Challenging current perceptions about livestock's efficiency

15 Nov 2018

With reports again in the media commenting on the impact that ruminants have on carbon emissions, the requirement and appetite within the industry for change has never been greater. Although this brings uncertainty for some, for the more progressive farmer, and for the industry as a whole, it brings a welcome drive for efficiency with resultant benefits for the farmer and the environment alike.

There is no doubt that agriculture must play an active, even leading, part in any debates on climate change, environmental diversity and rural sustainability; but its role must be properly understood and must not be demonised as an extension of personal opinions rather than facts.

We are incredibly fortunate to live in an environment which has such a rich tapestry of agriculture, forestry and rural pursuits but it is often easy to take for granted some of the biological processes going on.  If we take ruminant animals, for example, we neglect to value their ability to convert upland grass growth into human grade protein.  The cow on the hill, for example, gains condition at the same time as nourishing the calf, and is powered mainly by the energy captured from the sun by plants, and the carbohydrate they create from atmospheric carbon dioxide.  If that system was being marketed by a solar panel distributor they would be looking for “green energy” subsidies! If the cow was not there to harvest the grass, what would then have happened to the carbon dioxide captured by the plant; much would have been released back to the atmosphere as the plant died and decayed.

Livestock play an essential role in converting plant materials into human-grade nutrients.  Their role in adding value to food waste streams, and converting non-human forage crops into food is invaluable.  However, we need to challenge current perceptions about livestock’s efficiency. I read an excellent paper by Prof Phil Garnsworthy of Nottingham University which highlighted the need to strive for production efficiency in order to minimise greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. The paper makes interesting reading, and highlights the positive impact ruminants can make to an efficient food supply chain. 

At Harbro, we were delighted to receive Carbon Trust assurance for our Rumitech feed additive for demonstrating an improvement in carbon efficiency by reducing methane output. Their figures confirm a 17.5% reduction in the methane output per litre of milk – a huge contribution towards reducing the overall efficiency of dairy production.  This follows other excellent results in beef and sheep and highlights the sort of steps being taken to support livestock production.

As the world population continues to grow we will have even more reason to use ruminants to harvest non-edible forages and convert them to human-grade nutrients. Scotland, with institutes such as the James Hutton Institute, has the opportunity to lead the studies into how we use all our resources to ensure a positive, long-term future for all livestock.

 

Willie Thomson

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