Talking metrics and footprinting with Alltech E-CO2

Up until the early 2000’s E-CO2 was doing farm assurance visits and inspections.  In 2008 it started looking at carbon footprinting and assessment work, first getting involved with dairy businesss.  Pilots from Arla / Wiseman and Dairy Co have led to E-CO2 footprinting tools being used on hundreds (and now thousands) of farms across the UK.

Alltech – ECO2 have (and still do) hold contracts with supermarkets, other retailers and organisations who are interested in knowing what the carbon footprint of their primary producers are.  Its part of their CSR model (or corporate social responsibility) and as such collects data on the environmental and business performance of farms which is then reported back up the line and into company strategies and reports.

This model is very different to the footprinting that I’ve done which is all on a voluntary basis, and there is no denying their very enviable statistics in terms of numbers of farmers that they have footprinted.  At the last count, Alltech-EC02 have completed over 6,000 carbon assessments and reports across dairy, beef and sheep farms in the UK.  I was really interested to hear about their experiences in carrying out these assessments, whether farmers perceived them as useful or as something that they had to do, and whether the farmers ultimately changed their management as a results of going through the footprinting process.

What was also really interesting to look at was the idea of the validity of the metrics as a stand-alone measure, or whether they needed to be packaged with advice, and if that was the case, what was the perfect ‘mix’ that achieved behavioural change and showed impact at the business level?

One thing from the discussions that really struck me was the importance of the right people carrying out the footprinting.  Alltech use all of their own people that they put through a rigorous training process.  The two main criteria for their advisors is that they have a good practical knowledge of farming, and that they are positive.  This allows the advisor to build a relationship with the farmer, to understand and empathise with frustrations but highlight the positive benefits that come from going through the footprinting process and the opportunity to analyse business performance.

Initially this discussion with farmers were very much along the lines of – “what’s in if for you? Well its an opportunity to see where to save money on energy, and the carbon data is more for the supermarkets to report on.”  However as the report has changed, the footprint that is taken now, is much more holistic, and reports on all aspects of the business, including the more obvious ones like livestock health parameters, energy and water use, fertiliser use, grassland management and cropping, but also now more wider sustainability issues such as involvement in the local community, employment and other social factors to try and highlight the vital place of our farmers within the rural environment.  This allows the supermarkets / retailers a wider range of criteria on which to report as well as providing the carbon data.

Alltech have also developed a range of tools, from the more in-depth footprinting models to lighter touch tools which allow interested farmers to look at the carbon cost or opportunity of changing management and key performance indicators on the farm. The What-if tools that they have developed allow users to understand where emissions are coming from on their farm, by inputting a few key bits of data (for example farm size, fuel use and electricity use).  This then allows the calculator to give the user a rough estimate of performance. These have been developed for dairy, beef and sheep farms, as well as one for looking at livestock feed.

The What-if tool has been designed to be simple to acces, with minimal registration needed and the ability to dive straight in when inspiration strikes!

The in-depth footprints that are done for some supermarket contracts, have a robust process that goes alongside them. The footprinting methodology is certified by PAS2050 and the Carbon trust, and when they get a contract for doing the footprinting there is a sequence of events that takes place.  It includes the economic impact of management through including cost of production in the footprint results to allow farmers to quickly appreciate where the win-wins are in terms of financial and carbon savings.

A group meeting is held first which is free to attend for all the farmers in that supply chain.  This gives Alltech a chance to explain who they are, what they do and explain what’s going to happen in terms of completing the actual footprint.  After this meeting, a letter is sent out to each farmer telling them that they are going to be phoned up to make an appointment.  Then the appointment is made, and prior to the advisor coming, a list is sent out of the bits of data that are going to be needed to fill in the footprint.  During the actual visit, which could take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 and a half hours the footprint is calculated.  As part of the quality assurance process, each piece of data that is added is validated in terms of its source, and then the results can be calculated.

After the visit, a report is collated back at head office.  The report details the result, reported in different ways, including broken down into categories graphically as well as in more detail with the results next to benchmarked data including the system average and the performance of the top 10%.

The importance of the report cannot be underestimated according to Chris, “the report is what we are remembered by” he explains, and by them understanding the report, there is much more likelihood that they will take stock of it and change management.  As such care is taken after the visit to keep it fresh in their memory.  Before the report is sent to the farmer, farmers are called for feedback on the visit to rate the assessors and what they found useful in the visit.  The report is then sent out, which is always within 10 days.  “It has to go out while the visit is fresh in the farmer’s mind” Chris explains.  After the visit, the farmer is then phoned back by the advisor to chat through the report and look at what the future options might be.

The key is to make sure that at the end of the experience, they understand what the report says and how it’s applicable to their business, and what the clear next steps are that they can take.

As well as the individual reports, Alltech also hold group events on any subject that affects on-farm carbon (so a pretty wide remit!).  As well as events, they also write case studies and highlight farms where big improvements have been made in the carbon footprint and share insight into what practices have made the most impact.

Interestingly, when posed the question what would be the perfect (money no object) service, discussions then turned to the potential in the future of real time sensors, data management and instant results from the farm, which is a fascinating option for the future.

So what were the key things that came out of this meeting for me?

The importance of people – no matter how good and techy your footprinting software is (and this is very good), you need the people to sell it, and tailor it to your business.  Metrics by themselves don’t equal behavioural change, they allow for impact reporting (which is what the retailers need).

Previously to the meeting, I was dubious about the use a top down (supermarkets pushing footprinting onto producers) as a way to get farmers to engage with the carbon agenda, but the number of footprints that were done can’t be sniffed at.  6,000 assessments done through the retailer / processor contracts what was the number of voluntary assessments done in the last 9 years?

10 or 0.0016%

What happens if you look at the actual change in footprint on those 6,000 farms?  Has their management changed and their footprint gone down? Well in general the footprint has gone down, so that’s a positive.  The use of target setting by processors, especially in the dairy industry to get farmers to reduce footprints is having an impact, as if you want to be on a better contract you have to complete the footprint analysis and reduce it annually.  But for dairy farmers it’s fairly simple, as you are selling your milk to one processor or retailer.

What happens in beef or lamb, where the control over where the stock is sold is much more in the control of the farmer, will there be the same level of uptake of footprinting assessments?  The results from Alltech are that the majority of their footprints have been on dairy, with much fewer on beef and lamb.  We have to think more cleverly about the business benefits of doing carbon footprints on beef and sheep farms, and whether a different ‘incentive’ mechanism would work.  Funded benchmarking / discussions groups perhaps?

Finally echoing what I had seen up in Scotland, when dealing with livestock farmers, they like talking about livestock, so the most popular management options that had been taken up were ones that were also going to benefit their stock health and productivity.

As such when trying to talk about carbon, it needs to be converted into impact on livestock and the things that the farmer is interested about, which quite often isn’t carbon.  Back to the importance of people again!

Thanks to Chris Davies and Imogen Cooke for the meeting.  For more information on Alltech E-CO2 click here.