David Andrews is sequestering 6.65kg of carbon for every 1kg of meat produced from his herd of 607-head of pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle.
This is being achieved by raising beef cattle “in the way nature intended”, says Mr Andrews, who purchased Warson Farm, near Lydford, on the edge of Dartmoor National Park, in 2010.
Aiding this environmentally friendly performance has been a move to running a closed, high-health herd with animals thriving on a diet of 100% forage – cattle are grazed in the summer and housed and fed on grass silage in the winter.
Farm facts: Warson Farm, Lydford, Devon
- 607 pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle
- Block calving – spring and autumn
- 100% grass-fed – grazed in the summer, with silage fed in the winter
- Accredited for Johnes, BVD, IBR, leptosporosis and testing for neospora
- Pasture for Life-certified
- Using the Good Beef Index to certify carbon footprint and traceability
It’s been a long journey to improving herd health, admits Mr Andrews, who originally ran a beef finishing enterprise, buying in stores from local markets. At its peak, they sold 550 stores annually.
However, they were continually being locked down with TB, which led them to change tack six years ago and breed their own high-health animals and finish homebred stock.
“We kept getting shut down with TB when we wanted to buy the animals to finish.
“When your business is based on being able to buy to finish but you cannot buy for 60 days, it does not make for a very sustainable outlook,” explains estate manager Steve Metherell.
They sold all animals and started with a clean slate.
They erected badger-proof fencing around the entire 142ha (350 acre) farm to limit wildlife contact and sourced stock from herds with elite health status.
This posed quite a challenge as there were only 45 Angus herds of this status, with an average herd size of 25 cows, at the time.
All animals brought on to the farm were quarantined and tested for infectious disease before being allowed to mix.
The herd now comprises 310 breeding females and Mr Metherell and his wife, Jo, place a strong focus on maintaining the herd’s high health status.
All animals are Checs-accredited for the infectious diseases Johne’s, bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD), infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and leptospirosis, and they also test for neospora.
They have a strict culling policy, removing anything from the herd that does not fit the strict parameters on health, calving ease, fertility, and docility.
Minerals are integral to good herd health, with animals blood-tested twice a year and minerals added to the farm’s water supply to make up for any deficits.
Having healthy animals is essential to getting good performance from the farm’s grazing system, says Mr Andrews.
The theory behind their grazing system is that grass plant tillers one to three regenerate in 21-24 days, provided the ground is prepared correctly.
This, says Mr Andrew, involves applying a lot of farmyard manure – they aim for 25t/ha (10t/acre) each year.
The first tiller starts to die as soon as the fourth tiller emerges, so the cattle graze the grass before this happens, at the three-leaf stage.
Cattle rotate blocks of eight paddocks every 21-24 days, enter covers of 2,800kg DM/kg and exit once they’ve grazed it down to 1,400kg DM/ha.
“We can adjust stocking rate, but we try not to and are pretty strict on having an average of 30 breeding females with young calves at foot in each block,” says Mr Metherell.
In growth deficits, the cattle are fed baled silage.
None of the grazing land is ploughed and new pasture is established by overseeding.
Last year, the farm trialled direct drilling grass seed into old pasture, which worked well.
“This has proven to be better from both a cost and environmental perspective,” adds Mr Metherell.
The farm aims to incorporate up to eight species within a sward.
The current mix being used includes trefoil, clover and vetch, which help to fix nitrogen and reduce the need for any artificial fertiliser. Currently, about 250kg/ha of 20-10-10 is applied annually.
A soil analysis is also conducted every year, with the performance compared year on year.
Results from 2021 show a pH of 6.1, phosphorus and potash of 2.4 and 3.7, respectively, and magnesium of 3.9.
A small amount of wholecrop is grown on a five-year rotation.
This is undersown with peas, vetches, and grass – just to help put finish on cattle ahead of slaughter, as necessary.
Performance and other benefits
This more regenerative approach has not been at the detriment of production, however, with an average daily growth rate of 1kg/day for steers, peaking at 1.69kg a head a day last season.
Cattle are killed at an average of 21.7 months, weighing about 341kg deadweight.
“Cattle are weighed a minimum of once a month, as well as being run through the scales whenever they come indoors for anything health-related,” explains Mr Metherell.
Mr Andrews says the farm has, in fact, seen a 50% productivity increase in its stocking density (livestock units/ha) since switching to paddock grazing, despite challenging conditions.
Looking at 2020 calf data, the average calf weaning weight was 304kg at 49% dam weaning efficiency. This is without any supplements, concentrates, or grain.
Mr Andrews also believes paddock grazing is helping to improve soils because more dung is recycled and says this will help to further reduce artificial fertiliser requirements.
All beef is currently sold through a beef box business – Warson Beef – with two cattle a month killed privately.
Any surplus is sent straight to the abattoir and for onward delivery to butchers and online retailers seeking premium beef.
Mr Andrews says regenerative agriculture is a key selling point, alongside traceability.
The farm uses the GoodBeef Index for verifying every single cut of beef.
This sees each box branded with its own QR code, which customers can scan to find out information including the cow’s carbon “hoof” print.
Every animal is scored according to the Index’s environmental criteria, which indicates a carbon-negative status at Warson for finishing cattle.
This considers factors such as the size and efficiency of the cattle, inter-cropping and soil condition, pasture plant varieties, and trace elements.
For carbon sequestration and methane reduction date, the index draws on the results of a five-year research programme led by Michigan State University and the overall net carbon sequestration impact of 100% pasture-fed Angus cattle in a regenerative grazing regime.
“It is our belief that good beef is good for the consumer and the environment,” says Mr Andrews.
“By running our system this way, we’re able to produce beef in a sustainable manner that offers an alternative to today’s carbon footprint that comes from grain-fed diets.”