The National Farmers Union Scotland reports on some of the successes of their Farming for a better climate initiative
Three farms – Torr in Kirkudbrightshire, and Glenkilrie and Stewart Tower in Perthshire – saved almost £60,000 between them. Torr and Glenkilrie reduced their carbon footprint by at least 10 percent as a direct result of improving farm efficiency.
David Houston farms Glenkilrie, an upland beef and sheep farm in Glenshee, Perthshire. He has 140 suckler cows and 1,000 ewes, split into two flocks, across the almost 1,000 hectare fam.
David said “The most useful bit for me was making the change from calving heifers at 2½-3 years of age, down to 22-24 months. This had been discussed before and was brought up again at the first meeting. Being keen to try out some of these ideas with the project, I thought I would give it a go, given that other farmers in the group had been making it work. Situated at the bottom of Glenshee, I was a bit sceptical about the idea. Now, having had four batches of heifers (autumn and spring) calved by 2 years old, I am delighted with the system. We actually had more calving problems in the past from heifers being too fat by the time they are ready to calve at three years old than we have had from heifers not being big enough by the time they calve at two years old. Taking calves out of the heifers a year earlier has basically provided us with an extra 20 calves per year whilst running the same number of cows”.
David also looked at farm soils, and commented “a longer term project for Glenkilrie is to improve the soil fertility levels to allow us to make best use of the nutrients applied and maximise the output. The entire farm was soil sampled at the beginning of the project, which showed that many of our fields had low pH levels and were low in phosphorous. Given the cost implications involved with applying so much lime and phosphates, priority was given to better fields which are used for producing silage, and especially fields which were due to be reseeded. Having sampled all the fields at the end of the project, we are making progress in improving the soil fertility, although there is still some way to go yet. Using a crude method of counting trailers when making silage, I can tell that grass yields can vary about 30 percent between the fields, with younger grass and better fertility against older swards with poorer fertility”.
“Another interesting part of the project for me and my family is the idea of heating the farmhouse with a biomass boiler. The farmhouse at Glenkilrie is an old fashioned and cold building which uses a considerable amount of heating oil each year. We are currently looking into the idea of installing a biomass woodchip boiler which should be financially attractive with Renewable Heat Incentive payments and savings in the cost of the fuel. The house could also be kept warmer if the cost of heating is reduced”.
With his sister Lee, Ross Paton manages Torr Farm, a 420 hectare organic dairy farm in Kirkcudbrightshire, on the Solway coast. The business has 170 dairy cows, mainly Holstein-Friesian and Montbeliarde, along with a few Ayrshire and Norwegian Red. They retain all the offspring from the dairy herd, either for breeding or for finishing, with around 100 head of cattle being finished per year.
In terms of practical measures on the farm, Ross felt that the most useful things that were examined and improved were nutrient application, land drainage and improving soil structure. Ross said “Being an organic farm it is very important that efficient use is made of the available nutrients from the slurry and manure produced. To ensure this we analyse our soils and slurry, using the PLANET Scotland tool to create a nutrient budget for the farm, and apply the slurry to the land using a trailing shoe. We also erected a new slurry store which allows us to spread the slurry in the spring time when the crops are growing and are most likely to take up the available nutrients”.
Ross aims to maximise milk from home grown forage, including grazed grass, therefore the focus is on quality and yields. Good soil structure and correct drainage has a key role to play in ensuring this. Ross said “Like most farms, we have some fields that have poorly drained areas and correct management of these fields is essential. We regularly check the soil structure by digging soil pits. If the soil is showing signs of compaction – perhaps no earthworms or the root depth is poor – remedial action is taken. If necessary, livestock are removed from the fields to prevent further damage to the soil, and the land might be sub-soiled. Over the past two years, we have sub-soiled around 70 hectares of cropped, silage and grazing land to alleviate soil compaction. Had we not sub-soiled our silage fields, it was estimated that we would have had to purchase in at least 38 tonnes more grass silage. Last year we also renewed the existing drainage system on 20 hectares of cropped and grassland, and are now seeing the benefits from this through increased crop yields. Getting maximum productivity from our land in a sustainable way is essential for our farming system”.
Ross said “The whole exercise of being a Climate Change Focus Farm has been fascinating. Many practical ideas were exchanged between the other farmers, some of which we had not thought about before. The project has therefore helped to focus our minds on practical, low carbon actions, many of which we were able to implement. The key has been tightening up management practices and avoiding wasting resources”.
It is not just farmers that are considering ways to cut the carbon footprint, the general public are also being asked to contribute. To this end, Neil and Linsey Butler at Stewart Tower, a mixed dairy and arable farm covering 170 hectare near Stanley, Perthshire provided an excellent venue to demonstrate to visitors what was happening on the focus farms and how agriculture was contributing to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
With around 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a year to the ice cream parlour and farm shop at Stewart Tower, it offered a perfect venue to showcase steps that the focus farmers were taking to reduce emissions. Neil said “People have been interested to hear what the agricultural sector is doing towards cutting carbon emissions. We have had information up in the shop and visitors have asked me about it with genuine interest”
“Before the project, we were already focusing on some of the areas that have been highlighted, for example we have a carbon footprint as part of our milk contract with Sainsbury’s. The initiative helped us to build on this and look at other areas where we could make a change. For example, using less fertiliser and increasing clover in grass has had a benefit and is something that everyone can consider and adapt depending on their individual circumstances. One of the things that came out of the Farming for a Better Climate initiative is that the cumulative benefits add up, not only for the individual farm but if all farmers were to take up similar measures, for agriculture across Scotland.”
So, even a few years into the Farming for a Better Climate initiative there is compelling evidence to show that even on already technically efficient farms, there is scope to improve efficiency and save money, in turn benefiting the environment. Although Torr, Glenkilrie and Stewart Tower have come to the end of their time as focus farms, they are committed to continuing the good practice and spreading the message. In their place, a new group of volunteer farmers will shortly be announced to carry on the initiative.
Farming for a Better Climate is funded by the Scottish Government as part of its Climate Change Advisory Activity.