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Farm decarbonisation in practice

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Leading farmers outlined the steps they are taking to reduce farm emissions in line with sustainability plans at the ‘Farm of the Future: Net Zero in Practice’ event, hosted earlier this month by Innovation for Agriculture and the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE).

Improved efficiency, renewable energy production and carbon sequestration were all highlighted as key actions to reduce farm emissions at the event, held at Harper Adams University and based on the Farm of the Future: Journey to Net Zero report launched at the Low Carbon Agriculture Show in 2022. 

Opening with a keynote address from Lord Deben, the Chairman of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the event included three technical sessions, focussing on decarbonising livestock production, circular solutions for biowastes and autonomous vehicles and robotics.

Speaking in the first panel debate of the day, Helen Browning OBE, Louise Manning, Abi Reader and Stephen Briggs each shared how they have been working towards net zero emissions on their own farms.

Ms Browning, chief executive at the Soil Association, farms in Wiltshire, producing organic dairy, beef, pigs and cereals. In the panel debate, she shared how she undertook a full assessment of the farm business, as well as looking at it on an individual enterprise level.

“I looked at the nutrient balance on the farm, what was going on and what was coming off, by way of N and P especially.” she said. “We also did a review of our carbon emissions and I wanted to understand what our mitigation options were as part of our ‘getting to net zero’ plan.” 

“The results, on the basis of what our soils were doing, along with a small area of woodland and some young agroforestry, showed that we were sequestering 70% of our emissions.”

Ms Browning shared that this leaves over 1,000 tonnes of carbon per year which is being emitted, and that they are looking at natural sources for methane inhibition, such as willow and herbal leys, to reduce emissions from livestock, as well as calculating how much more woodland and hedges would be need to offset emissions on the farm.

Panel discussion at Farm of the future: Journey to Net Zero event 2023
A panel debate at the event featuring, from left to right: Helen Browning OBE, Soil Association; Louise Manning, Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology; Abi Reader, deputy president at NFU Cymru; and Stephen Briggs, Innovation for Agriculture.

Professor Manning, a poultry farmer and professor of agri-food at the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, spoke about how renewable energy can play a role in farm decarbonisation:

“If there are the right triggers for farmers and the financial support from government, farmers will decarbonise very quickly if it works within their business model,” she said.

Following the launch of the Renewable Heat Incentive in 2011 Professor Manning’s family farm business, based in Herefordshire, built enough woodchip boiler capacity to produce just under 1MW of renewable energy to heat their chicken houses. They also have 75GW of solar, but are constrained from increasing solar capacity due to grid constraints in the area – a problem needing urgent attention if the UK is to achieve its’ energy decarbonisation targets.

“We’re totally held back by the grid capacity, to not only decarbonise further ourselves, but to support our neighbours to decarbonise too. We need to look at how to increase capacity in the grid in some areas of the country, so farmers can play a real role in producing energy and supporting national decarbonisation,” said the Professor.

Ms Reader, farmer and deputy president at NFU Cymru, highlighted that of all the methods to achieve farm decarbonisation, sequestering carbon is the strategy she finds most difficult to grasp. In Wales the new farm support payments are being developed, which will potentially include the condition that all farms in Wales receiving the payment will have to have trees on 10% of land.

“As a farmer I’m looking at that and thinking how do we make this work? But we can grumble about it, or we can see if there’s an opportunity,” she said.

Ms Reader shared how she met a forester through social media, who assured her that trees should only be grown if they’re going to be useful and if they’re going to provide an income within five years. After coming to a consensus with her parents and uncle, who she farms in partnership with, she planned how to set up an agroforestry trial on a triangle shaped field with bedrock close to the surface.

This has included planting strips of a selection of tree species in rows, as short rotation coppice, which can be harvested within two to five years. The wood from the harvesting can be used to produce various low carbon materials, such as concrete or plaster. Between the rows of trees Ms Reader shared that the plan is to grow another crop, Sita.

“It’s like a cross between a sycamore sapling and a maize plant. It has massive leaves which are supposedly huge suckers of carbon and rhizome roots. It’s also a high protein crop which could potentially displace soya,” she added.

Stephen Briggs, arable farmer and head of technical development at Innovation for Agriculture, also spoke about agroforesty. He shared how he has introduced trees to the arable system on Bluebell Farms in Cambridgeshire, which has helped the farm make best use of the most extensive free resource available, sunlight.

“A wheat crop only uses 65-68% of the available solar radiation, if we used 100% there wouldn’t be any weeds,” he said.

“Nature worked this out a long time ago – it’s about different species, different times, different places to catch as much of the sunlight as possible. In our farming system we’ve chosen to stack enterprises. We’ve stacked productive fruit trees, pollen and nectar areas and crop production all in the same field.”

According to Stephen they are sequestering about 4.5 tonnes per hectare from having trees in the system.

“The system is running at about 20% more productive than a monoculture, because we’re stacking those enterprises, but it is more complex to manage,” he said.

“Change is constant in our industry. We’re pretty good at adapting to change, but we need to be driving that change and controlling it, rather than it being done to us.

“Part of that is benchmarking to measure where you’re starting from and moving to, also stack enterprises for resilience, harvest the opportunities available to you and only do things you enjoy,” concluded Mr Briggs.

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