Carbon Farming – Toby Anstruther

11 January 2023

At the start of a new year there is an opportunity to look at the wider picture and consider the most important aims for the future.  Farming businesses, particularly livestock farming operations, are long term ventures, so often the cycles are 10+ yearly, rather than annually.  Of course this doesn’t mean that I don’t check regularly to see whether what is actually happening is in line with what is wanted.

Balcaskie’s impact on the environment is a core issue which helps to guide the direction of the farm and the wider estate.  The fact that this issue is both apparently simple and actually endlessly complex is a continued fascination for me.  Developing the approach to Balcaskie’s environmental impact is like looking at a fractal: the more detail you go into, the more intricacy there is to be found.

One key issue is our carbon footprint.  This is enormously complicated but the key elements are very simple: from the activities of the farm, what is the balance between how much carbon is released and how much is captured or sequestered?

In practice, there is a huge difference between carbon cycling within the natural carbon cycle and carbon being released from fossil fuels.  With our real concern about Climate Change it is easy to think of carbon as being a bad thing, but carbon, in so many of its forms, is essential for life.  Cycling carbon through living systems is fundamental to life on earth.  As part of this cycle carbon is captured by plants through photosynthesis and this carbon is used to build the structure of the plant and (as glucose) to trade with other organisms in the soil for nutrients.  As an equation photosynthesis can be written as:

6CO2 + 6H20 + (energy from sunlight) → C6H12O6 + 6O2

Carbon dioxide + water + energy from sunlight produces glucose and oxygen

So carbon dioxide from the air turns into food for animals and for us all.  On a farm with cattle (or other livestock), the cattle eat the mixed herbal grass and ferment it to produce their nutrition.  Some of this carbon is then used by the cattle to grow, some goes through them and rejoins the soil as dung and some is exhaled as methane (CH4) where it breaks down gradually, to be used again by grass and other plants, and so the cycle of carbon goes on, round and round.  There are effects from the carbon in its different states (CO2 and CH4 are both greenhouse gasses of course) but the whole system cycles the same amount of carbon round and round, powered by the sun and giving vibrancy to natural life on earth.

We can also store some of the photosynthesised carbon by adding it to the soil through our livestock grazing techniques: regenerative mob-grazing.  More on this below.

Similarly, as trees on Balcaskie grow, they use energy from the sun to capture carbon from the air and turn this into wood.  When the wood is burned to fuel the three biomass boilers, this carbon is released along with energy (heat) and carbon is cycled once again as we plant new trees for a future harvest.  In this way, growing trees in a responsible and sustainable rotation is storing solar energy for future release at harvest.

Although we have 135KiloWatt solar capacity along with our 3 biomass boilers, not all the energy used on Balcaskie comes from carbon captured through a carbon cycle.  We also use petrol/diesel/kerosene to fuel the cars, tractors, quad-bikes and big equipment, particularly the grain dryer.  Carbon from fossil fuels is fundamentally different because, while of course it is the same chemical element, as it is used it releases carbon into the air which had been locked up as oil/coal for hundreds of millions of years.  In human terms, this is new carbon entering the atmosphere, not existing carbon being cycled through life.

To balance this new carbon, Balcaskie farms in a way to sequester more carbon than is released and independent measurements in 2022 suggest that this is being achieved.

  • Firstly, Balcaskie is reducing its use of fossil fuels by changing the way it farms, investing in renewables and, now Balcaskie is organic, it no longer uses carbon-intensive chemical fertilisers.
  • Secondly, Balcaskie is planting more trees and hedges than are being harvested so carbon is being captured in long-term wood.
  • Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Balcaskie is capturing carbon in its soils – and its woodland soils are the most carbon-rich on the Estate.

The soil carbon is measured (again in simplified terms) by the Soil Organic Matter % [SOM].  Organic farming with livestock managed for regenerative grazing is increasing the SOM in Balcaskie’s soils.  This is not only locking away carbon (and addressing the release of carbon from fossil fuels) but also increasing the capacity of the soils to hold water and sustain life.  Keeping animals as part of the mixed, organic farming system is a hugely important part of this process.

Overall between 2019 and 2022 Balcaskie reduced its gross annual carbon footprint from 7,500t CO2 to 1,500t CO2.  The net carbon footprint (after taking into account Balcaskie’s old and new woodland) went from 6,400t CO2 in 2019 to minus 197t CO2 in 2022.  In other words, whether you are eating ScotlandTheBread’s Balcaskie flour, Balcaskie’s own beef, lamb or pigs – or the wild venison – you can be confident that all of these foods have come from a regenerative farming system that locks up more carbon than it releases.

To reinforce the point, in a separate study by a St Andrews University student, our soil carbon rose by approx. 1% between 2017 and 2022, meaning that Balcaskie’s farming methods are capturing carbon in the soil.  A 1% increase in soil organic matter to a depth of only 5cm over 5 years is approximately 12,500t of carbon (50,000t CO2e), or 2,500t /year (10,000t CO2e /year).  This figure is not taken into account in our net-carbon-negative number of -197t CO2/year calculated by the SAC.

Of course all of these measurements are over-simplified and approximations, it will take many more years of farming and measurements to be sure of Balcaskie’s impact on carbon, but these results point in the right direction.

And what for the future?  Over the next 10 years Balcaskie will continue to build its renewable energy capacity and it will continue to seek to reduce its use of fossil fuels, by replacing petrol/diesel vehicles with electric ones and by finding other sources of fuel for its grain-drying, and it will try to do this while balancing the need to enhance biodiversity, produce food and be financially sustainable while playing its part as a member of the community.

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