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What is the role of livestock in sustainable farming?

Discover how the livestock industry can help to make farming more sustainable in this post from EIT Food, the world’s largest food innovation community. Written by Laura Elphick.

Livestock on a sustainable farm

By Laura Elphick, EIT Food

We’ve been breeding livestock for food for thousands of years. Farmers that raise livestock help to provide us with animal-based meat and dairy products that many of us consume on a daily basis. Yet, the livestock industry is under increasing pressure to become more sustainable.

Is livestock farming bad for the environment?

Agriculture accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Livestock farming often has a bad reputation for harming our planet, as research from FAO found that animals such as cattle and sheep release large quantities of methane (44%), carbon dioxide (29%), and nitrous oxide (27%) into the atmosphere. 

This is through the natural digestion process of these animals and from the decomposition of manure. Studies also show that livestock farming contributes to GHG emissions through feed production and processing, manure storage and the handling and transportation of animal products.

Despite its negative impact on the environment, livestock farming is under increasing pressure to produce more food for our growing global population. By 2050, it is estimated that agriculture will need to produce 60% more food, which includes meat and dairy products from livestock. 

Farmers must produce extra yield in a sustainable way, to ensure their contribution to climate change is kept to a minimum. However, it is important that farmers are supported, so they have the resources, funds and skills needed to produce our food sustainably.

Challenges with sustainable livestock farming

In addition to associated GHG emissions, livestock production is associated with many environmental, social and economic challenges. Examples include:

  • The extensive use of finite resources such as land and water
  • A trend towards alternative meat and dairy products that do not require livestock, such as almond milk or plant-based burgers
  • In the UK, home-grown farm produce is not being purchased due to the prioritisation of cheaper, imported goods since Brexit
  • In the UK and other countries, there have been rising costs for feed and fertiliser.

One of the main challenges farmers face is related to the land they use to raise livestock and grow crops. One-third of our farmland is degraded due to factors such as overgrazing and over-cultivation that impacts the health and carbon content of the soil. In response to this, many farmers are finding solutions to increase the nutritional and carbon content of their soils. 

Case study example: Partridge Farm

Partridge Farm is based in Shropshire in the UK, and it produces cattle and sheep, as well as arable crops. Farmer James Evans is working to improve the soil quality on his farm and to increase biodiversity to ensure he is producing food in harmony with nature. 

“The way we are grazing our animals is enhancing our soils and enhancing our environment. We’ve got an abundance of butterflies and bees and insects on the farm and because of that we’ve got a lot more bird life and the farm is really flourishing”, he told us. 

James Evans from Partridge Farm talks to EIT Food about food production on the farm.

How livestock farming can become more sustainable

Farm businesses such as Partridge Farm demonstrate that farmers can help to minimise damage to our environment and produce livestock sustainably. Agriculture occupies a unique position because while it can contribute to climate change, it can also help to reduce and mitigate it. Below, we explore some solutions that can help to make livestock farming more sustainable.

1. Regenerative Farming

Regenerative agriculture is one method that can be used to make a farm more sustainable. It aims to regenerate soil and increase biodiversity on farms by combining crops, livestock and plants into one ecosystem. In this method, livestock feeds the plants and the plants feed the livestock. 

For example, when sheep and cattle graze on grass they encourage plant growth, and their waste helps to put nutrients back into the soil. Poultry can also help the process by fertilising the land and eating insects and weeds.

Biodiversity can also be increased on farms by planting hedgerows and trees that attract pollinators and wildlife while capturing carbon in the atmosphere. Trees also protect livestock from rain, sunlight and wind, and provide foliage for animals to graze on. 

Foliage may contain additional nutrients to enhance the health of the animals. Also, trees that produce fruits or nuts can provide additional income for farmers.

Learn about regenerative agriculture in our video.

2. Healthy and sustainable animal feed

Feedstock is essentially the food we provide our livestock to eat. A lot of the time, the feedstock is imported from overseas which causes emissions from transportation. Imported feeds are often made from grains or legumes such as soya, which is associated with deforestation.

To overcome this, novel and home-grown feed products can be developed and used to reduce reliance on imported soy-based feeds. Producing animal feed on-farm could also provide an additional source of income for farmers looking to diversify their businesses.

Join our animal feed courses on feed quality and feed safety to explore this topic.

3. Improvements to livestock breeding

Breeding animals that are more efficient, healthier or disease resistant, and emit lower methane can also help to make livestock production more sustainable. This solution is not necessarily a quick fix, as new genetic technologies, tools and genomic testing need to be developed and optimised so that they can be used on a large scale. 

Yet, support for industry-wide adoption of improved genetics could help to promote livestock flocks or herds that are more consistent in terms of performance or productivity. 

For example, identifying genetics associated with breeding cattle that produce more meat or milk to maximise output for the farmer or breeding cattle that emit less methane to reduce GHG emissions. 

4. New technologies that save money and the planet

New technologies can help farmers to be more efficient and sustainable. An example of a new technology is soil sensors which enable farmers to precisely measure the nutrient composition of their soil. 

The data provided by the sensors can inform farmers about the additional nutrients required for the soil, which reduces the need for excessive fertiliser use. This saves the farmer money, while also improving on-farm sustainability by only using the amount of fertiliser required.

Farmers can use soil sensors and compare the data to areas of farmland that do and don’t have grazing livestock. This can help farmers to decide when to move livestock to new pastures based on the quality of the soil in different areas.

5. Expanding commercial farms to upskill farmers

Many livestock farmers want better guidance on how to make their farms more sustainable. Demonstrator farms are sites that provide research, knowledge transfer and training around new sustainable technologies. 

By expanding the number of demonstrator farms and inviting local farmers to visit, farmers can receive hands-on training for new innovations that they can adopt on their farms.

Commercial demonstrator farms can be used to pilot and test new solutions that will benefit farmers. For example, entrepreneurs and startup businesses may test a product they are developing at one of these sites. 

By inviting farmers to learn about the new innovation being developed, the farmers themselves can provide direct feedback. This means that farmers can provide insights into specific solutions they need, while the developer can make modifications to create a product that will be used by their customers.

Supporting farmers to adopt sustainable practices

Government policies must support farmers that make their farms more sustainable. This can be achieved through farming subsidies and grants that reward positive outcomes such as a reduction in GHG emissions on farms. 

It is important that policymakers engage in dialogue with farmers to understand their challenges around adopting sustainable solutions and then implement fair and achievable policies as a result.

The future of livestock farming can be more sustainable. Farmers have demonstrated that they can adapt to many pressures, such as rising costs and disease outbreaks, yet they must receive support from all of us to continue to produce our food sustainably. We can support farmers by doing the following:

  • Buying local produce from farmer’s markets and shops. Many farmers sell produce directly to consumers or through local retailers.
  • Looking out for the Red Tractor logo on food products. This is only found on British food and drink products that have been certified to rigorous standards from farms to pack.
  • Reduce your food waste footprint as uneaten food means wasted land, water and GHG emissions, as well as farmer’s time, effort and money.

Learn more about sustainable farming with EIT Food

Here are 3 ways to broaden your farming knowledge from us at EIT Food.

1. Explore How Farmers Produce Food Sustainably in our short online course. In this course, you will understand sustainable food production and the challenges farmers face to offer a sustainable food supply.

2. Discover our Regenerative Agriculture Revolution short online course. In this course, you’ll learn what regenerative agriculture involves and why it’s crucial for the future of farming.

3. Learn about how livestock zero can contribute to net zero targets in the UK and Ireland in our report.

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