A Table of Ways to Increase Farm Energy Efficiency

Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada

The usual way farmers are advised to increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is through a list of best management practices.

One of the problems, however, is that this is often a piecemeal approach and doesn’t always encourage integrated organic farming.

In “Improving Energy Efficiency and GHG Mitigation Potentials in Canadian Organic Farming Systems,” published in Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, the authors provide an alternative: a table of farm-level strategies.

The strategies are organized in an efficiency-substitution-redesign framework. Improved efficiency is usually the simplest, substitution more complicated and redesign the most complex. Four key categories – agronomic operations, crop system design, manure management and animal management – are included.

The value of the table is that it provides an overview of options and allows the farmer to integrate a number of strategies in practical ways (see revised Table 2 below).

Adapted and revised from TABLE 2:  Farm-Level Strategies to Improve Organic Farming Energy Efficiency and Reduce GHG Emissions
Category Efficiency strategies Substitution strategies Redesign strategies

Agronomic operations

1. Reducing field passes, including strategic tillage, one-pass operations, and shallow tillage with wide implements

2. Matching equipment power to scale

3. Improving efficiency of the nutrient cycle, including better management of leguminous crops, organic matter imports

Crop System Design

4. Better sequencing of crops in rotation to account for the plants’ abilities to extract, fix, use and pass on nutrients

5. Efficiency of crop conversion of sunlight energy, including better
matching of the genetics of the plant, and the design of the plant system

6. Improving photosynthetic
efficiency of the crop rotation, including possibilities for better use of plants better adapted to high daytime temperatures, intense sunlight and drought

Manure management

7. Reducing surface area
of manure piles, composting

8. Improving manure application techniques to minimize losses

9. Extending time animals are
outdoors, with manure deposited primarily on the
landscape as collecting
manure is less efficient
than deposit on fields

Animal management

10. Using probiotics, fish oil and plant extracts to reduce emissions of methane from the breakdown of food in the gut of ruminant animals and careful diet formulation to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from manure 

11. Reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions, improve animal housing systems

12. Selecting slower growing
breeds because they are
more effective in an
organic system, and generally
perform better on pasture.

Two of the study’s co-authors, Derek Lynch and Ralph Martin, were interviewed and provided examples of how strategies have been applied, or could be. Numbers are sometimes used as shorthand to identify strategies.

“Many organic farmers are thinking in a very integrated way so they might start with redesign,” said Lynch. “It’s not uncommon for transitional farmers moving into organic to start with the simpler substitution strategies.”

Martin used a farm in Quebec run by three brothers to show how strategies are used. “It’s fairly large and they have corn, wheat, soy and they’re trying ways to reduce tillage and they’re pretty much down to one operation,” he said. “They’ve also tried the no-till technique.”

Martin said there is concern among some organic farmers about long-term access to plant varieties well adapted to their farms and systems. “This same farm with the three brothers in Quebec and some other farmers are starting to collect their own corn seed,” said Martin. “They’re looking to professional corn breeders to help them. They want to select seeds adapted to their cropping systems (5).”

“You have to be in 4, but you could say few organic farms are in 5 or 6,” said Lynch. “That’s the cutting edge really to be thinking in terms of efficient use of the land base.”

“Number 3 is like a description of organic fertility management,” said Lynch. “That’s the cornerstone of your nitrogen management,” he said. “Once you bring in legumes for nitrogen, that plays a huge part in reducing the farm energy footprint, compared to the use of synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilizer.”

Referring to 9, Martin said both conventional and organic farmers are extending the time their animals are outdoors. “On the Prairies there are some farmers that do swath grazing. They don’t even bother baling it. It’s fairly dry in the Prairies. As long as you don’t get more than 18 inches of snow over the swath, the cattle can break through it. They recognize the lump for what it is. So they’ll go to the lump and break through the snow to get to the swath to eat it.”

Martin said some farmers are looking at heritage breeds of chickens because they are more adapted to living outside. “You’re definitely talking redesign with 12,” added Lynch.

“A dairy farm near Montreal is doing good work in pasturing and crop management,” said Martin. “They’re using 1, 3, 4 … and looking at 12.”

Now that’s integrated farming.

This is the second of a two-part series based on the study Improving Energy Efficiency and GHG Mitigation Potentials in Canadian Organic Farming Systems. See Part 1.

This article was written by Steve Harder on behalf of the OACC with funding provided by Canada’s Organic Science Cluster (a part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Growing Forward Policy Framework).  The Organic Science Cluster is a collaborative effort led jointly by the OACC, the Organic Federation of Canada and industry partners
. For more information: oacc@dal.ca or 902-893-7256.

Posted October 2010