The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association has published a new evidence paper highlighting the animal welfare and environmental benefits of producing beef and lamb without cereals.
Sara Gregson reports.
Livestock farmers who feed their animals just on pasture, fresh and conserved, believe there are wide-ranging animal welfare and environmental benefits of doing so.
Large-scale, three-year scientific studies are underway at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and the University of Chester to understand this better. In the meantime, the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) has produced a fully referenced paper drawing on published evidence and a recent survey of PFLA members.
The report shows how 100 per cent pasture-fed farming, as certified through the Pasture for Life scheme, can deliver the type of outcomes policymakers and Government Ministers are looking to support under new, post-Brexit Agriculture Policy.
It captures an increasing desire of consumers for nutrient-dense meat to be produced in a manner that shows due care for the environment and high animal welfare.
PFLA president and report editor Dr John Meadley said: “Ruminants can efficiently and naturally convert pasture into produce of value, while also playing a vital role in nutrient recycling and providing habitat.
“Although attractive at farm level, feeding grain to ruminants is environmentally inefficient and purely financial calculations of farm profit take no account of the bigger picture.”
As well as being low cost, there are significant and identifiable benefits of Pasture for Life farming in terms of animal health and welfare.
For example, cattle and sheep which graze diverse, deep-rooting swards, eat a wide variety of plants with high mineral contents, while rotational grazing systems reduce the incidence of worms and liver fluke.
About 46 per cent of PFLA members who took part in a farmer survey, use less wormers since becoming pasture-fed, while 66 per cent noted improved animal health and 51 per cent recorded lower vets’ bills (Table 1).
Feeding ruminants just on grass and forage crops also has several advantages for the environment including increased biodiversity, raising the number of insects, birds, mammals and plants; increased water holding capacity, which reduces rainfall run-off, flooding and drought risk; and reduced use of inorganic fertiliser, often by the inclusion of legumes.
“While the actual environmental benefits from a pasture-fed system will vary significantly with the nature of the pasture and how it is managed, there are some common benefits,” added Dr Meadley.
“These include better carbon sequestration, water infiltration, soil fertility, nutrient recycling, soil formation, biodiversity and wildlife habitat, along with increased ecosystem stability and resilience.”
THE PFLA has 350 members, mainly farmers. Of these, 60 are certified Pasture for Life producers and the rest are aiming to increase the contribution grass makes to their business.
About 80 per cent of survey respondents said they had made positive changes to their grazing management since joining the organisation.
Dr Meadley said: “We are always looking for more members to give us an even stronger voice, as this will ensure future support for extensive pasture-based production.”
ORGANIC farmer Fidelity Weston has been Pasture for Life certified for three years, but has never fed grain to the 20 Hereford suckler cows and followers or 150 Lleyn ewes and lambs.
Native breeds which finish off grass alone make management simple and easy.
Mrs Weston says: “We never need to call a vet out for a sick animal. And any bottle of antibiotics we have in the fridge more often than not goes out of date before we use it.”
Cows calve from mid-April until mid-June and calves stay with their dams until they go indoors for the winter at the start of December, when they eat home-produced hay or haylage.
All youngstock is out-wintered. Beef animals are slaughtered off grass at 28-30 months and 300kg deadweight. Half are sold as direct sales from the farm and half though Macknade Fine Foods, Faversham, where the butchers promote the meat as organic and Pasture for Life.
Bulls live with the family group apart from around calving. Conception rates are high, with only two empty cows recorded since the herd started in 2002. The cows milk well and calves grow steadily through the grass-growing season. After the winter outside, compensatory growth quickly kicks in during spring.
“Last autumn we started to mob-graze to improve soil health, keeping stock in small fenced-off areas and moving them daily,” said Mrs Weston.
“We used to set stock in small fields and used clean and mixed grazing to keep on top of worm burdens. We rarely worm the cattle and this year have not wormed lambs at all. We hope mob grazing will mean we can stop using all wormers in future.”