Carbon Neutral Beef – is it Possible?
Beef is one of the most popular meats in the UK and by far the most popular red meat, with the total consumption standing at 311.3m tonnes in 2020.
With Britons regularly enjoying a juicy steak, burger, or Sunday roast with all the trimmings, the demand for beef is unlikely to decline any time soon.
But concerns over climate change have led to questions around the sustainability of cattle production, particularly in regard to carbon emissions.
Critics argue that beef farming is damaging to the environment and should be scaled back, along with our consumption of it.
So, as consumers are forced to become more environmentally aware about the food they eat, farmers are being forced to consider how they can reduce the emissions of their animals to safeguard their own future.
In this article, we take a top level look at the options available for reducing the carbon emissions of a suckler cow that is finished on grass and forage only, and if there is such a thing as a carbon-neutral cow.
Low Carbon Beef
Despite what critics of livestock farming might claim, significantly reducing the carbon emissions from beef cattle is possible. However, it requires a multifaceted approach; there is no silver bullet solution to producing low carbon beef.
This is because the level of carbon emissions created by a beef enterprise are a product of a range of factors including the system employed, the type of cattle, the type of forage and grazing techniques on the farm, and pasture input routines, to name just a few.
That said, the main sources of carbon emissions from a suckler herd can be divided into two categories when considering a grass and forage-only system. These are the cattle and its management, and the production of grass.
As anyone who knows the first thing about beef farming will know, cattle are extremely good at converting tough, fibrous materials such as grass into nutritious protein for humans to eat. But in doing so, they generate methane in the gut, which is released at both ends of the animal.
Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas (GHG), although unlike carbon dioxide, it does break down in the atmosphere after about 12 years. Carbon dioxide, by contrast, stays in our atmosphere for hundreds or even thousands of years.
But this doesn’t mean methane emissions from cattle are irrelevant. According to government statistics, 54% of the UK’s methane emissions come from agriculture and the majority of these are from cattle and sheep production. Cutting methane emissions is seen as a way of buying time to keep global warming within manageable limits while the more dangerous carbon dioxide emissions are reduced to meet the 2050 target of net zero.
Unsurprisingly, this puts the livestock sector – particularly beef and dairy – firmly in the line of fire when it comes to achieving those cuts.
The other main source of carbon emissions in UK beef farming is the production of grass. Depending on the system used, this can involve the application of inorganic fertilisers to produce new grass growth, which requires a huge input of energy to manufacture, as well as the use of fossil-fuel powered farm machinery to apply.
Cutting silage and hay for winter forage also requires diesel, pushing emissions up further.
So, if the animal itself, and the production of the food it eats, are the main sources of carbon emissions, how can these be reduced?
Somewhat ironically, one of the first places to look for reduces or carbon offsets is also pastureland. Although applying inputs to grow grass does generate GHG emissions, the product of this – the grass – actually removes carbon from the atmosphere. Grass, like all plants, requires carbon dioxide to grow and when cattle graze it, they prompt new growth which absorbs more CO2. This new grass does offset the carbon produced by a beef herd, by taking CO2 out of the atmosphere.
But not all grasses are made equal. Some grasses absorb more carbon dioxide than others, and exploiting this is one way of maximising the amount of carbon offset that can be achieved.
One UK farmer who has had a lot of success with this is Dick Roper, who is based in the Cotswolds.
Dick manages a 160-head suckler herd and is on course to become carbon neutral in the coming years by sowing a mixture of cocksfoot and rye grass.
He said he has seen a significant boost in soil organic matter – carbon levels in soil – using this combination.
“The root structure of the cocksfoot is massive,” Dick said.
“It takes a lot of time for the root to break down, sometimes up to two years. It’s doing a proper good job for our soils.”
Academic studies have also demonstrated the effectiveness of vegetation to offset farm carbon emissions.
A 2020 New Zealand study carried out Dr Bradley Case at the Auckland University of Technology found that the woody vegetation on New Zealand sheep and beef farms offset between 63% and 118% of emissions. This suggests some New Zealand livestock farms may already be carbon negative, absorbing more carbon than the animals emit.
Using the mid-point of the range as an average shows that the trees and other woody vegetation on New Zealand farms are absorbing 90% of on-farm emissions, putting those farmers well on track to becoming carbon neutral in the near future.
The independent, peer-reviewed report uses GWP100 – an international measure of the global warming potential of various greenhouse gases – to calculate the carbon footprint of New Zealand lamb and beef production.
This was offset by the sequestration potential of the country’s 1.52m hectares of on-farm native forest and 0.48m hectares of exotic vegetation to draw the final conclusions.
The study has significant ramifications for UK beef farmers, who can also extend this ‘carbon sink’ by adding in the carbon sequestering properties of pastureland, as Dick Roper has done, to become not just carbon neutral, but net absorbers of greenhouse gases.
Another study, carried out on the Rothamsted Research farm in Devon, has demonstrated the difference in herd carbon footprint that different grass types can produce.
The 90 acre farm was divided into three ‘farmlets’ of 30 acres each, one with traditional permanent pasture, one with a white clover ley, and a final one with a high sugar grass. Each autumn, 30 Charolais x Hereford/Friesian calves entered each farmlet and data were collected for six years.
The study found that the white clover ley generated significantly less overall carbon emissions than the other two conditions. This was primarily because the nitrogen fixing clover ley didn’t require the application of inorganic nitrogen. This not only saved the emissions of application, but also removed the emissions associated with the manufacturing of nitrogen fertiliser, which are incredibly high.
These studies demonstrate, along with Dick Roper’s personal experiences, that using the right grass types can help farmers absorb more carbon from the atmosphere and directly cut emissions associated with growing the grass by reducing reliance on inorganic fertiliser and cutting fuel use.
When this is combined with the carbon sequestrating capabilities of marginal, woody vegetation, it demonstrates that carbon neutral, or even carbon negative, beef, could soon be on the menu.
For farmers operating a mixed enterprise, growing cereals crops or vegetables alongside a suckler herd, even more options exist.
Multiple trials looking at cover cropping between food rotations found it to be an extremely effective way to sequester significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, as well as improving soil health and structure, nitrogen uptake, and reducing top soil erosion and leaching.
Using cover cropping in this way can be a very cost effective method of reducing a farm’s overall carbon footprint.
As we’ve already discussed, producing grass is only half the story. The other major source of carbon emissions from cattle comes from the cow itself.
In fact, the type of suckler cow you run can have a huge impact on the carbon footprint of your herd and when looking for a low carbon cow, efficiency is the name of the game. The animal needs to be as efficient as possible in all aspects of its behaviour and management, particularly when it comes to feeding and breeding.
The good news for farmers is that carbon efficiency also equates to cost efficiency.
Greater feed efficiency means animals need less feed for the same DLWG, which means lower feed bills and lower carbon emissions.
Calving at two rather than the traditional three years of age means less time and feed is required for a heifer to become productive, again giving a farmer a better return on that animal, while at the same time reducing the carbon footprint across its lifespan.
Environmental scientist Graham McAuliffe, who authored the Rothamsted Research farm report mentioned earlier, says that both environment and genetics influence how environmentally friendly a suckler cow is.
Poor performers that take longer to gain weight have a larger carbon footprint than those that gain weight quickly, he said, because they spend longer on the farm and emit more methane.
Breeding out these poor performers is one way of addressing the problem.
Mr McAuliffe said: “If you’ve got a farm that’s got a lot of animals that are performing really poorly and replace them with animals that don’t require a lot of time on the farm to get to a finishing weight, I think it’s fair to say that the farm would be able to reduce its overall carbon footprint.”
The World’s Most Efficient Suckler Cow
Selective breeding to create the most efficient suckler cow is precisely the ethos on which the Stabiliser breed was created.
Although when the USDA started experimenting with composite breeds to create a better performing suckler cow carbon footprint was not a consideration, feed efficiency and quick growth rate certainly were.
50 years later, the work they put in, along with pioneers such as Lee Leachman of Leachman Cattle of Colorado, who is largely responsible for developing the modern breed, means Stabilisers are around 40% more carbon efficient than average UK suckler cows*.
This is because the traits they have been selected for already produce carbon savings. In the case of Stabiliser cattle, the key traits that produce a reduction in emissions are:
- Improved fertility
- Quicker growth rates
- High feed efficiency
- Calving at two
- Small cow size
Because of these, under a full steer finishing system with forage-fed cows, Stabilisers deliver an average reduction in carbon emissions of 31% compared to a standard suckler herd. Swapping to a bull finishing system increases the carbon savings to an average of 40% due to the time saving in finishing.
Other carbon-saving traits that sustainable farming organisation Farming for a Better Climate recommend as key performance indicators for carbon emissions include:
- Replacement rate
- Calf mortality
- Weaning percentage
- Disease level
- Days from birth to weaning weight
Again, Stabilisers have been selectively bred to performance above average on all of these points, making them the world’s most feed efficient – and carbon efficient – cattle.
Quick growth and high feed efficiency, unsurprisingly, leads to quicker finishing times. Quicker finishing times means less time on farm and therefore a smaller carbon footprint.
Typically, Stabiliser steers and heifers not needed as replacements or to sell as breeding stock, on an all forage diet, will finish in 18 months – around six months earlier than most other suckler breeds.
Bull calves will typically finish around 14 months of age on a predominantly forage based diet with concentrate in the final few months, making them quicker finishers than other breeds even on an intensive finisher system.
So, Carbon Neutral Beef Farming – is it possible?
As more pressure comes to bear on the beef industry to cut its emissions, more work will be needed to ensure beef remains a sustainable staple of the British dinner table.
But the future looks bright. By experimenting with different grass production techniques, different grass types, by planting vegetation to absorb carbon, and by selecting the right type of suckler cow and continuing to selectively breed for efficiency, there is no reason why sustainable beef can’t be produced, on scale, and a relatively short space of time.
This is before we even discuss new technologies such as feed additives and vaccines that could boastreduce methane emissions.
The good news is that when it comes to the right sort of cow, much of the hard work has already been done. When the Stabiliser was first created, the people behind the breed couldn’t have known they were selecting for traits that would be so vital half a century later, but the traits they needed to create an efficient, well performing suckler cow turn out to be exactly the traits needed to create a low carbon suckler cow.
Couple that with the fact Stabilisers produce a high quality carcase well matched to market requirements and they offer the best return to farmers, and you begin to understand why they are the perfect animal for today’s environmentally and commercially challenging times.
*this figure was calculated by benchmarking 12 different suckler herd management systems using industry performance figures from AHDB’s Stocktake report. We then analysed the impact a series of changes would have on carbon emissions, using the Carbon Trust approved Alltech E-CO2 life cycle analysis model.
We are trying to produce beef that meets market specification and make the most profit possible. Using Stabilisers we are achieving our objectives, we have a low cost, low labour cow and good quality finishing cattle that meet the needs of the market.- Mel and Pete Momber, Hampshire
I’m excited by the prospects the Stabiliser can deliver for us. The proof was there based on scientific research, backed up by a large gene pool and precise management systems. It seemed the perfect breed for our farming system.- Will Evans, Machynlleth
On weaning in May at 10 mths old the Stabiliser calves were on par with the Blue and Angus calves. These were turned out to grass until early September then housed. This is when I was surprised by the differences between the breeds, the Angus averaged 480kg, the Blues 490kg but the Stabilisers were 530kg.- Robin Talbot, Laois – Ireland
In 2011 we bought 46 Stabiliser heifers plus 3 bulls and sold our 3 Belgium Blue bulls. The results were clear to see, by the time we pregnancy tested our 100 cows later that year. We went from historically having 15% barren cows to only 3% barren in a 9 week mating period.- Jeremy Iles, Gloucester
I have found Stabiliser cows to be very forage efficient. Their ability to put weight on in the summer months means I can save on winter feed costs. This has allowed me to keep more cows on the same resources.- Jono Cole, Cornwall
We have an easy-care system that is as profitable as any other beef enterprise. We benchmark our herd against the AHDB industry figure and we sit comfortably ahead of the top third performers. I believe we are now producing a carcass with the conformation and eating quality consistency that the market wants.- Dan Burling, Cambridgeshire
Docility, feed efficiency tested, easy calving, hybrid vigour, fertility, growth AND carcass traits from highly maternal cattle, what’s not like?- Robin Norrie, Fife
We aim to get most out of grass as possible. The hardy nature of the cattle seems to suit this system very well. Hardly any assistance is required during calving, combined with the excellent calf vigour produce healthy and strong calves which further reduces labour costs.- Llion and Sian Jones, Conwy
We’re over 10 years into our Stabiliser journey, we’re reaping the rewards. Moving to the Stabiliser has been a game changer for efficiency and job satisfaction, allowing us to increase cow numbers on the same area and finishing bulls averaging over 380kgs at 13 months. Our only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner!- Peter and Jackie Storrow, Pembrokeshire
Stabiliser cattle are a specialised suckler beef breed with the added bonus of hybrid vigour. The cattle are multi-trait performance recorded to produce EBV’s, this has a huge positive economical effect on our business. All of this is crucial for us to have a financially improving suckler herd on the farm.- Harri Parri, Llyn Peninsula
We chose the Stabiliser breed for their docility and easy calving traits, but with the added benefit of turning grass into meat. We soon saw all of these traits were true. Our first home bred steers were finished off grass at an average age of 19 months.- Dyfed Roberts, Anglesey
Despite our rainfall, we outwinter our cows on kale, the stabiliser cow will lay down excess fat, and successfully rear her calf. During the winter considerable cost savings are made. By changing to Stabiliser cattle I keep approximately 50% more cows as they only weigh 650Kgs, which meant more beef being produced.- Matthew Cooke, North Devon
We started using Stabiliser bulls 20 years ago. The fertility of the breed has enabled us to calve our own heifers at 24 months and reduce our calving period to nine weeks. This together with their good temperament has encouraged us to increase cow numbers. Consequently, the farm is now producing a lot more kilos of beef.- Edward and Ellis Griffith, Pwllheli
Minimal labour is required at calving time, with easy calving cows and calves up and suckling in no time at all. This gave us the ability to increase our cow numbers with no extra labour. The growth rate of Stabiliser cattle is exceptional, producing high weaning weights whilst converting feed efficiently.- John and Ianto Pari, Gwynedd
We started using stabiliser genetics in 2016, we have not looked back since, they exceeded all our expectations. Changing to stabilisers has enabled us to calve heifers at 2years old with no problems, cows wean a higher percentage of their body weight, we have increased cow numbers without any need for extra labour.- Carys Jones, Camarthenshire