Friday, May 30, 2014

Can Biochar Benefit YOUR Farm?

Maybe biochar might be coming to a farm near you soon.

In Australia, at least up to now, biochar production costs and the logistics / transport costs made use expensive.

While production costs are only really likely to fall with volume production systems [ which is not easily seen anytime soon] there may be some options that could surprise with costs by reducing production costs and getting closer to users.

A mobile pyrolysis unit developed by Earth Systems through an innovation program in Victoria, might offer some options, especially for regional users, by producing materials locally.

While the unit is not cheap to buy, innovative funding and ownership models could provide some progress.  For example - a council ownership option to deal with waste wood, making biochar available to users at a local price.  Co-operative and jont ownership may also be possible. Or small entrepreneur ownership.  Costs are around $350K so it is not out of reach for even regional local government entities.

Does biochar work?  So far, yield increases seem to occur in the 10 -45% range, with local increases at this early stage of limited work, or round 25%.

More to come!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Better Sanitation SAVES Lives and Money

Open defecation costs $US260b globally

A Mexican sewer driver prepares for a dive in a drainage system

The UN is calling for the end of open defecation as it costs about $US260 billion worldwide. Source: AAP

THE United Nations says one billion people worldwide are still practising open defecation, which cost of billions of dollars annually due to illness, death and loss of productivity.

The practice spreads diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid through entire communities, the UN officials said, costing about $US260 billion ($A281 billion) worldwide.

It has kept women under the threat of harassment, violence and rape, and has forced young girls to abandon education at puberty.

"It is high time to talk openly about open defecation, and it is high time to bring it to an end," UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson said during the launch of the world body's sanitation campaign in New York. "Let us remember that the first step to solve any problem is talking about it." The practice is most widespread in poor and developing countries.

Some countries, including Vietnam and Bangladesh, where more than 30 per cent of their populations relieved themselves in open areas in the early 1990s, ended the practice entirely in 2012.

However, open defecation lingers in dozens of other countries.

In India an estimated 600 million people - more than half the population - defecate without using a toilet or latrine. 

"If we could end open defecation in just 10 countries, we would see the numbers of people affected drop by 80 per cent," Eliasson said, noting that the end of the practice could mean a direct reduction of 36 per cent in deaths due to diarrhoea for children under five.

I have written several prior posts about water and sanitation, in developing economies, as a vital for removing poverty and also empowering women especially.  It freaked me the first time I encountered it - which was in Africa - in the mid 1980s.  Hard to really believe what I was seeing.

While progress is being made - can we do more.........much more!

It seems simple - provide public toilets, but in some areas little seems to happen.  When the cost to society is so high - US$ 260 billion - a solution needs to be achieved.

We need to put more money into some of these simple things.  It does pay off!

[ some of this sourced via AAP]

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

More BSE Detection in Brazil

ALMOST a year and a half after declaring an atypical BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) case in Parana state in Brazil, the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) has confirmed a BSE case in Mato Grosso state – the largest beef producer in the country and the second largest exporter, reports Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA).

According to the latest OIE report, the source of the outbreak (or origin of infection) is unknown or inconclusive. Investigations have indicated a likely isolated case of an atypical form as the animal was raised under an extensive system (grass-fed with added mineral salt only) and slaughtered at an advanced age – approximately 12 years old. During the epidemiological investigation, 49 animals from the cohort, which did not show clinical signs of the disease, were destroyed.

Mato Grosso state has a significant role in the Brazilian beef industry with a herd of 28.4 million head (Acrimat) and accounted for 19 per cent of total exports in 2013 with significant shipments to Venezuela, Hong Kong and Egypt.

According to MAPA (Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply) only Peru has temporarily banned Brazilian beef so far – a 180 day ban was placed last Thursday. Beef exports to Peru totalled 1562 tonnes swt in 2013.
typical brahman cattle produced in tropical areas of the world

As of today, it also seems as if Egypt has also banned Brazilian beef.  Probably not unexpected, as they source meat from Mato Grasso state.  There are sure to be more......

While not lording it over Brazil as a significant competitor to Australia in international markets, it does highlight the ultra importance of Australia working very hard to continue to remain free of the BSE problems, and along with other major animal diseases including foot and mouth.

Australia remaining free of these diseases is of urgency.  We do not want to be in a clean up mode; it would be disastrous for our beef trade! 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Solar Panels as Roads??

Solar Roadways

Solar panels that you can drive, park, and walk on. They melt snow and... cut greenhouse gases by 75-percent?!!!

Artist's rendition of Sandpoint, Idaho - Home of Solar Roadways
Graphic designed by Sam Cornett                                                 Thanks Sam!

Solar Roadways is a modular paving system of solar panels that can withstand the heaviest of trucks (250,000 pounds). These Solar Road Panels can be installed on roads, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, bike paths, playgrounds... literally any surface under the sun. They pay for themselves primarily through the generation of electricity, which can power homes and businesses connected via driveways and parking lots. A nationwide system could produce more clean renewable energy than a country uses as a whole.

( They have many other features as well, including: heating elements to stay snow/ice free, LEDs to make road lines and signage, and attached Cable Corridor to store and treat stormwater and provide a "home" for power and data cables. EVs will be able to charge with energy from the sun (instead of fossil fuels) from parking lots and driveways and after a roadway system is in place, mutual induction technology will allow for charging while driving. 

Did you know: 

  • Solar Roadways has received two phases of funding from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration for research and development of a paving system that will pay for itself over its lifespan. We are about to wrap up our Phase II contract (to build a prototype parking lot) and now need to raise funding for production. 

  • Our glass surface has been tested for traction, load testing, and impact resistance testing in civil engineering laboratories around the country, and exceeded all requirements.
  • Solar Roadways is a modular system that will modernize our aging infrastructure with an intelligent system that can become the new Smart Grid. We won the Community Award of $50,000 by getting the most votes in GE's Ecomagination Challenge for "Powering the Grid" in 2010. We had the most votes again in their 2011 Ecomagination Challenge for "Powering the Home".
  • On August 21, 2013, Solar Roadways was selected by their peers as a Finalist in the World Technology Award For Energy, presented in association with TIME, Fortune, CNN, and Science.
  • Solar Roadways was chosen by Google to be one of their Moonshots in May of 2013. 
  • Solar Roadways was chosen as a finalist in the IEEE Ace Awards in 2009 and 2010.
  • Solar Roadways has given presentations around the country including: TEDx Sacramento, Google's Solve for X at Google's NYC Headquarters, NASA, Keynote Speaker for the International Parking Institute's Conference and much more...
  • Solar Roadways is tackling more than solar energy: The FHWA tasked us with addressing  the problem of stormwater. Currently, over 50% of the pollution in U.S. waterways comes from stormwater. We have created a section in our Cable Corridors for storing, treating, and moving stormwater.
  • The implementation of our concept on a grand scale could  create thousands of jobs in the U.S. and around the world. It could allow us all the ability to manufacture our way out of our current economic crisis.

This seems like a great idea, as long as costs are reasonable.  A bit like the use of wastewater ponds to install floating solar panels, covered in another recent post.  

Friday, May 09, 2014

Australia's Northern Beef Industry - Maybe Unsustainable??

A recent analysis seems to be proposing that the northern Australian beef industry is unsustainable financially.

What it does not seem to say though, is that the analysis was focussed on the almost worst period in many years for the region - somewhat akin to the shock of the US stopping the purchase of northern beef in the mid 1970s, when a lot of properties went to the wall.  This period is the same as the dramatic drop in live cattle exports to Asia, especially Indonesia, a trade dramatically stopped by the government of Australia on animal cruelty grounds [arguable, at best].
NT brahman cattle for export

Since the conclusion of the report, prices and volumes have increased rapidly and are now at around A$2.30 per kg live and numbers are on track for maybe 800 000 head this year to Indonesia alone, and with new markets opening in Vietnam and China, although prices may be a bit lower.

It is all doom and gloom........BUT - a few critical points emerge from the study, one being that a herd size of 3000 head is seen as the minimum.

Read the summary below, and available on the MLA web site, as is the full report.

The Northern beef report - 2013 Northern beef situation analysis

Project code: 
Date commenced: 
June 26, 2013
End date: 
April 11, 2014
Project status: 


The 2013 Northern Beef Report comprehensively details the performance of the northern beef industry, by region, market and herd size over the 12 years since the start of the century. On average, the profits achieved over that time frame have been low, but not trending down. However the profitability of the top performers across the industry has been trending down over the period analysed. Profit after interest is decreasing, and is mostly negative, as a result of increasing debt with no increase in profits. The majority of Northern Beef producers are not economically sustainable as they are not able to fund present and future liabilities. There is wide variation in performance across the industry; this report clearly identifies what separates the top performers and what factors determine the profitability of a beef business. This report provides analysis of a wide range of measures, providing the means for individual producers to understand their herd and business performance and to improve by setting realistic targets.

Final report summary:

• This report analyses in detail the performance of the northern beef industry for the 12 years from 2001 to 2012. Incorporating quality private and public data, this report provides a comprehensive picture of the performance of the northern beef industry by region, herd size and market.
• This report incorporates the concept of economic sustainability; clear definitions are provided and used to assess industry performance.
• On the basis of these definitions, the data indicates that the majority of northern beef businesses are not economically sustainable at present. This is not a recent phenomenon, with recent average business performance, before financing, similar to longer term averages.
• Economic sustainability takes a longer term view; in the short term many beef businesses are struggling to survive with cash deficits accumulating.
• Whilst profits before financing are largely unchanged (on average over the 12 year period analysed), after financing, performance is deteriorating due to increased debt with no increase in profit.
• Income has decreased over the period analysed, mostly a function of declining beef prices rather than a decline in productivity (kg beef/AE). Costs have reduced as income has reduced, through belt tightening, and improved labour efficiency, resulting in little change in profits.
• Profitability of the top performers has declined over the longer term, suggesting that industry profitability is decreasing.
• Excluding land value changes, return on assets has averaged less than 1% across the industry over the last 3 and 12 years.
• Comparison of profitability is made between businesses that supply different markets, namely live export, slaughter and store. When the effect of scale is excluded, producers primarily supplying the slaughter market recorded the highest profit per adult equivalent, due primarily to better productivity.
• Both total numbers of cattle in the north and stocking rates have risen, what these stocking rates are relative to carrying capacity is unknown. The extent to which environmental capital is substituting for financial capital is also unknown.
• There is considerable variation in performance between beef businesses within the industry. The Top 25% performers (across all regions, herd sizes and markets) consistently outperform the average and have businesses more likely to be economically sustainable over the long term. This indicates that there are successful business models for producing beef in northern Australia.
• The superior performance of Top 25% producers can be attributed to:
o Higher income through better herd productivity.
o Lower operating expenses, largely through better labour efficiency.
• There is no evidence that superior long term performance can be attributed to a higher average beef price received, more rainfall or better quality land.
• Operating scale (number of adult equivalents under management) has a significant influence on business performance. Operating scale, along with labour efficiency, can explain most of the differences in overhead expenses per AE between businesses.
• Lack of operating scale is a major impediment for smaller beef businesses (less than 3,000 adult equivalents), but the benefits of additional scale for larger businesses are limited with herd profits decreasing as herd sizes become very large. There appears to be an optimal operating scale range, either side of which different factors can erode performance.
• It is paramount that smaller producers understand the implications of operating scale on their viability and how best to address to it. There is mounting financial pressure for smaller producers to make structural changes to their business.
• Efficient use of labour is a key finding amongst producers in the Top 25%. Labour costs and achieving a highly efficient use of on-farm labour is a challenge that the industry must understand and work towards.
• There is no evidence of expense increases over the period analysed, this is not to say that some input costs have not increased in real terms, but any increases have been absorbed and the overall cost structure of businesses has not increased.
• Differences in income explain more of the differences in profit between average and Top 25% performers than expenses. Nearly all differences in income per AE between herds are attributable to productivity differences.
• Nearly all productivity differences between herds can be attributed to the better performers achieving:
o Higher reproductive rates
o Lower mortality rates
o Heavier sale weights
• The findings of this report now make it possible to construct a very clear roadmap for economic sustainability for a northern beef business, embracing both location and target market. This roadmap provides clear guidelines on factors critical to income (productivity) and expenses (scale & labour efficiency).
• This analysis is consistent with other recent and more targeted studies of herd productivity (reproduction and mortality). This analysis also finds wide variation between businesses in these measures of herd productivity and report that improvements in herd productivity have a big influence on overall business performance.
• There is wide variation across the industry in what it costs to produce a kilogram of beef (cost of production) and this analysis shows that there is significant scope for improvement for a lot of producers. There is far less variation in beef price received and much less scope for individual producers to improve beef price received. Therefore it could be said that it is the high cost of production that is the main cause of low profits for the majority of northern beef producers.

Researcher name:

Bush AgriBusiness Pty Ltd, Holmes & Co.   

Thursday, May 08, 2014

World's Tallest Green Wall - It Is Awesome!

World’s tallest indoor living wall | TallestLivingWall_hero-2014050513992669928300 | ODS
tallest indoor living wall
Green Over Gray just completed the world's tallest living wall in the new Desjardins building in Quebec. The 65 metre (213 foot) living wall is named "The Currents" and was inspired by the nearby St. Lawrence River.
With more than 11,000 individual plants and 42 different plant species, this super tall vertical garden works hard to improve indoor air quality and create a unique environment for employees and visitors to the building.

  World’s tallest indoor living wall | TallestLivingWall_1-2014050513992669929265 | ODS World’s tallest indoor living wall | TallestLivingWall_2-2014050513992669925101 | ODS World’s tallest indoor living wall | TallestLivingWall_3-2014050513992669924750 | ODS World’s tallest indoor living wall | TallestLivingWall_4-2014050513992669921925 | ODS 

“According to our research, this living wall is the tallest indoor vertical garden in the world,” said Patrick Poiraud, co-founder of Green Over Grey.

“The wall is fully hydroponic (i.e. soil-free) and incorporates plants that thrive in similar vertical environments found in nature, such as on tree branches and next to waterfalls. The end result is a visually pleasing piece that provides cleaner indoor air and improves both the acoustic and the value of the property.”

The vertical garden’s design is directly inspired by the St. Lawrence River, which can be seen from the building at its location in LĂ©vis. Swirling currents of water are recreated in the layout of the wall with different shades of green, yellow, crimson, purple and cream along with different textures of the plants. Plant species include philodendrons, monsteras, fig trees, ginger, snake plants (Sansevieria trifasciata), elkhorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum), scheffleras, clusias and banana plants. The living wall provides a pleasant indoor environment and works to remove toxins and purify the air with plants like the peace lily, which is one of the most effective oxygen-producing plants.

Plants are grown in soil-free hydroponic panels made from 100 per cent recycled materials that eliminate 1.5 metric tons of recycled water bottles and plastic bags from landfills. The 15-story living wall is located on the north side of the new Desjardins building in a daylight-filled atrium. 

The eco-friendly building is expected to be completed later in September 2014 and was designed to achieve LEED Gold certification.

The tallest one I had personally seen was in Singapore - about 8 stories tall - but this is considerably higher.

I hope they have their maintenance ideas well sorted out, as that might be a bit tricky!! 

[ partially sourced from Outdoor Design Source May 2014]

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Contamination and Pollution in Land and Water in China - Frightening??

And people wonder why the Chinese are buying overseas land for agriculture!!  A recent report, noted in the official Xinhua news agency is sobering reading, with major contamination of land and water resources.

In Australia we should both consider ourselves very lucky..........but as sure a hell, we need to work hard to keep our soil and water clean both now and for the future.

That issue is part of the angst being expressed by many over the use of frackking in gas development along the eastern states, with concerns over both land and water damage.  It is also a concern along the Hunter Valley over mine expansion [ mostly coal] in that that will ruin the agriculture and horticulture there, not to mention the very valuable thoroughbred industry.

We have neither the people nor so far, the unregulated industrial development rampant in China. Luck or good management?  Whatever, let it continue!

The data from China is appalling, and not improving either it seems.
The soil close to Yangzong Lake, southwest China's Yunnan Province was seriously polluted by arsenic in 2009.

More than half of China's water reserves are moderately or heavily contaminated, the latest annual report released by the country's Ministry of Land and Resources has revealed. The findings confirm previously raised concerns over the condition of China's water and soil, despite large-scale cleanup programs that have cost billions of dollars, Xinhua reported.

The report revealed that 59.6 percent of the country's water was polluted last year, 2013. That's even more than in 2012, when the percentage was 57.4. Just over one tenth of water reserves fell into the high-quality category last year, although the methods used to determine quality were not specified.

These figures are similar to those from a 2010 report which found that the proportion of contaminated water was around 57 percent, suggesting that even though the government has made significant investments in cleanup efforts, the most it has been doing is keeping pollution at the same level. A proper improvement is still not noticeable in the results.

The situation is similar with the condition of China's soil, according to a new national soil survey released by the Ministry of Land and Resources and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The results indicate that nearly one fifth of China's arable land was polluted, with about three percent of it classified as moderately or seriously polluted. The bulk of the pollution came from heavy metals, the report noted.  This is pollution - it does not discuss erosion damage and related matters - they must surely be very significant as well.

This recent data released from the Communist Party of China has indicated that 19.4 percent, or around 1.05 million square kilometres of China’s agricultural land is contaminated with an array of toxic metals including cadmium, nickel and arsenic. These can be carcinogens and with China a significant supplier of frozen vegetables to Australia, there is some degree of concern over the quality of the products being imported.  Our family will NOT use frozen Chinese vegetables, and has not done so for years.

 Australia's soils are mostly old and inferior, when compared to many countries, with poor nutrient levels and low organic matter and relatively poor structural conditions - so we do need to make the best from our poorer soils.