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Farming Profitably in a Changing Climate write up

Read about what happened at our recent conference here

On February 3rd at the Rural Innovation Centre in Cirencester, the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit put on a conference looking at the subject of Farming Profitably in a Changing Climate.  The subject was broad and often not a priority for farming businesses, but what FCCT were aiming to do, was to focus on those areas where carbon cutting and improving efficiency go hand in hand and can improve profitability.

A range of great speakers including retailers, farmers, policy analysts and scientists all came together to discuss the issues and hear about where the areas were that may yield the best savings.

Morning speakers

The day started with Rebecca Audsley from the Scottish Rural University College (formally SAC) explaining what she has been doing with Scottish farmers looking at reducing emissions and improving profitability.  The Farming for a Better Climate initiative has been working with demo farmers for the last three years across Scotland.  These demo farms which span a wide range of farming systems have yielded real results in terms of cutting carbon and costs.  The demo farms came about in response to the challenge to achieve a reduction in emissions from agriculture whilst still maintaining a profitable and competitive agricultural sector.  Demo farms work with an agricultural advisor to look at the farm’s performance in five key areas, energy and fuel, renewable, carbon sequestration, nutrient use and livestock efficiency.  The focus farmers have their carbon footprint calculated at the beginning and after implementing advice and are also monitoring the costs.   Using real farm data Rebecca was able to show that reducing the carbon footprint of the farm by 10% was achievable for minimal investment and through making small adjustments to management.  Financial savings of between £11,000 and £37,000 were seen at the same time as the carbon reduction.

After Rebecca, we heard from Philip Gibson from Marks and Spencer about their carbon and sustainability commitments to their customers.  Philip explained how their sustainability commitments are met through Plan A, and their customers expect them to look at sustainability and carbon reduction.  Through the Indicator farms that M&S run through their supplier groups, they have found, as Rebecca alluded to that minimising emissions and the farm carbon footprint, will also improve resource efficiency, as there is a clear link demonstrated between resource efficiency and cost of production.  Philip shared some results that they had found through their indicator farm programme, which has shown savings of £15,000 on their beef indicator farm by implementing fuel, energy and efficiency measures and looking at feed utilisation.  In the M&S milk pool, emissions per litre have reduced by 5% from 2012 – 14 due to implementing efficiency measures on-farm.  Philip concluded with the fact that consumers care about carbon, and it would be prudent for farmers to implement carbon cutting measures and see the benefit to their bottom line.

After a quick coffee break, we heard from Richard Clothier, managing director of Wyke Farms, a dairy and cheese business in Somerset which has been awarded Farmers Weekly sustainable farmer of the year last year.  Rich gave a lively presentation about his “green journey”  taking the audience through how he had intergrated renewable energy production onto his farm.  His business goal was to “operate his business in a way that has minimal impact on the Somerset environment and to create a truly symbiotic relationship with the Countryside that provides our food, our income and our home.”  Wyke farms came into energy generations by the business undertaking  a cost cutting process, looking at ways to reduce waste and work more efficiently as well as a wish to diversify.  He recommended to those considering renewable energy, or specifically AD, to work with your natural assets.  Anaerobic Digestion worked for Wyke Farms as they had the natural waste to get rid of and energy and heat requirements in the dairy.  Their green strategy was “to create a sustainable working farm in which we source all of our electricity and gas from solar and biogas, generated from our farm and dairy waste which is currently of no value.”  He provided a lot of food for thought, and a great example of a truly integrated renewable energy project.

Mark Pettigrew from PepsiCo, confirmed what had been said previously in terms of customers requiring sustainability credentials.  PepsiCo have been involved in resource efficiency and carbon cutting for a long time and are using the Cool Farm Tool to measure carbon impact with their potato and oat growers in the UK.  Mark alluded to the partnership approach which is crucial to delivering robust carbon cutting methodologies to the farmers.  We need to all work together in delivering research that the farmers need to trust new technologies, economic and environmental considerations from new technologies and farm benchmarking data to look at the effect on the farm business.

Finally to finish off the morning, Dr Ceris Jones from the NFU Climate Change team, explained where we were in terms of greenhouse gas emissions targets and policy strategy moving forward.  The alarming statistic to come out of her presentation, was that agriculture is now responsible for 10% of man made greenhouse gas emissions (rather than the previously well used 7% figure).  Ceris also confirmed the need for a partnership approach, and highlighted some of the new technologies that are on the horizon which will help us understand what is going on in terms of GHG emissions and allow us to reduce them.

Afternoon Sessions

After a break for lunch, the group divided into arable and livestock discussion groups.  These discussions were led by farmers and experts and were designed for delegates to understand what the specific issues were in the different enterprises and hear from farmers who were trying to do something about them.

Arable group

The arable group was ably chaired by Andrew Rigg, and contributors included Dr Jenni Dungait, from Rothamsted Research North Wyke who is a leading research scientist on all things soil carbon, Mike Harrington from Edaphos, who provides targeted nutrient management and fertiliser advice, Nigel Hester from Yara, to explain how Yara are leading the way in terms of carbon abatement technology for fertiliser production and Nick August a pioneering arable farmer who is implementing controlled traffic farming and cover cropping in a big way.

Lively discussions ensued in this group!  Issues that came out in discussions included:

There is a lack of independent information on cover / catch crops out there, but lots of interested farmers (especially with the new CAP and greening rules).

Best research into some of these things (for example controlled traffic farming, cover cropping and how to integrate it into a conventional system) is being conducted by interested farmers (do we need a network?).

There is a financial risk of experimentation without evidence – farmers need to inform researchers as to what information they need and provide access for field scale trial information to be tested.

Precision technology and fertiliser technology are starting to offer benefits and opportunities in terms of targeted applications, more efficient use of nutrients, and use of biological populations in soil to ensure optimal cycling of nutrients below ground.

All farms (as well as their soils) are different and so emissions reductions solutions must be adaptable to different management and biological situations

The information and data gathering that has been done, highlights how much we still don’t know.

Livestock focus

The livestock forum was ably chaired by FCCT director Adam Twine and contributors included Rob Thornhill, a Nuffield Scholar and dairy farmer from Derbyshire, and Tim Lock, a M&S dairy farmer from Sussex, and Becky Willson from FCCT.  Rob and Tim both explained their systems, Rob has been focussing on a grazing based system, and completed his Nuffield Scholarship looking at sustainable pasture based dairying around the world.  A self-confessed “grazing nut” he showed the group some of the trials that he is doing on his farm looking at including diverse swards in his fields and rotationally grazing his stock to optimise production and improve soil biological function through creating diversity below ground as well as above.  Tim explained how he was required to complete a carbon assessment as part of his Marks & Spencer contract, but had found economic benefit to his business from reducing emissions.  Becky explained some of the issues that arise with manure management, and how every farmer can benefit emissions and the bottom line by ensuring that they plan applications and integrate nutrient supplied in the manure with fertiliser applications.

Discussion points that came out of the livestock session included:

There are complex biological systems that are involved with GHG emissions and there is a need for robust science to see where the benefits and drawbacks are with management

With the rise of some new technologies (for example slurry aeration) independent research is needed as to the effect of these techniques on the whole farm emissions.

There is scope to reduce emissions and costs through better use of nutrients in manures and slurries

We are not paid to grow grass, we are paid for how efficiently we convert it into meat and milk, therefore looking at grazing management is of paramount importance

There are opportunities to reduce carbon and GHG emissions in all systems, not just intensive production 

Farmers need to interact with researchers to ask the questions that they need answers to

In terms of carbon footprinting – it is a useful tool to benchmark the business’ performance, but don’t get too hung up on the number.

Where do we go from here?

Adam summed up at the end of the conference.  It was good to hear from projects and farmers who are out there reducing emissions and seeing the business benefits from doing so.  One of the common themes throughout the day, was that due to the diverse nature of farming systems, there is no one silver bullet – its all about marginal gain.  Another common issue that kept coming up was the weather.  Good intentions can all go out the window when we are having to deal with conditions of extreme wet or dry, cold or heat.  However  by making small changes often with minimal investment, to different areas of the business and by having an appreciation of where those areas are, and how you can make little adjustments that will increase efficiency and reduce costs, we will all be able to create a sustainable future which will allow us to farm profitably in a changing climate.

What to do now?

If you are interested in achieving a reduction in your emissions at home, why not have a look at the FCCT Toolkit to get some inspiration.  Why not sign up to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter or Facebook to keep in touch with what we are up to.