Sustainable economic and ecological grazing systems - learning from innovative practitioners

Lead Research Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
Department Name: Soils and Land Use (Lancaster)

Abstract

Grassland systems dominating the agricultural landscape in GB are largely economically unproductive, ecologically degraded, dominated by a single grass species, organic carbon poor and heavily reliant on inputs to maintain productivity. System impacts are often felt beyond field boundaries with slurry and P and N pollution from intensive practices leaking into water bodies and impacting on nutrient status and species diversity. Changing to sustainable systems through innovation can rely on cues from the natural environment. Naturally productive systems which support large numbers of grazing livestock have provided inspiration for Pasture for Life (PfL) certified producers to adopt pasture management practices which mimic those systems. Methods include approaches such as 'herbal leys and diverse swards' and 'mob grazing' which can potentially extend the grazing season whilst providing environmental, economic and livestock benefits in terms of health and productivity.
The proposed research aims to evaluate the ecological, agronomic and social impacts of the pasture fed livestock approach to grazing management and its potential as the basis of a sustainable GB-wide system. To achieve this, an experienced interdisciplinary research team has designed a project that will deliver a formal assessment of the agronomic, socio-ecological and sustainability and resilience aspects of Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) members farm systems and the social systems in which they are embedded (including industry bodies and citizen-consumers) through a combined set of social and natural science research methodologies. The team will work closely with producers and their supporting organisations (including the PFLA) to assess sustainability criteria covering a broad spectrum of sixty PLFA enterprises and to assess specific management practices, like 'mob grazing' on a smaller number of (15-20) Pasture for Life (PfL) certified enterprises. The work will seek to identify the motivations, knowledges and ways of learning of the agricultural innovators employing these approaches. It will also investigate the role of governance structures surrounding farms as well as considering their agronomic and ecological impacts. The evaluation will include an assessment of PFLA enterprises within the context of current grassland/grazing management practices. It will investigate the broad range of public goods delivered by PFLA farms - from the animal products themselves to the impacts of the farming practices on aesthetic values and carbon sequestration.
The results of the project will provide much needed evidence about the benefits of pasture fed livestock approaches for those farming grazing livestock, consumers of PfL products and wider publics. Such evidence will be valuable for livestock producers (including those already engaged in the practices) and for government and farming bodies, like the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) with the power to influence farmer decision making. The research will identify key factors which influence 'agricultural innovators' to take bold steps towards novel management practices and provide information on possible mechanisms for supporting them in their enterprises.
If such systems do prove to provide significant ecological, agronomic and social benefits the project may help to transform some of the green deserts which currently form much of the agricultural land area in GB. The prospect of a resilient, agriculturally productive, grassland landscape which is storing carbon, preserving water quality and enhancing biodiversity is a compelling one for farmers, governments and wider publics.

Technical Summary

The proposed research aims to evaluate the agronomic and social impacts of the Pasture for Life (PfL) certified approach to grazing management and its potential as the basis of a sustainable GB-wide system.
The research will primarily consist of survey methodologies to gather interdisciplinary data on Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PLFA) enterprises across GB. We will identify robust samples of PFLA enterprises (both certified PfL producers and members not yet certified) to provide adequate quantitative and qualitative data for multidisciplinary analysis of performance relating to agronomic, ecological, social and economic variables. We will sample 60 PFLA farms in year one and a subsample of 15-20 of those farms (PfL certified only) to gather data on specific management practices in year two. Farm types and samples chosen for survey will be defined considering geographic regions, breeds, production systems etc. as well as marketing strategy.
Ecological survey methodologies will include co-located soil and vegetation sampling. On 60 farms we will interview farmers to collect wide-ranging data on farm attributes and management practices for use in the Defra Public Goods (PG) tool and wider analysis. On 15-20 of those farms we will further conduct social science interviews to gather more detailed quantitative and qualitative information on social and economic aspects of PfL farming practices.
Data analysis will include: a) assessing current status and contextualising PFLA farms (ecologically and agronomically) within the broad scope of comparable livestock farms in GB using existing datasets, b) assessing sustainability criteria of farms using the PG tool, c) assessing how PfL management practices impact on/are impacted by ecological, social, economic and governance factors, d) assessing the potential for broad scale uptake of PfL management practices.

Planned Impact

This work has the potential to impact on a wide range of beneficiaries, including wider society. The focus of the research is the ruminant livestock industry and the land which supports it, which constitute the most extensive habitat type across Great Britain. Transformational change in this habitat type would have profound impacts on the status of the livestock industry, the ecological condition of grasslands and the services they provide to us (soil, water and air quality, water regulation, biodiversity, cultural services etc.) and on human health and wellbeing. This project will provide evidence about the effectiveness of innovative farm management approaches and an understanding of the social factors influencing them.

Potentially those who stand to gain most from this research are farming businesses using conventional farming methods that are currently receiving a poor income for their products. Evidence will be provided to these businesses through knowledge exchange activities over the lifetime of the project (see Pathways to Impact). These approaches will ensure that the knowledge gained in the research about land management practices and systems and farmer attitudes/motivations can be used to effect improvements in the economic, social and ecological sustainability for large numbers of ruminant farmers across GB. As we would like this research to also inform the next generation of livestock producers we will ensure appropriate pathways to impact.

Currently Pasture Fed Livestock (PfL) products command a premium because they have been recognised as definitively different in quality from conventionally produced livestock. Recognition by consumers of the ecological sustainability of the farming system, as well as of the nutritional value of the products may help to ensure economic sustainability of production. Farm businesses will also benefit from reduced fossil energy and input use. Other benefits may include farmers enjoying the process of mutual learning and adapting new practices to their farms through for example, measuring the status of their soil and learning from others farmers about what management practices may work and where. Many farmers will also benefit from improved ecosystem service delivery and associated benefits (e.g. through tourism, drinking water for stock, soil condition etc.).

Non-farming businesses: Other key stakeholders include businesses which are closely linked to farming and land management. Of primary importance are food (and fibre) businesses which sell farm products. For many businesses, e.g. Marks and Spencer, accounting for natural capital (through e.g. the Natural Capital Protocol) is increasingly becoming important as they ensure the sustainability of their supply chains. Other businesses with a stake in the future of farming include water companies which often pay the costs of farming impacts on water quality and water flows. Rural tourism businesses beyond farms themselves (e.g. restaurants, hotels) can also benefit from perceptions of sustainably managed farmland.
Organisations such as Natural England, Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Environment Protection Agency and National Trust all have remits which include the sustainable management of land and water resources. Adapting to and ameliorating climate change and its impacts is a key concern for many of these bodies and for wider publics. Benefits in these areas would also help to address concerns highlighted recently as part of the international year of soils and the EU Soil Thematic Strategy, and the Sustainable Development Goals proposed by the United Nations following Rio+20. Improvements in pasture management will also foster progress towards objectives outlined with the UNFCCC Paris Climate Change agreement, the UN convention on biodiversity and the EU Biodiversity Strategy. Outputs from the project will also inform post-BREXIT decisions on GB environmental payments

Publications

10 25 50

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
BB/R005710/1 03/01/2018 30/11/2019 £630,864
BB/R005710/2 Transfer BB/R005710/1 01/12/2019 30/06/2021 £211,987
 
Description This year we have interviewed 56 farmers and taken them though an interactive and engaging public goods tool. The interviews included large numbers of questions about farmer practices and encouraged the farmers to think about how their practices impact on the delivery of a range of public goods. The interviews pointed to the importance of farmer recording of practices and impacts and raised farmer awareness about the broader impacts of their practices. The farmers practices were scored according to their positive and/or negative environmental, welfare and social impacts and researchers and farmers were able to jointly discuss scores relating to the delivery of specific services as well as to broader delivery of multiple services. Each farmer was provided with a picture of how their farm delivers multiple public goods (11).
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description Farmer Network Cumbria - Innovative Farmers partnership 
Organisation Farmer Network Cumbria
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I am named researcher on an Innovative Farmers field lab which is being coordinated by the Farmer Network. This involves helping farmers to consider methodologies for monitoring their land under changes that they are making to their practices
Collaborator Contribution Working closely with farmers in the group provides valuable insights into the challenges which farmers are facing in trying new practices and evidencing their success. The Farmer Network is enabling me access to workshops and farmers who are trialling new approaches.
Impact Collaboration in the early stages (8 months) agriculture, ecology and social
Start Year 2019
 
Description Farmer workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I visited a Soil Association run workshop on mob grazing to talk about the project and to discuss with farmers what they want to know about the impacts of these farming practices. The farmers helped to identify areas of interest regarding these practices for future research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Farmer workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation at the Graze Debate organised by SAC Consulting. Much discussion afterwards on need for research to better understand the impact of novel grazing regimes on soil carbon and productivity. ALso much practcal interest from industry in novel grazing methods but also in understandign the impact of grazing on soil carbon.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.sruc.ac.uk/info/120738/grazing_management/2123/the_graze_debate_2019
 
Description Farming conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I presented some of the early results at the Oxford Real Farming conference as part of a Pasture Fed Livestock session to practitioners and interested parties, many questions were asked about the research findings and about what research is needed/how farmers can engage in future research and what they can themselves monitor.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://orfc.org.uk/
 
Description Lecture to postgrads and undergrads at Lancaster University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited lecture for postgrads and undergrads studying ecological subjects at Lancaster University - introduced them to interdisciplinary/stakeholder engaged research approaches - questions and discussions
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Policy seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Research seminar organised by the GFS programme to the Scottish Government to inform on relevant research taking place under the GFS programme. Policy makers were made aware of research relevant to them and asked to continue to be informed about research results.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Public conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation at the Livestock Environment and People Conference at Oxford
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.leap.ox.ac.uk/event/leap-2019-conference
 
Description UKRI innovation hub -Workshop session at the Oxford Farming conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Knowledge exchange event organised by UKRI at the Oxford Farming conference - chance to talk to industry and practitioners about the SEEGSLIP project. Provided an opportunity for industry to learn about research going on with alternative farming systems - discussion and interest.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.ofc.org.uk/conference/2020/programme