ReLive – working together for circular agriculture

Let’s discuss the many ways the global research project ReLive is looking to make farming more sustainable.


It all started with professor Bruce Osborne from University College Dublin getting together with his colleagues Ibrahim Khalil, Cor Jacobs, and Bart Kruijt to discuss their common research interest in mitigating GHG emissions associated with agricultural activities. The first project they came up with was called GHG-Manage, which focused on managing and reporting GHG emissions and carbon sequestration on European soil. Since then, the development of the international research network for agricultural sustainability started during GHG-Manage has blossomed into another project called ReLive. Relive focuses on GHG mitigation and circularity in mixed (=crops and livestock) farms. 

The team compiled for ReLive consists of scientists and experts coming from varying backgrounds in the sophisticated field of agricultural research. I had the opportunity to interview many of them during the spring of 2024. I was surprised by how many of the people involved in the project are farmers and/or have grown up in a farm environment. There is no doubt that this kind of personal connection to their research subject only enhances their ability to devote themselves to their work. 

To better illustrate the layout of the ReLive project I have created a graph (below) which presents all the partner countries, as well as their relationship to the different collections of tasks that the project entails (called work packages). As you read the partner interviews, you can refer to this graph and hopefully better understand just how meticulously the system of experts has been crafted to meet the project goals.

Partner 1 – the beginning of the project 

First, let´s have a chat with Bruce Osborne, Emeritus Professor of Plant Ecophysiology, and Ibrahim Khalil, Senior Research Fellow, at the School of Agriculture and Food Science at University College Dublin

What is your role in the project?

Prof. Osborne: I am the project coordinator, while Dr. Ibrahim Khalil is the project manager. Apart from coordination, I am involved with the overall reporting to the funding organizations. Together with Ibrahim, we work to ensure that the objectives of the project are met. We are responsible for interactions with stakeholders, as well as the dissemination and communication of the project results. 

Dr. Khalil: I am managing the ReLive project and also leading the work package 5: Systems-based Decision Support Tools. Right now, we are directly collaborating with the HOLOS-IE project funded by Science Foundation Ireland through the Government of Ireland and the European Commission Recovery and Resilience Facility. The aim of the project is to  develop an agricultural system-based digital platform. The project will lead to HOLOS-EU, which will be usable in the whole EU.

How would you summarize the goal of ReLive?

Prof. Osborne: To put it simply: we want to find ways of minimizing the environmental footprint of contemporary farming systems. 

I come from a farming background, and I can remember when most farms in the UK were mixed farms. They had mostly arable crops, a bit of grassland, and a mix of dairy and cattle. Since the 1960s, livestock has become separated from many land-based farming activities and farmers have started to focus on either arable crops or livestock. Our big question for this project is whether the traditional mixed farm system could be tailored to improve circularity whilst minimizing GHG emissions. We are essentially trying to find out how and if we can successfully reintegrate livestock back into farming systems. 

This is a real challenge because there are potentially increased GHG emissions associated with livestock reintegration, even though there are benefits in terms of circularity and sustainability. Back in the day, any environmental concerns associated with farming were limited apart from issues associated with water pollution, and agricultural emissions were largely unaccounted for. 

We want to find a way to utilize the benefits of past agricultural practices while considering the current environmental demands. 

The subtitle of the ReLive project, “back to the future” pays homage to this and recognizes that we may still have something to learn from earlier approaches to managing land and livestock. I called the process “looking back to move forward” in a presentation I made recently.

Tell me more about HOLOS-IE. 

Dr. Khalil: HOLOS-IE, an agricultural system-based digital tool for land use planning, decision making, and environmental reporting, includes components such as crops, grassland, livestock, agroforestry (trees within a farm), and farm infrastructure. The model will be able to simulate and project sectoral GHG emissions, SOC stock changes, and production, to name a few elements. The user-friendly tool could help farmers reduce GHG emissions and make their farms carbon-neutral while achieving sustainable production.  

How has the project proceeded from your point of view?

Prof. Osborne: We have been able to maintain pretty good contact with all collaborators so far. We have an online meeting every 2-3 months, as well as an annual meeting. The first meeting was in Ireland, 2nd in Spain, and the final meeting in 2024 will take place in Germany. Apart from official meetings, there´s also a lot of informal collaboration in terms of exchanging information, writing research articles, etc. For instance, the partners from France and New Zealand are working together on the effective use of the organic manure produced by livestock. The Polish and the Spanish partners are working together on agroforestry and forestry systems, and their role in methane emission reductions. We felt it was important to involve the Southern Hemisphere in the project, especially since some of their farming systems are comparable to European systems.  The southern parts of Chile, for instance, have largely grass-based agriculture, with some arable crops, whilst agriculture in New Zealand is largely grazing-based, with parallels to much of Europe. In Chile, intense farming practices are not as common as those used in Europe, so there is a lot that we might learn from them in developing appropriate low-impact farming systems. 

Dr. Khalil: The project is progressing very well, mainly because of the extra funding I got from Science Foundation Ireland. We have the HOLOS-IE (v 1.0) prototype now and have tested it using an Irish dairy farm as a standard farm. The model is able to provide sectoral GHG emissions, SOC stock changes, and other relevant outputs, from which we are able to calculate the total carbon balance of farming components individually or in combination, i.e. mixed farming. This makes it possible to assess the carbon footprint of a farm and choose better land use and technologies/approaches to reduce the GHGs and increase carbon sequestration. It will also help with finding GHG offsetting options, as well as inventory/environmental reporting.

The development of a comprehensive digital platform like HOLOS-IE/EU  takes a lot of manpower and sufficient funding. Right now, we have the land cover map, soil data, and climate data for Ireland. We have also developed a separate module for agroforestry. In the EU version, we have to consider the same data for the whole Europe and replace or add data related to land cover and use, management, mitigation, EFs, algorithms, etc. Once we have the version 3 of HOLOS-IE ready, we  plan to start developing HOLOS-EU, depending on the availability of funding. Following refinement of the model, I am planning to incorporate agrobiodiversity, soils/ecosystem health indices, circular bioeconony, hydrology, and supply chain in agri-food industries. 

Partner 2 – investigating circularity in livestock production

Our second partner in the Relive Project is the French National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment (INRAE). I was able to sit down with Dr. Katja Klumpp and Dr. Maguy Eugène to discuss their contribution to the project. 

What is your role in the project?

Dr. Eugène: I am from the Herbivore unit of INRAE and involved with GHG inventory, more precisely enteric methane emission produced by ruminants. We analyze the development of emission factors for ruminants fed with by-products and non-conventional diets. We are interested in these by-products because they might be possible sustainable solutions to increase circularity in existing farming systems. The goal of the analysis is to see how non-conventional diets affect animal performance. After the analysis, we give the specific emission factors we produced to the other project partners in charge of the model we use called HOLOS. We use HOLOS to evaluate the GHG emissions at a system level, for different farms.

Dr. Klumpp: I am in charge of simulating carbon storage and emissions in the field by taking into account different livestock management methods and different types of organic fertilization. We try to improve the autonomy (i.e. feed and fertilization) of farms by examining how different field management, grassland management, and grazing management will change the lifecycle of feed and the subsequent GHG balance (=carbon storage in soil) of the farm and the field.

We have developed a carbon simulation tool called CarSolEL, which is a meta-model of two process-based ecosystem models. In ReLive, we aim to develop the model further. 

Can you tell me more about your research for the project?  

Dr. Eugène: We have made a list of all suitable by-products for use as feed to ruminants, which means feed like crop residue and industrial by-products (ie: citrus and tomato pulp, seaweed (algae).  Our task in this project was to conduct a meta-analysis on the effects of the consumption of those by-products on CH4 emissions. Data for the analysis is gathered from multiple published studies. This kind of analysis has not been conducted before with our research subject.

Dr. Klumpp: To include circular livestock production, we test several options. 

Firstly, we want to reduce the feed concentrates we need to get from the outside of the farm and produce them at the farm, which means we need more grass grown on the farm. More grassland will change the carbon-nitrogen composition of the dung by decreasing its nitrogen content and increasing CH4 emissions. When the cows graze, they spend less time in the barn, and the dung ends up in the field, which means you don´t need to worry about manure management.

Secondly, we test crop grazing directly in the field (e.g. cereal crops, winter wheat, cereal rye, winter triticale, or cover crops). Here, we also avoid housing and manure management including manure spreading. Crop-grazing means that animals eat the crop residues and stubbles, and although they might have lower feed quality, there are fewer ammonia emissions from manure, while the field is directly fertilised . 

Thirdly, we also examine the effect of manure management and the return of manure to the field as organic fertilizer. To integrate circularity, you can either use fresh animal excrement  (i.e. in crop grazing) or dung from the barn/housing (i.e. farmyard manure)  as a natural organic fertilizer. Another possibility might be to compost manure or use it in a digester, where you incubate it without oxygen to produce methane for power, and then apply the digestats to the field. Farmyard manure can also be used as biochar. 

Biochar and fresh manure are rich in nitrogen, while farmyard manure is stored outside the barn for some time, during which it is likely to lose nitrogen. Fresh dung adds a lot of soluble carbon to soil, while biochar has less easily decomposable carbon. According to the differences in C/N, the two organic fertilizers will not have the same effect on soil functioning (i.e. C sequestration)  and soil fertility. Depending on the organic fertilizer used, the biomass produced the animal ends up eating will be of varying C/N quality. Our research focuses on how the different types of organic fertilizers affect both carbon sequestration and biomass production on livestock farms. 

Partner 3 – monitoring and evaluation of GHG emissions

The 3rd partner, Wageningen University & Research, was also involved in GHG-Manage, the collaborative research project preceding ReLive. I sat down with Dr. Bart Kruij´s colleague Dr. Ruchita Ingle to discuss her part in the project.

Who are you and what is your role in the ReLive project?

Dr. Ruchita Ingle: I am a postdoc researcher with the Wageningen University and we are evaluating innovative, more direct MRV (Measurement, Reporting, and Verification) methods for adaptive management in circular farming systems. Our approach is threefold, starting with the compilation of direct and indirect tools for the verification of carbon and GHG emissions at the field scale. Next, we will analyze which type of monitoring, data, and models are most suitable to achieve ‘adaptive management’ of farming and GHG mitigation, as well as at which scale and with which actors they should be performed. Last, we will explore ways to measure carbon and GHG emissions from small-scale farming initiatives such as agroforestry in the Netherlands.

How does data gathering work in practice? 

Dr. Ruchita Ingle: Data on direct and indirect verification approaches has been compiled along with country-specific emissions, measures in place, and initiatives from all the partner countries. This will all be included in the advisory report. Based on existing Dutch measurement networks, we will evaluate and select sets of direct measurement tools, and advise on routine collection of essential farm parameters. Small-scale farming initiatives inventory is being populated based on published literature and reports. It was challenging to gather information from each partner country due to language barriers but it did work out in the end and we got most relevant documents from all partner countries.

What have you discovered related to the verification of environmental actions of farmers?

Dr. Ruchita Ingle: Verification of carbon and GHG emissions at the field scale is still challenging and not practiced widely by individual farmers. Also, literature review revealed a limited awareness among farmers of the available subsidies and initiatives. As a part of the advisory report, we provide insight into the country-specific information related to subsidies, policy framework, and various tools that can be used to estimate field-scale emissions. 

Partners 4 and 9 – modeling the economic and environmental impact of circular farming

Next, I had the pleasure of talking to researchers from the partnering institutions 4 and 9, respectively: Dr. Martin Roffeis from The GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, and Dr. Jonathan Herron from The Agriculture and Food Development Authority (TEAGASC). As farmers themselves, they both have a great deal of practical experience and a deep understanding of the complexities of the field. It was apparent from our conversation, that a strong practical connection to farming makes for an unbeatable foundation for their work.   

What is your role in the project?

Dr. Roffeis: Our institution is responsible for data gathering for work packages 1 and 5. We are working on the development of a whole-farm GHG model. 

Dr. Herron: My research background is life cycle assessment, and for the project, I am responsible for integrating a bioeconomic model into the Canadian HOLOS model, which currently only looks at GHG emissions in farming. The goal of the resulting hybrid model is to investigate the potential benefits of reintegrating livestock and cropping systems. 

Can you tell me more about the models you are working on? 

Dr. Roffeis: We want to develop a model that makes it possible to estimate the GHG emissions of an entire farm. This is particularly challenging for mixed farms in which crop production and animal husbandry exist side by side, as the internal use of material flows such as manure and feed must be taken into account. The model concept that we have developed in the ReLive project offers solutions for this and will hopefully help to simplify the accounting of GHG in agriculture. Our solution will be implemented by Avoin Map and we are also looking for other future applications for it.

Dr. Herron: In the development process of the new integration we use a methodology called enterprise budgeting where we look at each enterprise of the farm independently. We look at both the outputs (such as milk and crops) and the movement between enterprises. Everything is numeric. Holos is an established model, which is why we have to structure the new economic model to fit it. The whole thing is built on nationally represented data.

GHG emissions as a concept is very abstract to the practical people that farmers tend to be because they do not impact the farm´s life in the short term. Farmers measure the success of their agricultural practices through the money their farms make. We as the model developers need to look at both economic and environmental aspects of farming. 

In Ireland, we use MACC, which is a model that presents all mitigation strategies and the cost of implementing them. This allows us to prioritize recommendations based on economic benefits. The challenge is that often the economic and emission-related measures contradict each other. Feed additives for example cost a lot, but they are very effective in decreasing methane emissions. On the other hand, precision farming is an example of an economically wise farming solution that is also environmentally beneficial. One other thing to take into account is that certain activities may be supported by the government, for example, the purchase of more efficient machinery for spreading manure. 

Can you tell me more about your farming background? 

Dr. Herron: I grew up on a family farm, which I now own. We have sheep and beef cattle. Over time, my interest in knowing more deeply about the process grew, and so I became a scientist, as well. It´s not easy juggling both careers at the same time. 

Dr. Roffeis: I also grew up on a farm and took over the family business, and I only do farming part-time now. I grew up with cattle, but we stopped doing suckler cow production in 2022 because it became too difficult to find the time necessary to properly manage both cattle production and crop production. It was very sad to let go of the cattle. People don´t realize that in livestock production, people do care about the cattle, even though they are grown to be slaughtered. It´s weird, but there´s a certain relationship with the animals.

Dr. Herron: We have a lot of part-time farmers in Ireland, which makes it more difficult in terms of improving the system. We need to be conscious of it because the welfare of the farmers is also important – there are a lot of demands bestowed upon them by society. 

Partner 5 – GHG emissions in silvopastoral systems 

Much like my interviewees from Germany and Ireland, Dr. Victor Rolo from Universidad de Extremadura also has a personal connection to agriculture, and more specifically the unique silvopastoral system Dehesa. Here´s what he had to say about his contribution to the ReLive project. 

What is your role in the project?

Dr. Victor Rolo: In our research at Universidad de Extremadura, we focus on the functioning and management of Dehesa, which is the largest silvopastoral system in Europe, mainly distributed in the Southwestern part of the Iberian Peninsula. It´s a kind of savannah-like system mainly focused on livestock production. In Dehesa, you have pastures and scattered trees, and livestock husbandry is the main practised cattle. 

We do many things in the field – experimental, and observational research. For ReLive, we mainly do GHG emissions measuring in Dehesa. For this project, we have three people and a technician, whereas, in our greater forest research group, we are 18. The main person in the field is the technician, but we do everything as a team. I mainly do data analysis with a software called R

Can you walk me through a day in the field?

Dr. Victor Rolo: We go to our sampling point with our GHG analyzer and measure different points in 2 different habitats: under the tree, and outside the tree canopy. We try to find out the role of trees  on soil GHG emissions. We also measure the same things where legumes have been sown to better understand the effects of climate-smart actions on farms.

We are collaborating with Poland, who are the leaders in our work package (4).  They are doing the same measurements on various agricultural fields. We have also received samples, which are vials of air, from Dr. Roffeis to analyze their concentration of GHG. 

We have been doing measurements for over a year. Preliminary results suggest that trees affect GHG emissions. For instance, we have observed CH4 oxidation under trees, whereas in the open, there were CH4 emissions.

Can you tell me more about the background of the research?

Dr. Victor Rolo: Dehesas used to be somewhat circular, and each farm was divided into different sections, where crops and livestock were mixed. In Spain, farms started to specialize at the end of the 20th century. There are some parts of our region where crops are still common in the Dehesa, but they are fewer and fewer. Now, since we want to do reintegration to recover traditional farming practices, we need data on climate-smart actions to make the reintegrated farms carbon-neutral. We are trying to model these kinds of systems and the effect of different practices on GHG emissions. In the future, we try to use process-based models for simulation, such as the Hi-sAFe model. We also want to work on using biochar as a soil amendment to test if that would help reduce GHG emissions and increase carbon sequestration. 

Partner 7 – enhancing CH4 oxidation in soil

Next, Dr. Anna Walkiewicz from the Polish Academy of Sciences will tell you a little bit about her part in the project. 

What is your role in the project? 

Dr. Anna Walkiewicz: The area of my work is experimental research on soils of different uses with a particular focus on GHG emissions. I conduct both field and laboratory research to quantify GHG fluxes and identify the regulating factors. My speciality is the process of soil methanotrophy, i.e. the oxidation of methane (CH4) by methanotrophic bacteria. In addition to planning and carrying out research work with the team, my role in the ReLive project also involves participating in dissemination activities and preparing reports.

What kind of analyses did you perform for the soil samples during the project?

Dr. Anna Walkiewicz: As the problem of CH4 emissions is important on cattle farms, in the ReLive project we are testing practices that enhance CH4 oxidation in soils. As part of work package 4, we are conducting a series of lab experiments on different soils enriched with biochar (produced from maize residues), crop residues (maize), and a mixture of both to assess the effect on soil CH4 oxidation capacity. In addition to lab soil incubations, we conducted field measurements of soil GHG fluxes (CO2, CH4, N2O) in arable fields and pasture on a cattle farm. To recognize the mechanisms of GHG emissions, the studies also include the physicochemical and microbiological parameters of soils with a particular focus on the identification of methanotrophic bacteria. The experimental data obtained will be used in the modelling.

Can you tell me more about your collaboration with Spain? 

Dr. Anna Walkiewicz: I am collaborating with researchers from the University of Extremadura, with whom we are working on the WP4 in particular. Thanks to this collaboration, agroforestry and more specifically, forest-pasture systems, have been included in GHG research, including soil methanotrophy. 

Partners 6 and 8 – digital tools and satellite data for sustainable farming

Besides gathering data on circular farming and GHG mitigation, some partners of ReLive also worked on the development of practical data management tools for farmers. User experience and interface designer Lara Jasim and Avoin associations´ Chairperson Otso Valta, as well as Dr. Lea Hallik from the University of Tartu and Dr. Martin Menert, former chief specialist of the Estonian Land Board’s Department of Geoinformatics, shed some light on this topic. 

Additionally, as a part of the research for work package 7, Avoin interviewed Satu Hulkkonen from Food Data Finland and Joonas Jokela and Faris Alsuhail from The Location Innovation Hub by The Finnish Geospatial Research Institute. I decided to attach their comments about the impact of digital mapping in agriculture in this section. 

What kind of model are you developing for ReLive? 

Lara Jasim: Avoin Farm is a digital mapping service for farmers seeking to improve the profitability of sustainable practices and lower the negative environmental impact of farming. For us, the project started when I received a GHG calculator in the form of an Excel file that Dr. Martin Roffeis had developed. The Excel contained emission factors and calculation models for each step taken in the farm from energy usage to the feeding of calves. My job was to translate this Excel file into an intuitive user interface that would be inviting to farmers who are not necessarily very familiar with the concept of GHG calculation. By the time the V1 of the user interface was ready, Dr. Roffeis had developed the Excel further with more predetermined calculations to ease the burden on users who might not have all the data necessary to make all the calculations needed. This significantly improved Excel was used to develop the second version of the user interface which will become a part of Avoin Map in the near future. Our backend engineer Sascha Schmidt is currently working on the backend of the interface. After implementing the frontend, we can soon enable farmers to access expert support and possible grants aimed at sustainable farming. 

Otso Valta: Dr. Roffeis´ Excel originally utilizes data from Germany, but Saku Juvonen from the Department of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Helsinki has modified it to work in Finland, as well. He has done this by going through Germany’s emission factors, and adding the Finnish agricultural data, wherever it is available. German coefficients work in Finland when better information is not available.

Collaborating with Estonia, we have gained more understanding of how satellite maps could serve farmers. In the future, part of the service’s default data could come directly from satellite data.

What are the next steps in your part of the project?

Otso Valta: Even though we have already finished our national project, going forward, we will continue to cooperate with all the countries of the ReLive project. Sustainable digital work is very motivational because there is a real opportunity to help people and nature with our services. I think circular farming is of great interest to the new generation of farmers in Finland, as well as globally (Finnish readers can read the story of Pyyaho dairy farm, as well as Tyynelä farm owners´ thoughts about the future of mixed farm agriculture in Finland). 

How can satellite data help in circular farming? 

Dr. Lea Hallik: Our role in the project has been to find out just that. For the project, we have gathered Leaf Area Index measurements at Estonian farms and used them to calibrate Sentinel-2 satellite data. The purpose of this is to find out how satellite data can be used in monitoring farms and their environmental state. LAI is a measure that tells you how much leaf area there is per unit of ground area. The index plays a crucial role in various ecological processes. For example, more leaves mean more potential for capturing sunlight and converting it to energy. LAI also influences water loss from plants and the surrounding environment and affects how much light, precipitation, and other elements reach the ground. It contributes to the amount of carbon stored in plants and released back into the atmosphere.

Next, we plan to add more diverse satellite data to complement the analysis we have done so far. 

Dr. Martin Menert: We have been working on an open-source map that presents the satellite data in an easy-to-grasp, visual way (see images below). The next phase is integrating the data from this map into the varying models used in the project. A map like ours helps to estimate soil and vegetation conditions in a farm and point out areas where there´s room for improvement.

Left image: Normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), and low height vegetation. The foggy green overlay shows the buffer zones around landscape features for conserving and restoring biodiversity, where natural vegetation protects crops. Source: ARIB, ELB, Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data. 

Right image: False colour image of Near Infrared, NDVI, Red, and low-height vegetation. The brighter yellow areas show healthy crops, the bluer regions correspond to recently exposed bare soil. The purple regions inside any parcel show areas with a partial cover of grass or crop, giving hints of possible differences in soil fertility, management practices, and eventually, the crop yield. The contours correspond to areas of different soil types. They have a significant impact on the yield, too.

How can digital mapping help agriculture? 

Satu Hulkkonen: Talking about how data is managed in food production, it is important to link information in the production chain in a standardized way. A map can help organize and identify such data in the beginning of the chain. In the future, data related to responsibility will play an increasingly important role in food production. I think Avoin Map will help understand the environmental effects of the whole chain better. 

Joonas Jokela: We at the Location Innovation Hub have noticed that a lot of location data is produced in the agricultural field, but people do not know how to use it to their benefit. The map will certainly increase awareness about spatial information. 

Faris Alsuhail: With the help of the map, a farmer can look at production history and also predict the future. As the number of farmers decreases, the whole field must become more efficient. The new generation of farmers are likely to be more IT-oriented and interested in what digital data management can offer.

Partner 10 – a circularity study on a mixed farm

The discussion with Dr. Tony van der Weerden and Dr. Robyn Dynes from AgResearch made it apparent, that some of the keys to the unlocking circularity in European farming systems may be found outside of Europe. Sometimes it is useful to approach a complex challenge from an unusual perspective. 

Can you tell me about the farming industry in New Zealand? 

Dr. Dynes: As a small land mass surrounded by oceans, New Zealand enjoys a temperate maritime climate. This is well suited to ruminant animals grazing pasture 365 days of the year. More than 95% of the food produced in New Zealand is exported, and our farmers operate in a free-market economy without financial support from the government. Because of the exporting, food production systems in New Zealand must operate within both national and international standards, requirements, and regulations. The focus on sustainability has been in place for some time. Currently, there are clear expectations to reduce the carbon footprint of our products.  

Our farmers must focus on continuous improvement in efficiency of production while maintaining sustainability and reducing losses to water and air quality. 

We have this concept called social license in farming. Social license is an umbrella term that describes the social acceptance of farming practices and their impact on the environment. If social acceptance of farming goes down, people will demand changes in the farming industry. This will commonly result in more regulations. Currently, our social license is highly dependent on society’s interest in water quality and the sustainability of our systems. Regional regulations have/are being implemented to lead to improvements in water quality over time.  

As free-market participators, farmers will invest in new practices and technologies only where they believe they will add value to the business. Tech companies here will complain that farmers do not invest in innovations, but the key questions remain: Can they make them profitable for farmers? Will they make the farmers´ lives easier? 

Can you tell me more about the research you are conducting?

Dr. van der Weerden:  We are currently conducting a case study on a farm near the town Oamaru the South Island of New Zealand. We have two adjacent farms there: dairy and mixed cropping. Our dairy farm is pasture-based, the cows are on pasture year-round, and the dairy milking season is from August (late winter) to May (late autumn). There are 800 cows in the farm, and 20% of the herd is replaced annually. The crop farm has a 6-year rotation and produces cereal grains and grass seeds. The same owners own both farms.

Before the research project, the two farms have always been run separately from each other despite being owned by the same people. With recent changes in the management of the dairy farm, the owners have opportunities to experiment with circular farming. They are quite involved in the project now, and very receptive to our thoughts and ideas. It´s very much a co-development project.

The first of two circularity opportunities we will model are integrated grazing and cropping across the two farms. We would bring the cows to the crop farm for two years of pasture grazing following the grass seed harvest, while also growing crops on the dairy farm for two years in between the grazing periods. One of the benefits is improved soil structure on the crop farm through the rooting activity of 3 years of undisturbed pasture, and dung returns from the grazing cows. In both instances, we should be able to reduce the reliance on artificial fertilizers. 

The second circularity opportunity relates to changes to the wintering of cows and targeted manure inputs for crop production. For the dairy farms, the cows will be fed in a small barn for two months in the winter season (the European way). Barley and wheat straw from the crop farm will be used as barn bedding material, mixing with manure from the cows. This straw/manure mix will be collected and used as a fertilizer for spring-sown crops, which will help to reduce the use of artificial fertilizer. 

How does your research connect to ReLive? 

Dr. van der Weerden: Our project is all about trying to find ways to improve circularity in farming. We have yet to select circularity indicators but are likely to focus on a couple: GHG emissions and the ratio of external inputs to production outputs. One big goal for circularity in farming is to reduce artificial fertilizers in crop farming.

There are some calculating tools for farming– but none have been designed to work with circularity. We are currently collecting data we will share with Martin Roffeis and people who work with the HOLOS model for further analysis. 

Dr. Dynes: We know integration reduces the use of herbicides and fungicides, and we have theoretical cases of integration reducing the usage of synthetic fertilizers. What we lack is the quantification of these benefits. Getting data on integration farming is now more important than ever.

Partner 11 – researching 3 types of farming systems in the Southern Cone

Lastly, Dr. Jorge Perez-Quezada from the University of Chile´s Department of Environmental Science and Renewable Natural Resources talks about his part in the project, and the benefits of the global approach in farming research. 

Tell me about your role in this project. 

Dr. Perez-Quezada: The goal of the ReLive project is to research the integration of animals into agriculture, which is still being done in certain parts in Southern Chile. Since a few years, Dr. Osborne has wanted to include Chile in his project to report on our integrated practices. I work in monitoring GHG emissions both in natural and agricultural ecosystems at the university of Chile, so this project is very much related to what I was already doing before. When Bruce started writing this proposal, he asked me if I would like to participate. We are participating in this project with the funding from Global Research Alliance. 

For this project, we contacted 2 other countries, Argentina and Uruguay, to gather data. For the project, we report where in the Southern Cone (Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay) integrated farming occurs. All three countries have their own particular experiences. For example in Southern Chile, we have a humid climate, so there´s a lot of grazing. We mainly grow potatoes and cereal crops, and rotate crops and animal grazing. That is what makes it interesting for this project, because in Europe, agriculture is usually very specialized. For European researchers and farmers, it is useful to know how we do things.

Can you tell me more about the research you did for this project?

Dr. Perez-Quezada: We are working in an island called Chiloé. In the island, there are 3 types of farming systems: 1) traditional farming (low technology) 2) conventional (machinery, synthetic fertilizers) 3) agro-ecological (use of organic fertilizers and more diversified cropping system). For ReLive, we collected soils from the grasslands in 30 farms in Chiloé: 10 for each type of farming system. We characterized the soil by density, organic matter content, carbon and nitrogen content, and methane fluxes (=flow of the gas emitted from the soil). We want to see if there are differences, particularly in the methane emissions, in different systems.

How has participating in this project been for you?

Dr. Perez-Quezada: For me, it has been very interesting to collaborate with other researchers. One of the other big benefits of the project is that we got to educate people as a part of it. We have one post-doc and one undergraduate student working on this project. They do not only have the opportunity to learn from working with me, but also from collaborating with other countries´ experts. We have been talking to and learning a lot from the soil expert from Poland, for example.

Usually, we in Chile see Europe as being way ahead of us in technology. However, interacting with researchers from Europe during this project has shown me, that European countries want to go backwards in time when it comes to agriculture and are interested in how we still do things. I think we can both learn from each other. Sustainability comes from combining things new and old; by integrating different visions and knowledge.

Final notes

ReLive presents a unique framework for international scientific collaboration. Such collaboration is needed to take on research subjects that might be too complex for an individual university or even a national scientific consortium to tackle. One of the questions I presented to many of the experts I interviewed for this article was about the importance of global scientific collaboration, and especially internationally shared datasets. This is what they answered: 

Dr. Osborne: Searching and cataloging data for use by someone else might not the most exciting task, but the benefits are considerable in the longer term.  Until recently, easy-to-use databases were not that common, and access to these was often problematic. Although many restrictions have been removed, there are still some limits to the usage of the data but overall, things are moving forward with the new data-for-all approach. 

Dr. Khalil: A big problem for the work in my work package (model development) is the data access restrictions. We look forward to the data-sharing policy to develop to be more generous in Europe in the future. This will increase the amount of publicly available data to further scientific advancement including the development of HOLOS-IE, and subsequently, HOLOS-EU.

Dr. Roffeis: In general, open science principles are being adopted everywhere, and for many funding opportunities, they are a prerequisite now. In our case, we also have the data publicly available. Especially as a researcher, I want to be a part of a continuous reviewing process, because I am not confident enough to say that everything we have done in the project is correct. I want everything to be scrutinized, and potentially later used by anyone to develop their solutions. I feel like we are on our way to that being a reality in all research. When I did my Ph.D., I was always confused by the way some academic articles were not available to read publicly. This is now changing.

Dr. Herron: Going forward, internationally shared datasets are very important for research. It is important for the quality of the research that there are people from different backgrounds involved in the research project. That way, we cover all bases and there will be no gaps in the research process. Consistency is critical to me when it comes to open science because otherwise, you are comparing apples with oranges. Everybody should be on the same page when it comes to research in a certain field. 

Transparency especially is important for me, and equally important is to take sensitive data into account. GDPR for example can ensure that we do not share personal data. 

Dr. Rolo: Internationally shared datasets are fundamental to the advancement of science. We do not want to reinvent the wheel but want to be able to reuse data and science that has been produced.

Dr. Walkiewicz: Internationally shared datasets allow for better estimates at larger scales with the inclusion of simulations by models. Digital tools, e.g. applications or friendly software, allow target groups, e.g. farmers, to use tools prepared by scientists.

Dr. Ingle: Open science principles are lacking in research! ReLive attempts to bridge the gap by sharing best practices from all ReLive partner countries.  Another project we are involved with, NOBV (The Netherlands Research Programme on Greenhouse Gas Dynamics in Peatlands and Organic Soils), is also sharing their data with ReLive. It’s extremely important to share datasets and digital tools rather than reinvent them again and again.

Dr. van der Weerden: I have been working on the refinement of emission factors while working on Dataman, a database of GHG emissions from manure management. I see huge value in having these kinds of databases online. That way, the data can be downloaded and analyzed by any expert working on a related project, and it can support answering quite specific questions. For example, if I was putting together an agricultural GHG emission reduction plan in a country with similar soil and climatic conditions to New Zealand, I could use Dataman to approximate the results of certain manure management methods in my own country. When it comes to shared databases, there are three important requirements for success. First, the accountability of a shared database relies on people adding the data to it correctly, so quality control is important to ensure accurate data is stored. Second, the data that is added to a shared database needs to be freely available. Sometimes data is not available for public scrutiny, and this limits its usability in a publicly shared database. Third, the key is to keep the database updated and alive. If people stop adding new data to a shared database, it dies.

Go to ReLive website here.
ReLive project outputs are kept up to date at Open Farm Data Community.

Written by Tuula Cox. This text is a part of an Avoin blog series that discusses environmental protection and sustainable development from a digital point of view.

This article is a continuation of the previous ReLive article by Sari Kivijärvi.

Avoin’s work in this project is funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Finland as part of the ERA-Net scheme, which supports the bottom-up coordination of national and regional programmes in the European Union, in this case through the joint call of the co-fund ERA-Nets SusCrop (Grant N° 771134), FACCE ERA-GAS (Grant N° 696356), ICT-AGRI-FOOD (Grant N° 862665) and SusAn (Grant N° 696231).