Monitoring farm environmental trends

By Patrick Francis

The key objectives of any credible farm environmental management program should include recording, monitoring and evaluating trends in environmental health indicators.

Armed with this information the landholders involved have a powerful tool to tell the story about positive environmental outcomes as result of their stewardship, be it conventional, organic or holistic farming, lifestyle land ownership, or government land ownership. Too often food processors, retailers and farmers are attaching environmental credentials to products using emotive terms such as “natural” , “sustainable”, “free range” without any credible evidence demonstrating improving trends are taking place.

It is important to acknowledge when monitoring that the starting point is not as important as the trend in the indicators over time. These trends are important to know for the land owner’s stewardship methods, and for consumers and society’s recognition of efforts made. It is also important to realise that monitoring some environmental indicators involves biological systems that change extremely slowly and significant improvement may only occur over a decade or even decades.

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Monitoring and recording farm ecosystem health characteristics can include simple in paddock assessments for macro soil organisms; pasture species present and quantity year round; and livestock health and performance per ha and per 100 mm of rainfall.

I have derived a list of farm ecosystem health indicators which are rarely produced as evidence by farmers and retailers claiming environmental stewardship applies to the foods they sell. Environmental credibility by association can also be misleading for consumers. For instance organic certification usually means environmental factors associated with crop and livestock production are looked after. But the key difference between organic and conventional farming is the absence of artificial chemicals and fertilisers which does not guarantee continuous improvement in environmental indicators. The other common association being increasingly made is between natural or free range livestock production and environmental sustainability.

For example, Woolworths is now marketing Australian Grasslands Tender Cut Beef which claims on the label it is “sustainably produced grass fed beef as nature intended”. The label information continues: “We focus on long term environmentally sustainable outcomes for all areas of production”.  There is no credible support for this claim insomuch as there is no requirement for the suppliers to monitor, record and report trends for environmental indicators which contribute to sustainability of each supplier’s farm ecosystem.

Not all indicators provided in tables 1 and 2 apply to all properties or public land. They represent a selection which if monitored on a regular basis (could be annually or even once in five years) will provide landowners with an indication of the consequences of their natural resource management. Most of the indicators suggested can be monitored by the land owners, but some do require commercial laboratory testing (eg soil tests) or special instrumentation (eg ground water table access and salinity/nutrient measurement) and help with interpretation.

The distinction between positive indicators and ‘negative’ indicators is important. Consumers, the public, and agencies want to know about the positive indicators. In general, improvement in the ‘Negative’ Indicators is an expectation, that is, the public expect that landholder stewardship would ensure these indicators are looked after. They are synonymous with the public expecting the food they buy is safe to eat.

Farmers often put significant weight on the ‘Negative’ Environmental Indicators as improvement of them are important in terms of lowering cost of production. The financial impacts of the Positive Environmental Indicators are often not apparent to farmers as they are not known about, or never measured so their link to productivity is un-recognised. The key issue about the Positive Environmental Indicators is that once farmers make the link between them and improved productivity or lowered cost of production their interest in future measurement is assured.

The bottom line

The Positive and ‘Negative’ Environmental Indicators shown in tables 1 and 2 have exciting implications for types of land ownership and farming systems. Irrespective of the branding used by a landholder, be it certified organic, “Natural”, “Free range”, Landcare Farming, no-till farming, cell grazing, holistic management, or even a conservation covenant, etc,  if the appropriate group of indicators are monitored and measured, the environmental impacts of the stewardship used will become apparent with time.

There is another important consequence of monitoring in different farming systems.  Outcomes are likely to vary between the systems so over time there will be the opportunity to learn, then mix and match components that may have even better outcomes for our natural resources on agricultural land.

Tables 1 and 2 contain comments from a farm consultant who is orientated to boosting productivity with higher fertiliser and chemical inputs and has had little exposure to biological farming principles and holistic decision making. He asked to see my list of environmental indicators.   I have left the consultants comments in both tables to provide readers with some insights into the lack of understanding which is common amongst many farm advisors. I have made brief responses to these comments indicated by the notation “PF”.

 

Table 1: Some Positive Environmental Indicators

             
Indicator How   measured The   potential story Conventional   farm consultant’s comments & Pat Francis response
Soil   organic carbon level Request   with standard soil test Sequestering   CO2 via plants into labile and non-labile components of soil organic carbon   mitigates greenhouse gas impacts, improves soil water holding capacity,   improves the soil food web. How   sure that the CO2 will not be released when next we plough.PF:   It will be released, that’s why  no-till systems are recognised on the   Chicago Climate Exchange carbon credit scheme
Plant   available phosphorus level and total soil phosphorus Standard   soil test P   important for plant growth, excess soluble P can contribute to river   pollution.  Reduction in P application   will reduce opportunity for waterway and estuary pollution. How   much P is too much.PF:Soil   science has guidelines for different soil types, see DPI Ellinbank work by   Goulay
Soil   nitrogen Standard   soil test N   important for plant growth, excess water soluble nitrogen can contribute to   ground water and river pollution and increase soil acidity. Reduction in   nitrogen fertiliser application will contribute to a reduction in production   of nitrous oxide an important greenhouse gas. What   tools do we have to increase this amount of N produced by legumes? Do we need   to revisit the legume inoculation story.PF:   Generally speaking most farmers are good at growing sub clovers – these plants   always recover from drought because of the hard seed. What most farmers are   not good at is maintaining productive perennials hence we see so many   compacted onion grass dominant pastures with a reasonable component of sub   clover in Victoria and SA
Soil   acidity Standard   soil test Increasing   soil pH to around 6 ensures more nutrients are available to plants. How   and at what cost, I know it’s good but is it economicalPF:Combined   with grazing management correcting pH is likely to be the most economical method   of boosting pasture production providing other nutrients are not seriously   deficient.
Soil   microorganisms Specific   laboratory test; observation and smell Abundance   and ratio of soil microorganisms reflects soil health, organic matter   content, plant available nutrients and plant disease prevalence. Part of the   soil food web How   do we increase them?PF:   Grazing/croping management that allows development of organic matter. Takes a   management paradigm shift eg retaining stubble – no burning. Shifting stock   OUT when pastures eaten down to 1600 kg dm/ha – NOT shifting them in at this   FOO
Soil   worms and invertebrates Observation,   smell and counting Increasing   worm number and invertebrate’s species diversity in the top 5 cm of soil   reflects soil health, percentage ground cover, soil organic matter and soil   water holding capacity. Part of the soil food web. How   do we increase the population.PF:   AS ABOVE
Ground   cover Observation   and estimation 100%   ground cover, year round, comprising either plant litter or plant crowns   ensures protection from wind and water erosion; protects soil microorganisms;   raises soil organic matter and carbon; improves soil water holding capacity;   improves farm dam water quality;    improves livestock productivity and    welfare; and minimises opportunity for weed invasion. Is   100% realistic and if not how low can we go and still get an improvement.PF:   YES – anything less compromises points above – the paradigm hasn’t changed   and with climate variability the way it is now the new system won’t have a   chance.
Plant   perenniality Observation   and counting In   grasslands and grassy woodlands 70% pasture plant perenniality means 100%   ground cover is more likely; ensures high soil water use (potential for year   round green); ensures less recharge of salty ground water; improves carbon   sequestration, and  improves livestock   productivity and welfare
Biodiversity:   native  plants & animals Observation   and counting Increasing   diversity reflects management that looks after key components critical for   native animal existence, eg a healthy soil food web and healthy and abundant   habitat in both remnant vegetation and farm land.
Area   of remnant and riparian vegetation protected; and area of revegetation   including forestry Observation   and measurement Ensuring   10 – 20% (some cases up to 30%) of a farm property is protected remnant (or   revegetated) and riparian vegetation contributes to biodiversity   improvement,  endangered species   protection, water quality improvement , landscape quality improvement ,   improves carbon sequestration, and improves animal welfare. OK   so where do we start? By adding to what we have or starting where there is no   shelter and gradually joining it up?PF:   BOTH
Stream   water quality Laboratory   test for nutrients and minerals;observation   and recording  water invertebrates;   salinity meter Decreasing   nutrients, minerals and sediments in waterways reflects a high level of   adjacent land and riparian stewardship. So   what is the test regime which gives enough info and is doable by a time poor   farmer.PF:   Easiest is just observation – is water clear or turbid or muddy? Insects,   frogs/tadpoles, native animals eg platypus, water rats etc in and around  water. Key is diversity of species, more   diverse healthier the water. Chemical composition needs lab tests.
Ground   water table level Measurement   and observation Where   the ground water table is salty, keeping it 2 m or more below the surface is   critical to prevent dryland salinity, and road and building damage. Deep   rooted plants? –Natural sequence farming?Key   line?Drainage?PF:   First is essential othersshould not be necessary in Eastern Aust if ABOVE   points are in place – still helps in WA where perennials non-existant.
Rainfall   utilisation Records   and calculation Cropping   and livestock systems that produce more output per 100 mm of rainfall reflect   stewardship is being implemented that improves soil water holding capacity But   the greater the utilization of GSR the greater the risk.Opposite   is the case – lift organic matter and hold more water in the top soil – grow more   crop and pasture per mm. 2007 is classic example – those who captured higher   proportion of early season rain are likely to achieve close to ave yields.
Irrigation   water utilisation Records   and calculation Cropping   and livestock systems that produce more output per mm of water applied   reflect improved water use efficiency in food production, and stewardship is   being implemented that improves soil water holding capacity and management   that prevents losses into the water table or into water courses As   abovePF:   As for rainfall utilisation
Energy   use Records   and calculation Declining   (non-renewable) energy use per unit of livestock or grain produced means   reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Need   to give some pointers.PF:   Key one for farmers is diesel use in cropping – no till CTF systems reducing   diesel by 30% or more.

 

With   pastures – shifting from feeding hay/silage to no feeding has significant   fuel etc savings.

Greenhouse   gas balance Records   and calculations Farms   with declining greenhouse gas emissions are positive for the world environment;   those that are net carbon sinks are even better. How   to measure, need a quick calculator.PF: Visit   www.farminstitute.org.au   for farmgas tool
Fertiliser   use and nutrient balance Records   and calculations As   soil health improves as a result of an increasing soil food web, more   nutrients are made available to plants by microorganisms.  The amount of artificial nutrients being   applied per unit of livestock or grain output should decline. Agree.   That means more monitoring and testing, no problem there.PF:   Not necessary to monitor more – need to establish benchmark with paradigm   change – it needs time to show  soil   test results so monitoring frequently doesn’t help.
Livestock   and crop output Records   and calculations On   farm land the livestock and crop produced are part of the biological system.   Their output per ha, and per mm of rainfall reflects the health of the   system. Healthy farm ecosystems will at least maintain but more usually   increase output per ha or per mm of rainfall as natural resources improve. But   the risk has to be considered.PF:   Point here is that it is critical to know output per ha or per mm to   understand impacts of management changes, climate changes, combination of   both. Not enough farmers know this.

 

Table 2: Some ‘Negative’ Environmental Indicators

           
Indicator   How   measured   The  potential story Conventional   farm consultant’s comments & Pat Francis response
Weed   incidence    Records and   observations                                                 Incidence   of weeds will decline as management strategies are put in place which   encourage dominance by desired plant species. Weeds are a symptom of other   problems in the system eg bare ground from overgrazing, failing to control   pest animal species Agree,   but where to start.PF:   Doesn’t mean monitoring whole farm – can start with indicator paddocks eg for   incidence of weeds using a standard 100 m line.
Pest animal   incidence   Records   and observations   Pest animals   are declining with carefully planned and carried out control programs. Agree   , so maybe we need some contractorsPF:   Yes more contractors would help – most pest animals are district issues not   individual farm issues.
Pesticide   use   Records   and calculations   As   farm land management and stewardship improves requirement for pesticides such   as herbicides to control weeds and insecticides to control insect pests   declines. This reduces risk of exposure to humans, food and the natural   environment. Even pesticides such as anthelmintics to control intestinal   worms in livestock will decline as improved plant growth, rotations and   spelling leads to less pasture contamination and improved animal nutrition. Agree
Farm   waste   Records   and action   Farmers   can reduce their pollution footprint by using bulk, recyclable (re-usable)   containers, covers and wrappers and ensuring these are recycled on a regular   basis. Agree
Farm   waste organic   Records   and action   Animal   and crop byproducts such as manures, prunings etc are valuable organic   products that if stored and utilised appropriately can improve the natural   resources on farm land. So,   how to store and use.PF:   Dairy farms and feedlots store effluent and pump it onto pastures at right   time of year. Mulching orchard prunings then using the mulch to provide   ground cover and prevent weed growth along rows etc

 

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