In light of the climate change crisis, many recent headlines call for a shift to exclusively plant-based diets. However, sustainable dairy farming and low-greenhouse gas emission systems of livestock production can actually present major opportunities for climate adaptation as well as generating benefits to human health. So, what are we doing at Low Sizergh to ensure that our farm plays an important part in the state of the environment?
Meat and dairy farmers have received a lot of criticism, and some of it is well placed. The continual drive for cheaper food has led to animals and the food that they eat being raised separately, which means that the animals’ waste can’t then be recycled to grow the crops that feed them. That’s a problem as it potentially causes pollution to both water and the atmosphere, particularly with pigs and poultry.
Dairy intensification has led to an increasing amount of grain and imported soya in the cows’ diet to support high milk yields. In the UK, the grain and soya are not usually grown on the farm – again, separating the animals from their food source. Annual plants such as grains and soya require more cultivation, which risks higher levels of soil and carbon loss. They also require higher inputs of fertilisers and pesticides.
However, the debate needs to be more nuanced than ‘meat and dairy farming is bad, plant-based food production is good’. As an organic farmer employing holistic and sustainable farming practices, Farmer Richard is looking at ways to build soil and prevent erosion, to increase biodiversity, and to move towards carbon positivity.
If we can farm in a sustainable way that combines perennial plants in a diverse grass sward with carefully managed grazing animals, we can take excess carbon out of the atmosphere where it can cause global warming and store it in the soil instead. That will aid the growth of plants and be the driver of a healthy soil system with a flourishing network of microbes, funghi and earthworms.
Our main crop is grass, which grows well in the warm and wet Cumbrian climate. It’s also a crop that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. Yet we can’t eat grass, so to retain its benefits and still produce food we can stock it with grazing animals. Not only can long-established grassland store more carbon, but it’s also an excellent habitat for pollinating insects looking for food in late summer from herbs, grassland flowers, clover flowers and other legumes.
We also move the herd through a series of small paddocks of fresh pasture, which we create by using temporary fencing to partition the farm’s fields. This grazing approach allows us to optimise the time between grazings depending on how fast the plants are growing and what we are looking to achieve. For dairy cows in spring, 25 days would be optimal, whilst 60 days in late summer aids plant recovery, allowing some of the plants to seed and grow large root systems, putting more carbon into the soil. That then provides a dry cow with a bulky diet ahead of our October/November calving.
At Low Sizergh, we are committed to sustainable farming, and in doing so, we are restoring ecosystems, maintaining soil fertility, and producing good food with important nutritional benefits. When you consider all of these factors together, it becomes a far more complex debate than the headlines have revealed. The science and research clearly show that sustainable dairy farming practices are worth investing in.
Why not pop along to see some of our sustainable farming in practice?