Sustainable economic and ecological grazing systems - learning from innovative practitioners

Lead Research Organisation: UK Ctr for Ecology & Hydrology fr 011219
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

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