrate).  Studies looking at biomass gasification have found that the GWP can be reduced by 52% through using this production method.

    As well as the process being energy dense, the other emission associated with fertiliser production is nitrous oxide emissisons which is a by-product of the production of nitric acid.  With improvements in best available techniques, the IPCC estimate that nitrous oxide emissions can be reduced to approximately 0.12 kg/tonne nitric acid.

    Experiences in China

    China’s participation is essential in global efforts in reducing nitrogen related greenhouse gas emissions because China is the largest producer and consumer of fertiliser N, accounting for about 30% of global manufacture.

    A project developed by Rothamsted Research and China Agricultural University (alongside other colleagues in the UK and China) have been researching different options for reducing the environmental impacts of fertiliser use.  They found during the course of the project, that a combination of technical innovations in manufacturing, and changes in how the fertiliser is applied could help to reduce the GHG emissions by between 2-6% of China’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.  This is a significant reduction.

     Innovation in the UK

    One company in the UK who is looking at minimising losses and emissions from production of fertiliser is Yara.  The European Union has defined “best available techniques” for the processes associated with fertiliser production.  Yara have worked on measuring the carbon footprint from fertiliser production and through the use of new technologies.  One example of this is their catalytic cleansing technology with abates about 90% of nitrous oxide emissions associated in the production of nitric acid.

    For more information on the work done by Yara click here to visit their website.

    What can we do?

    In terms of practical measures that we can do at home, the only real option for anyone seriously interested in the emissions from fertiliser production is to ask questions and buy from producers who are minimising emissions.  Moving forward more innovations will lead to a more streamlined process and fertiliser manufacturers will become streamlined in their environmental credentials.

     The best way to minimise losses from fertiliser on the farm is to make sure that they are applied in the most efficient way possible.  This will mean that the proportion of the emissions that arises from application is reduced, and also that more of the Nitrogen is used to grow profitable crops rather than lost into the environment.  

    19.05.14 Paying farmers to sequester carbon

    Back in March when we hosted out soil carbon event, we were introduced to Richard Page and his innovative new project Carbon Prophet.  This project is looking at mapping agricultural soils for their carbon content, providing a toolkit for farmers to help them increase the levels of Carbon in the soil and create a market where this sequestered carbon can be traded.

    The project is aimed at encouraging farmers to rebuild the natural fertility of their soils and provide an extra income stream.  At our event, lively discussions ensued on the logistics of the project, how the levels of carbon in the soil would be measured and the practicalities of increasing the carbon content of your soils.

    So following on from the event, Richard has written a blog piece about how it all works and the potential that he can see in the new marketable commodity of soil carbon.

    Read the blog here

    15.05.14 Field Lab: Practical solutions to reducing emissions

    The inaugural field lab event on practical measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farms took place last week (6th May) on FCCT director Adam Twine’s farm near Swindon. The field lab programme which is managed by the Soil Association involves farmers across the UK developing innovative techniques and best practices by testing out ideas at a field level and pinpointing practical challenges.

    This new field lab is being led by the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit, and was focussed on practical on-farm activities that will help reduce GHG emissions. The event was the first in a series of three field labs which FCCT will be running alongside the Soil Association.

    Delegates attending the event included local farmers, government advisors and post graduate researchers allowing for everyone to understand the issues surrounding climate change adaptation from a wealth of perspectives. After an introductory session on UK agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, the policy, cultural and market drivers for change and the potential benefits to the farm business in terms of improved efficiencies, the group set off to explore the farm.

    Farm Set Up

    Adam is a tenant of the National Trust on 750 acres at Colleymore farm and a part owner of 450 acres at Westmill farm. The farm has 110 dairy cows, as well as arable and beef enterprises, as well as several alternative farm enterprises and a HLS scheme. First for discussion was the contribution that livestock make to emissions from the farm. Unsurprisingly the group were interested to hear about options for reduce emissions from the dairy herd, as livestock are blamed for a large proportion of emissions from agriculture.

    Livestock Emissions

    Most of the emissions from dairy farming occur from the biological processes that underpin the daily rhythms of the cow, such as feeding and dunging, and are inherent in the production of milk. Research suggests that a cow can produce up to 650 litres of methane per day.

    Methane is very energy dense and although a natural product of rumination, it does also represent a loss of potential energy (that could be converted into milk production). As such the first step to reduce emissions is to concentrate on improving the efficiency of milk production through ensuring optimal herd health and welfare, fertility management and feed conversion efficiencies.

    An area which is currently the subject of numerous research projects around the world is the use of feed additives of one type or another to suppress methane production. Because methane production is linked to saturated fatty acid synthesis, feed compounds which affect these pathways also influence levels of methane production as fats can also combine with the excess hydrogen in the guts. Adam explained that he had been trialling the use of linseed in his rations over the winter to reduce emissions, and this had proved beneficial, not just in terms of production efficiencies but had also had a positive effect on fertility.

    Beef production was discussed again in terms of improving efficiencies within the herd and the importance of balancing rations to achieve optimal liveweight gain. This could be achieved by planning rations and analysing forage to make sure that the animals grow at an optimal rate, and are therefore finished earlier. Other options discussed included improving the herd health status, improving fertility and increasing silage quality.

    Slurry and Manure Management

    Slurry and manure management is another emissions “hot spot.” Adam loose houses his cows, and as such produces solid FYM rather than slurry. This already has implications in terms of emissions as “fresh” FYM typically contains 20-25% of its total Nitrogen content as readily available nitrogen (RAN) compared with about 45% for cattle slurry (and 70% for pig slurry). Nitrous oxide emissions at spreading will be lower than for slurry due to the lower RAN content of the material.

    One potential option for Adam to further reduce emissions would be to cover the FYM heap w