Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


Retooling Holos, Canada's farm efficiency calculator

Farmers will need to know their carbon footprint in the years ahead and Holos can help

Posted: July 16, 2013

Canadian farmers will be hearing promising bits of news about farming efficiency calculators and how new technology can cut environmental losses, capture new efficiencies and help build more productive and sustainable farming systems.

In fact, there's new scientific energy and greater expectations globally in in the whole area of farm systems modeling which is a driving force behind new advances with the calculators. Roland Kroebel, Canadian agro-systems modeler is one of those at the front end of this progress.

Kroebel grew up in East Germany and as a youngster witnessed the infamous Berlin wall dividing East and West Germany come down and the rising opportunities that resulted. With post-graduate degrees, training in Europe's intensive agricultural systems and stops in Europe and China working on large scale modeling systems, he works today at the Lethbridge Research Centre of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) as a leader in a broad initiative searching for new farming solutions.

Needless to say, with his experience as a youth in a new Germany, walls are not viewed as much of a challenge. That's useful perspective. While on one level his modeling is the leading edge of globally connected research network, on another it's very basic – building knowledge bridges to a next generation of farmers and tackling barriers to progress that exist, often for no good reason.

Canada's Holos calculator

The Canadian entry into the emissions calculator modeling field is Holos, launched with some promise as a farm-level greenhouse gas (GHG) calculator several years ago. The goal was to have an accessible calculation of GHG emissions from farms using a calculator that included as many components as possible while keeping calculations as simple as possible to limit input.

The first version of Holos drew, not surprisingly for new and somewhat conceptual technology, pushback from producers on ease of use, relevance of the tool and the requirements for yet more analysis and administration at the farm level.

Holos has evolved since that introduction and work has continued to help make the tool more current and relevant, says Kroebel. One development has been new research in the beef and dairy industry which provides upgraded Canadian data. There is also interest in broadening out Holos beyond the initial GHG emissions to budgeting approaches for carbon, water and nitrogen.

"The budgeting approach will allow us to estimate resource use efficiency," says Kroebel. "When nitrogen escapes into the atmosphere it is lost. However, there are other ways of losing nitrogen, and only by getting these into the model can we get an estimate of how efficiently nitrogen that goes into the farm is used. So we are trying to make the Holos model more holistic, to show how elements interact so that we get a nitrogen performance cycle."

Kroebel thinks farmers could eventually use a model to identify where there are nutrient surpluses on the farm and how they can be used more efficiently, to save inputs and money. Another goal is to be able to give farmers the best available Canadian data to calculate carbon footprints to choose strategies to improve that footprint.

"At the same time, we are working on the assumption that farmers want to have a sustainable production system that is environmentally friendly and their intention is to be able to demonstrate this. That is where we see a relevance for environmental performance measures such as carbon and water footprint calculations. In the longer run, we would want to take into account more specific environmental impacts beyond nitrogen surplus to phosphorus, water quality and biodiversity issues."

International option

Canada's Holos efforts are part of a growing interest around the world in computer modeling in sustainability. For instance, the model has been adopted in Norway and other countries are interested in the progress being made. Furthermore, the marketplace is moving toward food brands marketed on the basis of carbon footprint, he says, and there is growing sophistication and expectations of the approach. Targets are to better represent physical processes in the soil and to improve user-friendliness of models.

While internationally Canada is nicely at the leading edge, in Kroebel's opinion, one question will be the role of international calculators. In Europe, for example, the multinational company Unilever, in cooperation with the University of Aberdeen, developed the Cool Farm Tool GHG calculator. It's an empirical model, a simple Excel spreadsheet designed to provide an estimate of the carbon footprint.

The vision for Cool Farm Tool is to become an internationally recognized tool, simple enough to be used around the world. But in the push to limit the amount of data required to be entered, the tool is very simplistic and based on average northern hemisphere data, not very specific to Canadian conditions, says Kroebel. "That's where Holos may come in. It's a tool built on Canadian data, designed for use by Canadian farmers."

Feedback from farmers, industry

In Canada farmers and their organizations are on the forefront of the push for effective calculators. The pulse industry, for example, is actively looking at the need to measure carbon footprint, and most agricultural sectors are involved in lifecycle analysis as part of efforts to be prepared on the sustainability front.

There will be more engagement with producer organizations and individuals in the next stages, says Kroebel. For instance, a Holos release workshop was held at the Lethbridge Research Centre in March 2013 to get producer representatives involved in the model development process. The response to the new model version was good, and grower representatives provided feedback on research results and development ideas. These workshops will be held annually.

Young farmers will lead

One thing appears clear and that is like most examples of new technology adoption, young farmers will be leaders in moving Canada's agricultural industry into adoption of next generation modeling technology. That's been the case in adoption of any technology and with the age of Canadian farmers as high as it is, and the imminent transfer of landownership to a next generation of producers, Kroebel believes it's logical that young farmers will have the most at stake.

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Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.

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