Tag: soil

Net Zero Carbon Course for Upland Farmers & Advisors – Free Places Available in Cumbria

University of Cumbria is offering their part-time short course ‘Upland Farming for Net Zero’ delivered in partnership with Farm Carbon Toolkit, across 5 weeks from 9th September 2024. The course will take place in Cumbria, with sessions at the University of Cumbria’s Ambleside Campus, at upland farms across the county, and online. 

Participants will learn where and how greenhouse gases are emitted, captured and stored on an upland farm. Farm visits and theory sessions will enable a comparison of farming practices and land management options, with climate impact in mind. In-person workshops will build skills and confidence to enable each participant to complete a quantitative farm carbon audit and make practical recommendations for actions towards net zero emissions.

To apply for the course and for more information, please visit https://www.cumbria.ac.uk/study/courses/cpd-and-short-courses/upland-farming-for-net-zero-/

Up to 12 full bursaries, subject to eligibility, are offered by the Foundation for Common Land via their Our Upland Commons project, with details available here

Farm Carbon Toolkit supported the development of this accredited course for farmers, advisors and new entrants and worked with the University of Cumbria to enable delivery of the course for the first time earlier this year, in Dartmoor. Comments from participants included: 

  • It was really worthwhile and I’ve gained a lot of knowledge and practical skills from attending
  • Plenty of on-farm, real-world teaching and examples
  • Becky was a fantastic tutor- incredibly engaging and knowledgeable
  • Very hands-on and easy-to-follow material

Soil Farmer of the Year 2023 – Farm Walk with Richard Anthony 

Written by Tilly Kimble-Wilde, Farm Carbon and Soil Advisor

Richard Anthony, of R & L Anthony near Bridgend, was awarded Second Place in the 2023 Soil Farmer of the Year competition. He was commended on how he responded to and managed challenges, never veering from thinking holistically, always upholding soil health as a priority, and treating each challenge as something from which to learn.

A majority arable business, Richard farms a 6-year rotation of wheat, maize, oilseed rape and westerwolds intermixed with a diverse array of cover and companion crops which he is passionate about. “The emphasis on farm is the soil, improving the soil and organic matter, and keeping a crop in the ground; keeping the soil biology alive.”

Richard and the team also strive to promote and create habitats for wildlife: planting wild bird seed mixes, establishing wildlife corridors, and bordering all hedgerows with a 3m margin to encourage growth year on year. 2m flower margins have also been implemented around all fields of oilseed rape which has been, to quote, “absolutely fantastic.” Encouraging insects and bees and getting the public on side too.

The farm walk itself took place on 23rd November 2023 and kicked off with a presentation taking us through the past year and outlining the various activities and obstacles the farm faced. We were then treated to a fantastic farm walk whereby Richard gave our group of visiting farmers, agronomists, and advisors a tour of some of what they get up to across their extensive arable and forage business.

A big part of what Richard and his team are trying to achieve across the farming business is to use very little bagged fertiliser. Most of the nutrients applied to the soil come from digestate, conveniently stored in the farm’s digestate lagoon. Tankers come in and fill alligator bags for easy transport and the digestate is spread on wheat, oilseed rape and maize.

So far, Richard has managed to eradicate artificial fertiliser when growing maize and OSR; however, wheat still receives a small amount of early application. This wouldn’t have been possible without the construction of the digestate lagoon, a project which was undertaken at the beginning of last year. Still, as Richard says, there is room for improvement. The farm is looking to reduce its N inputs even further by trialling an N inhibitor, all to build more resilience into the system.

This mindset has been applied to fungicides.  To use less, Richard has changed the sprayer to accommodate the wet and windy weather brought in from the coast. Now at 250cm spacing, the booms can run very low resulting in no drift even if it’s windy. This enables more spray days and a better chance at getting the timeliness right.

As with most farms across the UK, the weather has been the biggest challenge with dry weather in May and June, and then rain as soon as harvest began.

Luckily, Richard had installed a biomass boiler 6-7 years ago for grain drying after a very wet harvest having heard about them in Scotland. It has been a game changer. Their 1-megawatt biomass boiler provides a lot more spare heat than previous methods of grain drying where they used up to 1.2 megawatts of gas on one drying floor. In the old system, if they were on 25% moisture, it took 10 days to dry one side. With the biomass boiler on woodchip, they can dry 2 drying bays, double the output, and never have to run the boiler flat out. With the right combine (Richard uses a MacDon belt header), the corn is cut as soon as it gets to 25% and achieves good output, as Richard emphasises “do not wait”.

Planting OSR in August was a struggle, with some fields too wet to put a tine in and any cultivation out of the question. Instead, Richard planted the wet parts of the field by snipping the OSR with a sprinter drill and planting the dry parts with a farm standard drill and a top down.

To better manage the unpredictable weather, Richard has a selection of drills that he’s held onto rather than sell. The farm will run 2, sometimes 3 drills if they can, capitalising on days when they have the right weather. This was especially helpful during autumn when the farm received 295mm of rain in October alone.

The farm also spends a lot of time on drainage. Ditches are cleaned, dug out, drains put in; all with the aim of evening out patches in fields and making the farm more resilient. As Richard says, it’s great getting 16t/ha on wheat in a bit of field but if you’re only getting 3t/ha in another part because it’s too wet there is space to do better.

Still, the most used bit of kit on the farm is a spade.  By continually monitoring and assessing soil structure, Richard can make a well-informed decision when determining how to establish the next crop.

Farm Walk

During the farm walk, we were shown multiple cover crop and companion crop trials that were taking place on the farm. Steve Corbett from Agrii has worked with Richard for many years, trialling different varieties and combinations, highlighting the importance in being selective. You need good establishment, and it must earn its keep.

What they have found is that OSR, a “lazy rooting brassica”, completely lends itself to companion cropping, in this case with beans, spring vetch and buckwheat. Beans help to get the roots down as well as provide free nitrogen through nodulation. Spring vetch as opposed to winter vetch grows quickly providing biomass and N fixation. Buckwheat adds to the canopy, slowing down flea beetle, making it more difficult for pigeons to land, as well as mining phosphates. When the companion crops die, all the fixed nitrogen and phosphates will be released back into the soil ready for the next crop.

Richard deliberately plants OSR at low seed rates to encourage big branchy plants in spring which will grow away, allowing light through the canopy. By choosing thicker and well-branched OSR types, flea beetle is more contained, damaging only the outer leaves, leaving the middle to branch out. In Richard’s experience it provides a plant that will survive despite a pest living within it.

In terms of cultivation, Richard is a big fan of direct drilling. When direct drilling wheat, he believes it is important to see what is happening underground: what is the root depth? Taking stock of root depth and maintaining that attention to detail during crop growth is essential to determine the next steps in terms of cultivation. At Sealands farm, root depth is critical to survive the winds, Richard has found through monitoring that cultivation disrupts root growth, and that direct drilling fits his system best.

Ultimately, Richard has tried a lot which didn’t work out, but he’s kept at it. One outcome which has surprised him the most was the success of forage rye which he believes is underestimated. In the field, Richard showed us the root mass it was building and the excellent soil structure it yielded. This has provided Richard with an extra income stream, either taken for silage or grazed (ensuring to move stock on in wet conditions to avoid undoing all the good work he’s built up!).

Looking to improve the soil structure even further, Richard planted the forage rye together with westerwolds. He found that they were able to harvest the westerwolds a fortnight earlier due to the ability of the forage rye to get away in the spring creating its own microclimate which Richard believes benefitted the westerwolds.

Finally, we heard about Richard’s problem with persistent perennial ryegrass. In this instance, he introduced an annual ryegrass to outcompete the perennial. “Putting in a bully to outcompete a bully”. It worked and Richard is now able to include it within the arable rotation without generating a loss. This allows a rest period within the rotation to build fertility, stabilise soil structure and generate a bit of extra cash from silage or grazing. Essentially, Richard is maintaining the balance of farming resiliently: optimising soil health and crop yields while sustaining a viable business.

As we’ve all come to realise, we can’t rely on the weather, however, prioritising soil health as perfectly exemplified by Richard, can better equip us to respond and adapt. When we get to know our soils, monitoring how they behave in certain conditions and how they respond to our actions, we are better prepared and forearmed to make decisions that will affect future harvests and pocket.

Through trials and problem solving, Richard together with Steve have implemented more diversity and reduced inputs without damaging profits. A big resistance to straying from our well-known and “safe” rotations is often down to “how will it pay for itself”. Richard and Steve have shown that they’re not radical in their rationale for cover and companion crops, the bottom line is it has to pay. The most exciting take home from the day is they didn’t give up: they’ve found the right species to incorporate, the soil health on farm is improving and crop yields are directly benefiting. It was a truly inspiring day and a masterclass in perseverance. Richard hasn’t made it look easy by any stretch but as he puts it “we’re just learning all the time.”

You can read the full report here.

Soil Biodiversity

By Stefan Marks, Farm Carbon and Soil Advisor

One gram of soil can contain one billion bacteria and up to 10,000 different species of bacteria with only 1% of organisms estimated to have been identified.

The soil functions as part of a vital living system which supports crop and animal health, underpinned by massively complex interactions between the biological, chemical, and physical properties of the soil. Life in the soil is often underestimated, spanning millions of species and billions of organisms which account for the highest concentration of biomass from anywhere on the planet. Fertility and crop performance are at risk of being distilled down to the chemical or physical constraints of the soil in isolation. This encourages an oversimplified approach to soil management. Sustainable Land Management, and the move towards regenerative agriculture encourages a more holistic management of the soil, resulting in enhanced biological diversity and so delivering the key benefits. It is important to recognize the importance of soil biology without overthinking its complexity, after all, we cannot manage for individual microbial species.

Soil Microorganisms

Soil microorganisms describe both bacteria and fungi, whose abundance makes up much of the biological biomass in the soil. Bacteria and fungi produce a range of enzymes which can break down and absorb inorganic and organic matter which is later made readily available as nutrients to plant roots. Fungal communities form larger hyphae ‘networks’ which are beneficial in mobilising nutrients in mutualistic exchanges with rooting structures. These fungal hyphae can extend over great distances and further help with the aggregation of the soil, improving soil stability, water holding capacity and therefore a greater resilience to droughts and waterlogging.

Bacteria exudates form the ‘glues’ which facilitate the formation of microaggregates from soil particles and as well as increasing the cycling of nutrients with a particular focus on the nitrogen cycle. Both fungi and bacteria are responsible for the breakdown of organic matters within the soil profile and so populations benefit greatly from manure applications. 

Due to their short life cycles, the population of these organisms may shift rapidly as a result of changes to their environment including the soil temperature, moisture and chemical composition. A healthier soil will generally have higher microbial biomass and will benefit from a larger fungal-to-bacterial ratio. Applications of agrochemicals and fertilisers can impact populations with overapplications of nitrogen promoting a more bacterially dominated soil. Likewise, tillage can break up the fungal hyphae which are more sensitive to physical disturbance.

Soil Macrofauna

The macrofauna are larger organisms which inhabit the soil with perhaps the most notable being the earthworm. Not only do earthworms operate as ecosystem engineers to enhance the soil and provide a better environment for other plants and animals to reside but they are an excellent indicator of soil health. Whilst it can be difficult to measure soil biodiversity the presence of earthworms indicate, on a larger scale, a healthy operating food web with a distribution of organisms across all trophic levels. As such earthworm numbers have become a good metric for biological soil health which are a result of and have an impact upon the chemical and physical properties of the soil. Earthworms fulfill different functions based on their niche, with the three main groups being:

  • Epigeic –  Inhabit litter layer and cycle carbon
  • Endogeic – Topsoil dwelling and enhance soil aggregation and nutrient mobilisation
  • Anecic – Deep burrowing improving porosity, water infiltration and root development

Considerations for Biological Soils

  • Feed the soil: amendments of organic matter will benefit soil organisms as it provides a feed source for them to thrive on. Conversely the greater the soil fauna populations the quicker and more available the nutrients. Over applications of inorganic fertility sources can have a negative impact causing the soil to become too bacterially dominated.
  • Crop diversity: the greater the crop diversity the greater the diversity in below-ground populations as there is a greater range of plants to feed and interact with in the growing environment. This necessitates the implementation of more diverse crop rotations into arable systems and will benefit from greater diversity in grassland with the inclusion of legumes and herbs.
  • Reduced tillage: tillage can have an adverse effect on established populations of soil organisms from the fungal hyphae all the way up to the earthworms. A move towards less intensive tillage through the adoption of no-till or min-till establishment at suitable parts of the rotation will help to maintain soil biological populations.

Overall, the biological component of the soil should not be overlooked as it is an essential part of a vital, living soil. Allowing soil to function properly will bring a host of benefits which can result in real world cost savings. Chief among these benefits may be the increased resilience in a changing climate.

Farm Net Zero at Oxford Real Farming Conference 2024

An intrepid band of Farm Net Zero farmers and project staff made their way to Oxford for the Real Farming Conference where we were presenting a session called “It Takes a Farm Community to be Net Zero: A Case Study from Cornwall”. This was a sell-out, with people queuing to get in, and helped to demonstrate the excellent work the FNZ farmers are doing as part of their communities. The film we produced was well-received, even earning a “whoop” from the crowd! It is available to watch here: https://farmcarbontoolkit.org.uk/2024/01/18/five-farms-in-cornwall/

As well as the impressive range of sessions we were able to attend (covering everything from the role of vets in ecological sustainability to farm succession planning), we watched the premiere of “Six Inches of Soil” – a new film about farming starring Farm Net Zero monitor farmer Ben Thomas and featuring Farm Net Zero’s own Hannah Jones.

Premiere of “Six Inches of Soil”

Sustainable crop rotations

Looking back at 2023, it can safely be defined as a challenging year with the wettest autumn / winter we have seen for decades. Farmers have not only faced the challenge of maximising yields and optimising soil health, but also battling against the elements to drill crops into the ground. Hoping for a kinder 2024, this blog explores options to build resilience into crop rotations aiming to cultivate a balance between high yields and optimum soil health.

Minimising cultivation

First things first, this blog is not telling you to get rid of the plough. All machinery serves a purpose, it is just about knowing when to intervene. Within systems that have reduced their cultivations or those that have been adopting conservation ploughing (i.e. ploughing one year in three or more), soils tend to be more resilient through improved soil structure. Good soil structure has a matrix of small, medium, and large pore spaces able to retain and drain water as well as provide pockets of air for respiration and gaseous exchange and water for nutrient exchange. When we till the soil, especially when ground conditions are sub-optimum, we run the risk of squashing the pores and causing compaction and soil degradation, reducing water infiltration, increasing anaerobism (lack of oxygen) and building up toxic gases, all contributing to poor soil health and disappointing crop yields.

Carry out a VESS: Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure

It is important to get out there and dig holes; get to know your soil and how it behaves under certain environmental conditions. When you assess the soil structure, look for compaction and note its depth. Can this be remedied by deeper rooting species, or does it require mechanical intervention? Always keep the depth in mind as it’s no good going in too deep or too shallow.


Sustainable rotations begin with diversity. A multipronged approach combining arable crops, legumes and cover crops takes full advantage of all the tools we have in the box as arable farmers. Diversity in species above ground matches diversity in species below ground: helping to break pest and disease cycles and improve soil health through provision of various rooting architecture, root exudates and crop residues. The soil is alive and many of the nutrients available to crops and plants come from the activity of soil-dwelling organisms that are busy stabilising, consuming and releasing nutrients for the benefit of the crop. Diversity in crops and roots therefore contribute a rich source of food for soil fauna to feast on, enhancing soil fertility and subsequent crop health and crop yield. 

Where pests and disease more commonly thrive is within monocultures e.g. continuous cereals. We are seeing an increasing reliance on chemicals to control and abate problems within these systems, depleting our soils of beneficials in the process. Similarly, a lack of diversity in roots are only supporting a limited community of microorganisms. This is not sustainable; therefore, we must explore how we can incorporate more species within the rotation. OSR is one of many good examples. It has deep roots and is easily diversified with companions e.g. vetch / buckwheat / berseem clover. Maximising the number of crop species in a rotation will optimise the diversity of organisms below ground.

On farm, an easy way to measure how biologically active our soils are is by monitoring earthworm numbers. Earthworms are at the top of the soil food web and will travel to and reside where there is lots of food; they are also brilliant at breaking down residues and redistributing nutrients throughout the soil profile. How many worms do you count in a spade full of soil? Where are you finding the most? And can those numbers be replicated elsewhere on farm?


The blog wouldn’t be complete without talking about legumes. Approximately 78% of the air is nitrogen. If we can harness the power of leguminous plants to fix some of that nitrogen, we can cut costs by reducing the amount of artificial fertiliser whilst also minimising our environmental impact. Consider incorporating peas or beans into the rotation as stand-alone crops, clover as a companion crop or include legumes as part of a cover crop mix. Farmers are often able to reduce the amount of bagged fertiliser used after legumes.

Legumes to build fertility: field beans in an arable rotation

If possible, trial a small reduction across a proportion of the field first and see how your yields fare – you might be pleasantly surprised.

Cover Crops

Utilising cover crops between winter and spring cropping is an excellent approach to building soil health in between cash crops: stabilising soil structure by maintaining living roots in the soil throughout the year, feeding the soil biology and acting as a buffer protecting the soil from adverse weather conditions. 

On top of this, one of the biggest advantages of cover crops is that they are great at scavenging and holding onto residual nutrients left over from the previous crop, reducing losses from leaching. Once destroyed, the nutrients will be released back into the soil, improving nutrient use efficiency, and potentially enabling a reduction in artificial inputs required by the next crop. 

Cover crop mixes should be tailored to your needs and soil type. It’s better to choose species type based on what you are trying to achieve: building fertility, keeping the ground covered, and/or alleviating compaction. 

If possible, conduct trials and aim to include 3 or more species in the mix to capitalise on diversity in both the above-ground biomass for optimised photosynthetic potential (think assortment of leaf shapes to increase surface area from which to harness the sun’s energy), and below-ground biomass through varied rooting structures, depths, shapes and sizes (pumping sugars and carbon into the soil, building soil organic matter and feeding the soil biology).

Livestock Integration

Integrating grazing livestock into your rotation offers an alternative technique to destroying cover crops whilst also adding valuable organic matter to the soil in the form of manure. Including grass and clover leys also gives the ground a break, allowing time for recovery and offers another income stream from grazing or silage / hay making. The benefits of perennial roots in the ground over an extended period, especially if a mix of roots at different depths, will help to improve soil structure and build fertility for future crops.

Grazing livestock returning soil organic matter and building soil health.

Explore the Sustainable Farming Incentive options to see if herbal leys or a 2-year legume fallow could be economically viable.

Monitoring and Adapting

It is important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach; be adaptive and tailor options to local environment and conditions. Trial different methods and see which suits your system best.

Regularly monitoring soil health, accounting for all nutrient sources, and keeping an eye on pest and disease prevalence alongside crop performance and weather is crucial to make informed adjustments to rotations as needed.

In summary, farmers are in a unique position in that yes, we produce emissions in the process of producing nutritious food however, we can also build soil health and boost biodiversity simultaneously contributing to offsetting our own emissions and future proofing our farms and landscapes. Implementing a sustainable crop rotation in the UK is not just about growing crops; it’s about promoting a future where productivity and soil health co-exist. By diversifying crops, integrating legumes, embracing cover crops, minimising tillage, incorporating livestock, and tailoring practices to local conditions, it is possible to achieve a resilient and sustainable agricultural landscape supporting local and wider communities for years to come.

How to avoid ‘double counting’ your carbon

Carbon accounting is a fast-moving space, and here at FCT, keeping on top of best practices is one of our top priorities. We commission regular external reviews of all our emissions factors to make sure we’re as compliant and up-to-date as possible. And yet even with the best data available, there’s always the possibility of human error (we all do it!) cropping up in a carbon report. 

One area we’re particularly keen to address is how to avoid ‘double counting’ when it comes to farming footprints. This refers to counting the same carbon/CO2e in different places, often (but not always) in the same report. 

For example, you might record all your freight and logistics fuel use in the ‘Fuels’ section of our Calculator, only to duplicate the entry under the ‘Distribution’ section. This would result in counting the same emissions twice, artificially inflating the total emissions figure. 

These errors can be subtle and easy mistakes to make, so it’s worth reading on to find out how to avoid them and embrace best practices.

How is double counting possible?

Our Carbon Calculator has many different emissions factors that you can record, reflecting the wide variety of needs and business profiles in modern farming. Because of the need for informative metrics and KPIs, our Calculator sometimes offers the option to record an emission or offset in more than one section. 

You can therefore choose to either record all of the carbon in one section, or to split it out for better insight in your final report. For example, you may want to be able to see the amount of fuel used in farming operations vs. the fuel used in the distribution of goods. Being able to record the carbon in more than one place is crucial to business insight, but it does introduce the risk of error. 

If we want to use these informative metrics, then it’s important to be aware of when you might double-count your carbon. 

Where in the Calculator might I be double counting?

We’ve listed below some of the most common areas where double counting may occur in our Calculator. For each one we’ve given an example of how it occurs, and the best practice in order to avoid it. 

Animal Feeds – Home grown vs. Bought in 

If you are growing your own animal feed on-farm, then you don’t need to account for this in the ‘Livestock’ section. To do so would overestimate your emissions. The Livestock section is only for feeds that are specifically bought in.

To avoid the double count: Make sure that anything recorded as a feed in the Livestock section is a bought-in feed. If not, it doesn’t need to be counted there!

Materials vs. Inventory

The Materials section of our Calculator allows you to record a wide variety of items that are used in construction and repair work. Our Inventory section, on the other hand, is there to record larger capital items such as new outbuildings or farm machinery. This difference is key, as any items within the Inventory section will have their carbon impact depreciated over a period of 10 years.

It’s also possible to record your own custom building projects inside the Inventory section. For example, you might choose to record all the materials associated with a new outbuilding. This might be done so that you can achieve a more precise footprint for a non-standard construction. 

Where materials are purchased for running or regular repairs of existing installations, record these in the Materials section.

To avoid the double count: Make sure you’re not recording any custom-build projects in both Materials and Inventory. They only need to be recorded in one of these sections!

Sequestration – Double Counting Offsets 

If you have previously sold any carbon offsets, for example through soil organic carbon sequestration, then you should not count the offset in your report. To do so would be an example of double counting as the benefits are no longer attributable to your farm business. 

To avoid the double count: Make sure you’re only recording potential sequestration that hasn’t been sold or accounted for elsewhere. 

Sequestration – Double Counting potential sequestration

If you have entered an area of land under the sequestration option: “Soil Organic Matter” or “Soil Organic Carbon” (using information from soil sampling), you should not also enter those areas of land under other sequestration options (such as Countryside Stewardship Schemes, even if the land is receiving payment for that scheme). Direct soil sampling is preferable in this scenario. Similarly, whilst in practice you can “stack” the payments you receive from stewardship grants, you must only enter areas of land for sequestration under one potential sequestration option (so if “My field” is 5ha, I can enter soil sampling data from those 5ha OR the fact that they are under a Countryside Stewardship Scheme).

To avoid the double count: Include each field area under only one potential ‘Sequestration’ option.

Fuel Use – Distribution vs. Farming Operations 

If you want to split out your fuel use into distribution and farming operations, you have the option to record these separately. Any farm fuel use such as red diesel can be recorded under ‘Fuels’. Any fuel used in moving goods can be put under ‘Distribution’. 

To avoid the double count: We recommend splitting out fuel use between ‘Fuels’ (i.e. farm operations) and ‘Distribution’.

The Exceptions

As with all good rules, there are some apparent exceptions:

  • you CAN add multiple crops that have been grown on the same area of land in the same year (but only include those that have been harvested or terminated within the reporting period). 

Open for entries: Carbon Farmer of the Year

Announcing the launch of the 2024 Carbon Farmer of the Year Competition

February of this year sees the launch of the 2024 Farm Carbon Toolkit’s Carbon Farmer of the Year Competition. This competition champions UK farmers who are leading the way in adopting farming practices and developing new technologies which reduce farm emissions whilst optimising output, and adapting to climate change. 

After the success of last year’s competition we are delighted to announce that the 2024 competition is now open for entries. Click here to learn more.

Five farms in Cornwall on a journey towards Net Zero

We’re excited to share a series of five new videos that showcase some of the farms in Cornwall that are part of the Farm Net Zero project.

Each video shares a different farm’s journey as it works to improve the environment, produce nutritious food, while also responding to climate risks, such as flooding. There is a specific focus in these videos on how the farms are engaging within their local communities, to help tackle these issues. The Farm Net Zero project includes practical advice for farmers on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, showcases innovation, provides robust science through soil testing and carbon footprinting, and inspires other farmers to tell their stories to consumers on the steps that they are taking to address climate change and protect soil health.

The full-length video below includes all of the following five stories. If you prefer to view each story separately, please simply click on each of the links here:

The importance of managing manure on-farm 

Written by Becky Willson, Business Development & Technical Director.

Manure is a fantastic on-farm resource. This is because it can deliver a source of nutrients that can be used to grow crops, as well as enhancing soil biological activity, feeding the soil microbes and helping provide a steady supply of organic matter. This can ensure that soils are in the best condition structurally, chemically and biologically. Manure is one of the most important resources that is produced on-farm, and should be valued rather than seen as a waste product. 

A key way to be able to reduce reliance on fertilisers is to develop efficient and effective strategies for managing nutrients and manures on-farm. 

Nutrient management planning

Managing nutrients in a systematic way through planning is a vital aspect of sustainable farming. It is a ‘win-win’ practice which generates advantages across economic and environmental parameters, and allows for the creation of a sustainable agricultural system which is resilient to climatic and economic change. 

Nutrient management planning facilitates optimal use of nutrients from all available sources. Matching inputs of nutrients (from fertilisers and organic manures) to the demand from the crop will allow for an optimal yield, minimise the use of nutrients (which saves costs) and minimises the risk of losses to the environment from nutrients.  

Slurries and solid manures are valuable fertilisers but may also be potential sources of pollution. Within increasing economic and environmental pressures on farm businesses, it makes sense to exploit the fertiliser value of manures while taking action to prevent pollution. 

Most farm assurance schemes require a manure management plan to be completed as part of the certification process. However even without the compulsion of a scheme, having a plan which marks out any environmental features, watercourses, sloping fields which may cause run off and any areas will be a useful resource to consult before applying manures.  

The need for effective manure management

The most effective way of dealing with livestock manures is to apply them at appropriate rates to agricultural land for the benefits of soil and crops. Getting manure management right allows for sustainable use of resources which provides economic savings and reduces the amount of artificial fertiliser that is required. Manures, when stored and applied correctly have fantastic benefits in building resilience within your farming system, cutting costs and lowering your carbon footprint, however if they are applied in too high a quantity or at the wrong time of year then they are an environmental risk. So it is the job of farmers to maximise the benefits that can arise and minimise the risks.

Nutrient management planning to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions

Nitrogen emissions to the air from farms include greenhouse gases, the most potent of which is nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is one of the biggest contributions that agriculture makes to climate change. Soil nitrous oxide emissions originate from three sources, soil microorganism activity (55%), organic manure applications (18%) and Nitrogen fertiliser applications, (27%). As such, careful management that maximises the efficiency of any fertiliser applied, takes account soil and climate conditions, and uses the nutrients within manures for crop growth will help to reduce the amount of nitrous oxide lost. 

Nutrient and manure management planning will also help reduce ammonia emissions. While ammonia isn’t a greenhouse gas, it negatively impacts air quality and human health. The amount of ammonia which is lost depends on a variety of factors including manure type, the method and timing of applications, soil pH, the weather conditions at spreading, the soil moisture content and how the manure is stored. As such there are a variety of mitigation options available that are made easy by planning how manure is managed to reduce these risks. 

Soil Testing

Although not always considered as linked to nutrient management planning, monitoring and controlling the pH of soils on-farm is the first step toward good nutrient management. If soil pH is not correct then any nutrients that are applied through fertiliser or manure applications will not be available to the crop and may be lost from the soil incurring costs, reduced yields and pollution issues. 

Effective use of manures – Storage

Having sufficient slurry or manure storage means that effective nutrient management planning is much easier. With sufficient storage capacity, slurries and manures can be applied at the optimal time for plant growth and crop uptake, as well as being applied when the soil and field conditions are right and damage (including compaction and run off) is minimised.  However for some farmers who don’t have enough storage, slurry has to be spread in less than ideal conditions, when there is little crop growth and nutrient uptake. It is in these situations where environmental losses can be the highest. 

Thankfully there are ways that storage can be optimised. This can include minimising the amount of rainfall that is able to enter the store. Rainfall can dilute the nutrient content of the slurry but also costs more in manure application – more water is held within the slurry leading to a higher volume to be spread. Mending guttering, diverting clean water away from stores and covering yards to minimise the amount of water that is entering the store are all low cost ways to help maintain the nutritional value of the manure and also reduce costs. Covering stores is also an option and there are various cover options that are available depending on the store type and design. Floating covers will also reduce the amount of ammonia which is released into the atmosphere which has air quality benefits. 

With solid manure it is important to consider the siting of field heaps and managing the heap to ensure that Nitrate leaching is minimised. Composting of FYM will provide a more stable and uniform material which will have benefits for soil biology, but will not provide such a high readily available Nitrogen source as fresh manure. 

Effective use of manures – Application 

Ensuring that manures are applied at the right rate and the right time is the most important step to reducing environmental risk and improving economic performance of the farm.  The method of application can affect the amount of nitrogen that is available to the crop. Although the total nitrogen content within the manure cannot be altered by the method of application, the proportion of the nitrogen that is available to the growing crops is improved by using low trajectory machinery.

Spreader technology has developed over recent years so that now there are numerous options available for spreading slurry (where losses are potentially higher). Broadcast spreaders will waste nutrients, but this can be minimised by using injection or band spreaders which put the slurry directly on the soil surface or into a narrow slot. For solid manures, the evenness of spreading is far improved by using a rear discharge spreader. If manure or slurry is to be incorporated, ensuring that it is done quickly after application and not just left on the surface where the nutrients may well be lost is important.

Optimising the use of manures and slurries on-farm will provide benefits through improving profitability, resilience and soil health. For more information on manures and nutrient management planning please visit the FCT toolkit pages to access a range of resources.  

A Day in the Life of… Liz Bowles, Chief Executive

Being Chief Exec of the Farm Carbon Toolkit is a privilege. I have a team of committed, enthusiastic and supremely knowledgeable people working with me who are dedicated to supporting farmers to understand their farm carbon footprint and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration, whilst maintaining thriving, biodiverse businesses.  

We are a relatively small organisation, but I always love it when people tell me that they keep coming across the team as this means we are being noticed and, even more importantly, that people like what we are doing. Last week was just such an example. We were involved in a number of sessions at the Oxford Farming Conference including showcasing Farm Net Zero Cornwall and the great strides farmers involved in the group are making towards Net Zero. We also featured in the premiere of the film “Six Inches of Soil”  and were mentioned by a number of other speakers at the conference whom we work with.

There is no such thing as a typical day for me.

I do start off with a list of what I would like to get done during the day and highlight the tasks which are important/ urgent, but then things happen, such as people making contact with me to discuss exciting new activities with which we could get involved. It is just about impossible to know which opportunities are the best to take forward from the great number which come our way every day, but my watch word is to pursue working with like-minded organisations whose first instinct is to think about what they can do to support reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and who, like us, believe that farmers are supremely well-placed to remove carbon from the atmosphere through how they farm.

Over the last few months I have been developing relationships with other popular Carbon Calculators to enable us to work together where possible to harmonise Calculator methodologies, so that farmers’ Carbon Calculator results will be more comparable in future. This, I believe, will increase the uptake of their use. We know that the requirement to provide information on farm emissions and removals will increase over time and we are committed to continually improving our Calculator so that farmers who are taking action to reduce their carbon footprint can see this fully reflected in their reporting. We are also committed to providing our Calculator directly to farmers for free.