South West

Mobile soil and plant carbon monitoring


Agricultural land accounts for around 70% of the total UK land area with approximately 16.8million hectares (DEFRA, 2022). This farmland is predominantly permanent grassland, followed by arable and temporary grassland. There is now considerable interest in farm level carbon management across land types by monitoring soil organic carbon and available plant biomass. To address the need for soil and plant carbon monitoring, and to determine baseline carbon levels plus potential for carbon sequestration, technology for landscape scale measurements are developing.

Carbon monitoring

Research at Hartpury University and College farm is exploring the use of ground and aerial spectral data to measure and monitor soil and plant carbon. Spectral data and technology for nutrient analysis is developing rapidly as an alternative to more costly laboratory analysis approaches. Availability of frequent, real-time and large-scale monitoring will allow the variability in carbon stores and fluxes to be quantified. Near-infrared spectroscopy is being used at Hartpury to estimate baseline soil carbon using an Agrocares scanner (E Series, Wageningen, Netherlands) and plant carbon levels using an NIR4 scanner (Aunir, Towcester, UK). The information is being used to monitor soil and plant differences among fields and land use (e.g. woodland, permanent grassland, arable and temporary grassland). The measurements can be linked to geographic information. 

Key successes

The use of mobile carbon monitoring equipment allows more real-time and more timely information to be gathered over a large area. This information is needed to be more informed about current baseline soil carbon levels on farms and under different land management. Initial results show that within a farm the baseline soil carbon level is higher in undisturbed soil such as permanent grassland and woodland areas compared to arable or temporary grassland areas

Why is this important

Baseline measurements of soil carbon across our landscape are becoming more known as sampling is being carried out. As mobile monitoring equipment is adopted, this will allow more frequent temporal and spatial soil and plant carbon assessment. This will support future management of carbon stores and sequestration for potential carbon credit schemes.   

Ways to quantify carbon stocks in farming systems is needed with net zero targets. Given farmland is a large part of the UK landscape it has an important part to play in mitigating carbon emissions. Our field monitoring work supports the need for reliable solutions to monitor carbon changes in our landscape.

Professor Matt Bell at Hartpury University says:

"There has never been a greater need for the development and use of technological solutions to be implemented on farms to help monitor levels of soil and plant carbon. With national targets on carbon emissions and the potential for carbon markets, a reliable approach to managing the storage and sequestration of carbon stocks has great interest and can be supported by low cost spectral data systems."

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