Updated: Mar 22, 2020
UK farming is never short of challenges. Inclement weather, extra regulations or ‘red tape’ etc. In addition, we now see, hear and watch changes demanded delivering more for nature, protecting natural resources and our environment alongside delivering high quality produce. Climate change and the carbon footprint of UK agriculture is firmly in the spotlight. The new Agriculture Bill 2019 announces new regimes for fisheries, agriculture and trade “seizing the opportunities that arise from leaving the EU… replacing the current subsidy system, which simply pays farmers based on the total amount of land farmed, and instead reward them for the work they do to enhance the environment and produce high quality food in a more sustainable way”.
Figure 1; Practical ways to improve carbon efficiency on beef & sheep farms
GOOD CARBON EFFICIENCY = GOOD TECHNICAL EFFICIENCY
Source; Ian Cairns 5Agri
In Scotland The Farming Advice Service (FAS) has funded Carbon audits in the Beef Efficiency Scheme (BES). “Farm owners are usually surprised that good technical performance often means good carbon performance” comments Ian Cairns; beef and sheep farmer and 5Agri Advisor delivering Carbon audits. Details entered directly into AgRE-Calc© come up with a result but to assess a farm’s beef carbon footprint the whole business is assessed as well presenting huge management benefits to #measuretomanage.
Carbon storage occurs on livestock farms where carbon is locked into the soil in association with grazing land on short/long term pasture leys as well as rough grazing often organic and less productive peaty soils alongside woodlands. Often, red meat is produced on land not really fit for anything else.
Good technical efficiency is achieved in productive sucker beef units with high herd health, nutrition and fertility as well as the age and breed type giving high calving indexes and numbers of calves raised. Another useful Key Performance Indicator (KPI) though is weaning efficiency. This investigates weaned calf liveweight compared to the weight of the cow. The target is 50% (e.g. their calf when weaned at 200 days is 325kg from a 650 kg cow). This means bigger cows (who may have a good calving index) are not always the most efficient. During a 12-month period, 75% of feed consumed is used for maintenance by the animal so heavier cows need to perform or be culled out and their genetics not retained if breeding your own replacements.
Ian Cairns 5Agri asks; “Do you know which cows are most efficient? Heaviest cows don’t always wean the heaviest calves”. Ian goes on to add; “While analysing overall herd data is good, it is even better to record individual cow and calf data. Underperforming heavier cows will impact averages so drill down into individuals’ data to make real improvements”. The only way to efficiently do this Ian feels is by EID tagging, weighing and recording each animal (even if you are already weighing). So, EID tagging calves at birth with a Secondary EID Flag or Button tag and tagging cows with a ‘third’ EID button tag is sensible. If you are not weighing, adding load bars to crushes or inserting a weighing platform in a race along with an electronic weigh head and tag reader -either a fixed panel or an EID stick reader is a sound investment with good payback.
Measuring weaning efficiency
Record your individual cow weights when the bull in introduced or when they are AI served
Record calf weight at weaning (at 200 days or when you wean).
Record weights against that animal’s unique EID tag number
Calculate weaning efficiency = weight of weaned calf / weight of cow x 100
Another important quest on beef and sheep units is efficient fodder production and matching stock levels to forage supply. Grazed grass can provide 85% and 95% of natural energy requirements of beef and sheep systems respectively reducing the carbon footprint of forage based red meat production significantly.
Source; AHDB Better Returns.
Figure 2; Hitting the Sweet Spot of Stock versus Forage supply
Source; Ian Cairns 5Agri
Effective use of grassland for grazing and conserving forage ‘hitting the Sweet Spot’ is the cornerstone of good technical efficiency and good carbon capture in livestock units. It may even suggest lower stocking rates for better overall productivity if additional forage and a very large tonnage of concentrate feed is produced elsewhere and/or purchased and hauled in. This gives a higher carbon footprint and lower technical efficiency if home grassland can be managed more efficiently even getting more from less mouths.
Soil pH is key to soil fertility increasing microbiological activity and better soil nutrient recycling and release. Soil pH also affects nutrient take up from plants from muck/slurry and chemical fertilizer application. Liming maintains the optimal pH 6-6.5 range for grass and clover to flourish so less nutrients applied (including less Nitrogen fertiliser) can deliver more grass growth if the soil pH is correct. Source; AHDB Grass Factsheet 8.
Regular Reseeding delivers more productive grass varieties alongside clover reducing reliance on Nitrogen fertiliser. Other recent advances see inclusion of herbs, such as forage chicory and plantain offering high yields of palatable nutritious feed for grazing livestock. Lactating ewes finish lambs better with reduced use of concentrate feeds. Lower worm burdens grazing these bio-active forages have also been observed with reducing faecal egg counts so less reliance on anthelmintic use too. Source: AHDB Better Returns.
Reduce grazing wastage is also important. Challenge set stocking and those fields always conserved for silage or hay. Rotational grazing delivers huge productivity improvements without necessarily increasing inputs and extends the grazing season - once again giving good carbon efficiency. Subdividing fields using portable electric fencing and central water points can transform grazing. Mains, battery or even solar units are cost effective and flexible. The decision to cut and conserve can be based on matching supply and demand. The KPI to capture is the kg of dry matter per Ha. and this can be recorded with a plate-meter.