PROPERLY managing land, soil, water and air has always been a focus for America's farmers and ranchers.
The overwhelming global demand for food and other agricultural products, coupled with a growing world population, has agricultural producers meticulously managing all aspects of the operation to produce more without negative consequences to the environment.
Information based on sound science and valuable tools such as the CarbOn Management & Emissions Tool (COMET-Farm) calculator offer farmers and ranchers a convenient yet precise way to evaluate the benefits of various conservation practices in reducing environmental impacts at a crucial time.
Farmers and ranchers can now estimate the overall greenhouse balance of their farming operation using this new interactive online calculator developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), in partnership with Colorado State University.
It can assist producers in estimating the environmental footprint of a management practice that has already been implemented on the farm or ranch, including on-farm energy use.
"The unique thing about COMET-Farm is that it allows the people who know the most about what is happening on the land — the farmers — to use very sophisticated technology to quantify greenhouse gas emissions, but with an easy-to-use online system," said Keith Paustian, professor in the Colorado State department of soil and crop sciences and leader of the COMET-Farm development team.
This carbon-capture calculator was first released in 2005 by NRCS scientists. The original version of the tool only calculated how much carbon soil could capture.
Over the past three years, the tool has evolved into the current version, which was released in June 2013 and includes agroforestry components, energy and livestock.
"As scientists, our greatest challenge in developing COMET-Farm has been knowing when good is good enough," said Dr. Adam Chambers, NRCS air quality scientist. "We wanted the tool to be as accurate as possible, but we had to find that balance between scientific accuracy and simplicity."
How it works
COMET-Farm is a free, user-friendly, web-based tool designed to help U.S. farmers and ranchers assess how much carbon their land's soil and vegetation can remove from the atmosphere. The tool is applicable to all agricultural lands in the lower 48 states.
Users of the website, www.comet-farm.com, do not have to register in order to utilize the online tool. The information is seen only by the operator. USDA does not use, share or view personal information.
As a registered user, the producer can save the information and retrieve it at a later date.
Producers are asked to enter basic historical and geographic information into the online tool regarding crop and/or pasture management of their agricultural operation starting from the year 2000 to the present. The tool, complete with a built-in help section, guides the operator through a series of easy-to-use pull-down menus to collect the information needed to formulate the final report.
For crop production, the field module asks users about which crops are grown on the farm, harvest and planting dates, crop rotations, tillage practices, fertilizer and manure applications, irrigation practices and residue management for all applicable years.
The livestock module uses common information on the species raised, the number of animals, demographics of the operation and type of manure management system in order to calculate the livestock-related emission estimates.
Additional information on capital equipment and any information for on-farm renewable energy production also can be entered into the energy module to generate an accurate picture of the farm's energy usage.
The results are calculated by running the inputted information and the spatially explicit data specific to the producer's location on climate and soil conditions from the provided USDA database through a series of models for each potential source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The newest version has improved the model-based system by integrating a national-scale measurement network that utilizes data collected from the U.S. National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.
In addition to the comprehensive calculation, a quick energy tool is also available. This stand-alone tool allows users to compute annual emission reductions along with annual fuel savings.
COMET-Farm not only performs a current accounting system for the whole farm and ranch operation but can calculate the results if different management practices were executed on the farm in the future.
The program also offers general guidance on potential changes to current management practices that are likely to sequester carbon and/or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Upon completion of the entire process, users receive a report comparing future management scenarios with current operational practices, which ultimately serves to assist farmers and ranchers with making informed decisions in reducing their environmental impact.
According to USDA, the value of carbon credits can also be figured utilizing this carbon-capture calculator. However, a national cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases currently has not been developed in the U.S.
In 2003, the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) was established in anticipation that the U.S. would join Europe and other countries in creating an environmental marketplace that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. From 2003 to 2010, CCX operated a voluntary greenhouse gas emission reduction program and founded a program catered to the agriculture sector, with more than 25 million acres of land.
In 2010, as a result of both the failure to pass federal climate legislation establishing a national cap-and-trade program and the down economy, CCX was sold to the Intercontinental Exchange, and the economic value of carbon credits has been drastically reduced.
In recent years, regional voluntary cap-and-trade programs have been established for greenhouse gases to finance allowable offset programs. Agriculture could be a source of low-cost offsets, but an active market with numerous potential buyers and sellers needs to be established.