Software developed in Lethbridge could save farmers money and emissions

By Patrick Burles - @PatrickBurles on Twitter
August 27, 2018 - 7:23am

LETHBRIDGE, AB. — Software developed locally more than a decade ago by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to help producers in the agriculture industry reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is making adjustments to boost the appeal of the program.

Created and continually updated by a team at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, Holos can be downloaded for free   – in both English and French – and allows producers to input data and management practices from their operation and see an estimate of their GHG emissions – carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. They can then adjust their inputs to see how that would impact their emissions.

That information comes from collaboration with experts in numerous agricultural fields from across the country, who provide the most up-to-date information they have to the software developers, who then program that into the software algorithm.

There’s just one problem: to this point it hasn’t been widely used by producers.

“The whole goal initially was to have the model available to Canadian ag-producers for them to self-explore, to answer what if questions,” explained program leader Dr. Roland Kröbel. “We've since taken a little bit back on that, because we noticed that our software with the focus on greenhouse gas emissions is maybe not that highly relevant and interesting to producers, because they're looking at the bottom-line and the economics.

“‘Unless you can tell me how much it's going to cost me, I don't really care,'” said Kröbel, referring to a comment they received from an Ontario producer following a workshop.

“We've tried to include the economics in this, but regardless, it remains somewhat more of a scientific exploration,” Kröbel continued. “We take experimental data that we get from colleagues, run them through the model, see what comes out in the end with respect to what is the effect of management practices. [We then] write a paper, give presentations to producer groups and say, 'This is what we found out: if you do this versus that, then you can actually get your greenhouse gas emissions down while your productivity stays the same or goes up.”

While those workshops have been beneficial in spreading information to producers, Kröbel says they are putting an added emphasis on making changes that will encourage farmers and ranchers to download the program and get information specific to their operation.

The current version of Holos (3.0.4) includes some basic economic and cost/benefit abilities, and Kröbel says they will be building on that with version four – expected to be released sometime in 2019. The update will also feature a revamped interface that should be significantly more user friendly and allow producers to get the information they’re looking for without having to put in as much data.

As for the kinds of things you can learn from the program, Kröbel pointed out the it can change dramatically from one operation to the next, depending on a number of factors, but acknowledged there are some areas that are relatively consistent.

“With livestock production systems, there's a couple of additives that you can add to the forage that can get you a reduction of enteric methane of two, four, to 10 per cent – which is a good thing, because that methane that you lose is carbon that the animal doesn’t digest and therefore doesn’t grow. So, if you can reduce this, you can expect to get slightly better productivity,” he explained.

“With the crop production system, it's mainly about nitrous oxide and that's related to your fertilizer that you apply,” said Kröbel. “One thing to do this is switch from fall application to spring application, because, basically you save half a year where this nitrogen is free-floating, even though it's frozen, still something is happening with it as long as it gets warm sometimes, so, they have a longer time-frame for a potential of nitrogen loss.

“If you wanted to make it even more efficient, something like split-application would be a potential way to go. Basically, start it with a small amount when the plant is still small, once it grows up, you resupply it with a larger amount and so then you're trying to match your supply of nitrogen to the stage of the plant and the uptake potential it has. But that, again, becomes an economic question, because it's much cheaper to drive over your field once instead of four times during the growing season.”

Feedback from users is the key to improving future versions of Holos, and as such, you are encouraged to try the program and send your thoughts to [email protected]

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