Researchers seek producer feedback on environmental assessment software

Researchers are taking a deeper look at practices that affect soil carbon and the role of wetlands in the fourth version of Holos, which allows producers to calculate their greenhouse gas emissions

A new version of an on-farm environmental assessment software is in the works, and researchers are looking for producer feedback.

Scientists at Lethbridge’s Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research and Development Centre are enhancing the whole-farm Holos model software for measuring and assessing the environmental impact of Canadian agricultural management practices, with full release anticipated by the end of the year.

The Holos model software is specific to the Canadian agricultural system and uses input data that producers may already have available to calculate their operation’s greenhouse gas emissions, carbon stock changes and other outputs.

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“The main purpose of the model right now is to track all greenhouse gas sources of the farm system,” says Dr. Roland Kroebel, research scientist at AAFC Lethbridge. “That’s the nitrous oxide that comes mostly out of the cropping operations where you apply synthetic fertilizer, then the enteric methane that comes out of the ruminant livestock, but it also includes estimates of any other emission source on the farm.”

The fourth version of this software will build upon the previous version, although the intent remains the same.

“We give a tool to Canadian producers to do a self-assessment, to play around with the model and figure out, ‘if I do X, how does that change my greenhouse gas budget?’” says Kroebel. “In terms of beef, for instance, we would recommend looking and playing around with feed quality and then see how changes in the feed quality… influence the enteric methane calculations or results.”

While version 3 took what Kroebel called a “relatively simplistic” look at soil carbon changes and focused on reduction of fallowing fields and replacing annual crops with perennial forage, the new version will provide a deeper look at practices that affect soil carbon levels.

“That’s where we’re trying to do some improvements in version 4 to get the carbon change estimates more responsive to management practices that are common.”

The researchers also plan to work with academic collaborators to include calculations for the role of wetlands within an operation in supporting wildlife habitat and as carbon sinks.

The updated software will include an additional economic model that expands upon that of the previous version. In version 3, this covered crop production and only a basic analysis of beef production; future versions aim to provide a more in-depth economic analysis of beef production, as well as an analysis for dairy and pork production systems.

Originally, the updated software was slated for release at the end of 2019, but development has taken longer than anticipated. As producer feedback wasn’t a part of developing the previous version, the researchers wanted to include it this time.

“We thought it would be worthwhile to invite stakeholders to follow along the development of the interface, and that gave us a few very valuable insights and recommendations,” says Kroebel.

Version 4 of the software was available for testing in March at the Conference on Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture, hosted by AAFC and the University of Saskatchewan. At the time of interview, there were a few areas yet to be completed.

“There’s still a couple of components missing in the model that we want to include, and that’s mainly with respect to linking livestock back to the land, which we previously didn’t.”

To ensure the software’s accuracy, the researchers seek alignment with the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory’s methodology where possible, as the model has more options. They are also comparing the updated software to the previous version.

“The other way is to go back to literature, look at what measurement experiments have been done by other scientists and use their results as a check point,” says Kroebel.

By comparing to measurement values and previous results, they can determine whether more testing is required.

“If your emissions are double now what they were back then, then something is likely wrong with the calculations. If they’re within 15 per cent, say, then you start looking at the literature and say ‘How good can we get, within a margin of error that we find acceptable, or do we have to go back and test more details?’”

That accuracy is particularly important when the software is used to measure inputs and outputs for carbon credit programs. Provincial carbon credit programs in Alberta currently use the Holos methodology, and the researchers are in contact with the province about new opportunities.

“Now that we’re coming up with a new carbon model, they’re interested to see what our outputs are and whether they can develop new programs from this,” says Kroebel. “We need to make sure the model is correct before the program becomes reality.”

Researchers are looking for feedback from producers, industry and other researchers to improve the software. For more information, email [email protected].

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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