For one entrepreneurial family in Somerset, building a sustainable business for the future has always been a priority, Farmers Guardian reports.
North Widcombe Farm, West Harptree, Avon has been home to the Gay family since 1525. However, when Colston Gay and his wife Celia returned home in 1981 to farm, they decided to expand and diversify the business in order to build an enterprise which could support the family for years to come.
This drive and determination has seen the business thrive, with the farm extending from 202 hectares (500 acres) to 607ha (1,500 acres). However, the biggest challenge to date has been growing the business sustainably.
Mr Gay says: “My focus has always been to build for the future, to ensure that my children have the same opportunities I was given. Both of our sons, Thomas and Henry-James, are heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the business, so investment and business development is important in order to support them both.
“In 2014 we were approached by the Duchy of Cornwall about building an anaerobic digestion [AD] plant on the farm. The Duchy was keen to realise a sustainable AD plant on the estate, and this presented us with a great opportunity to remove reliance on fossil fuels, and improve the sustainability of our business.”
It was while conducting the feasibility study for the AD plant that the family began to further explore and understand the environmental impact of the farm enterprise.
“We faced a number of hurdles relating to the potential risks AD can pose to the environment if not managed properly. We live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and with the Chew Valley reservoir only a few miles away, there were understandably questions raised over the location of the plant.”
“This made us think more carefully about the impact our farming practices have on the environment and we began to monitor our carbon footprint, with the help of our environmental consultant Tom Gill,” says Mr Gay.
The pre-AD assessment found the farm had a slightly higher than average carbon footprint, explains Mr Gill, head of environment at Promar.
“Our initial calculations found the dairy enterprise had a footprint of 1.4 CO2e per litre of milk. This figure is slightly higher than average, but a breakdown of the data showed after methane emissions from cattle and purchased feed, there was potential to initially reduce the footprint by focusing on fuel and power inputs, and manure management.
“The industry standard carbon footprint for fuel and power is 0.4 CO2e/litre, however we calculated a figure of 0.12 CO2e/litre for the farm. Interestingly, this was found to be primarily due to discrepancies in energy levels due to the substantial level of diversification across the farm. Despite this, there was still a lot to gain,” says Mr Gill.
“The installation of the AD plant has seen the dairy carbon footprint reduce to 1.25 CO2e/litre, which is an impressive 11 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.
“The footprint for fuel and power has reduced by 33 per cent, with the potential to decrease further if the heat generated can be utilised on-site.
“Manure management emissions have also seen a significant reduction of 40 per cent. The plant is run on a feedstock predominantly consisting of slurry, manure and straw bedding. The slurry is fed continuously from the shed to the plant, meaning cattle slurry is no longer stored in an open lagoon – a component of many farms, which is renowned for releasing high levels of methane and ammonia into the atmosphere,” adds Mr Gill.
Mr Gay explains further efficiencies have been seen on-farm as a result of the AD installation, which have an impact on the carbon footprint.
“There are times of the year, during summer for example, when we have to supplement the AD feedstock to ensure optimum production is reached,” he says.
“We made the decision to use grass and maize silage which we felt was of reduced quality to make this up. This has had two main benefits, firstly we do not need to buy-in any additional feedstock for the digester, minimising input costs. And secondly, we are also not feeding any reduced-quality silage to the cows.
“This has a big impact on the efficiency of our cows, helping to improve yield from forage as they are only fed quality silage.
It also carries a much smaller environmental impact than growing maize specifically for AD.”
Carbon footprint has a direct link to cost of production, therefore any on-farm efficiencies will play a part in reducing a farm’s footprint, explains Mr Gill.
“The bottom line is that carbon footprint relates to how efficiently you can produce your product.
So, the more efficient your milk production is, the lower the carbon footprint and the greater the opportunity for financial gains.
“Contrary to popular belief, herd size also bears no impact on carbon footprint. We often hear the misconception that the bigger the farm, the bigger the environmental impact. But a large herd can be more efficient than a small herd, depending on the production system and direct inputs,” adds Mr Gill.
Mr Gay says he has always considered future impact when making big business decisions.
“The one question I regularly ask myself is whether the business will still be here in 20 years. And, through using data to drive efficiencies, I truly believe it will be.
“Our next step will be to ensure that we are pushing for efficiency rather than outright expansion. My mantra has always been to make the most of what we are producing, often by removing the middleman, and I believe we still have room to improve.
“The carbon footprint analysis has identified areas where we can achieve real gains, and one of those areas is through utilising the heat we produce.
“We are currently spending about £3,000 a month on bedding when the cows are housed, and I would like to explore the possibility of drying maize and using that as bedding, which would not only save money but would provide added feed value for the digester.
“Utilising what would otherwise be left in the field could give us a significant saving to the cost of production,” adds Mr Gay.
“We hope to have paid off the AD plant within six years, which will enable us to create a steady income to secure the future of the farm for many more generations to come.”