Members of a farming-focused soils and emissions monitoring and management group, called The Australian Cool Soils Initiative, are excited about some recent indicative test results that have demonstrated their paddocks may have a greater ability to capture carbon than initially anticipated.
"This means there might be more opportunity for farmers to increase soil carbon within productive farming systems than we first realised," said Dr Cassandra Schefe, a soil scientist and principal of AgriSci Pty Ltd, Rutherglen, Victoria, who is involved with the project.
The Cool Soil Initiative was founded by Mars Petcare in 2017 as a collaboration between broadacre cropping farmers to explore how different farm practices can provide long-term carbon benefits.
Dr Schefe now leads the project, which also enjoys the support of Kellogg's, Manildra Group, Allied Pinnacle, Charles Sturt University and the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre.
The project is enabling a scientifically credible framework through which the broader food industry can contribute to supporting farmers to reduce emissions.
The background to the project, Dr Schefe explained, was two-fold.
She said there existed an increasing expectation on the food supply chain to demonstrate tangible commitments to emission reductions.
Plus, soil health has been highlighted as one of the top three production issues that farmers in the southern region say will affect their farm over the next five years and this was due to an increase in nutrient inputs required to maintain yields as a result of soil fertility and organic matter depletion.
She said the initiative is a paddock-to-product partnership bringing together key players in the grains supply chain to work with cropping farmers through regional farming systems groups to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through validation of management strategies that improve both productivity and soil health.
"This project is a true partnership, with the industry partners highly invested in understanding how they can support farmers in improving their resilience and yield stability under changing climatic conditions, whilst recognising that any changes in practice have to be profitable," Dr Schefe said.
"Furthermore, partnering with the regional farming systems groups has enabled the Cool Soil Initiative to grow in size and geographical footprint, while developing a model for continued scale across the cropping regions, with Riverine Plains Inc, FarmLink Research, Central West Farming Systems and the Irrigation Research and Extension Committee (IREC) currently supporting the project.
"Most importantly, the farming groups ensure that farmer-relevance is kept front and centre in the project."
Dr Schefe said early soil testing results had revealed greater variations in the level of soil carbon across paddocks than was expected.
"The range of high soil carbon values we measured suggest that our systems have a greater capacity to hold organic matter than we appreciated," she said.
In addition to these free soil tests, which are part of the process of measuring emissions from the participating properties, farmers also received a digital atlas of regional scale soil and landscape data related to their farm, with up-to-date satellite imagery showing crop growth and in-paddock variation.
The emissions are calculated using the Cool Farm Tool.
Dr Schefe said this tool was considered the international calculator of choice for commodity based on-farm greenhouse gas accounting, but had not yet been verified in Australia.
"Using the Cool Farm Tool provides the global connection, linking the Cool Soil Initiative to related food supply chain work in other countries," she said.
"Our corporate partners want to demonstrate a real and tangible contribution to emission reduction targets while supporting the farmers who support them."
FarmLink chief executive officer, Andrew Bulkeley, Temora, said along with the broader farming systems groups, FarmLink was delighted to be part of the initiative.
"This program is pivotal to engaging our members to understand the impact of emissions reduction on their enterprise and future management practice that will be required to build resilience in the face of changing climatic conditions," he said.
Mr Bulkeley said the project is made even more special due to the commitment of its corporate partners.
"They recognise the significant role farmers play in the value chain and genuinely want to assist in making positive and sustained practice change," he said.
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