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Is carbon your next new crop?

Willie Vogt field of mature corns with tassels against blue sky
CORN AND CARBON: As farmers look ahead at potential opportunities to take advantage of climate-sensitive opportunities, looking at how practices impact soil health and emissions may bring new opportunities.
Discussion surrounding reduction and removal of carbon emissions may bring new opportunities to the farm.

As a new administration dawned in 2021 and the conversation around extreme weather changed, talk turned to how farmers could be part of the solution. Often, farms are tagged as part of the problem for greenhouse gas emissions — yet there are opportunities to engage in climate-smart farming that could bring new income opportunities.

During a Commodity Classic virtual presentation, WinField United conducted a conversation about the issue of corn and carbon, which could be farming’s new double crop. “There’s pent up demand for purchasing carbon credits,” explains Jim Hedges, vice president, seed marketing, WinField United. “Companies are making carbon-negative pledges to investors and on Wall Street, so there is a lot of demand for carbon credits.”

But what might that look like down on the farm? Hedges explains that this will take two forms — reduction and removal.

When discussing carbon removal, this involves on-farm practices including cover crops, no-till and other soil-focused practices that can also boost soil health. “Removals will be significant in the near term helping answer this demand,” he says. “But in the long term, the focus will be on the reduction area. We’re doing a lot of work, particularly around nitrous oxide abatement.”

Removal versus reduction

Trapping carbon in the soil with specific practices can make a difference, but it is also limited in its potential. During the presentation, Hedges pointed to the removal amounts possible if every acre of U.S. cultivated cropland enrolled to be about 100 million to 150 million tons of CO2 equivalent every year. But to meet specific climate goals, there’s a need to remove 2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent annually.

Reduction in emissions can have a bigger impact, especially with nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere is 288 times more impactful that CO2. “Agriculture is the largest user of nitrogen, and there’s room for improvement.”

The idea? All nitrogen you apply goes into the crop. That’s a big lift, but also offers payback based on work WinField United shows from 20 years of in-field Answer Plot data.

That's the challenge. It’s not possible for farmers to save themselves into prosperity. The key is to make all those inputs applied work — and to go into the crop, not the atmosphere.

“Driving the nitrogen rate down with no-till can show some benefit,” says Aaron Sindelar, conservation agronomist, Central Valley Cooperative, which has 88 facilities across Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas. He’s been working with farmers to adopt conservation practices and explore opportunities on the carbon reduction side.

During the presentation, Sindelar and Hedges looked more closely at how farmers can make more focused investments in inputs, and match them to the crop , which can boost income and become part of that reduction program.

Timing and profit

For example, in a look at 10 years of Answer Plot data, it turns out that poor nitrogen application timing can hurt yield potential. In those plots, WinField United saw an average 67-bushel-per-acre improvement across the 10 years, when nitrogen was applied to meet crop needs in split application. That approach helps reduce nitrogen releases to the atmosphere, but also benefits farmers in higher yields.

Whether carbon becomes a “double crop” in the future remains to be seen, but understanding how reduction and removal can work to help boost your carbon profile could pay off. And that could manifest in a kind of carbon bank.

“We have to understand what's going on from a carbon-reduction standpoint,” Hedges says. “Optimizing yield and building carbon in the soil is important; we need to document carbon stores and see what that bank account looks like.”

With that data “in the bank,” Hedges says more farmers will be ready to monetize that data when the market appears.

TAGS: Corn carbon
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