How can you check that your farming unit is environmentally fit for the future? Hugh Martineau, farmer and agricultural consultant at Ricardo Energy and Environment, shares his advice.
No two farms are the same, but there are some basic indicators which can help assess your unit’s environmental resilience.
Essentially, these are areas where agriculture could have an impact and where the risk needs to be minimised, or where benefits could be enhanced.
Taking stock of your current position is essential for understanding environmental benefits already being delivered, and to develop an accurate baseline from which improvements can be monitored and reviewed.
One way to minimise risks of soil run-off and nutrient loss is to use a nutrient management plan.
This calculates surplus nutrients by reviewing total nutrients generated and brought on-farm as inputs such as feed and fertiliser, in relation to outputs.
Minimising the surplus in the nutrient balance will reduce the amount lost to the environment, which also represents an economic loss.
Nutrient management planning helps use only what you need. Ask an expert to help devise a budget.
Soils are the main asset farmers have and their health and condition is the basis of a profitable business.
It is essential to ensure pH is within optimum range (6-6.5) for nutrient uptake. Basic soil analysis will also provide P, K and Mg status, which inform the nutrient management plan.
Other indicators include soil structure, organic matter, water retention and infiltration rates.
Results will give a good indication of what needs to be done to improve your soil health.
There are some great online resources about how to do a simple soil analysis
Agricultural impact on air quality is rising up the political agenda.
Measuring ammonia emissions is a challenge, but we know the main sources are from housed livestock, slurry and manure stores and their applications.
Reduce ammonia emissions by covering slurry stores and by using precision application techniques.
When slurry and manure is applied to land due to be cultivated it should be incorporated as soon as possible to minimise the release of ammonia.
This will also ensure more nitrogen is available to the crop.
This is very farm-specific and can be difficult to determine what you have on-farm without help.
For example, as this is not my area of expertise I asked a local ecologist to give me some guidance for my home farm, which helped develop some of our agri-environment decisions.
The basic principle, is to understand what you have in terms of the habitat and how to manage it to maintain and enhance its value.
We are also increasingly looking at habitat connectivity to enhance the value at a wider scale.
The best thing to do is to ask an ecologist to come and properly assess your farm, what you have on it, and what you can do to enhance habitats and improve biodiversity.
Greenhouse gases (GHGs), carbon storage and sequestration are key factors for farmers to consider.
The simplest and most useful metric to measure GHG emissions, is emission intensity. This is kilogram of CO2 equivalent, emitted per kg of what you are producing, such as beef, milk, or wheat.
Emissions intensity is a measure of production efficiency and can help identify ways to reduce costs and also to improve profitability.
This can be measured using an emissions calculator, such as the ‘AgRE Calc’ tool developed by AC Consulting (see the resource box on the back page).
The tools to measure carbon stores and sequestration (taking carbon out of the air and locking it up in, for example, soils) are less developed, as there is significant uncertainty in calculations of rates of sequestration in soils.
This means that physical measurements of soil carbon through soil analysis are needed to provide a baseline measurement from which to maintain and increase carbon stocks.
In the meantime, understanding the impact of cultivation practices and protecting the carbon stock on your farm is important.
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