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Producing carbon neutral beef

After the loss of a large portion of their herd to bovine TB (bTB), Henry and Bryony Andrews decided to change the direction of their business to follow a carbonneutral path. Rebecca Jordan reports.

Left to right: Bea, Henry, Bryony and Alfred Andrews.
Left to right: Bea, Henry, Bryony and Alfred Andrews.

Up until 2018, Henry and Bryony Andrews were running a relatively intensive beef business.

The couple moved to Leworthy Manor, just outside Pyworthy, Devon, in 2014, and the 48-hectare (120-acre) farm was down to permanent pasture on heavy clay typical to the area.

They set up a 58-head suckler herd comprising North Devons, South Devons and Stablisers, which were crossed with either an Aberdeen-Angus or North Devon bull.

All calves were finished.

However, when 30 per cent of their herd reacted positively to bTB tests in 2018/2019, they had to look again at their business.

Mr Andrews says: “We were running an intensive business and, when we took that hit, we could not afford to pick up from there and carry on in the same vein.

“Since then we have been looking more at farming with nature, rather than overruling it.

The concept fully dawned on me after reading books written by Frank Freeman Turner, the 1950s pioneering organic farmer, writer and broadcaster.

“I have nothing against using artifi cial fertilisers and sprays responsibly, but I can now clearly see the advantages of spending more time thinking about what nature has to offer and working with it.

“I am not a zealot. Every day most of our farmers are doing their part to look after the environment.

In fact, what livestock farmers have been doing on a day-to-day basis for generations has and does create a negative carbon footprint.

“Unfortunately, we as an industry have not been good at coming back at all the negative press farming has received on this issue.” There are now 40 breeding cows at Leworthy.

In order to re-establish the herd, 10 heifers were retained last year, but this will level at five replace - ments a year to calve as two-year-olds.

Spring calving sees the herd turned out as soon as the ground allows.

A paddock grazing system has been introduced with cows moved every three days.

Mr Andrews says: “They always have fresh grazing, as we do not want them to poach the ground and damage the soil structure.

Electric fencing is used to divide fields into paddocks to effectively utilise grazing in front of the cows.”


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There are now 40 breeding cows at Leworthy.
There are now 40 breeding cows at Leworthy.

Herbal leys

 

The couple are slowly introducing herbal leys into their grazing system.

They are interested in deep-rooting varieties, such as sainfoin and lucerne, which will improve soil structure, as well as other legumes, such as birds - foot trefoil and clovers, to fix nitrogen so as to reduce their reliance on artificial fertilisers.

Mr Andrews adds he is keen to include many clovers in his seed mix and is not afraid to rely on red clover for liveweight gain.

He says: “Sainfoin is included in the mix and it is well known for reducing the chances of bloat in cattle.

We also rely on it, chicory and birdsfoot trefoil to reduce worm burden.

“Research has proven the tannins in sainfoin positively control haemonchus and trichostrongylus worms in sheep and ostertagia and cooperia worms in cattle.” To date they have overseeded 12ha (30 acres).

Drought-resistant plant varieties are to the fore in the mix, despite farming on ground well known for growing grass all summer.

However, Mr Andrews says cattle cannot be out-wintered here.

He adds: “We are experiencing extreme weather patterns, we cannot control them and have had a run of very dry summers.

I believe we need a species-rich mix to create a ley including plants with differing growth rates throughout the season because we are so reliant on the weather.

“Deep-rooted plants obviously have a better chance of drawing on moisture, but they have two other advantages.

Deep-rooted herbs, such as ribgrass, chicory, yarrow and burnet, are mineral rich.

“They have helped us reduce our reliance on bought-in mineral supplements and are known to improve cow fertility and growth rates in youngstock.

“The second plus point is their increased root structure. This is vital for improving soil organic matter content.

Just a 1 per cent increase in organic matter results in a 37-39 tonnes/ha increase in carbon capture.” The overruling objective at Leworthy is to prove it is possible to farm to make a living while the business produces a negative carbon footprint.

Mr Andrews says: “Although very difficult to quantify on a balance sheet, herbal leys go a long way to easing financial outgoings, as well as car - bon emissions.” This is analysed using a carbon calculator which takes into account the amount of carbon released by the business through outgoings, such as diesel, electricity, artificial fertilisers and bought-in feed.

The result is offset against the volume of carbon absorbed by plants and soil on-farm.

The former is calculated by recording the area of the farm covered in woodland, hedgerows and crops.

The latter by a soil organic matter test. Mr Andrews says: “Farmers are already thinking about how to cut their carbon emissions, but we need to do more to show that.

There has been so much work done on proving livestock methane production can be reduced and yet that information is not in the public eye.

The pubilc only hears the bad press associated with this subject.” Research has proven biochar (a charcoal-based product produced during biomass production) reduces methane production by 10-17 per cent when included in a ration at a rate of 0.5-1 per cent.

Mr and Mrs Andrews have bought a charcoal ring kiln and plan to use it to produce biochar to include in the youngstock’s winter ration.

Mr Andrews adds that fumaric acid can also reduce ruminant methane production.

Research has proven when encapsulated in hydrogenated vegetable oil in feed it cut lamb methane output by 70 per cent.

This organic compound is also found in herbs such as birdsfoot trefoil.

He adds: “And tannins in lucerne, sainfoin and birdsfoot trefoil also have a significant role to play in this area.” But there are still areas of livestock production which are counter-intuitive.

About 650 round silage bales are wrapped each year at Leworthy.

Mr Andrews says: “This is very costly in terms of plastic production, but we cannot afford to build a silage pit and the associated expense of effluent control.” The first cut is taken off 20ha (50 acres) in early May, following a dressing at 224kg/ha (90kg/acre) of 20:10:10.

A month later, 16ha (40 acres) are cut and a third cut 12ha (30 acres) in August. This is overseeded with clover. Calves are weaned at housing and split by sex.

They are fed a 14 per cent protein blend plus silage and are finished by two years old at 700kg liveweight.

Previously, all male calves were kept entire and creep fed from turnout. Now neither is done in order to reduce costs and keep the system simple. Cows are just offered silage during winter.

Mr Andrews says: “Everything we are doing at the moment is fairly ‘normal’ in terms of how we manage our stock and the land.

“In that management system, we do all we can to reduce our carbon emissions and create a negative carbon footprint. But I know we can do more.

Trees

 

“Today, 5 per cent of the farm is covered in trees.

We plan to increase that by 10 per cent in a couple of years and use those trees to practise silvopasture here” Leworthy is working on a trial with the Woodlands Trust, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and the Soil Association.

Shelter belts which are 91 metres by 274m have been planted on field boundaries.

Mr Andrews says: “The woodland here saved our skin in the drought.

Trees are fantastic at storing and releasing water so the grass remained lush under them.

“But we do not want to just plant trees. We want those trees to work with the grassland. This is an age-old practice.

The shelter belts provide cattle with shade and shelter, help retain water within the soil structure, absorb carbon and enable cattle to browse on the leaves and bark which they did for centuries prior to monoculture farming taking hold of our industry.” In 15 years these plantations will be mature enough for the introduction of livestock.

In that time, Mr Andrews wants to be a positive voice for the industry and highlight the good aspects of farming in this country.

He recently contributed to a documentary for Earth Minutes, which will be shown in schools and universities this autumn, and the couple’s meat business, The Carbon Neutral Beef Company, has a strong Instagram following in the 18- to 30-year-old bracket, with 70 per cent of those followers male.

He says: “We must all keep putting out the message farmers are part of the solution, not the problem.

“We must question every negative report released and create positive talking points.”

Round-up of areas to concentrate on to help achieve carbon-neutral beef production

  • Utilise farm data such as fuel and electricity consumption in carbon calculators to measure, manage and mitigate farm carbon emissions, as well as calculate volume of carbon sequestered on-farm through soil organic matter analysis
  • Improve soil organic matter and therefore nitrous oxide capture through use of deep-rooting plants, such as chicory or plantain
  • Spreading biochar (by-product from biomass plants) improves soil structure and therefore ability to sequester carbon
  • Fumaric acid, encapsulated in the shell of hydrogenated vegetable oil in animal feed, reduces livestock methane production; birdsfoot trefoil also contains fumaric acid
  • Naturally occurring tannins in lucerne, sainfoin and birdsfoot trefoil significantly reduce methane production; same tannins also proven to reduce livestock worm burden, reducing reliance on synthetic anthelmintics and their associated resistance
  • Including 0.5-1 per cent biochar in cattle ration reduces methane production by 10-17 per cent
  • Clovers and legumes, such as lucerne, birdsfoot trefoil and sainfoin, fix nitrogen out of the atmosphere, thereby reducing reliance on artificial nitrogen to fertilise grassland while reducing nitrous oxide levels
  • Biochar spread in bedding captures ammonia (therefore nitrous oxide emissions) in slurry and farmyard manure; in soil also locks up nitrous oxide from manure and artificial fertiliser
  • Deep-rooting herbs, such as chicory, ribgrass, yarrow, burnet and sheeps parsley, are mineral rich; reduce need for bought-in mineral supplements
  • Silvopasture: simultaneous production of tree crops, forage and livestock; provides environmental benefits such as carbon sequestration

Farm facts

  • 48 hectares (120 acres) of which 2.4ha (six acres) is planted to trees
  • Calves finished before 24 months old; a bullock sold every fortnight to catering outlet and beef sold online through farm’s business website Carbon Neutral Beef Company
  • Permanent pasture with 12ha (30 acres) a year overseeded or reseeded with herbal ley varieties proven to reduce livestock methane production, improve soil organic matter content and reduce use of artificial fertilisers through inclusion of legume varieties
  • Silvopasture practised with farm used as trial for Woodlands Trust, Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and Soil Association
  • Two shepherds huts available as holiday lets

Visit the Net Zero home page

Visit the Net Zero home page

With a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2040, there is still a long way to go.

 

Visit the Net Zero home page to cut through the jargon and view our brand new showcase of some of the measures already having positive results on farms up and down the country.

 

Click here to go to the Net Zero home page

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