Livestock producers are under increasing pressure to reduce their carbon footprint, but farm statistics collected by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) show reduced greenhouse gas emissions are a by-product of increased efficiency.
Speaking at a livestock technology day at the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), QMS head of industry development Andy McGowan said: “The agricultural industry is not producing the vast majority of carbon dioxide, but it is a big producer of methane.
“All the retailers are very aware of carbon footprints and there’s a pressure from the market place. We cannot ignore this because they are our customers.”
Referring to results from a survey of Scottish farms, he said most beef and sheep producers saw a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and increased profits, on the back of improved efficiency.
For example, out of the hill suckler herds surveyed, those showing a higher gross margin for every cow, demonstrated a reduction in kg carbon dioxide/kg liveweight (see graph).
Hill Suckler Herds
“The producers that make more money have a lower greenhouse gas emission impact; it’s all about efficiency. The faster you get the animals away, the faster they perform and the less greenhouse gases you get,” said Mr McGowan.
“It makes logical sense, because the things that contribute to financial efficiency are the same that contribute to environmental efficiency.”
He said farmers shouldn’t see reducing their carbon footprint as a challenge, or a separate exercise, and all they needed to do to was concentrate on making their business as efficient as possible.
He added: “Many in the industry see the greenhouse gas challenge as a threat, but I would suggest that the opportunity is there.
“I don’t think they need to shift the focus of their business away from its core, because if they concentrate on the economics of it, the environmental side should take care of itself. It’s quite a fortunate outcome really.”
He said improving grassland productivity, making more efficient use of manure and fertiliser, and working to reduce calving age were key drivers in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“All these things are the same you would be doing anyway to improve your margins,” he added.
Referring specifically to beef farmers, he said a higher calving percentage and low calf mortality resulted in higher margins and a smaller carbon footprint.
And for sheep producers, he said those selling the greatest weight of lamb for every 100kg of ewe were in the top third of the sector and had a lower carbon footprint. This was determined by a higher lambing percentage coupled with a lower lamb mortality.
Also speaking at the event, SAC beef and sheep consultant Jimmy Hyslop said farmers should be trying to improve efficiency of feed and fixed costs, not just because it was good for business, but because it is good for cutting emissions.
He said: “The financial incentive for farmers to reduce their carbon footprint, at the moment, is associated with the improved efficiency in their production system.
“Efficiency is the key thing that every farmer across the country can do; it’s all based on inputs, processes, outputs, waste and pollution.”
He said manipulating farm processes to make them more efficient, with the production of less waste products, was the key to reducing emissions and improving profitability.
“And if you can minimise the amounts of fixed costs – labour, buildings and machinery – and improve the feed conversion ratio, then that is going to be good for business,” he added.
For beef and sheep producers looking to reduce their carbon footprint, Mr Hyslop and Mr McGowan recommended the following measures:
• Choose to do short duration finishing systems.
• Work to minimise animal health problems.
• Improve fertility rates.
• Manage body condition score to minimise the use of winter feed.
• Aim to calf heifers at 24 months of age for beef cattle.
• Use creep feed to minimise performance checks at weaning.
• Ration animals according to the quality of feed you have on the farm, and minimise the use of additional concentrates.