Climate and cattle

CLA Climate Change Lead Alice Ritchie speaks to CLA member Tom Morrison about the role of livestock in achieving net zero and the work of the Pasture for Life Association.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and farm?

A: I spent my first 45 working years as an agricultural economist, travelling the world for development banks such as the World Bank and aid agencies such as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. I worked in 42 countries, visiting some of them multiple times. The main focus was food security for the very poor.  

But my dream had always been to farm in the UK. Then 10 years ago, my wife and I started full time farming on a 68 ha all-grass farm in North Buckinghamshire, where we produce Aberdeen Angus single suckled beef.  

Q:  You are also part of the Pasture for Life Association (PFLA). Could you give us a bit of background on the PFLA?

A: The PFLA also started 10 years ago and its approach immediately made complete sense to me. Those 45 years travelling the world taught me the difference between short-term farming crutches to improve profit and loss accounts, like nitrogen fertiliser, agrochemicals and mono-cropping, and long-term sustainable growth that comes from mixed farming, healthy soils, and a resilient environment. 

Pasture is the natural diet of cattle and sheep. Yet today, few are fed from pasture alone. Most farmers now produce their meat and milk quickly by feeding things like cereals and imported soya, with animals indoors much of the time. This change has happened mainly in the last 70 years, and we can see the results: soil fertility is at an all-time low; there is increased flooding and poor human nutrition.

Defra, the new Agriculture Act, and the Environment Bill, seek to reverse this and re-balance the way we farm. The PFLA is at the forefront of this re-balancing. George Eustice said at the PFLA’s AGM that “the PFLA is part of the future of British farming.”

The PFLA sets standards, provides a certification service, and hosts a valuable members’ advisory forum among its many activities. The beef we produce on our farm is PFLA certified and the butchers we supply label it in that way. 

Q: We’ve heard from Dieter Helm that the rhetoric around ‘less meat, more trees’ when it comes to agriculture is far too narrow and not nuanced enough. What are your views on this? What should the conversation be about?

A: Trees are only part of the answer to climate change. Soils under well-managed pasture can sequester more carbon than trees. You can’t eat trees, and they don’t fit into an arable rotation. Closed canopy coniferous forests can be a blight on our landscape and produce softwood of mediocre quality. 70% of this green and pleasant land is already pasture. Now, join up all those dots and the answer emerges. Change is within close reach.

Q: How does livestock fit into soil management?

A: We begin and end with soils. Nothing builds soil fertility as well as pasture. And nothing utilises pasture as well as livestock. They’re all linked: soils, pasture, livestock, and back to soils. It’s true that some livestock systems contribute to greenhouse gases but some do the opposite, and PFL is one of those. 

Q: We are aware of the importance of maintaining financial viability on farms. Is the PFL system commercially viable? 

A: Yes, now and increasingly in the future. Costs are low. There are no concentrate feed bills and our product commands a price premium; that’s a magic formula. Changing consumer trends indicate that this formula will be increasingly robust. Our animals grow slowly, but with low costs that’s not a big deal. Housing, bedding, and barn cleaning costs are all lower. Increased cow longevity and higher health status translate into lower costs too. PFL fits neatly with the current environmental stewardship contracts and the future Environmental Land Management scheme indications. Carbon capture support payments seem set to be the cherry on top of the PFL cake. 

Q: What is your vision for UK agriculture between now and 2050? What do you think land use should look like if we are considering food production, climate change and biodiversity?

A: Arable will be confined through market forces and government incentives based on carbon accounting to Grade 1 and Grade 2 land. No-till and minimum-till, already powering ahead, will increase. Short-term grass leys will give way to longer-term pasture. Meat and dairy labelling will differentiate between 100% grass-fed, as promoted by the PFLA, and partially grass-fed. 

And, in some appropriate places, there will be more trees.