Becky Wilson is a passionate advocate for the economic benefits of sustainable farming. In 2016 Becky was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship to study how to communicate carbon reduction schemes to farmers. Having previously worked for Duchy College Rural Business School as a Technical Specialist in Resource Management, Becky is currently Business Development & Technical Director for The Farm Carbon Toolkit.
What is a good metric to measure carbon emissions relevant to dairy farming, and how does one go about doing that?
The way you measure your carbon emissions is by filling in a carbon footprint calculator, which adds up all the sources of greenhouse gases that are emitted from the farm [carbon, methane or nitrous oxide]. A good carbon calculator should also take account of the amount of carbon that is stored on your farm in trees, hedges, soils and habitats. Emissions minus sequestration provides your whole farm carbon footprint.
In agriculture, carbon dioxide is not the main greenhouse gas emitted, far more problematic are methane and nitrous oxide. In order to compare like with like (as agriculture is a complex industry emitting more than one gas) agriculture’s emissions are translated into a carbon dioxide equivalent - which is the common reporting language for carbon footprints. Carbon dioxide emissions can sometimes be misleading as reductions may arise from methane and nitrous oxide as well as carbon dioxide. We are more looking at what we can do with nitrous oxide, however carbon is what we are looking at when we talk about sequestration.
There are various tools out there which can be used, some of which are free and some of which come down a supply chain with a consultant attached. They are starting to be more mandatory down the supply chain, big dairy companies will quite often want farms to do a carbon footprint to understand the impact of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions up their supply chain. Agriculture previously has been one of the only industries with a voluntary carbon reduction target, because it is a hard industry to decarbonise due to its complexity as a biological system and the fact it is intrinsically linked to food production. Our emissions target as an industry will become mandatory soon.
Are there any subsidies or grants available to farmers to enable them to change the way they farm and reduce their carbon emissions?
What is great is that most of the management practices that are advised to reduce your footprint are in line with cost saving, as they are improving the efficiency of resource use. There is a nice relationship between carbon efficiency and business efficiency. If you are using fewer inputs, you will be producing less greenhouse gases and reducing your costs.
There are easy wins when looking at fuel and energy use, energy efficiency measures, looking at the volume of fertilisers being applied, looking at growing nitrogen fixing crops, using the manure resources in a way which optimises their nutrient content. Improving the diversity of their grasslands would require a bit more investment but would improve quality and production and would also fix nitrogen (reducing the amount of fertiliser). These can be supported often through options within the current countryside stewardship schemes. The benefits that arise from enhancing soil carbon sequestration can lead to a substantial reduction in costs. If farmers are looking to move away from ploughing, there are government funded grants for the new machinery. The big changes we are looking at would be, for instance, coating fertiliser in a special coating, which means the release of nitrogen is much more closely matched to crop demands.
Regarding cows and sheep and methane emissions, there is research looking at new/different feed additives so that the methane emissions can be reduced per unit of production. This is all in the research phase now, there will be a lot of opportunities coming over the next few years. No-one was talking about this 10 years ago, and all of sudden there is a spike in interest, the research and measurement tools have to catch up with the interests and practices that are being implemented on-farm.
There are lots of easy wins that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make farms more resilient. We are all seeing changes in the weather. By making businesses more resilient, lowering the cost base and increasing the efficiency, getting the soil into a position that it will hold onto water when it needs to, drain when it needs to and also recycle nutrients, these will future proof your business and reduce your cost base.
How important is the animals’ feed in dairies’ greenhouse gas emissions?
Feed is significant. It has an impact on how much methane a cow will produce, with two phases of importance. Firstly, during the process of rumination, turning forage or feed into milk, as part of the cow’s digestion process (and the ability of the cow to digest grass) methane is emitted. This methane is a loss of energy that the cows could be using to produce more milk, so there is a relationship between feed type and energy content and methane emissions. Secondly, the process of feed sourcing: if you are flying feed halfway across the world from an unsustainable system, this impacts greenhouse gas emissions and provides feed stocks that have a high carbon footprint.
The best thing you can do is to optimise feed usage and focus on how you can make the most of home-produced forage and really looking at how the feed is being produced. A lot of companies are now scrutinizing their supply chain because consumers are interested in this.
You mention pasture-led systems, how does that change the economics of the dairy?
It doesn’t, the majority of farms produce a lot of their own forage, supplementing this with concentrates. You don’t need a huge amount of land; you just need to make your pasture more effective and productive. I am not bashing concentrates completely; they have their place. The future is about looking into breeding strategies, animals that suit our climate.
Over in the West of the UK our climate is particularly good at producing grass, so the best type of animal would be able to effectively turn that grass into meat and milk. These cows wouldn’t need a lot of concentrate, so a move away from the Ferrari of the cow world, Holsteins, to something that doesn’t need such a high level of nutrition but would still produce milk efficiently and consistently. Again, it is about looking at what is going in versus what is coming out and the costs of producing that litre of milk, in terms of financial cost and greenhouse gas emissions.
A cow doesn’t produce milk for the first two years of her life, however she is emitting methane. You need to offset those two years over the course of her productive life capacity. Therefore, the longer she lives the better.
What do you see as the most environmentally costly part of the farming system?
A big issue we have is nitrogen fertilisers. I'm not saying we all need to go organic because there are lots of other things we can do, but nitrous oxide is 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide and agriculture is responsible for 80% of it. It is a big issue that we need to look at in more detail. It is not just nitrous oxide, but it is also those nutrients leaching into our water system. Understanding and better managing nutrients is really important. This also includes ammonia which is an air quality issue. Research will really be able to help us to improve the efficiency of nitrogen use in these fertilisers.
I also think that looking at our care of the soil is really important. Our soil is our biggest asset. It has the biggest potential to do good in the environment, so we need a real focus on how soil is managed, because a healthy soil is actually a bedrock of a sustainable and resilient farm. Farmers are starting to wake up to the facts.
How do you hope to see people farming differently in 5 years’ time? With this in mind, do you think it is feasible to run a carbon-neutral business (from farm to finished cheese) by 2050, in line with Arla’s pledge?
Yes. My vision in five years’ time is that farmers understand carbon and are making decisions with an understanding of how it affects their carbon footprint. We need to have an enhanced level of carbon literacy in our farming community. There isn’t one golden method that everyone has to follow, because of the diversity of land, farming systems and soil types. That is one of our strengths that we need to embrace.
We need a deeper understanding of what the issues are. We need to improve the farmer-consumer relationship. Farmers are worried they will be told that they can’t produce their crops anymore due to the anti-milk and anti-meat movement. We need to flip this on its head and use it as an opportunity to start to tell our stories and explain how fantastic the quality of food is in this country.
The carbon footprint of our dairy farms in the UK are 2.5 times lower than the global average. We are already doing a good job; we are very good at growing grass and have high levels of animal welfare and really good quality produce. There are still huge steps we need to take but understanding how carbon flows through your farm and how to measure it is crucial.
My vision is that farms would be doing their carbon footprint as a matter of course along with their accounts and using that as their base line. It’s not until we get that kind of data collection that we can start to tackle some of the claims that are coming out about how bad the agricultural industry is. That is something that would greatly benefit from support in terms of funding. You can have a carbon negative dairy, it is just getting the data together, which is happening but is slow. The industry needs to pull together as a whole and celebrate the good things that are going on, using consistent metrics to give us the ability to communicate positively.