A Scottish livestock farmer is demonstrating how technology can help UK-based meat producers on grassland systems be part of the carbon solution while strengthening the efficiency of their businesses. Debbie James reports.
Multiple measures to enhance technical and carbon efficiency have been adopted by James Logan on the 632 hectares (1,562 acre) he farms at Pirntaton, near Galashiels, with his mother Elizabeth and wife Jane.
By gathering data and acting on that information, he is making better use of grazed grass and winter fodder crops, reducing fertiliser inputs and targeting treatments as needed in his sheep, cattle and deer.
Mr Logan says: “I do not have a woolly view of carbon efficiency. For me, it is about business efficiency, whether that is increased utilisation of the feed we produce or greater weight gains from our livestock allowing for fewer days to slaughter.”
Carbon storage occurs on livestock farms with carbon locked into the soil in association with grazing.
In contrast to the criticism environmentalists have directed at intensive livestock systems in some overseas countries, UK livestock farming with its grass-fed approach to production is now seen by many as part of the solution to carbon capture.
Good carbon efficiency is good for farm profitability too, as Mr Logan is demonstrating. At Pirntaton, the focus is on rotational grazing.
He says: “We are trying to produce as much home-grown feed as possible, mostly growing and utilising grass, but also by growing winter crops, including kale, swedes and fodder beet, which can be grazed in situ so we are not using the diesel which is required to feed out to livestock.”
He achieves this by utilising EID tagging, weighing and recording equipment. Mr Logan weighs lambs and cattle regularly and makes decisions based on the gathered data.
He says: “We use a sheep handling system fitted with load bars and a weigh head so we can weigh them often and easily.”
All lambs are double-tagged from three weeks of age. Details for each lamb are shown on the weigh head as soon as it comes into the handling system.
Data shown includes individual weight gain since the previous weighing and helps inform when treatment may be required. This allows drenches to be targeted where and when needed.
Mr Logan says: “Lots of decisions are made from that information, with many being made instantly, right there and then.
“As soon as we upload the data, we have a good idea of how a group is performing and, if needed, we can alter management accordingly.”
A similar approach is taken with cattle and deer. Mr Logan tags his cattle and deer with high retention tags and also collects DNA samples from his deer with management tags which combine tissue sampling with official identification.
Information ranging from daily liveweight gains, correct weaning and bulling weights, finishing weights based on market requirements, weaning indexes, dry matter intake and pasture growth is collected.
Mr Logan can act on this with informed management decisions, including any fine-tuning to grazing or feeding systems and allocations.
The technology has enabled the team at Pirntaton to increase output in a sustainable and cost-effective way, giving a lower carbon footprint.
The total farm output increased 72 per cent between 2015 and 2018, lifting from 293kg liveweight/ha (118kg liveweight/acre) to 506kg liveweight/ha (205kg liveweight/acre).
This has been achieved largely by rotationally grazing 120 paddocks, after subdividing the 37 original fields.
Mr Logan says: “Pirntaton grows eight tonnes of dry matter/ha of grass on the improved land and 6.7t/ha across the whole farm, which includes a large acreage of hill ground with native species.
“Only 38kg/ha of nitrogen is used annually across the whole farm, and this is mostly applied in autumn to build grass covers going into winter.”
In red meat production, good technical efficiency and a reduced carbon footprint from a management perspective starts with tagging and identifying animals, says Rob Massey of Datamars.
He says: “Using visual tag numbers is a good start, but EID tagging in cattle, sheep and deer units, such as at Pirntaton, allows quick and accurate individual animal data capture.”
When weighing, information such as daily liveweight gain will flag up any issues with forage supply and quality, mineral status and parasite burdens, he adds.
Electric fencing also helps farmers implement advances in grazed grass utilisation in systems which encourage a move away from traditional set-stocked grazing to strip or rotational grazing and extensions to the grazing season.
Mr Massey says: “Farmers can deliver red meat the public wants to eat, in both an ethical way but also with a lower carbon footprint.
“It is reassuring that UK farmers are part of the solution and not the problem.”