Having spent much of this Millennium working on investment plans for dairy farming and milk processing, I am used to looking at variations in those that supply the milk. They have included species variables [cows, sheep and water buffalo] and within species variables like breeds of cow, yield intensity, forage and feed sources, organic or not… etc. One becomes adroit at developing the farm management planning data, assessing what the constraints are and identifying what are the most relevant key performance indicators to use. I was lucky I was taught by, and then worked alongside, Professor John Nix, the best farm business specialist we have ever had anywhere, anytime. At Wye we developed the methodology, the systems and provided the data.
As climate change has risen up the agenda, I naturally started asking around for the data that we could work with on farm. If farming is to be constrained [and possibly, heavily] by emissions limitations one assumed that someone somewhere had, post-haste, started researching how these constraints were going to play out on farm. Sadly, it appears that the emissions being attributed to agriculture have been based on some complex models that, all the same, lack any detail when one ‘drills down’. Apparently we are being told that we have to cut our emissions but little to no information to plan with. It is a highly unsatisfactory situation.
The approach at the moment appears to be to tell the farming community to reduce numbers to cut emissions. The general populace is being told to reduce meat and dairy consumption. A few sceptics are asking whether this is the climate-change or anti-animal agricultural lobbies at work. Ultimately, the farmer is left in a void where the only clear conclusion is that this is going to impact upon farm incomes. At present, I should not be writing this, I should be working out the numbers, the data, the information needed to allow the farming community to plan within new climate-change constraints but, alas, we seem to live in an era where resources are devoted to making a noise, to lobbying and not to providing the planning information upon which to identify solutions.
I first hit this issue when I wanted to start working out what cattle-farming systems would provide what farm income in relation to different emission levels. If a [or the] primary constraint on the farm income becomes GHG emissions [or specific GHG gases] we have to shift our KPI to income per that GHG constraint and other KPIs to performance levels in relation to the same constraints. At present, the response is to measure emissions on farm and to reduce the carbon footprint per unit of production. It emphasises ‘traditional’ efficiency gains over any radical climate-change solutions because we just have little else to work with. We are facing some of the greatest pressures ever for our farming and food systems in a void of farm planning information. And nothing much seems to be happening about it. I am not sure if many key players even know there is an issue!
Earlier I tried to classify cows. One knows that there are a myriad of beef production systems around, probably slightly less when it comes to milk production and can we simplify this? I am researching a great deal these days about grass-fed [or is that forage-fed or pasture-fed?] so I thought we could separate cows into those that are raised on a mainly grass/forage based diet and those that are grain-fed. But then again what proportion do we use to qualify for one or the other?
My broad rational was that forage-fed and grain-fed would be having different impacts in terms of GHG emissions. An issue I have been tracking closely [as it is the one that could be the climate-change game changer] is carbon sequestration using ruminant grazing systems so immediately one is asking whether there are different degrees to which a forage-fed cow can emit GHG gases if, critically, emissions AND sequestration is taken into account. Also, does that cow require different grazing practices and sward mixes? And how well do pastures sequester carbon if they are frequently re-sown, treated with high nitrogen fertiliser applications and/or copious quantities of slurry? If the issue is far more about the health of soil micro-organisms than we have considered to-date, how is the subterranean part of the animal kingdom fairing under different grassland management regimes. The word ‘complex’ immediately comes to mind and using a ‘grass-fed’ system itself is far from simple. And have we even really started the research; or is it even too ‘radical’ to be funded?
At the other extreme we have confined cattle systems. Just how reliant are they on local forages? More importantly, when it comes to brought in feeds where are they sourced? These cattle may share the same physiology as their grazing counterparts, but is that where the equality ends?
Confined systems have their defenders. We read about faster growth rates and greater production efficiency using confined systems but is that based on a flawed emissions-only methodology? One also wonders whether we will shortly be basing our farm management planning judgements on how much is produced per unit of animal pharmaceutical so there will be yet more to consider.
With animal farming, the focus is often on plants grown on land cleared from rain forest [soybeans or palm kernel extract] but should we also be asking what has happened to the Argentinian Pampas? Has the growing of soybean [for oil and cake] replaced grass-reared beef? Have we released vast amounts of carbon from these grasslands and put the cattle into beef lots where they are no longer a part of a carbon sequestration system? Is it a double negative? It is just one example of the many issues that we need to consider going forwards.
One of the few definite conclusions that one can draw at the moment is that if there are pasture-based cattle systems out there that have zero [or positive] net emissions surely we need to know what they are; and fast? We can then focus on producing lower net emissions meat and milk; albeit not in isolation of having an eat-less-but-better, animal-products debate.
One does not expect to see the human race give up meat and milk anytime soon. It even appears that the nutrition debate is moving on as questions are raised about the origins of our long-established nutritional guidelines. Where they are going is for the reader to decide as I am not qualified to make any but my own personal judgement. The debate is, however, on-going and as an agri-food sector analyst/strategist, I make it my business to follow what is going on. And, apparently, there may be nutritional differences between cattle reared in different ways.
So here we have another variable. We may be sometime waiting for the ‘science’ on this one as it appears that there are conflicting views in the nutritional world. Will the conservatives, stick with what we have, or radicals win out? Either way it will have consequences for our food producers and our cattle farming systems. It may not make an industry-wide difference in the imminent future but it will make a difference for those few farmers who want to enter the brave new world of directly supplying products to ‘issues-aware’ consumers. Social media will drive change at the periphery; the question is how fast will the oddity become mainstream? And just how fast is ‘grass-fed’ [as per how it is already defined in some countries] exiting the ‘oddity’ category?
Agriculture and food is a fabulously fast moving subject at the moment; at least it is off the island of Ireland where resistance to change appears to be the order of the day. Change creates opportunities and that is the case with cattle farming. But to see them one has to be willing to recognize that all cows are not equal and that one cow in one farming system is rather different from another.
For the farmer, the decisive question is which cow will produce the product that makes she or he the most money and, crucially, can the farmer deliver that product to the consumer that is willing to pay for it. The farmer’s cow may be far from the equal of her neighbour but if she does not have the route to market to reach her consumer, there is little likelihood that her enhanced credentials will benefit her owner. In Ireland it is a particular problem as the too limited, less than dynamic routes to market are effectively ensuring that all Ireland’s cows are indeed equal to each other. It may be a great situation for bovine egalitarianism, but it is a state of affairs that is not going to deliver sustainable farm incomes to Ireland’s small-scale cow keepers.