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Mechanics Corner: Tractors, cows, climate change and Amazon.com

Allen Schaeffer Published on 31 March 2014

Adapting to changing weather conditions is nothing new for farmers. Cycles of wetness, dryness, heat and cold have long been facts of everyday life. Some days it’s too wet to plow, other times soil moisture content ruins crop yields.

The questions now, though, turn to whether weather changes are just a phase or a cycle, or part of something bigger and more permanent – known as climate change.

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And for farmers especially, the idea of a changing climate can be tricky – having both positive and negative effects which translate into impacts on food supply, prices and availability.

Greenhouse gas emissions from man-made activity are the primary point of discussion when it comes to climate change. According to some climate scientists, an increase in these gases alters the ambient temperatures of the planet (the greenhouse effect) and that in turn has other impacts – such as rising sea levels and possibly more dynamic and extreme weather patterns.

According to the EPA, in 2011, 84 percent of greenhouse gases were carbon dioxide emissions, which are a natural part of plant photosynthesis and normal human breathing but are also emitted during the burning of any fossil-based fuel; 9 percent came from methane – a natural product of digestion of organic material and 5 percent from nitrous oxides and 2 percent from fluorinated gases – essentially refrigerants.

The EPA says that the biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are electricity generation (coal and natural gas – 33 percent).

Transportation ranks second (28 percent) because the burning of any kind of fossil fuel – including gasoline, diesel, natural gas – emits carbon dioxide. Industrial sources account for 20 percent, commercial and residential 11 percent and agriculture 8 percent.

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Looking more specifically at the agriculture component that contributes to global warming – livestock such as cows and agricultural soils and rice production are identified as the primary sources.

Since farms also have transportation, machines and equipment that use fossil fuels, the sources of carbon dioxide emissions extend beyond just the land-use agriculture component.

Higher levels of carbon dioxide can increase yields. For some crops like wheat and soybeans, yields could increase by 30 percent or more under a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations.

For other crops, such as corn, less than 10 percent increase would be expected. It is, however, the projected downside of a warmer planet that causes the greatest concern and controversy.

Whether or not increasing levels of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere is creating a warming effect, and what should be done about it, has been the subject of many debates and discussions (to put it mildly).

Setting aside the controversy for a moment, farmers have really been at the forefront of adapting to changing climates and conditions since time began and thinking about the economics of those decisions not long after that.

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And you must be doing something right.

Today’s farms are more productive and efficient than at any point in history. Advanced crop science, no-till practices, crop rotations, livestock care and nutrition, and carefully balanced fertilizers and pest control are factors that go into good stewardship of the land and animals every day.

The climate debate leaves no stone unturned. If you’re producing corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel, renewable fuel policies and climate change are already part of your vocabulary.

Livestock farmers hear of a “meatless movement” since activists first said that producing half a pound of hamburger for someone’s lunch (a patty of meat the size of two decks of cards) releases as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as driving a 3,000-pound car nearly 10 miles, which according to Dr. Jude Capper is “riddled with errors” and shouldn’t be trusted as accurate.

When you get down to the core of it, much of the climate change discussion really is about energy: using less or being smarter and more efficient about it, and shifting energy use, such as using more natural gas than coal to generate electricity.

In climate terms, fuels look like this: burning a gallon of gasoline emits 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide; that same gallon with 10 percent ethanol produces 17.68 gallons of carbon dioxide. One gallon of diesel generates 22.38 pounds of carbon dioxide; with a 10 percent biodiesel blend, it drops to 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. (Don’t forget that diesel does more work using less fuel than gasoline).

You won’t find too many people willing to argue that using less energy is bad because it also means saving money. Energy inputs into the farm are a significant impact on the bottom line.

Electricity, fuel for machines and equipment, and home heating fuel are all direct inputs. In 2009, agriculture spent $7.2 billion on diesel fuel, accounting for 58.2 percent of total agricultural fuel use.

That’s why a major emphasis in recent years has been on improving the fuel efficiency of farm tractors and machines through changes in engines, and increasingly the use of GPS-driven field efficiency technology. Farmers may not know everything about climate science, but they do know most things about the land and working efficiently.

Researching for this story, I typed in “farms and climate change” into what I thought was a Google search box. Instead, it turned out the search took place on Amazon.com (lunchtime browsing).

But I got a good chuckle of what turned up for me to buy: a book, “Growing Food In A Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons From Desert Farmers”; a programmable wall thermostat; a 26-inch snow blower; a three-speed floor fan; weather stripping; a three-piece rain suit; and another book, “A Study of the Soviet Economy.”

Except for the last one, all those could be helpful in dealing with climate change at some point.

But of course you already know that. PD

Allen Schaeffer is the executive director at the Diesel Technology Forum. Contact him by email .

Allen Schaeffer

Allen Schaeffer
Executive Director
Diesel Technology Forum

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