Business management

Busting the myths: livestock and the land

There are some surprising truths behind the farming of livestock for human consumption. Here, we look at the facts behind the most common misconceptions.

However, using livestock for land management, and for food, can actually give us a more sustainable future. Here, we address some of the myths around livestock on the land.

MYTH: Land used to graze livestock could be used to grow crops instead

TRUTH: On almost all of the UK’s grazing land, it’s virtually impossible to grow anything but grass

Around two thirds of the UK’s farmland is best suited to growing grass rather than other crops, and this figure could be higher in upland areas in western England, Wales and Scotland. Crops cannot be grown on this land, but allowing livestock to graze these areas is an extremely effective way to produce protein-rich food.

“It would be a real challenge to grow brassicas on this land,” says Owen Roberts from Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales), “so we are essentially just using grass and rainwater, and grazing sheep or cattle, to produce high-quality food for human consumption.

“They will eat almost exclusively grass, but even their supplementary feeds are based on food products that aren’t fit for human consumption, such as by-products like brewers’ grains. They might get a turnip or two in the winter, but they are also grown on land that’s not brilliant for other types of crops. So much of what they eat comes naturally from the land, where you can’t actually grow anything else, that the amount of feed imported in these sectors is tiny – which is another positive environmental contribution.

MYTH: British cows and sheep eat crops that humans could eat

TRUTH: Humans cannot eat any of a typical British beef cattle herd’s diet. Nor would they want to

Grass makes up around 70% of the diet of cows and sheep, either as grazed grass and silage or hay (conserved grass), and this can be supplemented with grains (like barley) and by-products from, for example, distillers and food manufacturers, which will never make their way to any human’s table. “I can’t speak for anyone else,” says NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy, “but I’m not good with grass – I can’t digest it.”

Indeed, for every kilo of plant protein dairy cows eat, they produce 1.41kg of edible protein for human consumption, according to Rothamsted Research.

Livestock grazing on British farmland is the best way to make sustainable use of the land we have. You’re using land that doesn’t have any other food uses

Owen Roberts
Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales)

Not only that, grazing livestock is also naturally contributing to the most efficient, natural use of the land. “We have a very interdependent livestock sector in Scotland,” says Kennedy. “It’s mostly grass, but the cereals we feed our livestock create the by-product of straw, which can be used for cattle bedding in a shed in winter. That straw then creates a very valuable product in farmyard manure, and that manure goes back on to the land and creates a better organic material. In turn, this improves the health of the soil and maximises carbon capture and storage. It’s extremely cyclical.”

MYTH: Agricultural waste burning on farmland contributes to climate change

TRUTH: Farmers do not burn agricultural waste on farmland – because in most instances it’s against the law

Burning farm plastics and most types of agricultural waste is illegal across the UK – it was outlawed in England in 2006 and has been banned in Scotland since January 2019. Instead, farmers are expected to arrange for it to be managed and disposed of legally. Farmers cannot burn straw or stubble, but it remains legal to burn some materials such as hedge trimmings, crop residues and other plant waste, but these are exceptions for which farmers must apply for an exemption. Even then, it must be burned on the land where it was produced, and by whoever produced it, and that total amount of waste burned cannot exceed 10 tonnes in a 24-hour period. In addition to all that, the exemption is only granted on the condition that the burning does not cause pollution or harm human health. These ever-tightening restrictions make burning waste so relatively rare that its contribution to climate change is negligible.

The bigger truth

Effective, environmentally efficient land management plays a huge role on today’s farms. Livestock might do the actual grazing, but a huge amount of thought and planning goes into how this can be managed as sustainably as possible.

Sustainable grazing has a myriad of benefits for the environment. Peat soils and bogs are the largest stores of carbon in the UK and proper grazing management helps maintain their effectiveness and protects the carbon locked in the soil.

It prevents erosion – along with other environmental benefits. “Livestock keep grass levels under control,” says Kennedy. “If they didn’t, we would be at much greater risk of the wildfires that we see in other parts of the world.”

Grazing also increases species biodiversity, while allowing arable land to lie fallow and returning it to a grazed pasture helps return nutrients to the soil. But grazing is not the only effective and environmentally efficient land-management technique to ensure sustainability. Planting trees around fields and using cover crops – crops grown to manage soil quality rather than for consumption – prevents water run-off and soil drying out. Others manage grasslands to act as a sink for excess water, providing flood protection and in many cases feeding that water sustainably back into the local supply.

“Basically, livestock grazing on British farmland is the best way to make sustainable use of the land we have,” says Roberts. “You’re using land that doesn’t have any other food uses, you’re using the natural cycle of the land to make it sustainable – and the result is a healthy, excellent quality source of protein.”

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