Reducing emissions from peat fields – but how?

Peat fields are former swamps or swamp forests that have been dried and used as farmland. They store a large amount of carbon in a natural state. Finland is among the swampiest countries in the world and, traditionally, dried many of these swamps to use as fields.

One of the largest challenges in cutting milk's carbon footprint to zero is related to the larger volume of emissions in fields that are on dried peatlands, compared to other fields. Farming these dried peatlands releases carbon into the atmosphere as the peat decomposes as a result of drainage and tilling. Peat fields are often also called organic soil or organic croplands.

A majority of the farms used for milk production are grass pastures. Environmental emissions from a peat field with pasture are lower compared to a situation where peat fields are used to cultivate annual crops, such as spring grains. (Source: Natural Resources Institute Finland)

Cooperation between scientists and farms

Reducing emissions from peat fields is a significant and challenging undertaking, and we will need help both from natural resources experts and dairy farms. In October 2019, we held a peat field seminar for experts and scientists. We heard a variety of interesting talks on the current state of Finland’s peat fields and the ways that could reduce their emissions.

The event also served as a kick-off for Valio’s Peat Field Hackathon, held in December 2019. We invited teams, from scientists and dairy farms to agriculture students to brainstorm practical pilot projects for reducing peat field emissions.

Adjustable subsurface drainage and reparcelling

According to the Natural Resources Institute Finland, peat fields account for 11 percent of Finland’s total field area. They produce roughly half of all of Finnish agriculture’s environmental emissions, which is 6.3 million CO2 equivalent tonnes. Emissions from these fields must be reduced significantly to achieve carbon-neutral milk.

More peatland has been created in recent years due to grubbing work. When a dairy farm wants to expand its operation, it needs enough fields for spreading manure. We have developed new solutions for processing manure to reduce the dairy farms’ need for new field areas as their herd sizes grow.

We encourage dairy farms to reduce the greenhouse emissions that rise from their peat fields. Stopping the clearing of new peat fields and stopping farming activities on the poorest-condition fields are the most effective ways. This is achievable by, for example, improving the grass harvest on mineral soil fields as well as through reparcelling. Other methods include adjustable subsurface drainage, which raises groundwater levels on the fields, as well as maintaining a year-round grass cover to the extent possible.

Currently, there are various reporting sectors for greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse emissions from peatland are partly counted as land use, land use changes and forestry sector (LULUCF) emissions, which means they are not shown in the statistics as part of agricultural and milk production's greenhouse emissions.

Climate change is the global challenge of our era, with an effect on people as well. Through our own actions, however, we can help to make things better. We are aware of the environmental impacts of our operations, and we want to be part of the solution. Our goal is not just to reduce milk’s carbon footprint, it’s to cut it completely by 2035.