‘Net zero’ possible at last

News Posted 24/05/21
Agronomy firm Hutchinsons has released a groundbreaking service that will allow farmers and landowners to measure accurately the amount of organic and active carbon in their soil for the first time.

The breakthrough will finally give farmers who have been under continual pressure to measure their ‘carbon footprint’ the tools to do so properly – and will make ‘net zero’ a realistic target by providing baseline figures.

Terramap Carbon, described as “the UK’s first Carbon Mapping Service”, bases its data on an impressive 800 measurements per hectare, reading natural variations in soil radiation and calibrating those against in-field soil samples to produce accurate readings.

Talking exclusively to South East Farmer, Hutchinsons services manager Matt Ward commented: “Everyone is talking about carbon management but very few people can actually do anything about it without the necessary baseline data. If you don’t know where you are starting from, it’s impossible to know what progress you are making or how far you have come.”

The breakthrough has commercial implications for landowners, too. “One of our clients is going into a scheme that will pay him to put arable land across to a two year legume/fallow mixture. He’s now excited about the fact that he can check the baseline level and see what difference the scheme makes. “He’s being paid to be on the current scheme, but that’s only part of the story. If he can prove how much carbon he is able to sequester over the next two years because he has a baseline figure to compare it with, he will be in a stronger position when it comes to future negotiations, perhaps around selling carbon credits.”

The mapping technology was developed by a company called SoilOptix, which approached Hutchinsons, a national agronomy business with Kent-based teams in Canterbury and Marden, and asked if they would support the venture.

After trialing the technology at a number of its Helix Farm test sites, Hutchinsons agreed that it represented a significant breakthrough and now has an exclusive relationship to market the system within the UK. The company’s enthusiastic approach to rolling out Terramap Carbon means that this is the first country in the world where it is available.

Matt explained that the system used gamma-ray detection technology to measure naturally emitted isotopes, such as Caesium and Potassium, that are very stable due to their long half-lives. The data is collected by driving a lightweight all terrain vehicle fitted with the sensor over the field and then taking soil samples to allow each scan to be used to create the individual map layers.

The 800 measurements/ha figure represents a massive improvement over the only previous method of estimating carbon in soil, which was to use satellite imagery based on a 1km grid. “That gives a rough estimate on a macro scale but was no practical use to a farmer,” Matt commented. “We know from experience that soil make up varies within fields, let alone across a distance of a kilometre.”

Hutchinsons’ standard Terramap Carbon service maps a total of 17 micronutrients, soil type & pH layers that now also includes total organic carbon in terms of percentage carbon and tonnes/ha. The premium service maps 27 layers which includes a wider range of micronutrients and both total organic and active carbon percentage and tonnes/ha.

“We need to move away from seeing carbon footprinting as a burden or a tick-box exercise and see it as a way of measuring the efficiency and profitability of a farm as well as a measure of waste,” said Matt.

“A reduced carbon footprint can only be achieved through more efficient fertilisers, different technologies, better soil carbon management or considering the energy used in storage, so it’s a win–win on all levels.”

One of the Helix Farms where Terramap Carbon was trialled was Hundayfield Farm just outside York. Host farmer Nick Wilson said the scanning had showed up large differences in the carbon balance between the arable fields and permanent pasture, with the average across the arable fields about 30t/ha of organic carbon, roughly half the rate for the pasture.

“Now that we have a baseline measurement, we can look not just at how we can manage our processes to build carbon on the arable fields up to the levels of that of the pasture, but also to prevent any unnecessary losses of carbon. For example we would be interested to look at the impact of root crops on carbon. We will also use cover cropping to prevent having any bare land over winter and reducing loss this way,” said Nick’s agronomist Sam Hugill.

Matt Ward added: “It’s difficult to overstate how much of a breakthrough this is. It’s incredibly exciting to at last be able to measure something we are trying to affect. Without a baseline it’s impossible even to know if you are going in the right direction. Terramap Carbon puts an end to that dilemma.”

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