Farmer David Finlay wants scientists to “study what is actually happening in the real world” as he believes there is a lack of good data at practical farm level on the effects of ecological farming on soil organic matter and, therefore, carbon.
Livestock farming is frequently cited as a contributory factor in climate change, but a growing number of farmers claim that ‘how’ farms are managed is the main determining factor in climate impact, not ‘what’ is farmed. Regenerative and agro-ecological farming is increasingly being proposed as a climate solution by a range of industry organisations.
David Finlay, of Rainton Farm at Gatehouse of Fleet, which sells cheese as The Ethical Dairy, is Europe’s largest cow-with-calf dairy farm. The farm transitioned to organic 20 years ago and has subsequently introduced a range of agro-ecological approaches.
With a professional background in agricultural consultancy, and formal training in soil sampling, David initiated regular, comprehensive sampling to measure the health of soil on his farm to help inform land management.
Independent researchers were recently able to retrieve historic data stretching back 25 years to the period before his farm transitioned to organic. The data, which had been archived at the James Hutton Institute, is believed to be a rare record of soil carbon changes during the transition from conventional farming to organic and then to agro-ecological farming practices.
And it evidences that Rainton Farm is now carbon negative, with the organically managed grassland sequestering large volumes of carbon into the soil each year.
Commenting, David said: “The organic matter in soil is a good indicator of the health of that soil, but over and above that, soil organic matter contains carbon. If you can increase the organic matter in your soil, you are reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and that helps with our fight against climate change.
“Twenty-five years ago our soils averaged around 11 per cent organic matter but, by 2019, this had increased to almost 14 per cent organic matter. Once we had done the maths, consulted with experts and allowed for possible unknowns, we cautiously estimated that our soils are locking up over five tonnes of carbon per hectare every year.
“At the same time, we’ve been analysing how much carbon our farm emits into the atmosphere, which works out at around 3½ tonnes per hectare every year.
“We are now confident the soil data shows our farm is carbon negative. It proves that regenerative farming can play a critically important role in achieving our climate targets.”
The complete record for Rainton Farm includes more than 3000 individual data points and it is being made freely accessible on The Ethical Dairy’s website.
David added: “We are only one of many farmers across the UK who are farming using agro-ecological principles. If this data proves that these practices result in, not even just net-zero food production, but carbon negative production, then it’s important that the data is made available to anyone who can make use of it.
“We want to be part of the solution in exploring how our food systems can deliver an ecologically sound planet. We hope our soil data is helpful in making that happen.”