NFU livestock board chair tests carbon calculators

17 January 2020

An image of livestock farmer Richard Findlay taken on his farm

The NFU's livestock board chair Richard Findlay tested three carbon calculators to offer some practical advice on how they can be used.

It's a priority for the NFU's Livestock Board to help members understand how they can play a part in the journey to net zero.

To get started, it helps to understand what our carbon footprint is. This sounds reasonably simple. However, there are around 64 carbon calculators available and no general consensus on what is best.

There are three carbon calculators often mentioned within the farming community. These are Agrecalc, the Cool Farm Tool and the Farm Carbon Calculator.

These are all free and available to farmers online. Each comes with a spreadsheet of the information required and a 'how to' guide.

Here's what Richard found when he tested them out.

Cool Farm Tool

Originally an Excel-based calculator developed by Aberdeen University, the Cool Farm Tool is a free tool available to farmers.

It is the favourite of many supply chain organisations that use the tool to support sustainable agriculture but who pay to become members of the Cool Farm Alliance.

It is the simplest tool of the three tested. Most of the information required is information you will already know or have easily accessible.

"This is really good for a first timer and will help you understand where your emissions lie. For more detailed calculations which help you really think about your business you may need something more."
NFU Livestock Board chair Richard Findlay

A spreadsheet helps you collate your information. However it did often ask for additional information that wasn’t actually needed.

The results are clearly displayed with graphs to show you the source of your emissions. This helps you focus on where greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions can be made.

The main issue with this calculator is that it does not include carbon sequestration. This is a really important factor for livestock farmers. By grazing our grassland we are protecting a very important carbon store and this has to be quantified in our calculations.

Productivity questions and gains are also limited for livestock so it would be difficult to track progress year on year.

In addition, it only gives you the carbon footprint of each product and not the entire farm.

Farm Carbon Calculator

Developed by farmers, for farmers, this calculator was relaunched at the 2020 Oxford Farming Conference.

This caused some frustration as any previous calculations could not be transferred over to the new system, but this won't affect you if you’re starting now from scratch.

Out of all the tools tested it has the most in-depth approach to carbon sequestration. However this does mean it comes with some difficult questions.

For example, 'What’s the bulk density and organic matter content of your soil over the last several years?'

"Very thorough and interactive, ths is perfect if you want to see how different changes to your business would affect your emissions. You might not have specific information for some of the questions asked now, but going forward might these be things you need to answer?"
NFU Livestock Board chair Richard Findlay

This is important information to help understand your farm’s potential but possibly not something farmers will be aware of.

The calculator provides a live updated pie chart of your emissions so can you see it changing throughout the process. You can also easily change your data to see how it will impact your emissions.

The updated version has a more limited capability for recording livestock diet, however this simplification will be helpful for anyone not feeding their livestock with specialised diets.

It allows you to account for renewable energies that have been used and exported to the grid. It also includes capital items on farm.

It appears, however, to be lacking in productivity related questions. For example, it doesn’t take mortality and fertility into account.

The amount of methane emitted is calculated over a year: 'Include the average number of all types of livestock on the farm at any one time. For example, one batch of 200 lambs for six months a year - input 100 lambs for the year'. This could get confusing when working out finishing cattle. 

Agrecalc

SAC Consulting developed this calculator. It has been used for such Scottish programmes as the Beef Efficiency schemes and the Farm Advisory Service and has been endorsed by the Scottish government.

It allows a very comprehensive accounting of inputs into livestock systems and accounts for productivity by looking at fertility and mortality.

However, to calculate methane emissions it requires you to work out your livestock numbers in the same way as the Farm Carbon Calculator (see above).

"The most in-depth look at your business with the ability to record information tailored to your system, without asking impossible questions. When sequestration of soil is included it could be a popular system for livestock farmers."
NFU Livestock Board chair Richard Findlay

It covers by-products such as wool and allows a yearly comparison so you can see the progress being made.

Currently the system only accounts for carbon sequestration by woodland. However, updates to the system will allow accounting for soil sequestration.

If you are not 100% sure about some of your data, you can hover over the input box and it will give you the industry standards as a guideline.

The results produced at the end give useful charts to show your current situation and provide tips on how you can go about improving your footprint.

Which tool to choose?

As with most things, there is no perfect solution. Each calculator has its advantages and disadvantages.

And every farmer's situation will be different. This is Richard's personal assessment. 

He said: "I believe all calculators could benefit from giving options for industry data to be used as this would give a helping hand to farmers who may not yet have the answers to all the questions.

"I hope though that by using such calculators it will encourage people, as this has done for me, to find out these answers for their own farms. For example, to test their soil organic matter more frequently or look at exactly what is in the concentrate fed to their animals.

"Sequestration and productivity are important factors that must be included in future updates to these calculators.

"Productivity will be the strongest opportunity our sector has to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This could be helped by industry and government working in partnership to deliver a livestock productivity scheme that ensures support is directed to the active keeper. Improving productivity across the board clearly meets the ‘public money for public goods’ test of reducing or improving our impact on the climate and setting us on a track to achieve our net zero ambition by 2040."

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