Climate Clever Beef – Demonstrating potential, inspiring change

Today has been a busy day, with 3 meetings, starting with a phone meeting at 7.30am with a previous Nuffield Scholar, then off to meet Steven Bray from the Queensland Agriculture department and then Terry McCosker from Carbon Link and Resource Consulting Solutions. All the meetings have been great, and my head is completely full up!

I was meeting Steven Bray about a project that he has been running here in Queensland with northern beef producers called Climate Clever Beef. The project has run demonstration farms to look at where emissions can be reduced and also capture the economic benefits (and efficiency benefits) of changing management.

The kind of work that Steve does relies on external funding to operate projects. Environmental money is coming in, their job is to make it useful to landholders, improve profits, working on the relationship that if you are managing land better then profitability is increased as well.
Climate Clever beef was different from previous projects in that previously they had held events and field days, and were raising awareness but not seeing practice change. At the same time, greenhouse policies were brought out to lower emissions from agriculture, but had no idea what the practices were that would achieve that or how to go about doing it. The project engaged with landholders, but only a small number of farmers with intense monitoring. As such, climate clever beef was more of a demonstration project than extension. The sites were also used to do research. There was a lot of variability between sites, conditions and practices.
The project was set up using regional teams which engaged producers in various regions, and concentrated on the opportunities that were available to them in their region under their conditions. The staff were very important, they needed to be trusted by the farmer, and for new staff members, mentors were used that facilitated early discussions with farmers until the relationship was formed. A key part of this project was the use of business analysis, to highlight the relationship with efficiency and emissions reductions.
What was also interesting in this project was the use of the properties that were involved as research stations. This not only provided the farmer with access to research and scientists, but also made sure that gaps in current research were being filled, and kept the farmer engaged with the project for the whole time. The farmers would often have to take samples or send in data, which was a good opportunity for a discussion about how things were going on a more casual basis.
The use of business analysis helped to see where efficiencies could be made, but Steve was keen to point out that tools should only be used to help show impact or suggest areas to focus on. Tools allow an assessment of where we are now and what we may want to do. The demonstration activity on the farm is the practical implementation of that and shows how it fits within the business without losing money.
The farms were used to demonstrate practice change rather than following the traditional extension model of raising awareness. Another interesting area of this project, that there was also a focus on education of policy makers on what worked and what didn’t. As such there was more of an opportunity for policy makers to work on enabling policies when they knew and appreciated what the issues were. The project brought policy makers out onto farms in Queensland and the Northern Territories, to talk with farmers and scientists, see action at farm level and understand where the trade-offs may be. Thus the project had a multi-dimensional approach – training staff, facilitating demonstrations that answered land holders questions and showed them where efforts would yield results and influencing policy.
Once the farmers were recruited, there was an initial meeting which allowed for an understanding of the business and the creation of some initial baseline data. A herd modelling tool was used to understand where the carbon emissions were being generated and where the efficiency benefits could be targeted. These hubs were also used for field days to allow for awareness raising within the local community and to inform those farmers who maybe sceptical about climate change. Steve explains, “a lot of producers think that its rubbish, but by attending the day and learning a bit about the issue, they know enough to contribute to future policy debates.” The field days were very much targeted around production based issues, with carbon also talked about, but not the main issue.
The project, which is just finishing, ran in two phases of 3 years, and Steve was confident that a 3 year time period was enough to see the results of practice change. A lot of the management that was worked on with the farmers was continued with after the project. “The practical measures around herd and pasture management, have, on the most part been continued with post project,” Steve explains, “which was the goal of this, get them to understand how to do it, and what impact it has on the bottom line and emissions, and once they are doing it, we’ve done our job.” The other thing that this project has provided is data – which wasn’t there before. Through the connection of these demonstration sites to research, they are also bridging the gap between research and practice, ensuring that research is targeted and has impact.
What is the most effective way to achieve practice change? According to Steve, it has to be face to face with people, the combination of demonstration of impact, with peer to peer learning is the most effective. However there still needs to be a reason to make that change and that differs from person to person, whether you are interested in Carbon, water quality or reducing inputs or costs.
Overall Steve thinks that this is a pretty good model to achieve the elusive behavioural change, but care is needed in terms of project design and structure. “It can’t be simplistic,” he explains, “the project needs to look at the wider objectives of the business for it to have any worth at the farm level.”

Charlie Arnott, restoring landscape function through grassland management

Another farmer I met this week was Charlie Arnott.  Charlie was recommended to me by someone else that I was seeing as someone who would be good to meet and he certainly was!

Charlie is farming 5,000 hectares in Boorowa, New South Wales. He again has changed the way that he manages his farm, now coming away from traditional cropping enterprises, and a mixed farm to focussing on grass fed beef.

The businesses BAHG (big ass hairy goal) strategy (yes he has one!) for the business long term is to work with nature to restore landscape function and to have a business that is genuinely sustainable in terms of the natural environment, provides a stable source of income and is a resource for the local community in terms of creating a vibrant place to live.  Everything that he does on land is working towards this goal. His interventions on the land are all concerned with restoring landscape function, and he uses biodiversity is a measure of landscape function as there is a direct correlation between the function of the landscape and how much biodiversity it can support.

“We manage the water cycle, the nutrient cycle, the crops, soils and animals to help restore that function” he explains, “ultimately we work with nature not against it, why wouldn’t you?”

charlie_cattleWhen he came home to the farm 20 years ago it was a conventional mixed farm. They were growing lucerne, lupins, triticale, wheat barley, canola, as well as a core shorthorn breeding herd and some merino wethers. It was a busy business and he loved it.

What was his tipping point?  Charlie explains, “I saw an ad in the paper in 2003 /4 (which was a very dry summer) about a one day course on how to profit from a drought; which piqued my interest. The course was a 1 day carrot dangler for the Grazing for Profit course – which was the biggest game changer for me in terms of a paradigm shift in what I was doing.”

Charlie did the one day course which introduced the concepts that he then went on to explore in more detail in the full Grazing for Profit training. He credits this course with changing everything. “It’s like a light went on,” he explains, “the course gave me an awareness of the wider landscape, my business, financial planning and business management.”

Charlie explains the broad concept using the analogy of a pot that is held up by three legs. Inside that pot is the farm business and the farm family (the people). The first leg is your production system, the second is economics and the third is the environment. You need all three legs to be working holding up the pot for a functioning business.

We have to sort these things out, we need to eat, but we need a functioning landscape in order to produce food. We are looking down the barrel of a gun.”

The course took the principles of what was being run elsewhere (including the Savory Institute) and targeted the concept for Australian farmers and timed it at a moment when people were looking for answers.  He was convinced at the end of the day that he needed to do something different.

Traditionally the landscape wasn’t something that you bothered about and managed, you worked it.

Charlie completely changed the way that he farms, after being on the course. He now uses nature’s resources to grow pastures that regenerate with native perennial species, and uses this to feed his stock.

We always hcarnott_fertiltyad the tools in the toolbox to manipulate nature, but to change the outcome, we used the same tools differently.  The key is how you use the tools at your disposal. Using the old system, the tools that we were reliant on were fertiliser and ploughing, those have been taken out and different ones put in.”

Charlie now grows fertility in his ‘fertility centre’ where he makes compost using resources from the farm.

 

fertility_2Adopting the practices on-farm.

Having been inspired by the course, Charlie recognises the need to step away from the business and really scrutinise it from the outside. He explains “there is a need to step back and be strategic. Breaking a paradigm won’t happen without taking time to look at why things are done the way they are. You have to ask yourself the hard questions and work out why you are doing tasks and whether they are taking you in the direction that you want to go. You also have to be honest about what the end goal is.”

The course also offered support and mentoring for 3 years afterwards which was a key part.  This included peer to peer support.  Enthused by the course, once he had finished, Charlie rushed out and invested heavily in fencing and infrastructure, something which he now sees as a waste of money. “I was so keen to get going I rushed out and spent money I didn’t need to instead of thinking strategically about my next move.”  The course offers a graduate package where you are able to come along and present your business plan to a group of farmers and trainers and discuss your next steps which don’t always have to focus on the different enterprises. Charlie explains, “I went into talk about sheep and they started talking to me about why I hadn’t proposed to my girlfriend yet! Farming is more than just cattle and sheep.”

This post course support and mentoring, is seen as a crucial part of ensuring that what you learn is taken up on-farm.

“If there isn’t any support post course – you are setting yourself up to fail. Need a certain level of hand holding to get this stuff going,  and the best way to do it is farmer to farmer.”

You can find out more about the course, through this link.

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Thanks to Charlie and family for showing me round!

Talking holistic management with The Conscious Farmer

So on Friday this week, I visited Derek and Kirrily Bloomfield who farm 5,000 acres (small by Aus standards) in the Liverpool Plains region. As well as producing grass fed beef (which is delicious) they have started direct marketing their beef and telling their story to the consumers through a website and blog The Conscious Farmer.
derek-and-kirrily2One of the things that I’m interested in when talking to farmers, is the whole area of the decision making process? What was it that made them change from farming more conventionally to managing their resources more efficiently? What helped them change?
Derek was farming this land and Kirrily was the farm’s agronomist. Derek explained that he was getting fairly disheartened with farming and was deciding what to do with the future. He was looking for other options and came across regenerative agriculture. He did a course (and took his father along to) and started to change the way that he was thinking about managing the land. Another personal reason for the couple was that their first son Patrick was born at 27 weeks. The couple researched premature births and decided that they wanted to change the way that they were farming.
“We were farming commodities to pay the bills, rather than growing food,” Derek explains. “It wasn’t about the environment, we were producing what we needed to feed our family.” Their management system has completely changed now. They did away with arable cropping and the whole farm is now down to grass, with native pastures replacing the previously cropped fields. “The landscape is the first priority now,” Derek continues, “and the cattle are an essential part of the conservation process and help to revitalise the landscape and provide the essential benefits that we need in terms of biodiversity, water storage, carbon storage and a resilient system.”
derek-and-kirrily3Water seems to be a dominant theme, when I talk to any farmer here in Australia, and Kirrily explains that regenerative agriculture helps with rehydrating the landscape. “We need to hold onto what water we have,” she explains, “when we have rain, if we have bare ground, that water runs off and takes with it soil particles. By having a continuous, living soil cover, we can catch every rain drop and allow the soil (which is biologically active) to use that water to move it horizontally through the landscape and rehydrate it.”
They took me to see a great example of this in one of their fields. The text below is from a blog that she wrote about it on her site (accessible here).
Kirrily explained, “We have a gully area on our farm which was carved through our highly dispersive black soil years ago. It happened because of a combination of land contouring that was done on neighbouring farms upstream, and a lack of perennial plants holding the soil together on our farm where we used to grow annual crops. These earthworks concentrated the water (unnaturally), which then flowed over our highly erodible black soil and created the gully. (This is not a criticism of our neighbours – they were only doing what was considered the best thing at the time and was actually compulsory for us all to take part in).”

“We decided to do something about this gully area using Holistic Management planned grazing techniques. This often involves grazing the cattle in fairly high concentration (though not always), and then moving the stock on (and importantly) not re-grazing until the grasses have recovered. The cows clamber up and down the steep sides of the gully (it’s like they’re playing) – tapering out the sides of the gully, creating hoof marks where water can pool and plants can grow which then stabilise the bank and prevent further erosion (see how the animals have disturbed the soil in the image below). We then take the cows out and allow the perennial grasses to germinate, grow and recover before re-grazing.”
“You can see the below image of what the gully used to look like in 2003. Clearly the photo below and the one at the top are in very different seasons, which exaggerates the difference, but the thing to note is the sides of the gully. Below, the gully sides have no plants growing to stabilise the soil. This photo is actually after we had started work by using animals – the sides are already somewhat tapered and there are some (although dry) perennial grasses in the base of the gully. Prior to this image, the sides used to be sheer and there were no perennial grasses growing, only annual weeds, but still a plant! Perennial plants are important as their root system is generally deeper and is there all year to glue the soil together.”

“This YouTube clip shows it a few weeks ago after rain and flooding and after 2 feet of water had passed through the gully. The sides have plants growing on them, which stabilise the soil and prevent more erosion and while you can’t see them here – there are perennial grasses that grow in summer. It is now a productive paddock for our cows that was previously an unused, costly area of land on our farm. In the clip, you can see the hoof marks in the bank as our cows were grazing briefly in here only a couple of weeks prior.”

“Whilst the gully is still a bit troublesome and eroding at the head (because we can’t control the concentration of water coming onto our farm), we are doing our best to make sure any soil eroding at the head doesn’t leave our farm. The floor of the gully further down from the head is actually being raised in height as the water is slowed and the soil is caught in the vegetation and maintained on our farm. We would like to do more here such as natural sequence farming, however this shows that with only animals and plants as our tools, we can achieve great results in land regeneration.”

“Managing land in the extremes of weather while profitably producing food isn’t always easy, but we’re doing our best to leave things better than when we took over.”

derek-and-kirrily

Thanks to Derek, Kirrily and the boys for being such fabulous hosts!

Everyone loves talking about the weather

It doesn’t seem to matter where you are in the world, a common thread of conversation seems to be discussions about the weather. From idle conversations in hostel common rooms about the rain, sun, temperature or forecast, to the distinct lack of winter clothes that I have brought on this trip (cos Australia’s hot right?), it is a theme that binds us all together.
When you include farmers in this conversation, weather forecasting and reporting usually takes on a new level of intensity, and its unsurprising, due to the vulnerability of these businesses to the weather and its impact. Australian farmers are used to dealing with extremes of climate, drought, fires, winter rains, but what I hadn’t realised was that there are a whole bunch of climate models and weather patterns that are different to what we have in the UK.
Graeme Anderson from the Department of Primary Industries for the State of Victoria is a climate extension specialist. His job is explaining the complexities of climate forecasting to farmers and helping them understand what impact these models will have on their management decisions. And unsurprisingly, he’s found that by starting conversations with farmers about what’s happening with the weather, they are interested in what he has to say. They can see the direct link with what they are doing on-farm.
Graeme has used video to try and explain these complex climate models to farmers. The process is to gather all the data from the climate modellers, write a script that makes it easy to understand, check that the facts are correct and the meaning is still there, pilot test it with farmers and then release it. The series of videos that he has made about the different weather events is called Climate Dogs. Each of the different weather patterns is characterised as a cartoon dog, usually a sheepdog or kelpie of some description, and the videos depict these dogs (all given names that correspond to the acronyms of the weather patterns) behaving in the way that the climate does when these conditions occur. It also explains the impact that these models bring, in terms of rainfall and temperature patterns.
Graeme also provides monthly climate forecast videos that are done in the style of a spoof sports programme with lots of humour. This means that they are shared more on social media and reach a wider audience.
There are also videos that explain the complexities of climate science, soil carbon and adaptation and mitigation options open to farmers, that he has produced that form part of an advisors CPD programme that it similar to what we have in the UK through FACTS. For advisors that want to give advice around fertiliser applications, agronomy and nutrient management planning, there is now a requirement to complete CPD, a part of which is a module around reducing emissions from agriculture, and the opportunities available to farmers to build resilience in their soils through organic matter and sequestering carbon.
Graeme has had much success in engaging farmers in the discussion about management practices to adapt to these changing weather patterns, by approaching it from the weather side, rather than the climate change debate. He regularly speaks at events about climate patterns and models and is popular with the farming community, his last event had 1,000 farmers at it.
Interestingly at the same time, the weather has been on the national news, as the south of Australia had been battered by a couple of storms, resulting in widespread flooding and power outages, and a blackout in Adelaide that went on for 24 hours. As I was driving from one farm to another, it was interesting to hear on the radio that this blackout became incredibly politicised and was used as an opportunity to blame renewable energy for the lack of power. There is an ambitious target in Australia for renewable energy generation but as you drive around wind turbines and ground mounted arrays are noticeable absent (the complete opposite of Cornwall) and in a land with so much sun, it seems a bit of a missed opportunity.
Thanks to Graeme Anderson for an extremely interesting visit, while I was in Melbourne. If you are interested in watching the climate dogs videos, click here.

Carbon farming down under

So you might have guessed from the title, that I am in Australia for 3 weeks, for the first long trip of my Nuffield experience. I have been here for a few days now, and apart from still waking up ridiculously early due to jet lag, it has been pretty good so far.  Having spent the last few days in Sydney and now in Melbourne for a couple of days for meetings though, I am looking forward to seeing some countryside (I’m not really a city girl at heart).

However while in Sydney I got the chance to go to meet with Irene Sobotta, who works for Meat and Livestock Australia on sustainability research.  She was also part of the team that developed the Farm 300 project (which initially inspired my Nuffield) so I was very pleased to be able to have a meeting and find out more about how the project was designed, and how it had been taken up by farmers.

mla-logo-blogThe Farm 300 project

Funded by the Australian Government the key objective of this project was to improve knowledge and skills of Australian livestock producers leading to a 10% increase in on-farm productivity and profitability and a 30% decrease in GHG emissions intensity.  Those are quite big targets and especially given that the timescale for projects was a little over a year.

What initially interested me about this project was the fact that instead of training the farmers, they were training the advisors, and then letting the advisors adapt that knowledge to local conditions that their farmers were facing.  The basic process of the project was to work with advisors and producers, and then find and support coaching programs developed  by advisors which are relevant to local needs and which increase profitability and decrease GHG emissions intensity. This is based on the research that there is no universally applicable list of mitigation practices; practices need to be evaluated for individual agricultural systems and settings. The advisors task was to interpret materials and the wider challenge of lowering emissions into regionally adapted programmes that can be used with producers at a local level.

The project was very much focussed on business and really making the link between productivity and lower GHG emissions. This focus on business was necessary to get farmers interested in the process.  It was business that was the priority for the farmers, as such the environmental messages had to be communicated in such a way that they could be directly linked to the impact on profitability and productivity.

Farmers were given one to one coaching as well as the opportunity to benefit from farmer to farmer learning through peer discussion groups that were managed by advisors as well as the use of benchmarking to document impact.

The use of coaching

The reasons from the MLA for using coaching were simple.  “Livestock farming is complex,” Irene explained, “coaching has been proven to be an effective method of developing farmer skills and achieving practice change at a systems level, which is what we need.”

This continual learning allowed the farmers to build their skills and knowledge. The advisors became the farmer’s coaches, as in sport, helping them see what needed doing and giving them the skills to work out how to make it better.  , to practice and adapt depending on what works. This process is called supported learning.

The overall objective was to improve the farmer’s skill level. By taking small steps and gradually working through issues and by sharing experiences with other farmers there is an opportunity to gain inspiration as well as motivation to keep going.

The benefits of benchmarking

Benchmarking is also a key part of the puzzle, understanding why things are the way they are and where things can change. The research MLA have done shows that the longer that the farmers are in a skills development programme the higher the return on capital becomes within the business.

The peer to peer element of the programme also allowed for a supportive environment in challenging environmental conditions.  “We’ve seen floods, droughts and wildfires during the program” Irene explained, “and these totally devastate farm businesses and livelihoods.  Having a supportive social environment created through the groups helped the farmers cope with what was happening.”

Impact

The GHG emissions intensity were calculated using models and it is this modelling approach which has helped to shape the next phase of the project.

The Farm 300 project has now finished and has been replaced with the Carbon Farming Initiative.  What’s exciting about this initiative is that there is now an approved methodology for beef (and soon to be sheep) producers to join in with the scheme and get payments for adopting certain management practices that have been shown to reduce emissions.  This is a great step forward.  I’m due to be meeting another person from MLA next week that makes all the models for calculating emissions reduction potential as well as leading on the methane reduction programme over here, so there will be more on this soon!

Legacy

The project finished last year. However the methodology that MLA piloted in this project, was such a success, it is to be rolled out through the other research strands that are funded. The premise of the approach was putting the emphasis on continual learning, and teaching new skills through a combination of one to one advice on-farm, discussion with farming neighbours including benchmarking progress, and sharing ideas and knowledge.

The project allowed the formation of discussion groups with the overarching subject of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but the farmers in the groups set the topic that they wanted to focus on, thus investing their time and efforts into the scheme.  The advisors, who were trained on climate change, also got access to the latest research to disseminate to farmers, but needed to switch dissemination method from one of ‘telling’ to one of ‘showing.’ This recognition of the need to include farmers in generating solutions and equipping advisors with the most up to date knowledge about the subject so that they can suggest locally relevant mitigation measures and then facilitate rather than lead discussions should enable a longer legacy of these practices on-farm.

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.

 

Driving efficiency in Scottish beef and sheep

Yesterday (5th July) I attended an event  that was put on by the Farming For a Better Climate project that is running here in Scotland (there will be another blog post on that later this week).  The event was titled “Driving efficiencies in Suckler Cows and Breeding Ewes” and aimed to “help farmers in difficult economic times focus on improving output by concentrating on critical efficiency factors.”

cattle_talkIt didn’t disappoint.

The event was extremely well attended with around 120 farmers turning up to see what was happening.  Speaking to a few, I was surprised to find that some had travelled 100 miles to attend.

The morning was split up into 4 different stations to go round, each looking at a different topical subject.  The stations were looking at Calf nutrition and the benefits of creep feeding, and the use of trace element supplements, Post weaning management of sheep and cattle, cattle and sheep health and disease management (which focused on post weaning pneumonia in cattle and parasite control in sheep) and then soil and grassland management.

sheep_condition_scoreAll stations were great, and what struck me going round each of them was the attention to detail that each one had as well as costed out examples of the different management options that were being discussed.  I particularly liked the hands on resources that were present to condition score sheep.

A couple of things that stood out on the way round were:

The impact that the changing weather was having on-farm.  This was particularly evident in the sheep parasite session, where Haemonchus, Nematodirus and liver fluke were now being seen due to the milder wetter weather weather.

In the soils and grassland session, there were interesting discussions about grassland utilisation. The fact that stuck in my mind from this session came from John Vipond, a sheep specialist who explained that “if when you pick a handful of grass from the field and 1 blade in every 8 is dead, you will half your lamb growth rate.”
Growing grass in Scotland does include peaks and troughs, and decisions are needed on how you are going to manage these peaks. John concluded, that in times of dwindling financial support, putting what investment you have into infrastructure on faro that allows you to rotationally graze your fields is a good option. This means that you can get the farm set up so that it can work with less people and maximise the resources that you have got, and allow you to utilise the grass more effectively.
Its all about working away at the little things that you can influence and change.

After lunch we moved into a panel session with a mix of farmers and the managing director of the local livestock market to discuss what they were doing in their businesses to improve efficiency.

They were all excellent speakers.

Joyce Campbell’s talk was one of the highlights of the day for me.  She won the coveted title of Scottish Sheep farmer of the Year this year and has embraced social media to bring her life on the hills with her sheep to her consumers in the supermarkets.  From putting Go-Pro’s on sheep dogs, to capturing the absolutely stunning scenery and wildlife where she farms, to sending up drones to capture video (one of which went viral and got over 4 million hits), she is an inspiration and embodies the vision of making the direct link between the consumers of her beef and lamb with where it is produced.  She explained that it was all to do with understanding the power of what you have in your pocket.

She has gained commercial advantages from using social media as well, she is able to sell her tups to a much wider geographical area, and has people coming to visit the farm from Wales, Ireland and further afield.  She is also passionate about encouraging young entrants into agriculture, and takes on volunteers, apprentices and helpers to pass her knowledge onto the next generation and ensure a thriving industry.

She finished her speech with a challenge to all present, to “get your mobile phones out and promote our industry!”

ffbc_eventJohn Gordon, a beef and sheep farmer from Huntly also presented some great facts about what he was doing and how it was so vital to know your business and do what’s right for you. He did come out with the quote of the day for me, which was:

 

“Never let your farm know that you are hard up”

As well as the slightly longer quote below.

Never mind oil, gas and petrol – food is the greatest energy source in the world.  Without food where would we be? There will always be someone predicting doom and gloom in agriculture, but we are a resilient industry, it doesn’t matter how bad things are, you get up and carry on.”

The event was great, and the feedback from the farmers that I spoke to was overwhelmingly positive.  What was great about this event was that it was completely production focused.  Although it was funded through the Farming for a Better Climate initiative, it wasn’t focused on carbon, greenhouse gas emissions or resource use, it was embedding it into day to day business.  I realised that I hadn’t listened to talks about health for a while, as normally its not a subject that we cover, but we should be! Linking it back to production and really doing carbon by stealth, seems to be working, and if we are getting the results in terms of improved efficiencies etc (and still branding it as climate work) then why not?

The take home message for the farmers was around looking at what we can change.

There are lots of things, especially in these turbulent times, that are out of our control.  Efficiency is in our control and we can use all the tools in the box (including analysis, advice, data and management) to make our systems as efficient and resilient as possible to ride out the bumpy times yet to come.

 

A visit to the FAO and the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture

What is Climate Smart Agriculture?

This information is from the CSA website

Climate smart agriculture (CSA) is a systematic approach to agricultural development intended to address the dual challenges of food security and climate change from multiple entry points, from field management to national policy.  CSA aims to:

  1. Improve food security and agricultural productivity, and
  2. Increase the resilience of farming systems to climate change by adaptation, while
  3. Capturing potential mitigation co-benefits.

What is GACSA?

GACSA, is the Global Alliance for climate smart agriculture, and at the Food and Agricultural Organisation headquarters of the UN in Rome. The alliance, which is voluntary, is made up of partners that are dedicated to addressing the challenges facing food security and agriculture under a changing climate. In particular, the alliance has the objective of up-scaling the climate smart agriculture approach. It was launched in 2014, and has members from across the globe.

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The Headquarters of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN

In June this alliance held its annual forum, and was an opportunity to reflect on progress achieved in the first year of action and to see what was going to be prioritised for the upcoming year. The meeting, which was attended by over 150 delegates from around the world, represented different countries, farming systems and challenges from climate change.  For me, this meeting was a really interesting opportunity to understand some of the issues that are occurring around the world, from dealing with prolonged droughts in sub Saharan Africa and the devastating impact that that can cause to smallholder farmers, to empowering women and investing in people development through advancing knowledge and skills it was a jam packed couple of days.

I attended not as a member of GACSA (it’s mainly governments, research organisations and a few NGOs) but to see what was being talked about and whether this diverse group of people had any common ground.  To see whether we were all facing the same issues, and whether collectively we could work together to solve them and what projects and initiatives were going on around the world, that I could gain fresh ideas from or collaborate with. It was a long way away from a normal farmer meeting that I attend, but a good experience none the less to understand and share experiences.

As I alluded to earlier, the conference was very busy with sessions on partnerships, case studies (at a country level rather than at farm level), metrics, finance (which I can’t really begin to explain, as it was all a bit over my head and another language of acronyms), knowledge (which I was very interested in), regional alliances and opportunities ahead.

I am not going to write up all that happened over the two days, otherwise this would be an incredibly long blog, however the key points from both days are below.

Day 1  – key points

Great quote – The most dangerous phrase that we use is “we’ve always done it this way”

The importance of metrics – metrics help us to document impact and the journey on which we have been.  However there is a need for co-ordinated use of metrics, and to find metrics that are practical and usable and tell us meaningful results.  Also the need for everyone to use the same metrics – so comparisons are possible.

Related to metrics was the idea of business – if we are wanting farmers to change their management and adopt these climate smart practices – then we have to look at where the economic benefits are, and show where there are opportunities to be more productive (and profitable) and more climate smart.

Finance – all I can say from this session is that there is a need for finance to enable action on the ground.

Knowledge transfer – this is the key to accelerating action on the ground, especially farmer to farmer and from the research community to the farmer (it was good to know that we were on the right track!).  The other thing which was discussed here, is the importance of scale.  In the day to day work that we do, we understand the individuality of our farms, and as such there is a massive need to have local communication that is based on local knowledge and conditions, however we also need to engage the network and our policy makers to ensure that there is also a national and global strategy that allows for consistent communication to ensure that our messages are heard.

The importance of farmer participation and ownership of projects – considering that this was a meeting about climate smart agriculture – there were very few people who were actually involved in day to day agriculture there.  This was a shame and would be something to think about for the next forum, how to get more farmers engaged in the discussions as this will inevitably help with the action on the group that was mentioned time and time again.  Through involving farmers in the creation of projects, not only will they have practical merit and be actionable, the farmers will have a vested interest and as such will want to deliver it.

Another quote of the day came from a farmer who was taking part in the case study session and was from the Irish farmers association.  He told the room full of policy makers:

Stop talking about climate change and start talking about the enablers that I can use to solve the problem – let me be part of the solution and achieve the desired outcomes.”

Another big thing was that although this is a great alliance, and the meeting of different cultures, systems and nations should be celebrated, what was needed was action on the ground.  Care was needed to make sure that action was the priority and there was an appetite to get things started!

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Waiting for day 2 to start

Day 2 highlights

The second day included a whole section on knowledge for climate smart agriculture.  In the inception year of the alliance, a knowledge  action group was formed to look at where the current gaps in knowledge were and see what could be done about them.

The goal of the knowledge action group is to (again quoted from their documents) “provide actionable information of those looking to operationalise CSA, enabling evidence based decision making and calling out unknowns and uncertainties when they obstruct transformation to a climate – smart system.”

The major knowledge priorities that were identified from an online consultation were:

  1. Technical interventions and practices in climate smart agriculture
  2. Evidence base and support, services and extension for CSA
  3. Inclusive knowledge systems for CSA
  4. Integrated planning and monitoring for CSA

This group while spending a proportion of its first year doing all the ground work which accompanies global collaborations have found some key points which they want to address (and seem like pretty good sense to me!).

  1. Peer to peer learning is key – if we want to achieve change on the ground then we need to work with our farmers to get there.
  2. The importance of metrics – we need to generate evidence (that is comparable between systems) to show impact of the management on the ground (and that can be scaled up to demonstrate regions, nations and global action.
  3. We need to demonstrate clear economic benefits – make the business case to change practices at the farm level
  4. Research – where are the climate opportunities for agriculture? Also to enable the conversation between research and farmers to allow the farmers research questions to be answered
  5. Extension – the importance of investing in people through enhanced skills development and increased knowledge
  6. Indigenous and local knowledge – we can’t ignore the importance of local knowledge

 

So what did I come away with?

gacsa_2a

Demonstration of the different acronyms that are associated with investments!

A sense of optimism that although the mechanism is a bit clunky and these things take time to gain momentum (especially when you are dealing with this number of countries) there is a desire to address climate change and agriculture at a global level and work together.

A big question though that I am still grappling with is the one of scale.  There are multiple levels in this puzzle, and when we are looking at practices that we will be recommending farmers to adopt, we can’t be doing this on a global level.  Each farm is unique and there is a need for focused technical information for the farmer which shows the economic benefit, and then there is a requirement for reporting on how sectors of our industry are doing, as well as regions, and nations.  At each of these scales there is a different knowledge need and for some of them a different audience.

This led me onto thinking about how this alliance could be best used – and where are the areas where global co-ordination is needed.  A few things sprang to mind:

Metrics – if we are to demonstrate progress we need to be talking in the same language which means using the same metrics that are regarded as being scientifically rigorous to enable policy change and show the effect of changing management.  This is something that will need global action to achieve as its not an easy task!

Knowledge – Although specific practices that we are advising may vary, this alliance could be a great vehicle to share ideas and information about what works and what doesn’t in engaging farmers in climate smart agriculture.

Communication to the public – co-ordination of messages to the public about the issues around agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions.  Lets provide a united front which shows all the positive steps that farmers are taking in terms of environmental management, and show how we are working on the issues that need sorting.

Collaboration and strength in numbers – continuing this alliance means that we can all share research and innovation and ideas which might mean that we can make progress faster.

As was said in the meeting, I’d better go and get on with it!

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The obligatory tourist photo!

UK: The Greenhouse Gas Action Plan and the NFU

At the beginning of May I set off for Stoneleigh for my first proper Nuffield interview, to talk to Dr Ceris Jones, the climate change advisor for the National Farmers Union, about what the NFU were up to around climate change mitigation and their farmers as well as the work of the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan.  Ceris has kindly spoken at some of my FCCT events before as well as providing a well-informed opinion on some of FCCT’s more wild and wacky project ideas, so she was a fab first interviewee for me to practice my questions on!

The Greenhouse Gas Action Plan (GHGAP) is the principle mechanism for delivering agriculture’s commitment to a reduction in its annual emissions of 3 million tonnes (of CO2e) by the third carbon budget (which is 2018 -22).  It is an industry wide initiative, whose steering group includes the great and the good and who all work together to help farmers and growers mitigate and adapt to climate change, without compromising domestic production.

The GHGAP explains quite nicely in its latest report which has just been published some of the issues:

Over the next 35 years, the global food system will have to feed more people will have to feed more people with less environmental impact. Our British farmers and growers will need to adapt to the changing conditions at the same time as reducing greenhouse gas (and ammonia) emissions. Agriculture has a unique emissions profile and there is a limit beyond which it will not be biologically possible to make further emissions reductions.  Therefore the challenge of reducing them whilst increasing food, feed, fuel and fibre production is huge.” (GHGAP, 2016, Progress report and Phase III strategy).

The action plan has a list of 15 key on-farm actions that the steering group and research has agreed will encourage the continued reduction of GHGs from agriculture and at the same time increase production efficiency.  These actions are:

Key on-farm actions for all farm types

arable actins

Key on-farm actions for livestock farms

livestock

The key points that came out of this interview were:

A resounding need to link science to practice, but to include farmers at the practice stage – measures that are recommended have to be rooted in core science but actionable at the farm level.

The importance of local trusted dissemination networks – we cannot overlook the relationship that is there between farmers and their current advice provider – advisors are a crucial part of enabling behavioural change (more work needed on this).

Farming will always be a leaky system – it’s based on biology.  So although there is loads that we can do, we can’t plug all the leaks.

Coming up with a list of mitigation measures is the easy part – the tricky bit is deciding where to focus your effort and what fits in with your business priorities – this is where the local advisor may help to focus and provide site specificity – tailor the measure to the individual farm business.

We need consistent messaging – we all need to be communicating clearly and simply what we want farmers to do.

Legislation and quality assurance – just because farmers have to fill in a form or tick a box, is it the best way to achieve long term behavioural change?

There is a need to “sell the positives” and provide clear messages to the public of the good things that farmers are doing around environmental management and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Ultimately we need to embed the actions in day to day business management and make it easy – to allow for the development of resilient businesses.

We cannot plan for the weather.

The use of case studies is an effective way to help communicate messages, however the choice of case study farmer is important, we need a role model that is on a journey.

Questions that still need answering

The GHGAP has provided 15 key actions that everyone agrees will help.  What is the most effective way of getting these recommendations into on the ground action? Do we need to fund / legislate / encourage?  Is it enough? What about those people who are already doing these things?  Are they there?

Should the GHGAP be a separate entity that is funded so that more resources can be given to it, or by separating it out, does it lose its core strength of being delivered by the industry even with its stretched resources?

It’s going to be an interesting few months!

So what’s the next 12 months all about?

The Nuffield idea has all come about through a niggling feeling that has developed over the last year or so, that I could be doing better and that I was missing something.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, and my life, but it was time for a change.  It was time for a new adventure, but an adventure that had a proper purpose and reason (which meant I could justify it to the long suffering husband).

The day job, if you have read the introductory blog post, you will remember, is all to do with providing advice and knowledge for farmers on resource management, climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  It includes putting on events, writing blogs, talking to people and designing tools that will help translate science into practice and provide information and tools that will help farmers grow efficient businesses that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy resilience.

I’ve been running events and projects on resource management for the last six years.  My office, in the beautiful Cornish countryside, has also housed projects that have dealt with improving livestock health and welfare, grassland management and other rural skills.  We have run a lot of courses, on a huge range of subjects. The statistics are pretty impressive, over the last two years, the Rural Business School has run 1445 events, and trained over 13,000 people across the south west most of which were farmers and growers.

DSC_0191  DSC_0195

The events that I run (on resource management) are always notoriously hard to get farmers to attend.  They are (nearly always) free, and we provide lunch.  There are quite often a high proportion of advisers there, rather than farmers. This differs from other events that we run that focus on livestock health, which are always well attended.

When discussing this with colleagues, the same sort of comments were always voiced, along the lines of, “that’s always the way with those types of events,” and “they will never do as well as the production focussed ones”. Which always confused me, as what we were talking about what all to do with production, managing resources surely has a place with production efficiency?  Especially in times of financial hardship where costs of production are so crucially important? It made me thing that potentially it was a communication issue, and how we were talking about these types of events.

There’s no escape

As well as running farmer events, I also have the pleasure of teaching the ‘next generation’ of farmers and growers at Duchy College and guest lecture on a couple of industry based qualifications that we run.  These students have no choice.  If they want to pass their course they have to attend my lectures (insert evil laugh).

The format of the classes that I run for our students that are based out on-farm is 4 days of teaching.  These students are all involved in managing livestock units but want to return to college to gain a qualification.  The module that I teach them is entitled Farm Environment Planning.  We have one day of introduction to the subject of environmental planning, resource management and sustainability, then do a couple of visits and then they have to focus on an area of their home business that they need to improve in terms of its sustainability credentials.  We carbon footprint their businesses, look at the pros and cons of the software, and the amount of data you need to complete the calculation.  We debate the issues and come up with solutions.

These students arrive on day 1 looking fairly mutinous about having to take four days out of farm work to listen to me waffle on about environmental stuff. However, over those four days, something amazing happens and they start to understand the link between how they manage the resources on-farm and the bottom-line.  We go and dig holes on the college farm and see what’s happening underground and compare it with what the crop looks like.  They go home and do the same.  They spend four days standing back from their own business, looking at other farms, hearing about each other’s experiences and talking about the issues. It inspires them to go home and question what (and more importantly why) they do what they do.

I ask all these students, now brimming with enthusiasm whether they would have done this module, if it hadn’t been part of their course – would they have taken the time to come along to an event on this topic? 98% of them said no, but having done the course they could see the benefit and would come on subsequent courses. The main reasons that this (albeit small) sample size gave me included:

  • Already doing environmental stuff (I’m in stewardship etc)
  • Can’t take time away from the business
  • Not interested in the subject

The same positive feedback is had at the end of our farmer events, those that attend, for the most part, have a great time and go home with some new information that they may inspire them to do something different at home.  So how do we get more farmers to attend these sort of events? How do we make them interesting for farmers to attend? How do we link these subjects more closely with what they are doing day to day on-farm? More widely, how do we develop effective methods of communication for farmers when we are talking about resource management, climate change and greenhouse gas emissions that will inspire them to engage with the subject?

This is the subject that I am going to look at over the next twelve months.  Through travelling and talking to people not just in the UK but further afield, I am aiming to look at how we effectively communicate the benefits to the farm business of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and get them interested and engaged in emissions reductions.  I am going to visit projects across the world that are trying to engage farmers in developing and showcasing low carbon farming systems, see what works, and try to understand a bit more what helps to drive behavioural change.

What am I hoping to achieve?

The ultimate aim of this, as well as being an amazing opportunity to discover more about myself, is to make sure that we are communicating the key messages about agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions, and resource use efficiency in the best way possible.  If we can do this we can inspire farmers to engage with the issues and be part of creating a resilient farming industry that will be profitable and sustainable for future generations.