Farming with the environment at the forefront of planning and decision making can have economic and practical benefits, suggests one Aberdeenshire farmer. Alex Heath looks at the technology employed on the farm.
Nether Aden, owned by David Barron and wife Nicola, is a mixed farm near Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire.
The farm is currently carrying 140 suckler cows and more than 350 total head, predominantly Aberdeen Angus bred, with the aim of targeting markets where a premium can be gained.
For the past eight years, Mr Barron has been investigating the use of renewable and more sustainable techniques that can be employed on the farm, not only benefiting the environment, but also the overall efficiency of the farm and, consequently, its bottom line.
The first adopted technology was the use of solar and biomass to dry grain. A 200kW ETA Hack biomass boiler and grain dryer unit was installed, providing an efficient way to dry grain, in addition to generating extra income via renewable heat incentive (RHI) payments. In addition, the farm boasts a 10kW solar array.
Invited to compete for funding from the Scottish government through the Farming for a Better Climate project, co-ordinated by SRUC and its advisory arm SAC Consulting, the farm was successful, and subsequently fitted a hydrogen electrolyser onto its JCB telehandler in 2017 at a cost of £6,000.
The Water Fuel Engineering HydroGen electrolyser fitted is the size of a small suitcase, says Mr Barron, and can be placed nearly anywhere on a vehicle; it is behind the cab on the telehandler.
The premise of the electrolyser is to split water into its component parts of oxygen and hydrogen, by passing an electrical current through distilled water with a potassium hydroxide electrolyte and collecting the gases.
By introducing the hydrogen rich ‘oxyhydrogen’ mix into the engine, at a rate of approximately six per cent, a faster burn and more efficient combustion process takes place, thus reducing the amount of fuel used and consequently lowering the amount of emissions produced.
The electrolyser manufacturer suggests a reduction of 20 to 25 per cent in fuel usage can be achieved, and a reduction in emissions by 80 per cent. The 1,000 hours the telehandler is in operation each year sees a fuel saving of 1,083 litres, with an equivalent of 43,440kg of carbon dioxide not being released as a result.
It adds that in many modern engines, up to 30 per cent of fuel introduced into the engine is not used, and instead is burnt in the exhaust system. By increasing the amount of oxygen and hydrogen into the air mix, the burn in each stroke is quicker, without increasing the engine temperature. The system is only in use while the engine is running and draws six to eight amps from the battery to work.
Mr Barron says; “We are saving 20 per cent on our fuel bill, worth about £600 per year just on the telehandler. It also appears to have more torque when driving and servicing costs are falling as the engine is burning cleaner - it does not have the carbon build up like before.”
Cost of the technology is also lessening, now currently about £1,000 per unit, leading to the farm investing in two more electrolyser units. The second has been fitted to the farm’s New Holland TS115 tractor, while another has been added to the farm’s Ford Ranger pickup, with Mr Barron reporting similar results in terms of fuel saving and increased performance.
Mr Barron says maintenance of the units is simple, topping the units up with distilled water every six weeks.
The farm replaced its telehandler in the spring of this year, and as of yet, has not fitted the new machine with the electrolyser box.
“We had an AdBlue issue with the new machine,” says Mr Barron. “I am a bit reluctant while the loader is in its warranty period to fit it, as if anything does go wrong with the machine, the finger will be pointed at it, so I am holding off for the time being. Instead, we have a New Holland T6.180 which will be out of its warranty period at the end of harvest, so the spare box will go on that. From my experience so far, they improve the engine, so I have no worries about adding it to this tractor.”
The technology has made a large impact on the farm, according to Mr Barron. “Our two biggest bills come from fuel and fertiliser purchases, both of which are now being remedied. We have already cut our fuel usage by a fifth and through a few different management techniques with the crops, fertiliser usage is down by around a third.”
This includes several changes to grassland management. We now operate a paddock grazing regime, similar to rotational grazing dairy farms, where we keep moving the cows onto younger fresher grass, which is more nutritious and encourages better growth, both of the cattle and the grass itself," says Mr Barron.
Also, the farm is taking advantage of leguminous crops. New grass leys are now undersown into pea crops, with the growing peas feeding the grass. Likewise, an increasing amount of clover is being included in swards, by up to 30 per cent.
“We use grass mixes designed for the conditions in the north east and include white clover, which will last for about three years and provides the equivalent of 150kg/ha of nitrogen. In addition, the crop contains more protein for the growing cattle and has a higher digestibility,” he says.
“Whereas we used to buy in two lorry loads of fertiliser, we are now using one and a quarter, just putting on 50 units per acre in the spring. We are also liming the fields more regularly, in line with what the arable fields would be getting, and testing for phosphorous and potassium as well.”
The breeding regime on the farm has also changed, as have cow numbers. Historically the farm ran 110 cows, but, with a greater influence of Aberdeen Angus genetics rather than Charolais, producing a lower mature cow weight (650kg) with lower nutritional needs from both cow and calf, as well as increased grass growth from the same acreage, the farm has been able to add an additional 30 cows. However, Mr Barron now reckons the farm could handle an additional 25 cows or 250 sheep in the near future. Cows are fed on ammonia treated straw while housed in the winter.
The herd is effectively closed, only buying in bulls from selected farms, with an emphasis placed on naturally reared bulls with good feet and decent figures for calving ease and milk. He aims to have cattle away to a local butcher at an average age of 18 months, with a 350kg well marbled carcass, and predominantly reared and finished off grass. While Mr Barron says he would prefer to rear bulls as they are quicker to finish, thus reducing emissions, bulls do not command a premium meaning steers make better financial sense.
In the future, Mr Barron hopes to investigate further the feasibility of a local cooperative, producing ammonia and hydrogen fertilisers from a similar principle to the electrolysers currently used on the farm, further reducing the reliance and impact on the environment of compound fertilisers.
With an eye on reducing the farm’s environmental impact, Mr Barron says profitability on the farm has increased, with less inputs required, while outputs are greater in terms of quantity and quality.