Win-win carbon farming practices

The following practices, which relate to soils, livestock, trees, fertiliser and energy use, can be integrated into existing farming systems to increase soil organic carbon and enhance productivity.

Soils

Applying the practices below can help increase soil health by improving soil structure, reducing losses of carbon and nitrogen from the soil, and building soil organic matter. Improving nitrogen use efficiency and growing better pastures and crops can have direct financial benefits to farm businesses.

  • Use conservation tillage and controlled traffic techniques in cropping operations.
  • Avoid burning crop residues and retain prunings and stubble where practical.
  • If cultivation is absolutely necessary, do not till excessively wet or dry soils.
  • Avoid periods of bare fallow. Ensure continuous plant cover where possible.
  • Manage irrigation and soil drainage to reduce waterlogging.
  • Rotate crops and include rotations of perennial pastures and legumes.
  • Add composted material where practical.
  • Manage soil structure to maximise plant uptake and minimise nitrogen loss (e.g. use gypsum on sodic soils).
  • Manage livestock waste (dung and urine) to minimise nitrous oxide emissions.
  • Manage soil nutrient levels by choosing nutrient targets, completing a nutrient budget to determine fertiliser requirements, match nutrients to the nitrogen input and hence maintain those targets.
  • Don’t overgraze pastures. Keep sufficient groundcover throughout the year.
  • Manage livestock movement/paddock rotations to reduce compaction/soil structure decline in overgrazed paddocks.

Livestock

Methane is a major inefficiency in animal production systems. According to Department of Environment and Primary Industries VIC, 6% – 10% of livestock gross energy intake is lost as methane: the equivalent of up to 55– 60 days grazing intake for ewes and steers, and 40 days for dairy cows. Nitrogen is another area of loss: between 70% and 95% of nitrogen consumed by ruminants is excreted. If used effectively, it can improve pasture or crop growth instead of being lost to the atmosphere.

The following practices can reduce these losses:

  • Optimise feed quality (digestibility).
  • Use and minimise nutrient excretion.
  • Manage flock or herd performance through increased reproductive efficiencies, selective culling and genetic optimisation to enable faster finishing and other practises such as early joining and early weaning.
  • Use a genetic improvement program to increase reproductive rates and shorten finishing times.
  • Manage livestock waste (dung and urine) to minimise nitrous oxide emissions.

For more detail see DEPI’s livestock page.

Trees

Trees store carbon in their wood and litter, where it remains until the trees rot or are destroyed (e.g. by fire). When carefully integrated into farms, trees can increase farm productivity through soil and water conservation and as shelter to animals. Your local Landcare network may be able to help with understanding what grants and resources are available in your area.

  • Identify areas for shelterbelts, woodlots or wildlife areas – they could be less productive or degraded areas, such as erosion gullies.
  • Establish new tree plantations, with species selection and site preparation geared towards the best survival and growth.
  • Consider woodlots with tree species that can be used on-farm (e.g. for fodder, fence posts, poles or firewood), making sure you don’t use any weed species.
  • Encourage regeneration of native trees and shrubs, for example by fencing out established native vegetation.
  • Protect existing native trees and shrubs from loss or damage.
  • Research options for creating and trading carbon credits through the Carbon Farming Initiative.

For more detail see DEPI’s trees page.

Fertiliser

Applying nitrogen fertilisers more efficiently reduces nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate runoff into waterways – and has direct financial benefits. You can save money, boost production and reduce emissions of nitrous oxide by using best management practices for the rates, sources, timings and placement of fertilisers.

  • Determine and improve plant access to nitrogen by improving soil health and nutrient status.
  • Match nitrogen supply to crop or pasture demand by soil and plant testing to assess nitrogen supply and using decision support tools and seasonal forecasts.
  • Apply nitrogen fertiliser when the crop needs it rather than earlier in the season.
  • Avoid high application rates of nitrogen in any single application.
  • Avoid applying nitrogen fertilisers (especially nitrate) to waterlogged soils.
  • Avoid tillage under wet conditions.
  • Incorporate fertiliser at the top of raised beds or ridges to avoid wet areas.
  • Choose the best source of nitrogen. In the wet season urea and DAP will lose less nitrate and nitrous oxide than nitrate based fertilisers.
  • Place fertiliser below the soil surface where possible.
  • Use an inhibitor coated fertiliser where possible – in summer to reduce ammonia loss and in winter to reduce nitrous oxide and nitrate leaching losses.

For more detail see DEPI’s fertiliser page.

Energy

No matter what happens with carbon trading policy and legislation, farmers will be affected by rising energy costs. Farmers who increase their energy efficiency and find alternative, low cost sources of fuel, heat and electricity may ultimately become more profitable. Relatively easy and low cost changes can have big influence on reducing energy consumption.

  • Monitor your current energy use.
  • Consider energy efficiency when choosing new equipment.
  • Develop a long-term plan to replace inefficient equipment.
  • Develop and follow a regular maintenance schedule for machinery, vehicles and pumps.
  • Match the engine power of pumps to the demand of the job.
  • Improve irrigation efficiency to reduce energy demand from operating pumps through monitoring soil moisture.
  • Insulate buildings, storage and refrigeration devices, and heating and cooling pipes.
  • Use light coloured, heat reflective paint on roofs and walls.
  • Maximise the use of natural light and ventilation in farm buildings.
  • Explore options for alternative sources of energy and fuel, such as bioenergy, renewable sources, green power.

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