First Milk works with Agricarbon to validate soil carbon stocks

3 May 2023

When it comes to climate change, the dairy industry is firmly in the spotlight. That’s why farmer-owned co-operative, First Milk, has made ambitious net zero commitments based around the widescale adoption of regenerative farming techniques.

“We recognise that dairy is seen as part of the climate problem,” explained Mark Brooking, Sustainability Director at First Milk. “Yet dairy has an important role in providing great tasting, nutritious food, produced naturally from resources that otherwise couldn’t be consumed by humans. The challenge – the same one that faces the whole of society – is to decarbonise our industry and reduce carbon equivalent emissions to net zero as soon as possible.”

Back in early 2021, that’s exactly what First Milk committed to – an ambition that saw them targeting net zero across Scope 1, 2 and 3 by 2040 at the latest, to the launch of regenerative action plans for all its members, and to sequestering 100,000t of carbon in soils per annum by 2025.

In addition, they committed to a range of intermediate targets, including the use of renewable fuel sources in milk transport and processing by 2030, and the plan to reduce carbon footprint by 50% by 2030 at farm level.

But the co-operative isn’t solely focusing on carbon.

“With all the attention on climate change, it is easy to develop tunnel vision around carbon reduction, but it is only part of the challenge,” Mark said. “The other crisis facing humanity is the loss of nature and biodiversity, and the two issues are very much intertwined, particularly when it comes to farming.”

In response to this, First Milk set out to find innovative ways of continuing to efficiently produce great quality dairy, whilst also addressing the challenges of climate change and nature loss. And Mark is confident that they’ve found the right approach.

“We have launched a Regenerative Farming Programme with our members, which has been really well received. This continues to evolve, with member farms committing to a range of field level regenerative interventions each year,” said Mark. “In 2023 this has evolved further, and our farmers will now get a regenerative farming score for their interventions, to enable them to see the potential positive impact their decisions are making.”

Regenerative agriculture is becoming a bit of a buzzword in agriculture, with a broad range of definitions and interpretations. So, what does it mean to First Milk?

“For us, the important thing is that our members adopt the five principles of regenerative farming within their decision-making,” explained Mark. “The first is livestock integration, which for us means a commitment to provide access to grazing pasture for the cows on our members’ farms. The second is about minimising soil disturbance, so trying not to plough fields if there are alternative means of crop establishment. Thirdly, we look for farms to protect the soil surface, particularly over the winter, which means using cover crops to prevent soil erosion. Fourthly, we want to encourage plant diversity, which sees farms establishing multi-species swards and finally, we focus on maintaining living roots, so avoiding periods where there is no living crop in a field.”

This thinking also extends to maintaining habitat for wildlife, allowing hedgerows to flourish and protecting unproductive areas of the farm for nature. Critically, this isn’t about extensification, but about finding new ways to farm in harmony with nature whilst also efficiently producing food.

Whilst the focus is broad, it is critical that First Milk can monitor progress on soil carbon sequestration in a robust and scientific way, to quantify progress towards its net zero ambition. And that is where Agricarbon comes in.

“In 2021 we launched a project with Agricarbon to carry out intensive soil carbon analysis using its proprietary approach. The benefit of working with Agricarbon is that this can be done at a fraction of the usual cost with the rigour required to allow us to build robust, scientific data so that we can drive meaningful progress in carbon reduction,” explained Mark.

The initial phases of the project were conducted with First Milk’s long-term commercial partner, Nestlé, which supported the work as part of its climate journey roadmap. But the project has developed beyond that and is now one of the leading projects of its type in the UK.

Indeed, to date, the project has seen Agricarbon collect samples for First Milk from more than 13,000 hectares of land, across nearly 3,000 fields, in more than 35,000 individual soil cores taken to a depth of 1 metre.  The analysis of these samples has shown that the soil carbon stock in these fields is around 1.5 million tonnes – an average of 116 tonnes per hectare.

But understanding the carbon that is already stored in soils is only the beginning.

“We’ve committed to sequestering an additional 100,000t of CO2e in soil each year by 2025,” explained Mark. “To prove we are achieving this it is important that we establish the baseline position, and then continue sampling in the future to demonstrate the change that’s been delivered via our regenerative actions.”

To this end, fields will be re-sampled every five years – a frequency that will be sufficient to demonstrate statistically-significant changes due to the large numbers of samples taken and the way that sample locations are GPS mapped based on underlying soil strata.

“Even the baseline data starts to show some interesting trends in terms of the carbon stored in different soil types and under different long-term management,” Mark said. “The data collected so far is being analysed by Leeds University to pull out statistically significant themes, which we’ll look to share.”

To determine the benefits of regenerative agricultural practices will take time, as the business won’t be able to see data on changes in soil carbon for five years after the initial baseline sampling. But Mark is confident that adopting regenerative approaches will deliver benefits.

“We know that regenerative practices can help increase soil organic matter, and we know that every 0.1% of additional soil organic matter per hectare equates to nine tonnes of CO2 removed from the atmosphere through sequestration. But these practices don’t only lock carbon up in soil. The same 0.1% increase in soil organic matter means that soil can hold an additional 28,000 litres of water per hectare, reducing flood risk and run-off, and providing more drought resilience,” he said.

Whilst First Milk’s ambition requires long-term commitment, their approach is market-leading, reckons Annie Leeson, CEO of Agricarbon.

“First Milk had the foresight to recognise the importance of intensive, whole farm sampling to provide reliable and future-proofed evidence of soil carbon sequestration taking place on their farms,” Annie explained. “Their diligence has paid off: they are now way ahead of the game in gathering the necessary data to meet the standards set out in emerging carbon accounting protocols such as the new GHG Protocol for the Land Sector and Removals. This forward-thinking approach and dedication to robust data has ensured that First Milk farmers can measure the difference they make and recognise the benefit of soil carbon removals. Furthermore, it offers First Milk members unique insight into how their stewardship of soil health is helping to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere – a vital service to society as pressure from climate change intensifies.”

Of course, this will only deliver if First Milk’s farmer members share the same foresight but, thankfully, its Regenerative Farming Programme has been well-received to date.

“In 2022 our members committed to almost 131,000 individual field-level regenerative interventions using our unique digital mapping tool,” Mark concluded. “Whilst it is still early days, we believe we are well-placed to achieve our target of sequestering an additional 100,000 tonnes of CO2e per year by 2025, although we can only prove that with the robust data that Agricarbon’s unique approach provides. When combined with our broader activity, we are increasingly confident that we can put dairy at the heart of the climate solution, enriching life and securing the future for all.”

How does Agricarbon’s unique approach to soil sampling work?

  • End-to-end service covering sampling strategy, collection of soil cores, processing and automated soil carbon analysis.
  • Stratified random sampling based on digital mapping containing soil type, geology, terrain features and above ground vegetation data sets to ensure samples accurately represent the varied conditions across a whole field.
  • Typically, 15 samples taken per field based on GPS co-ordinates sent to field operators using specially designed ATVs with hydraulic core extractors extract a wide core to 1m depth. Soil cores kept intact in an air and water-sealed tube until analysis is undertaken.
  • Soil cores sub-divided into different depth layers to give an accurate picture of soil carbon. Wide cores also allow accurate bulk density to be determined, providing accurate indication of soil compaction. This is critical in accurately determining soil carbon stocks.
  • Automated soil carbon analysis (ASCA) processes thousands of samples with extreme consistency and ultra-low cost. This means a large number of samples can be taken – vital for measuring change accurately over time. Uses Dumas dry combustion – the most accurate method for measuring soil organic carbon.
  • Results provided as a detailed field-level and soil depth breakdown and stored securely to allow future re-measurement, comparison and statistical analysis.