Discipline: environment; Key words: carbon footprint, efficiency, solar panels, energy-saving bulbs, fuel-efficient vehicles, good pasture management, conservation agriculture.

In a previous column I discussed the position of Organised Agriculture on carbon tax and offset schemes and indicated to the reader how we intend communicating the position to government. In this contribution I address the responsibility of farmers to commit to limiting the on-farm carbon footprint. I think commitment is necessary as a principle to contribute to ‘saving the planet’ (the climate change issue), but also to support government in their efforts to reduce carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere. If government accepts our recommendation of not imposing a carbon tax on Agriculture to force reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but rather support initiatives to increase carbon sinks by sequestering and storing carbon dioxide extracted from the air, I think it is just fair that farmers should respond by actively engaging in efforts to do so.

So, what can farmers do? It is in fact not difficult at all! I will discuss GHG emission reduction and carbon dioxide sequestration/storage separately. To reduce GHG emissions one can:

  • Increase efficiency: In the dairy operation this primarily means increased milk production per cow in both TMR and pasture-based systems and also per hectare pasture in pasture-based systems. This will require relatively high concentrate input to obtain the target milk yield and it will result in fermentation in the rumen with less methane (a GHG) as end product. Legumes in pasture will also assist in limiting methane. This also means maximising the number of cows in milk and therefore the limiting of dry cows in the herd. It further means that replacement heifers should be limited to only what is required to replace cull cows and for genetic improvement. In selection objectives smaller cows with less intake and maintenance requirements, yet the same milk yield, should be emphasized. These measures will ensure the least methane emission per litre milk. The beauty of increased efficiency is that the farmer also benefits in profitability!

  • Use solar panels and energy saving bulbs wherever possible

  • Use electricity sparingly and use gas rather than electricity where possible – gas is also cheaper than electricity.

  • Use vehicles with fuel-efficient engines which have lower GHG gas emissions; also ensure that all vehicles are regularly serviced and operate at optimum fuel efficiency.

  • Plan trips and transport wisely by limiting trips and employ full-load transport trips both ways – this is for both trucks/bakkies and tractors/trailers

Farmers will notice that most measures are cost saving as well!

What can be done to increase carbon sequestration and storage?

  • Good pasture management has the most potential: maximum vegetation cover and biomass with no bare patches or eroded areas are crucial – bare patches and eroded areas result in soil carbon being released and emitted into the air; remove alien species which reduce the grass layer, may leave soil bare, is a burden on soil water and reduce carrying capacity.                                                                                                 

  • If farmers also cultivate crops, employ conservation agriculture (CA) methods (no or minimum tillage; less fertilizer use by employing organic fertilizing such as with processed manure; if irrigation is used, employ equipment and methods which will ensure minimum water use, etc).

  • Plant trees and shrubs. Apart from carbon sequestration and storage, these provide shade which reduces heat stress and also have aesthetic value. A particular shrub with a high sequestration potential and which is widely adapted in the country is Portulacaria afra (‘spekboom’).

Farmers will notice that almost all measures that reduce GHG emissions and increase carbon sequestration and storage will benefit profitability as well. Therefore, there is no reason why they should not be committed to the task!