I recently met with some farmers developing ‘Pasture fed’, a new initiative whose farmers will be giving a big NO to feeding their livestock grain. It will be grass, and more grass for their livestock.
You might think that this is no big deal...isn’t that what cattle and sheep are meant to be eating? Well, you would be right to an extent - we have a climate well suited to growing grass and this remains the backbone of cattle and sheep production in the UK. But farmers have long since supplemented grass and forage with cereal crops. Grains are highly nutritious, helping to balance rations and boost production. For centuries, the growing of arable crops (for both people and livestock) in rotation with grassland provided an ideal ‘mix’ of landscape diversity for our lowland farmland wildlife.
In the last half century however, we have seen livestock farming’s consumption of grain increase enormously and this has raised environmental issues. More than half of the grain grown in Europe is eaten by livestock. This has been mainly driven by our greatly increased consumption of ‘white meats’ which are dependant on grain diets. Hard to believe now, but not so long ago, chicken, turkey and pork were expensive luxuries (largely converters of waste food not suitable for human consumption). In the post war drive for increased production, grains have also become much more prevalent in the diets of cattle and sheep, but the quantities used vary greatly between farms. A dairy cow fed grass alone might yield around 5-6000 litres of milk in a lactation. But with quite a bit of grain included in the diet, yield can be boosted to 10,000 litres or more. Those involved with ‘pasture fed’ feel they can eliminate grain completely. Their main reason for taking this step is to make their systems more economically resilient through avoiding the fluctuating costs of bought-in grain, but they will also differentiate their product on its environmental credentials.
One of the main environmental issues with grain-based diets is the use of soya as a component. Soya is a protein-rich crop highly valued in livestock feed, but increasing global consumption of meat and milk is driving expansion of this crop in South America, and this is a major driver in the destruction of rainforest, cerrado and other important habitats. Another question often raised is that with ever increasing pressure on land, should so much good quality agricultural land be used to produce cereals for livestock rather than humans.
Will a ‘grass only’ only diet be good for wildlife? Well, less use of soya, especially where it is responsible for driving the destruction of toucans or other important habitats can only be a good thing, and something we should be striving for across the livestock industry as a whole. Avoiding excessive feeding of bought-in cereals is also a good thing, but the growing of arable grains for livestock is not necessarily always bad - in grass-dominated landscapes, research has shown that the introductiion of arable crops greatly helps many of the farmland birds we are most concerned about, such as tree sparrow, yellowhammer, skylark and grey partridge. The integration of the right types of arable crops could even potentially reduce reliance on imported soya. Also, grassland comes in many shades – it can be one of our richest wildlife habitats, dependant on livestock farming for it’s continuation, but it can also be very poor for wildlife when managed intensively.
The interaction of livestock farming and environmental issues is a complex story that even crosses continents, but one we are increasingly working on within the RSPB to try and safeguard a better future for wildlife both here and abroad.